What is a Low Carb Diet?

There are many names which are given to that of a low carbohydrate diet such as:

  • Low Carb High Fat
  • LCHF
  • Banting
  • Low Carb Healthy Fat
  • Sugar Free
  • Keto

Essentially all the names encapsulate the same definition which is:

“a low carbohydrate is a diet that is low in sugars and refined grains whilst being higher in healthy fats with a moderate protein intake”

Whilst the overall ethos of a low carb diet is that of the definition above, there really isn’t one “right” way of doing this approach. The categories below show the three different ways in which you can follow a low carbohydrate diet:

Ketogenic Range:

Carbohydrate content of 50g or less per day

If the diet provides enough carbohydrates, then the body will break these down into glucose and use it for energy. If you restrict the carbohydrate content in the diet, you then force the body to look for another way to get energy. The best way for the body to do this is to turn to fat. It can use either the fat found in the diet or within its own body stores. The fat is broken down in the body to produce ketone bodies which can then be used for energy (hence the name ketogenic).

Over time the body enters a state known as nutritional ketosis otherwise known as being keto-adapted. This term simply means that the body is now adapted to using the ketone bodies for energy. The body has switched from burning glucose (sugar) to burning fat for energy.

To maintain a proper ketogenic level, the intake of protein also needs to be controlled. This is because the protein in the diet can actually be turned into sugar (a process known as gluconeogenesis) As a rule, and based on the work by Phinney and Volek, I recommend a protein intake of 1-1.2g/kg of body weight per day. A much higher intake of fat also needs to be maintained to ensure that the body is receiving sufficient energy. The exact ratios and intakes will vary from person to person.

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An important point to note is if you are using this type approach for weight loss, then eating as much fat as you want, will stall weight loss. The quality as well as the quantity is extremely important.

General guidelines for the overall intake to be ketogenic would be:**

  • 75-80% of total calories coming from fat
  • 15-20% of total calories coming from protein
  • 5% of total calories coming from carbohydrates

** Please not these levels are very general, there are several forms of a ketogenic diet including the classic KD, a 3:1, 2:1 and modified Atkins approach. If you are someone looking to implement this approach for therapeutic reasons, then please consult with myself or another health care professional to ensure you are following the correct approach for yourself.

This type of dietary approach is best suited for those: looking to implement it for therapeutic reasons, an improvement in cognition, diabetes, PCOS, problems with insulin resistance (generally this can be categorised with people carrying a lot of their weight around their tummy area), severe sugar cravings/addiction.

Low Carbohydrate:

Carbohydrate content of 50-80g per day

This level is a mid-point between a ketogenic and a moderate or sugar free carbohydrate range. Many people can perceive a ketogenic diet being the only or best method for weight loss. Being in a ketogenic range or becoming fat adapted does not necessarily mean you are automatically going to lose weight. Never begin a ketogenic diet thinking this is going to be the quick fix for weight loss.

A lot of people who discover a low carbohydrate way of eating think that this simply means following a ketogenic approach. In my opinion I do not believe this to be the case and I have successfully put several of my clients on approaches that are right for them.

This form of low carbohydrate approach still offers a low carbohydrate level (much lower than many people in today’s Western society would be eating) whilst still looking at having a higher intake from healthy fats.

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The general guidelines for this approach sit between:

  • 65-75% of total calories from fat
  • 20-25% of total calories from protein
  • 5-10% of total calories from carbohydrates

There are several reasons as to why a ketogenic approach may not be right for you such as: certain health problems associated with the thyroid and adrenal glands or auto immune issues. Other reasons why a ketogenic may not be right for some people is to do with the restrictive nature of the approach. Whilst many people find it easy to follow, some people find that it does not fit in with their lifestyle.

Whatever dietary approach you choose to follow, for it to be sustainable it needs to be a complete lifestyle change. If you do not think you could follow this in the long term, then it would not be right for you.

Sugar Free:

Carbohydrate content of 80g-120g

The last in the category of a low carbohydrate approach I often coin as being a sugar free approach. I want to state right up front though that no matter what approach you follow, no refined sugar or grains should be in your diet.

As with the other 2 approaches, following a sugar free approach still has an emphasis on having an overall low carbohydrate level whilst having a good level of healthy fats in the diet. What this approach does allow though is a slightly higher carbohydrate content which can be used for adding in more fruits and veggies to the diet.

The general guidelines for this approach are:

  • 50-65% of total calories from fat
  • 25-30% of total calories from protein
  • 10-20% of total calories from carbohydrates

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There are several people that may benefit from following this approach including people who train at a high intensity level. This is especially true if most of your workout is based on anaerobic exercise. For people who find that they need more available glucose to get them through their workout, a targeted or cyclic ketogenic diet may be of greater benefit to them. This approach is essentially a combination of a ketogenic diet mixed with a sugar free approach. When you are training, on rest days etc. you can follow the ketogenic principles. However, either before or after your training you can increase the amount of carbohydrates that you have.

The second group of people that this can be more beneficial to follow is individuals who have histories of eating disorders. In my work with working with individuals who have had a disordered history with eating, following a ketogenic or even a low carbohydrate intake can trigger some of the behaviours they experienced before.

5 Tips To Getting Started
  • Remove all refined sugars and starches – if you do nothing else with your diet, this is by far the most powerful nutritional tip I would recommend.
  • Do not eat low fat products or fear healthy fats – these are 9/10 packed full of added sugars
  • Focus on quality as well as quality of calories – Stop just counting calories, this just leads to deprivation
  • Eat real food – Where possible try getting back to cooking meals from scratch
  • Prepping is key – If you fail to plan then plan to fail.

Always remember that there really isn’t one dietary approach that is right for everyone. You need to look at your own body and goals and figure out the best approach for you.

If you would like some help and coaching around this then working together may be the next right step for you.