How many carbs should you consume for optimal health? That depends on your goals, preferences, and unique physiology.
Some people do best with very few carbs. Others do better on a moderate-carb diet. Only personal experimentation can reveal which diet works best for you.
But before starting a carb experiment, it’s useful to understand the basics. What is a moderate-carb diet? Which situations may call for more carbs? And when should you stick with Keto? Keep reading.
What Is a Moderate Carb Diet?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines a moderate-carb diet as providing 26%-44% of your energy (calories) from carbohydrates.[*] For comparison, the NIH defines a high-carb diet as providing over 45% of calories from carbs, a low-carb diet as providing under 26% of calories from carbs, and a very low-carb diet (like Keto) as providing under 10% of calories from carbs.
Low-carb and Keto diets have been extensively researched for benefits like weight loss, blood sugar regulation, and chronic disease risk reduction.[*][*][*] There’s less research on moderate-carb diets, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beneficial.
Moderate-carb diets have too many carbs to be Keto, but fewer carbs than the average American diet.[*] Researchers believe that high intakes of refined carbs (especially refined sugar) are a key driver of the obesity and diabetes epidemics in the US.[*]
Someone might consider a moderate-carb diet if:
- They’re eating a high-carb diet and want to lose weight but aren’t prepared to take draconian anti-carb measures.
- They can’t stand being without fruit or starchy tubers on Keto.
- Low-carb isn’t working for them, energetically or otherwise.
Why might you switch from low-carb to moderate-carb? Let’s explore that question in more detail now.
When To Consider Adding More Carbs
Let’s assume that you’re consuming a low-carb or Keto diet. Here are some situations in which it might be prudent to add back carbs.
#1: If you have high cholesterol
Some people see elevations in LDL cholesterol (a frequently used marker of increased heart disease risk) after going Keto.[*] For these folks, adding back carbs may lower cholesterol.
How? Because eating carbs stimulates the hormone insulin, which in turn tells the liver to clear LDL particles more rapidly.[*] The fiber found in many high-carb foods also binds to cholesterol in the gut and carries it out of the body.[*]
To be clear, Keto has also been shown to lower LDL in obese people.[*][*] It’s also important to note that HDL (your “good” cholesterol) and triglycerides can also serve as markers for cardiac risk, so LDL is only one piece of the puzzle.[*]
How might Keto affect your cholesterol? Consider getting a blood test to find out where you stand.
#2: If you’re feeling low energy
When you cut carbs, your body shifts to burning more fat for energy. Unfortunately, the transition from burning carbs (glucose) to burning fat (fatty acids) isn’t always a smooth one.
While most people can overcome this Keto flu with time, electrolytes, and diligent macro tracking, not everyone feels like a million bucks on a low-carb diet. So if you feel like a hundred bucks after a few weeks on Keto, try bringing back some carbs.
#3: If you want more variety
One of the hardest parts of going Keto is giving up certain fruits, sweet potatoes, whole grains, and other carby favorites. Not only do these foods please the palate, but they’re also packed with beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
If you can’t live without them, bring them back. You can even cycle them. More on this later.
#4: If you’re very active
Marathons, sprints, and Crossfit WODs are called glycolytic exercises because they require glucose (aka, carbs) for fuel. The harder and longer the effort, the more glucose it requires.
This doesn’t mean Keto athletes can’t perform at the highest levels. They can. But some people find they perform better with carbs.
#5: If you’re pregnant or nursing
One of the most cited Keto benefits is appetite suppression.[*] This benefit, however, isn’t necessarily helpful for pregnant or nursing women who need more (not less) food to fuel their babies.
Severely restricting carbs after pregnancy may also increase the risk of lactation ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition of high ketone levels. Lactation ketoacidosis is rare, but several case reports suggest it’s something to watch out for.[*][*][*]
When To Stay Keto
Some situations call for adding back carbs, while others call for staying Keto. For example, multiple studies have found that a Keto diet can improve blood sugar, insulin, and cholesterol numbers in those with type 2 diabetes.[*][*] One randomized controlled trial showed that a low-carb diet lowered blood sugar more effectively than a moderate-carb diet in this population.[*]
Low-carb diets may also be preferable for weight loss. Why? Because being in ketosis reduces hunger hormones like ghrelin, which in turn reduces overall calorie consumption.[*]
This doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight on a moderate-carb diet. You can, but you won’t get that hunger-control benefit specific to Keto.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Carbs
Just as there are healthy fats, there are healthy carbs. A healthy carb food tends to:
- Be high in fiber. (Think sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, berries, apples, etc.). Higher fiber intakes aren’t only good for the gut, but they’re also linked to better heart health and blood sugar regulation.[*][*]
- Be high in vitamins and minerals. Again, fruits and starchy vegetables.
- Not contain refined sugar.
- Not come wrapped in plastic.
The last two points are important. Refined carbs (especially refined sugar) are why carbs have a bad name in the first place. High sugar diets have been linked to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, Alzheimer’s disease—the list goes on.[*][*][*][*][*]
Refined carbs are devoid of nutrients and won’t fill you up. Whole food carbs are nutritious and filling.
The takeaway is simple. Favor whole food carbs and avoid refined carbs.
Moderate Carb Recipes
If you are considering upping your healthy carb intake, these recipes are a great starting point:
Healthy Wholefood Sweet Potato Hash Breakfast Plate
Keto Brown Sugar Butter Acorn Squash
Healthy Whole Food Carrot Salad
Best Paleo Coconut Honey Breakfast Bars
How to Increase Carbs After Keto
If you want to increase carbs after Keto, you have a few options.
The simple option is to ramp up your carbs by 50 to 150 grams per day. See how you feel at your new carb intake (and check your blood work), then adjust from there if necessary.
Another option is to experiment with a Cyclical Keto Diet (CKD). When you eat a CKD, you eat high-carb 1-2 days per week and strict Keto the rest.
The idea is to refill glycogen (stored glucose) on high-carb days and return to fat-burning ketosis on low-carb days. It’s geared towards athletes, but anyone can give it a whirl.
Whichever strategy you pursue, tracking your macros can help. If you don’t know your carb intake, it’s hard to make adjustments.
Track your macros (and micros) by logging your meals in the Carb Manager app. Once you find your optimal level of carbs, it’ll be smooth sailing from there.
Ladele 8 months ago
Since starting keto and watching my carb intake my blood sugar has never been so good .My A1C was always around 8 it is now 6.4
PropitiousCauliflower984590 a year ago
Good article! It's interesting to learn that super low carb isn't right for everyone and to experiment a little. I'm becoming more interested in the carb cycling option!