What Does Low Carb Dieting Mean (& Not Mean)?

What Does Low Carb Dieting Mean (& Not Mean)?

Video | Understanding Carbs | Ranking Carbs | Low Carb vs. Keto | Total vs. Net Carbs | The 3Es

A low carb diet is what it sounds like. It is a diet in which you reduce the number of grams of carbohydrates that you consume during the day. But what does that mean? How many carbs does a regular diet contain? How low must you go to be low carb or keto?  Do you count total carbs or net carbs? I explain what low-carb dieting means and doesn’t mean in this post. 

What Does Low Carb Dieting Mean? At-A-Glance


  • Carbohydrates are found mainly in plant- and milk-based foods
  • Non-starchy vegetables are naturally low in calories and carbs but have a lot of volume and nutrients, making them good choices for low carb dieters.
  • High-fat dairy products, like cheese, full-fat yogurt, and cream, contain fewer carbs then lower-fat milk-based foods.
  • The generally accepted level for a low-carb diet is no more than 125 total grams of carbs per day. For a keto diet, the upper limit is 50 grams of carbs per day. 
  • Net Carbs of Whole Foods = Total Carbs – Fiber
  • Net Carbs of Processed Foods = Total Carbs – Fiber – Sugar Alcohols & Allulose
  • To stick with your diet, it needs to satisfy the 3Es (easy-to-follow, enjoyable, effective)

What Does Low Carb Dieting Mean (& Not Mean)? [Video]

In this video, you’ll learn…

  • The best low-carb foods!
  • The difference between low-carb and keto.
  • The formulas for Net Carbs in both whole and processed foods.

Understanding Carbs

Carbohydrates are mainly found in plant foods because plants are the living organisms that make carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Grains, starchy and non-starchy vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds all contain carbohydrates.

Only a few animal-based foods contain a significant amount of carbs with dairy products, like milk and yogurt, being the main ones. 

However, just because plant- and milk-based foods contain carbohydrates doesn’t mean that they are off-limits for a low-carb dieter.

You just have to understand the hierarchy of carbohydrate-containing foods so that you can focus your diet on those with the lowest amount of carbs or the best fiber-to-carb ratio. 

Ranking Carbohydrates: Low to High

Some generalities can help you rank carbohydrates.

Ranking Plant-Based Foods

First, of all of the plant-based foods available to us, non-starchy vegetables are the best choice for a low carb dieter. These are foods like leafy salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus.

They are naturally low in calories and carbs but have a lot of volume and nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They fill up your stomach, they are good for you, and they digest slowly, helping to keep hunger away. 

One step down in the hierarchy of low carb plant foods, we find starchy vegetables (like potatoes and corn), along with fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, and oats. When I say that they are a step-down, I am referring only to the fact that they contain more carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables.

It does not mean that they are unhealthy. In fact, for many people, a variety of nutritious whole foods can be worked into a well-formulated low carb diet. It is when these whole foods get refined and processed that they lose their low-carb friendly status.

At the bottom of the dietary carbohydrate ranking, we find sugar, refined grains like cereal, cookies, and bread, as well as soda or other sweetened drinks.  

Ranking Dairy

When we consider unprocessed dairy products, generally speaking, the higher the fat content, the lower the food’s carbohydrate content. For instance, 2 tablespoons of heavy cream contain almost 11 grams of fat, but less than 1 gram of carbohydrates. Whereas, 2 tablespoons of skim milk have no fat but nearly double the carb count. 

milk and cream nutrition facts

We also see that dairy foods that are naturally higher in fat, like cheese, tend to be low in carbs. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to have cheese included in low-carb recipes. However, this rule does not hold up for high-fat dairy desserts, like ice cream, because they add sugar, which is a carb.

Dairy products’ hierarchy would have high-fat foods like cheese, full-fat yogurt, and cream as top choices, followed by low or no-fat milk products, and finally, milk-based desserts like ice cream.

Low Carb vs. Keto

With the picture of what types of foods contain carbs in our heads, the next question is, “How many carbs can I eat and still be on a low carb diet?

There is no established cut-off point, but it is generally accepted that a low carb diet is one in which you consume no more than 125 grams of total carbs per day.

To be considered keto, your daily consumption must be under 50 grams per day. The standard dietary recommendations for carbs are more than 225 grams per day. Therefore, the average person will need to cut their carb intake by at least half to be considered low carb.

Some factors will play into how many carbohydrates your body can tolerate and still lose weight. These factors include your age, activity level, and how taxed your metabolism is due to factors like obesity, health conditions, or history yo-yo dieting.

You will have to experiment to find the level of carbs that is right for you. This does not mean that you need to go directly from your high-carb lifestyle to a very-low-carb keto diet right away. But, it does mean that you need to track your carb intake.

Tracking can be done with a pencil and paper. But, there are many free apps out there that will help you, such as Cronometer, which is where I obtained the nutritional information for this post. 

Tracking Total vs. Net Carbs

This brings us to an area of controversy with low carb dieting, which is what do you track, total carbs or net carbs? As low-carb dieting grows in popularity, you find more and more proponents for counting net carbohydrates.

If you choose to do that, I want to bring your attention to the difference in how net carbs are tallied for different foods. 

Calculating Net Carbs of Whole Foods

If carbohydrates come solely from vegetables, fruits, and other whole food sources, then net carbs are fine to count, and the equation is simple.

In the case of whole foods, net carbs are calculated by subtracting the fiber from the total carb count. If at the end of the day, you consume 75 total grams of carbohydrates, but 15 of those grams were fiber, then you consumed 60 net carbs for the day. It’s merely a choice of how you look at it. 

calculating net carbs of whole foods

Calculating Net Carbs of Packaged Foods

However, if you include packaged or processed foods in your low-carb diet, additional subtraction applies, namely sugar alcohols and allulose. The challenge is that this extra math opens the door to deception, which can prevent you from getting the weight loss benefits of a low carb diet.

Sugar alcohols and allulose can be added to foods to make them sweeter and improve their crave factor and texture. They are metabolized differently than other food nutrients. Therefore, they have less impact on your blood sugar than the sugar they are replacing.

For the most part, the carbs they contain get to be subtracted from the total carb count. That sounds like a great way to game the system, literally getting to eat your sweet treats without the high-carb consequences. But does it seem too good to be true? I think it does, which is why I count total carbs, not net carbs. 

Let’s take a look at an example. Duncan Hines puts out a “keto-friendly” double-chocolate cake mix that has only five net carbs. It sure looks to be convenient and delicious, but when you look at the nutrition facts, you see that it started out with 34 total carbs. 

I don’t think Duncan Hines is lying when they say that there are only five net carbs in the product. However, they accomplished a large portion of this 29 carb drop by making allulose the first, and therefore, the most prominent ingredient.

Despite having no added sugar, this is a very sweet dessert packed with 300 calories. That sweetness will keep your sweet tooth alive, making it harder to stick with your diet when faced with future temptations, and the calories could easily derail your weight loss. 

calculating net carbs of packaged foods

The 3Es of Low Carb Dieting

I certainly understand the draw of sweet foods. As I like to say, when I struggled with my weight, I had a terrible sweet tooth, and I have the cavities to prove it.

You don’t need to game the system with fake sweets to enjoy a low carb diet. When you remove the excess carbs from your day, you replace most of them with satisfying healthy fats, including foods that were once taboo like butter, high-quality meats, and cheese. This macronutrient swap leads to some noticeable advantages.

Unlike carbs, fats do not spike the fat-storing hormone called insulin. Fats also digest slower than carbohydrates, so they stay in your system longer, supplying you with a steady, sustainable energy source that keeps hunger away and helps you naturally eat less.

Also, fats are not sweet, so they do not stimulate your sweet tooth, which quiets cravings, making it easier to stick with your diet until you reach your goal. 

If you are reading this post, it is likely because you are curious about low carb diets. In many ways, low carb diets have changed the face of dieting and many people not only feel good when they eat low carb but also feel lucky to have discovered the diet.

I believe this is because low carb diets fulfill what I refer to as the 3Es, meaning the diet is easy to follow, enjoyable, and effective. It’s easy to follow because as long as you tracking your carb intake, you are on the right track. It’s enjoyable because there are so many savory and delicious foods to choose from. And it is effective for weight loss. 

Dr. Becky's 3 E's - low carb dieting

If you are looking for a place to start, I invite you to check out my free 0,1,2,3 strategy that serves as a great pathway into healthy low-carb dieting. Thanks for reading and have a great day!

About the Author

Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.

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