Is this keto? How many carbs a day can I have? Is that total carbs or net carbs?
I get these questions a lot. Any food can be keto. Unfortunately, the number of carbs is subjective and is dependent on you – but I plan on tackling some questions that newbies have that can help you stick with the plan.
First – let me clear something up. I’m not in ketosis all the time. In fact, at this point of my life, I’m probably not in ketosis 3 out of 4 weeks a month. There are no keto police.
But that’s not KETO!!
Let’s go back to some basics here.
What is ketosis, and why does it happen?
If you are 100 or more pounds overweight and ate 5 hours ago, do you ever wonder WHY AM I SO HUNGRY?? Well, in the big picture of human history over 500,000 years – humans didn’t eat a ton of carbs. Refrigeration has only been a recent human development – and so is the supermarket. For thousands of years, people preserved foods with salts. They didn’t necessarily eat 3 meals a day. And foraging for food meant carbs were not aplenty.
When you don’t eat for 5 hours, you feel run down. Tired. You feel you must need a “pick me up”. Amazingly, I just finished a 42 hour fast and I had tons of energy. In the history of humankind, what do you think happened to people when they got hungry? Do you think they ate every 2-4 hours and snacked all the time on Cheez Its? Maybe they ate once a day. Or maybe they feasted after a big animal kill.
When your energy dips low, it’s because your blood glucose levels are dipping – for the “sugar burners” of the world, it’s because you are constantly pounding your body with sugars. This elevates the blood glucose levels and you need insulin to take it out of your blood and into your cells. This insulin is pounding you all day long – and when your insulin levels drops and blood glucose levels dip – you get hunger pangs all over again. And you constantly feed.
Early man didn’t have availability to carbs, sugars, sweets. A majority of his life, when his blood glucose level dipped, it was because he had exhausted his liver glycogen stores. This is about 400 calories of carbs stored that your body will secrete first to bring your blood glucose levels up. When this is exhausted, a hormone called lipase then breaks down fats for fuel called ketones. All of your body with the exception of parts of your brain function perfectly on ketones. In fact, ketones are a cleaner fuel than carbs. Think of ketones as your electric car that zips along and your carbs are your diesel fuel that can fuel big heavy rock trucks.
Your bodies are hybrids. They can burn both ketones and carbs.
Throughout the history of mankind, carb availability has been scarce, so it would be completely normal that for days, weeks, or months, the body would be in ketosis without the person even knowing.
So what happens in ketosis? You become sharp. Me senses are sharp. I am quick at work mentally. I realize I lose my top gear in deep thought. However, the deep fog I lived my whole life in has been lifted. If you were 30,000 years ago and didn’t have food, you needed to hunt. Ketosis sharpens you and will make you a better hunter, for sure.
But another thing happens. Your hunger is controlled. I can do a 72 hour fast with little issues. You get hungry a few times at the times you had programmed your body to eat, but it’s not a constant life or death hunger. I feel strongly I could do a week long fast with little issue. For the sugar burners (I was one), going a day without 3 meals and snacks is frightening – and often the problem with their waist.
How can you lose weight if you have 200,000 calories on your waist and you are eating 6 times a day because you are HANGRYYYYYY!!
So the answer here is ketosis is perfectly natural, and people should spend time in it to help reset their bodies so they can burn both carbs and fats easily.
Big picture – at 5 hours, you are HANGRY. Your body should know to burn the calories on your waist rather than telling you that you are starving and you need that plate of pasta – but YOU have TRAINED YOUR BODY to eat carbs. Your body is meant to do both, with an emphasis on ketosis.
I’ll get to being in ketosis forever below further…but let me get to the post subject now.
How many carbs should I have? Net or total?
Now that we know WHAT ketosis is, how do we get there? The general guidelines are taken mostly from the Atkins play book. They suggest 20 or less TOTAL carbs to start for 2 weeks. The big picture here is you need to really rid your body of as much glycogen as possible to then FORCE the body to burn fat. Ketosis would then hit you in 3-5 days, depending on how low you went. You could probably get away with 30 or 40 total, but people tell you less to err on the side of caution.
The first month or so, your body is not great with burning fat. You will have TONS of energy, but because your body is not efficient with burning fats, you will mow through fat stores. You will drop tons of water with your glycogen stores. Your gym results will suffer, immediately (but come back later!). You will drop 10-20 pounds that first month!!
But no, you do not have to suffer with 20g gram of total carbs per day. Let me explain….
What you are trying to do with keto is get into some sort of nutritional ketosis to:
- Burn fat as a fuel source
- Reduce hunger
- Keep insulin low
Keto is not some magic bean. Calories matter. But what keto does is remove the HANGRY. It fixes all of your hormones. It allows you to skip meals and not be so ravenous as to eat Styrofoam.
It is a weight loss tool – you cannot just eat 3000 calories and say “but I only had 10 carbs per day, keto isn’t working”.
So the first few weeks I’d suggest keeping it as low as possible. Don’t worry about the pee strips. Or the blood glucose things. Or the breathalyzers.
It doesn’t matter if your are in “strict” ketosis. It matters if you can use ketosis to control your calories.
So, after about 2-3 weeks, suddenly your hunger will drop. This is a good sign. And this is the beginning of you figuring out YOUR plan. It might be different than mine.
For the first 6 months of keto, I also did calorie counting with MyFitnessPal. You want to hit your BMR. This will be just about 10 times your body weight. If you have a LOT of muscle, it might be 11 or 12 times. If you are pretty soft, maybe 8 or 9 times. So mine is about 2000 calories per day.
If I want to lose weight, I go after this number. This number keeps the lights on. My biggest mistake I made most of my life was going wayyyyy under this. I’d be half starving myself at 800-1200 calories per day. This, over time, will push down your BMR and start shutting down body processes. You will feel sleepy. Exhausted. But you need to RUN! Your body is slow to repair damage and you get injured. You can’t move well, you are tired, hungry, a sugar burner – and you go back to eating 2000 calories per day, but your BMR was moved to 1500. You gain weight rapidly.
So your BMR keeps the lights on – your TOTAL DAILY ENERGY EXPENDITURE (TDEE) is everything else. Cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, getting the mail, doing laundry. This might be another 500-1000 calories, depending on your activity levels.
So if my TDEE is 2500 and my BMR is 2000, and I eat 2000 calories, then I will create a deficit of 500 per day, or 3500 per week.
Some days, my TDEE is 3500-5000 calories when I do high volume training. On those days, my activity level requests more food. Maybe I have 2500-3500 on some of those days. I’m STILL creating a deficit. Where people goof is:
- Not counting everything they eat and underestimating their daily calories
- Exaggerating their exercise and inflating their TDEE
So that’s why many trainers may tell you to eat 200-500 calories less than your BMR. However, the correct answer is to be brutally honest, count your calories honestly, and be conservative how you estimate exercise. Those calorie meters aren’t exactly accurate.
The good news: fats and proteins eaten on keto are HIGH SATIETY foods. This means you eat some meats and fibrous veggies and you are full for a LONG TIME.
When you combine keto with intermittent fasting and one meal a day (OMAD), you then may have a challenge – eat clean food for 2000 calories in a one hour window. And…GO.
For me, I love it because I have trained my body now to not get hungry until maybe 4-5PM, and then I eat a GIANT salad with a pound of meat, then walk or train – and go to bed with a full tummy. How many of you dieting have gone to bed most of your lives with a growling stomach? You ate 2000 calories over 6 small meals but you are constantly hungry?
Carbs for this article I’ll use are:
- complex carbs (pastas, wheats, cereals, breads, flour, etc). These break down to sugar
- simple carbs (sucrose, fructose, etc)
- sugar alcohols
A “net carb” is usually found by taking total carbs and subtracting fibers and sugar alcohols. For example, I use swerve sweetener in my coffee. It’s a sugar alcohol. 4g of carbs per tsp. I might have 24g of this per morning with my coffee. Here’s the deal. This doesn’t touch my insulin and is zero calories. It is not digested by normal means. I don’t count this, AT ALL in my carb count. This will keep me in strict ketosis, no matter the quantities I’ve had of this.
You then have other sugar alcohols you may find in quest energy bars. They ADVERTISE 4 net carbs, but the sugar alcohols there are not the same as swerve. Maybe half of these are digested like other carbs, so they “fib” on their net carbs.
Because sugar alcohols (which are neither sugar nor alcohol) can act differently for everyone, to simplify, most people then say if you are eating packaged products, USE THE TOTAL CARBS. So your quest bar might be 23g of carbs with 19 fibers/sugar alcohols. I’d probably count half of those 19 they are subtracting. So instead of 4, it might be closer to 10. You can still have these, just be mindful of this.
But what about fiber? Well, this is tricky too. You may have INSOLUBLE fiber like you find in asparagus. Don’t count this. It’s just like wood pulp and moving things through you. But then you see ingredients like “soluble corn fiber” and while I don’t usually count these carbs – SOLUBLE fiber will draw in water and bloat you.
What you will find then with the soluble type is if you have products or foods with soluble fibers, you may be holding 1-4 pounds of water all the time.
Here – you see me write that I have 50-75 per day. On HIGH VOLUME days, I’m having maybe 125…maybe 150. But this is literally 3-4 hours of intense training. What carbs I do have are in the midst of training. I am using more Gatorade endurance right before and during my training for speed and muscular workouts. I don’t need it for long distance workouts. Before I do a training session, I might also have a smoothie with a cup of strawberries or raspberries.
Remember what I said about draining the liver glycogen stores? When you consume carbs your body will throw these into your bloodstream. If you are doing sessions that need this glucose, you will process it…you will draw it from glycogen…or it will be stored in glycogen. There is no real direct path for me to store this as fat. Within a few hours of working out, my liver glycogen stores are back to zero and I’m back in ketosis.
But ….your numbers are too high!!!
Let me explain. Most of the time with the 50-100 carbs, I’m probably just out of ketosis. If you take a cheat weekend, you will switch off ketosis and put on 5 pounds of water instantly. This is not fat. It’s water. The minute you go back to keto, you drop those 5 pounds.
So…during 3 out of 4 weeks per month:
- I have 50-100g of carbs, if not more.
- I eat enlightened ice cream after my massive salad. LOTS of soluble fiber. Draws in tons of water.
- I exercise, a LOT. This creates inflammation in your body and repair is going on. This holds water.
- I use pre-workout. This has creatine, which WILL hold 3-5 pounds.
- I eat 1-2 cups of fruit a decent amount. This will go to liver glycogen stores and slow down or kick me out of keto
- I may have some products like quest protein bars or quest pizzas. This has the soluble corn fibers, etc, that draw in water.
- I do 3 fasting Fridays per month to help reset me to keto and engage in autophagy.
For my weigh in week…
- I drop my total carbs to 30 per day. This is usually just salads, whole chickens, eggs.
- I stop all ice cream
- l drop my exercise volume and intensity. I let my adaptations “bake in”.
- I stop the pre-workout. Creatine leaves the body via glycogen
- I stop all fruit
- I stop all quest products and anything with soluble fibers.
- I don’t eat the Friday before weigh in.
On heavy training days, I might have 2200-2400 calories. On lighter days, I might have 1600 or less. On CRAZY volume days, I might eat 3,000. I carry the extra water for training purposes. I don’t NEED to be in strict ketosis all the time. The creatine helps my workouts. The added carbs are for performance purposes – and I have them targeted around training sessions so they are burned immediately.
20 total or 50 net. It doesn’t matter the number. It matters –
- The quality of your food
- If you are creating a calorie deficit
- If you are ok with carrying a couple of pounds of water (you can do this with 75-125 if you are ok with that water weight. You can “diet down” one week a month like me if you are strict on tracking your progress, but you do not have to live like a monk on 20g of carbs your whole life)
- The volume of your activity. If you are sedentary and watch TV all the time, stick with the lower end. If you are running an hour a day or other stuff, you can have a lot more, just target it around your activity.
Tomorrow I have a triathlon. It’s only a sprint. However, for me, that will be 90-115 minutes of intense exercise. I will probably have 60-90g of carbs during the event in the form of Gatorade endurance. I may have an extra cup of fruit in my smoothie tomorrow at 4:30 AM. Today, I will probably eat an ass ton of zoodles at lunch, which will kick me out of ketosis. I will be “topping my glycogen stores”. Phinney and Volek have shown that fat adapted athletes “sip” glycogen stores and oxidize fat at a much higher rate than the sugar burners. Additionally, I will not “bonk out” and I will be able to continue when my carbs go empty. This shouldn’t be an issue at a sprint, but my point is the same.
So…your number depends.
Try and keep insulin low by:
- Reducing the amount of times you eat per day
- Eating lower glycemic vegetables. On a heavy training day, I might make French fries in an air fryer with a russet potato. But this is RARE.
- Eating lower glycemic fruits. I opt for berries, the occasional cherries, and the rare apple. Stay away from high glycemic fruits.
When you control your insulin, and control your carbs, you can then keep your hunger in check to then meet your BMR.
Is keto safe?
One of my friends pointed out – “where are the long term studies on keto? It causes kidney stones”. It was fair to say there were no long term studies. But I want to ask you….where are the 20-40 year studies on…
- weight watchers
- zone diet
- low fat diet
- atkins diet
So – let’s assume you are in deep ketosis (20g of total carbs, or less) for 25 years…and this causes kidney stones. Let’s just assume that.
I DO have a 40 year study on the “Standard American Diet” which recommends high numbers of servings of carbs – 6-11 servings, per day. What most people on the planet do NOT know is we need ZERO carbs per day to live. We need fats and proteins. In fact, cholesterol from meats and eggs significantly contribute to producing all of our hormones. This includes vitamin D (which is a hormone) that is made from the sun hitting our skin and using the cholesterol to make vitamin D.
So – what happens to a society when you tell them:
- Fat is bad. Minimize or exclude it because the calories are too high. The fats you do eat should be “vegetable oils” that were designed to be industrial lubricants.
- Eat tons of grains, cereals, and breads, as long as they are “whole grain”. We don’t realize we feed grains and corns to farm animals to fatten them up. Don’t worry that humans, throughout most of their history, didn’t have access to these foods. It makes sense economically for a nation to try and get their populations full bellies, but this ran amok
- Eat 6 times a day. Don’t worry about what will happen to your insulin and hormone levels with feeding all day long.
- Eat all the fruits you want. Glycemic index doesn’t count. Eat all the watermelon you want. It’s “healthy sugar”, after all. (In fact, fructose is poison to the body and should be dose restricted).
- Calories matter more than anything else. You can have coke and pepsi, as long as you count the calories. Do not worry what this does to your blood sugar levels
So what happens?
- heart disease explodes. Don’t worry about the diabetes, which is now 1 in 7 people and 120 years ago, it was 1 in 5,000. Diabetes is a major contributor to heart disease.
- Diabetes explodes. Drink all the coke you want. Don’t worry about pies, cakes, anything packaged, or processed foods. “Everything in moderation”.
- Dimentia explodes
- Cancer rates are through the roof
- Everyone is fat. I could never “outrun my diet”. But I could never escape hunger either. The fears of doing my kind of diet? The first thing on your mind right now is “when can I have cake again”? or “what about my weekly donut”.
Kidney stones versus….SAD. No competition.
But if you want some long term studies – take a look at Gary Taubes work on “why we get fat”. There’s a youtube video where he researches populations in history that were traditionally low carb. The most well know are the inuit. No carbs in the frozen tundra, lots of omega 3 oils and fats. Zero heart disease or cancers. Zero cavities. Zero diabetes. There are scores of tribes and indigenous nations he researched and found the same patterns. People only got fat and got sick at the introduction of the western diet.
And – like I told you, you don’t have to be keto all the time. When I hit my goal weight, I plan on probably having 100-150g per day and doing what Mark Sisson does.
He wrote, “The Primal Blueprint”. It’s sort of a paleo-hybrid diet which allows for more modern conveniences than the caveman. But, he dips into ketosis maybe 6 weeks a year right after Christmas.
What I used to do back in the day was 3 weeks of keto with a 2 or 3 day weekend eating whatever I wanted. I’d end the weekend up 6 pounds and by Weds/Thursday of the next week 1, I’d be back in ketosis and the 6 pounds would be peed out.
There you have it folks…no need to be a monk at 20g of total. No need to be an absolute zealot at 50 net. It depends on you, your workout routines, the makeup of your carbs, etc.
For most people interested in keto, I’d suggest looking into a whole 30 for a month first. It’s nearly impossible to go from 300g of carbs per day to 20. You need a buffer of some time to clean up your diet first. I did 40/30/30 for 15 months prior to keto.