According to some people, I eat a low-carb diet. I both agree and disagree…wha?! Confused? It’s not your fault. There are a lot of confusing standards out there about what makes a low-carb diet a low-carb diet. In this article, I get down and dirty with my surprising myth-busting answer to a popular question we need to ask more questions about: how many carbs can you have on a low carb diet?
The Mainstream Definitions of the Low Carb Diet and Normal Carb Diet
People often peg me as a low-carb diet proponent.
True, I don’t eat grains, legumes or beans with any frequency (not for the better part of the past 18 years–and happily so), but that doesn’t mean I don’t get my fair share of carbs.
Plus, the concept of “low” is relative. It all depends on who’s counting, and which standards we’re measuring against.
Most peoples’ ideas of “low-carb” and “normal” carb have been shaped by
- extreme mainstream diet trends, and
- National Dietary Guidelines that were, in turn, shaped by the money-machine of the cereal-grains-dominated food industry (in which Monsanto has a huge stake). Read more about this in my article, Complex Carbohydrates: Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs.
I’m Actually Homies with Carbs
I eat my carbs selectively, mainly from low-starch vegetables, prepared and served with lots of saturated fat (think: coconut oil, palm oil, full-fat pasture butter and other dairy), and some monounsaturated fat (think: extra virgin olive oil and avocados). (Read more about the importance of higher saturated fat in my article 6 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat for Optimal Health and Weight Loss; article includes a list of higher saturated fat foods.)
I also occasionally enjoy some alternative baked goods, made from the likes of coconut flour. Low-starch pancakes or cookies anyone?
What I really am is a proponent of increased fat and protein, and selective carbs. No calorie-counting. No carb-counting. Capiche?
For carbs, the focus is not on numbers, but source.
The emphasis on satiating fat and protein allows for our bodies to find their own daily directives for their unique ideal amounts of selective carbs–without number-crunching or overthinking. Yes, this works. Effectively.
What are low starch veggies?
- green beans
- zucchini + crookneck squash _ sometimes butternut squash (spiralized for delicious “spaghetti!”)
- cauliflower (also “riced” (store-bought or in a food processor); or pureed with an immersion/hand-blender for a delicious alternative to mashed potatoes)
- bok choy
- lettuces (Romaine, red and green leaf, butter)
- leafy greens (kale, collard and mustard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, endive, dandelion, frisée)
(NOTE: carrots, beets and squashes (butternut, acorn, spaghetti, etc.) are moderate-sugar+starch veggies. Sweet potatoes are moderate-to-higher sugar+starch. Amounts one should consume of these will vary from person to person based on multiple factors (i.e. metabolism, digestion). For example: instead of three carrots’ worth of carrot sticks and low-fat dressing, opt for one carrot’s worth of carrot sticks with a fat-rich blood-sugar-and-insulin-stabilizing dip made with full-fat plain yogurt/kefir, sour cream, or coconut milk mixed with some herbs.)
Of course, by focusing on these low-starch sources of carbs, I definitely eat less carbs than most Americans. However, I hardly think of my dietary practices as low-carb because
- I never eat with any set limit of daily carbs in mind
- I never count carbs
- With the amount of veggies I eat (deliciously slathered in fat, mind you–I ain’t no rabbit!), I won’t always make the cut for popular low-carb diets.
Again, we want to operate with a commitment not to a set or maximum number of carbs, but to the source of our carbs.
Reconsidering the “Normal” Carb and Low Carb Diet
Ever taken a look at nutrition labels? Have you seen the National Dietary Guidelines’s suggested daily calorie intake counts from carbohydrates?
According to these guidelines, a person consuming a 2,000 calorie diet should eat around 300g carbohydrates each day, with 25g from fiber (fiber is a kind of indigestible or less-digestible carbohydrate). Yes, 300g. This is what standard National Guidelines inform us is “normal.”
Good thing General Mills and Kellogg’s make it easy for us to hit that mark with big bowls of $5-a-box starchy low-fat blood-sugar-destabilizing breakfast cereals, and Nabisco’s got our snack-back with enriched, soybean oil-laced Wheat Thins [insert sarcasm here here here and here]. And even organic granola, and gluten-free brown rice crackers aren’t immune to my sarcastic punches in this discussion.
Many of us have seen these pro-300g- labels. But most of us aren’t familiar with this lesser-known detail…
US Dietary Guidelines consider any carbohydrate intake below 130g per day as “low carbohydrate.”
130g is arguably not super-low.
By these standards, it’s totally possible for a person–let’s call her Jane–who isn’t even trying to eat a low-carb diet to hit under 130g in one day. Jane could regularly eat processed or whole grains, quinoa, cereals, breads, Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars, etc. And it’s totally possible Jane may not be at her ideal weight, may have excess stored body fat in undesirable places, exhibit heightened disease risk factors, walk around bloated and hungry all the time, with unstable blood sugar and insulin.
Of course, most Americans do eat more than 130g carbs each day, in the form of grains (processed or “whole”), legumes and beans.
Though I don’t regularly count carbs now, I tried it about 18 or so years ago, so I’m well-versed in carb counts, on top of my overall fiendish food-knowledge. Without even counting, I know some days I eat much less carbs, around 30-40g in a day, and other days I eat close to 100g in veggies alone. You heard me.
If I were to eat a lot of low-starch veggies, like, say, a whole eggplant in one meal (which is totally possible if it’s cubed or pureed to make an Indian or Middle Eastern dish, or sliced up in eggplant parmesan), and half an onion for flavor, on top of my veggies from other meals in the same day (zucchini, fennel, kale, green beans, lettuce), the tally adds up.
(I really don’t want to encourage number-crunching, but I do encourage exploration: you can get an idea of carb-counts in veggies at www.nutritiondata.com.)
Total-Carb to Fiber-carb Ratios Are Ideal in Veggies, Not Grains
Unlike Jane (remember her?) and her quinoa, Nutri-Grain bars, and granola, my 100-ish grams of carbs from low-starch veggies feature a hell of a lot smaller ratio of total carbs to fiber-carbs. Why? Because low-starch veggies contain less carbs overall, of which lots of those carbs are naturally-occurring fiber-carbs (vs. added-fiber found in cereals, breads, etc.–I’m not a fan of these).
When served with plenty of fat, low-starch veggies make for ideal insulin and blood sugar stability.
On the other hand, grains don’t contain a lot of fiber, despite the hype you’ve been fed. They do, however, contain a lot of blood-sugar and insulin-spiking starch.
Unlike Jane, I don’t have weight or digestive problems, unhealthy fat-storage, heightened disease-risk factors, or unstable blood sugar and insulin.
Again, the issue with carbs isn’t numbers. It’s source.
Why Are Some Low Carb Diets So Low Carb?
The scientific idea behind more extreme low-carb diets, like the ketogenic diet and Atkins, is to reach and stay in a state of ketosis.
Ketosis is simply the state our bodies go into when we’ve used up our glucose stores and start to burn stored fat for energy instead.
Our bodies may not enter into ketosis if we’re eating too much overall, or eating a lot of veggies (yes, even non-potato low-starch veggies), or eating too much protein (it’s possible for non-carbohydrate sources to be converted into glucose via gluconeogenesis).
Even though US Dietary Guidelines classify any carbohydrate intake below 130g per day as “low carbohydrate,” our bodies don’t enter into ketosis until we get below around 80g carbs per day, sometimes far less (this is why the induction phase of Atkins requires between 18-22g carbs per day).
Ketosis thresholds are variable. They kick off somewhere below 80g carbs per day, depending on the person, the day, and even time of day.
Thing is, if we eat lots of veggies, along with small portions of higher-fiber low-sugar fruits (read: berries) here and there, it’s possible we won’t hit our ketosis-triggering 80g-or-less mark.
Granted, ketosis has many fantastic health benefits (which I discuss in my book in the section “Ketosis with the Mostest“). It’s entirely possible to touch in to ketosis while eating according to my programming. However, ketosis is not the goal of my programming. We’re not peeing on Ketostix to test ketone levels in our urine (which is not a very accurate gauge), or pricking our fingertips to test our blood (which gets pricey fast). No number-crunching.
(Except for those suffering from certain chronic conditions, rigidly following a ketogenic diet is not necessary day in and day out.)
But back to veggies.
So Do I Follow a Low Carb Diet, or Don’t I?
My veggie-carb intake can sometimes surpass Atkins, or ketogenic diet standards.
So does that mean I’m not a “low-carber?”
Or am I still a “low-carber” because I often fall beneath National Dietary Guidelines’ 130g “low” carb threshold?
You don’t have to answer these questions. In fact, I don’t want you to answer them. I ask them only to prove a point: that these “low” and “normal” carb numbers lose their relevance as you ask questions and dig deeper about source.
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Background feature image copyright Stuart Miles.