Is It OK to Eat Less Than 20 Carbs on Keto?

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The word CARBS is written on a chalkboard surrounded by foods that are high in carbohydrates
There's a debate in the keto community about using net carbs or total carbohydrates when planning and tracking. We have your answer.

Lori Ballen is a member of the Amazon Associates Program and earns money from qualifying purchases. Posts contain affiliate links that benefit Lori as well.

Yes. It is perfectly acceptable to eat fewer than 20 carbohydrates while eating Keto style!

No, it’s not bad to have fewer than 20 carbs in a day. In fact, there are people that practice nutritional ketosis and drop as little as 0-5 total carbs in a day. WOAH!

Going Low Carb

When first beginning the keto diet, there will be a learning curve. While information is readily available for free all over the web, you are going to see a wide variety of opinions related to how to eat Keto. 

Keto, which is short for Ketogenic is a lifestyle for many. It includes eating clean, as healthy as possible, and avoiding unhealthy ingredients and maintaining a low carb diet in general. 

When you drop your total carbohydrate intake, your body will begin creating ketones and eventually can burn fat and ketones for energy, which is cleaner and more effective than burning glucose. 

While some adopt a ketogenic lifestyle for health, many do look at it as a way to lose weight and therefore begin a “keto diet” (which, by the way, is a much-despised term in the Keto community). 

Net Carbs or Total Carbs

Most of us on the keto journey count either net carbs or total carbs, and many, like me, track both.

The goal number for most is NET 20

To get to NET 20, you take your total intake of carbohydrates (by grams) and subtract the fiber (by grams). 

Example 1: 
   40 Carbohydrates 
–  20 Grams of Fiber
= 20 Net Carbs

Sugar Alcohols

Some people also subtract sugar alcohols from the carbs as your body does not process them the same way as carbs. Since a metabolic reaction is still in play, some subtract only half or the net carbs.

This is where you will need to play with what works for you. And you might change it when you find yourself “stalling” on Keto and not losing much weight anymore. [This is common]

Example 2:
   50 Carbohydrates
– 25 Grams of Fiber
–  5 Grams of Sugar Alochols
= 20 Net Carbs

For me, counting too many things when I first began was too much. I decided to focus on net 20 carbs, and not count sugar alcohols. This was easy for me though, as I was not really eating foods that contained them. 

Keto Coach Lori Ballen

On my journey to goal weight, I focused on stupid simple meals like cheeseburgers without a bun, fajitas with no tortillas, bacon, and eggs, filet mignon and green vegetables. 

I got in my healthy fats mostly through nuts, olive oil, butter from grass-fed cows, sour cream and in my foods in general. 

I did not add special low carb foods nor did I eat much from a box or a bag that would have had labels that include sugar alcohols. 

Example: Know Foods Chocolate Chip Cookie

Here’s a chocolate chip cookie I tried recently that was discussed in a Facebook Group as approved Keto for net carbs. Yum!  !

Food Label from a Chocolate chip Cookie from KNOW Foods with an arrow pointing out where to subtract sugar alcohols

Total Carbohydrates: 26 (Under that, you’ll find the carbs and sugar alcohols).

Fiber – 5G, Sugars 19G. (Sugars is your sugar alcohols as it is listed under the Carbohydrate category). 

26 Carbs – 5 Grams of Fiber = 21 Grams of Carbs – 19 Grams of Sugar Alchols = 3

Net 2 Carbs with that math. Front of package is labeled Net 3. 

Does it fit in your net carbs? Absolutely. I’d trade in 3 of my 20 net carbs for this giant cookie on a day I need a treat. 

However, in order to avoid OVER-DOING treats like this, and sugar alcohols which are still not going to be good for you in excess or the healthiest of carbs or calories you could eat, AND could lead to triggering other sugar and carb cravings, I also limit myself to a TOTAL carb count of 50 on most days. 

What that would mean for me is that if I eat this cookie, half of my daily carbs are digested with this one snack. 

Sometimes, it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s not. The math and the understanding around it help me make my daily decisions.

These facts are also important

  1. Look at ingredients and make sure they still are what you want in your daily nutritional goals

  2. Nutritional labels may not be “governed” and therefore not verified for accuracy. I personally use a blood ketone meter and measure to see if a new food knocks me out of ketosis, and a glucose meter to check how my body responds after eating it.

    Shop Blood Ketone Meters Here.

  3. Calories are often very high in treats like these. Sometimes, when people in my keto coaching program complain about not losing weight, it’s often because they are not counting calories and are eating too many foods like this. While the net carbs may fit, the calories may not. 

  4. Some countries simply remove sugar alcohols from the nutritional label automatically.

Carbs and Ketosis

The amount of carbohydrates or net carbs that you can eat and remain in ketosis will vary from person to person. 

I myself can eat more than 50 carbs and stay in ketosis, or at least bounce right back in quickly. 

For some of you that are just beginning the Keto Diet, the talk of ketones and ketosis will be way beyond what you want or need to learn just yet if weight loss is your primary focus. 

My suggestion is that you nail the net 20 and leave the “Ketones and Ketosis” conversation for a later date. 

Once I learned the basics, I was excited to begin measuring ketones so that I could directly apply it to my life. 

Measuring Ketones answered questions like:

  • When Do I have the most Ketones I can use each day for energy so I can plan my workouts around that time?

  • When are my ketones at their highest levels so that I can do my most creative thinking then?

  • Which foods do I believe are labeled incorrectly based on my bodies response in ketones or glucose?

  • How much protein can I eat in a meal in stay in Ketosis?

  • How many carbs can I eat in one day and stay in Ketosis?

  • Which is better for me personally, net carbs or total carbs?

NOTE: Using Urine Strips for ketosis is not advised past the first few days of entering ketosis. Use a blood meter for proper measuring once you have entered ketosis. 

Tracking Carbs

The best way to predict success is by setting goals, milestones, and tracking results. Tracking the activities that lead to these results is the best way to hold yourself accountable. 

Tracking allows you to predict as well as catch when something might be “off”. It also allows you to make decisions based on evidence rather than emotion. 

Let’s say you have a week where you gain weight instead of losing. Or maybe you lose less than your average amount. 

Your instincts or emotions might be to think or say:

  • The Keto Diet doesn’t work for me
  • I’m eating too many calories
  • I’m eating too much protein
  • I’m eating too much fat
  • I’m not eating enough calories
  • I’m not eating enough fat
  • I’m not eating enough protein

When in fact, if you were to go back through your tracking, you may realize that that you ate out that week. When you look at what you ate, you may realize that the ceasar salad you “guessed” at net 5 carbs based on an app was actually more like a net 25 carbs on the restaurant’s nutritional menu. 

? Remember, you figure net carbs by calculating the total carb count minus the fiber. 

Or maybe, you look at your tracking, and nothing is wrong, and accept the fact that it’s probably a hormonal or stress reaction and will probably even out within the next week. That happens a lot. 

Most people use a keto app or app that counts Carbs. These would be things like:

  • MyFitnessPal
  • Carb Manager

Determining Macros

Macronutrients are a set of nutrients you will track on your keto diet journey which include carbs, fats, and fiber. 

When you discuss Keto on social media, with a question, the response might be “What are your Macros?”

You can figure your macros using a macro calculator.

Most of us fall into the following ranges:

0-10% of our calories should come from carbs 
20-30% of our calories should come from Protein
70% + of our calories should come from fat

Some adjust protein and fats based on their current BMI and athletic level. 

When I started, I was 46, 198 pounds, 5’7 and the macros I used were:
7% / 23% / 70%

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