The key to the ketogenic diet is to get your body into a state of ketosis in which you’re breaking down stored fat into ketone energy. The way to do that safely is to restrict carb and sugar intake down to almost (but not quite) nothing. Macronutrient ratios vary by individual and activity level, which can make managing your meal plan each week rather challenging. We have a breakdown to help you figure out how many carbs a day on keto is right for you.
The keto diet helps switch your body’s energy source from predominantly sugar and glucose to fat and ketones. Ketone bodies are molecules that can stand in for almost every energy need in the body, and they are particularly fast-acting when it comes to energy for your brain because they can pass through the blood-brain barrier without an escort. This reliance on fat for energy is done via a few mechanisms: a high-fat intake, a low-carb intake, and the elimination of refined and unnatural sugars.
If you stick to a keto diet you can expect rapid fat burning and weight loss, but there are other health benefits that far outweigh (so to speak) those you can see on the surface. The keto diet has been shown to help lower insulin levels and prevent and treat type 2 diabetes, sometimes without the need for medication (1).
And your life doesn’t have to change dramatically while on a keto diet. Fueling up with a moderate protein intake allows you to still exercise, build muscle, and stay strong while eating foods like cheese, olive oil, and avocados all day. To find out how exactly that ratio looks on your plate, read on.
Mainstream marketing has convinced many that a low-fat diet is the only way to lose body fat, but that’s just not the case. A low-carbohydrate diet does weight loss better by eliminating the majority of fast-acting glucose energy so that your body is forced to put in the extra work of melting down its fat stores, including dangerous visceral fat that can crowd and clog your internal organs.
But how many carbs per day on keto is the right amount of carbohydrates for you? Let’s discuss.
Before we get to carbs, let’s start with calories.
Health.gov provides a very specific chart that breaks everyone’s daily calorie needs down by age, sex, and activity level (2). Here are some of the basics:
The general rule for keto macronutrients is that your total calories each day should be broken down into a ratio of 5% carbs, 20% protein, and 75% healthy fats. Your personal body weight, height, and fitness goals will determine how many calories you need, as well as the precise breakdown, but there are some parameters you can follow to help you plan for your daily carb count.
While on a keto diet, you’ll want to consume between 20 to 25 grams of net carbs each day to get into ketosis, and an absolute maximum of 35 net grams if you want to maintain ketosis. The wiggle room between 20 and 35 grams is where your individual caloric needs come into play (see the next section for a more specific breakdown of foods in a daily meal plan).
Keep in mind that net carbs are distinct from total carbs. For example, 1 cup of raw spinach has 6.9 calories, 1 of which is from fat, 2.1 from protein, and 3.8 from carbs. The carb breakdown is 1.1 grams of total carbs, with 0.7 grams of fiber, which is indigestible to humans (it feeds our good gut bacteria and helps our digestion move along comfortably). Subtract fiber from total carbs (1.1 – 0.7) and we’re left with 0.4 grams. That means the net carbs for a cup of raw spinach is 0.4 grams, making spinach an excellently filling low-carb, high-nutrient food for keto.
You won’t need to seek out carbs on keto. That 5% of calories coming from carbs will most likely be covered in just about anything you eat throughout the day. The only reason you may want to increase your carb intake is if the symptoms of keto flu are too much to tolerate and you need to transition more slowly to a low-carb diet. You’ve heard us right: don’t worry about prioritizing carbs, but instead, make sure the foods you eat that do have carbs are worth it nutritionally, and avoid foods like:
Keto is a moderate-protein diet, but for beginners, it can be very easy to try and replace carbs with too much protein. This could lead to long stretches of time with keto flu (more on that side effect at the end of the article), but it’s understandable: protein is full of the amino acids we need to build muscle, which then helps us lose even more weight, right? Protein is also quite filling, meaning that eggs at breakfast, fish for lunch, and chicken for dinner may leave you feeling much more satisfied than fat bombs and keto helpers like MCT oil.
Here’s why you don’t want your protein intake substituting in for carbs: gluconeogenesis. It’s the process by which the body creates glucose from non-carb sources. When you restrict carbs suddenly, your body still wants them very badly, so while you’re waiting for fat loss, your body is looking for more easy glucose. If there’s extra protein left over from a high-protein diet, you’re unlikely to reach ketosis.
That being said, without enough protein, your body may also start to catabolize your muscles for much-needed amino acids.
So, where’s your ideal protein balance?
The number is simple: take your weight and multiply it by 0.6 to discover your intake minimum. For example, say you weigh 200 pounds: 200 x 0.6 = 120 grams minimum.
Your maximum protein intake in grams is the number on your scale. So in our example, 200 grams maximum.
If you’re trying to build muscle while on a keto diet, shoot for the higher range, but if your ketone levels start to indicate you’re falling out of ketosis, tighten up on all your macros to avoid getting kicked out of ketosis.
Protein foods that work well on keto include:
You know fats are important on keto, but keep in mind that carbs may be found in your healthy fats as well. Here are a few examples.
We provide these examples to show you that carbs are everywhere—it’s what makes restricting them on keto so difficult, at first. Some foods like meat and oil have zero carbs, but most foods have some. Which is why we’re walking you through a day in the life of keto meal planning in the next section!
To keep your blood glucose steady and your blood ketone levels up, you’ll need the right foods to provide just the right amount of grams of net carbs. Here’s what a keto diet plan may look like for one day in the life of a person who needs 2,000 calories (1,500 from fat, 400 from protein, and 100 from carbs).
At the end of the day, you’ve eaten 2007.9 calories (it’s never an exact science when you cook for yourself), and your macros are well in order to get into ketosis at 26.6 grams total.
The use of exogenous ketones as supplements may help you get into ketosis faster while you adjust your diet. There are two kinds of ketones, the ones your body derives from fat eaten or stored (endogenous) and those you can consume as a supplement to provide immediate energy (exogenous).
When you’re struggling to get into ketosis for the first time, exogenous ketones are the crutches that help you walk until you can run. BHB (beta-hydroxybutyrate) is the type of exogenous ketone you can depend on in supplement form. And MCT oil can help boost your internal production of ketones to likewise get you into ketosis faster. They are quite the dynamic duo!
The best support you can give yourself on a keto diet is information!
Now you have a better understanding of exactly what “low carb” means, how to calculate macros for your body’s specific needs, and which foods best serve a keto diet. We wish you well on your journey to ketosis!