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How Low-Carb Should You Go With Your Diet?

By Lea Basch, M.S., RD ; Updated July 22, 2016

With all the diets out there these days that recommend limiting carbohydrates, it can be tough to figure out which one is right for you. Diets are definitely not one-size-fits-all, and that's doubly true when it comes to carbohydrate intake. Let's take a look at the different levels of "low carb" and which might be right for you.

First, let's take a step back: What is a low-carb diet? A low-carb diet is one that limits your intake of carbohydrates from grains, fruits, starches and sugars and replaces those calories with protein and fat. Especially when compared with low-fat or low-calorie diets, studies show that low-carb diets are more effective for weight loss and provide other health benefits like lowering LDL ("bad" cholesterol), improving HDL ("good" cholesterol) and improving triglyceride levels. There are also studies that show improvement in blood sugar control and appetite reduction.

Now before you go cutting out all carbs, keep in mind that your body needs some level of carbohydrates to function, especially your central nervous system and your brain. When you don't have enough carbohydrates in your system, your liver also has to work harder to manufacture glucose from fats and proteins.

So what does all this mean? It depends on your goal for following a low-carb diet as well as your personal situation and activity level. If your goal is to lose a lot of weight, you may want to follow a very low-carbohydrate diet for a defined period of time.

If you just want to generally decrease the number of carbs you consume on an ongoing basis for general health, I suggest using the guidelines of a more moderate low-carbohydrate diet. Active people who exercise regularly can tolerate more carbs, while insulin-resistant people tolerate less. Age, gender and muscle-to-fat ratios also affect the amount of carbs one needs for health, weight maintenance or loss.

A few years ago, an expert panel came up with three suggested definitions for low-carbohydrate diets that may be helpful for putting together a meal plan that works for your goals:

1. Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet: less than 50 grams per day (10 percent of calories)

2. Low-Carbohydrate Diet: 50 to 130 grams per day (10 to 26 percent of calories)

3. Moderate-Carbohydrate Diet: 130 to 225 grams per day (26 to 45 percent of calories)

For reference, the Atkins Diet recommends a progression of carbs, starting with the extreme low of 15 grams per day for a short period and gradually ramping up to 90 grams.

Split between meals and snacks, a low-carbohydrate diet for a day could look like this:

Breakfast: 15 to 25 grams
Lunch: 15 to 25 grams
Dinner: 15 to 25 grams
1 to 2 snacks : 10 to 15 grams each
Total: 55 to 105 grams

Just as important as the number of carbs you eat is the quality of food you eat. Make sure to eat lots of vegetables, quality protein from eggs, cheese and grass-fed animals and omega-3s and monounsaturated fats (e.g., from fish). Increasing your protein intake is important not only for satiety, but, if you're also trying to lose weight, it also takes more calories to metabolize protein than carbs or fat.

The best sources for the carbs that you do eat are from vegetables, fruits (especially high-fiber and high-antioxidant berries), whole grains and beans. Limit processed foods, junk foods and sugars as well as low-carb bars and shakes, which are often made from unhealthy "fake" sugars.

Readers -- Have you ever tried a low-carb diet? What kinds of foods did you eat? Was it hard to follow a low-carb diet for an extended period of time? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Lea Basch, M.S., RD, is the registered dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. Lea has been in the nutrition industry for more than 30 years and was one of the founders of Longmont United Hospital's nutrition program in Boulder, Colorado. Connect with Lea and The Tasteful Pantry on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

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