Medically reviewed by Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDCES, CPT
Cutting carbs is a tactic people use to lose weight. No more bread, pasta, and potatoes. Though effective, you may find it hard to say no to dinner rolls and pizza forever. This may lead you to carb counting or watching your macros, in which case, you may wonder exactly how many carbs you should eat per day to lose weight.
Unfortunately, there's no one right answer for how many carbs you need to eat a day to lose weight. Your daily carb needs depend on your overall health, food preferences, and physical activity. Plus, when it comes to weight loss, what works for one person doesn't always work for another. It is a very individual journey.
In this article, you will learn about the role carbohydrates play in weight loss and how you can figure out how many carbs you need to get to your healthy weight.
The Role of Carbohydrates in Weight Loss
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are an essential nutrient your body needs in fairly significant amounts. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should provide 45% to 65% of your daily calories, with protein (10% to 30%) and fat (20% to 35%) making up the rest.
Why so many carbs? Because they're made of up the preferred source of energy — glucose — for every cell and organ in your body. Your cells use what they need and the rest is stored in your muscles and liver for later use.
When you don’t eat enough carbohydrates and you run through all your stored glucose, your body turns to other nutrients for energy — protein and fat. This is the basic premise of the low-carb diet, forcing your body to burn body fat for energy.
According to Destini Moody, RD, CSSD, LD, a registered dietitian specializing in sports performance, body composition, and injury recovery at Top Nutrition Coaching, “To date, little solid evidence exists that carb-restrictive diets have any unique qualities to make them effective at causing weight loss." Like most other weight loss plans, low-carb diets generally work by restricting calorie intake.
Factors Influencing Carb Intake
The amount of carbs you need to consume per day to lose weight depends on many factors, like your age, level of activity, current weight, and metabolic rate. No set amount of carbs works for all.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) says most people should consume a minimum of 130 grams of carbs per day to meet basic nutrient requirements. If you know anything about low-carb diets, you'll know that this RDA is much higher than what is recommended on a daily basis for lower-carb folks. There is no real definition of "low-carb diet." However, a "low-carb diet" is some variation of the keto diet designed to help manage epilepsy, a disorder characterized by seizures, by consuming no more than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Your daily energy needs (calories) also influence how many carbs you need per day. Calorie needs range from 1,600 to 3,000 calories a day depending on age and activity level. Based on the Dietary Guidelines, carb needs may range from 180 grams to 475 grams per day.
For example, if you’re training for a marathon, you will need higher amounts of carbs than the average person to offset the glucose your muscles need to fuel your activity. In this instance, limiting your carb intake to 130 grams a day negatively affects endurance and strength. Your body uses stored glucose to get through the extended workout, and then turns to protein and fat for energy, reducing strength and endurance because the metabolism of these macronutrients for energy isn't as efficient as carbohydrates.
That said, there are various health conditions that may benefit from lower carb intake. "Some people trying to lose weight may be dealing with insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or other conditions that require them to pay close attention to their carb intake and the timing of that intake, so blanket recommendations on how many carbs to consume per day can be dangerous," says Moody. "However, even in healthy individuals, personalized recommendations for carb needs are important as every person’s specific calorie needs, food preferences, and body composition goals may be quite different."
Understanding Different Types of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the main nutrient in many foods, including vegetables, fruits, bread, cake and cookies. Your body turns all of these carbs into glucose, but not all sources of carbs have equal nutritional value.
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates: Simple carbohydrates are sugars like sucrose (table sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar). Chemically, these are the most basic forms of carbohydrates, providing a quick source of energy. Simple carbs are the added sugar in candy and soft drinks and the natural sugar in fruit and milk. Your body uses both sugars for energy, but the natural sources contain other nutrients that benefit your health.
Complex carbohydrates: Complex carbohydrates have a more complicated chemical structure and take longer to digest, releasing energy more slowly. Whole grain bread, sweet potatoes, and rolled oats are examples of complex carbs that provide health-promoting nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, and iron. White bread, french fries, and sugary cereal are processed complex carbs that come with added sugar, unhealthy fat, or too much sodium. Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate naturally found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Fiber slows down digestion so you feel full longer.
Determining Your Daily Carb Intake
You can estimate your daily carb intake for weight loss based on your calorie needs.
Determine your daily calorie needs for weight loss.
Multiply your daily calorie needs by 45% and then 65%.
Divide the number you get in step 2 by four to determine your daily carb needs in grams.
For example, a person who needs 1,800 calories a day to reach their goal weight needs about 200 to 300 grams of carbs per day. If you are looking to follow a lower-carb diet, you may want to play around with the percentage of calories towards each macronutrient that feels best for you. Use food labels or macro tracking apps to monitor and count carbs. Consult with a registered dietitian for a more individualized approach.
Low-Carb vs. Moderate-Carb vs. High-Carb Diets
Many popular weight-loss programs use carbs as a tool to help people reach their weight goals. There are no set guidelines or definitions for what constitutes a low-carb, moderate-carb, or high-carb.
Based on standard guidelines, any diet with less than 45% of calories from carbs is a low-carb plan. Researchers looking to better understand the benefits of varying intakes of carbs on weight and health use the following as a guide:
Very low-carb diet: 50 grams of carbs or less per day
Low-carb diet: 150 grams of carbs or less per day
Moderate-carb diet: 50-60% of calories from carbs
High-carb diet: 70% or more calories from carbs
The ketogenic and Atkins Diet are very low-carb diets, while the South Beach Diet and The Zone diet are closer to the low-carb plans. The Mediterranean and DASH diets are moderate-carb plans and the Ornish diet is an example of a high-carb diet.
Low-carb diets are historically effective for weight loss short-term, but may not work any better than moderate- or high-carb plans in the long run. A 2020 review study compared macronutrient patterns of several popular diet programs for weight loss. Though people lost more weight following the low-carb and moderate-carb plans during the first six months, there was no difference in weight loss between the different diets at 12 months. Finally, the Mediterranean Diet is the only diet that had a reduction of LDL cholesterol and an overall improvement in cardiovascular health at the 12-month follow-up.
“Some people generally find they lose weight more efficiently if they go low-carb,” says Moody. “I often hear people on low-carb diets proclaim that they are rarely hungry and are easily able to control their portions and frequency of eating when they restrict carbs. However, a big drawback of this diet is that, if not properly planned, one could find themselves consuming a lot of saturated fats, which can adversely affect heart health.” Lowering your cab count can mean increasing fat and protein amounts—which can be more satisfying—however, you do need to consider the sources to keep your heart (and waistline) in check.
According to Moody, moderate-carb diets most closely reflect a standard diet and are more sustainable. “As long as calorie goals are met, there aren’t too many drawbacks with this style of diet.” High-carb diets aren't typically recommended for weight loss, however, athletes and active individuals follow high-carb diets to improve athletic performance.
The Importance of Balanced Nutrition
A well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet rich in complex carbs, lean proteins, and moderate in heart-healthy dietary fats is a better approach for sustainable weight loss and better for your overall health. Singling out one nutrient or restricting intake of certain food groups—like carbs—limits your options and can affect your overall nutritional picture.
A balanced eating plan provides the right amount of energy, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals for your body. Focusing on carbs as the key to weight loss may limit your intake of nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and the health benefits they provide.
Monitoring Progress and Adjusting Carb Intake
Self-monitoring is important for losing weight and keeping it off. Use a food tracking app to help you monitor carb intake, paying close attention to your energy and hunger levels. If you're too tired to get through your workout, you may need to up your daily carb intake. Or, if you're starving an hour after every meal, you may need to increase protein intake (lowering carbs or fat to compensate).
Weight loss is a journey and you may hit obstacles along the way. Don’t let the pitfalls and plateaus dictate your course. When you “fall off the wagon” get back on and make adjustments to your plan so it works better for you.
Instead of beating yourself up when your weight loss plateaus, take it as a sign that you need to check back in. Are you eating larger portions, skipping workouts, skimping on sleep? Get back into the habits that helped you reach your earlier goals. Adding more activity to your day may also push you over your weight-loss hump; park at the far end of the lot, walk while you’re on the phone, or invest in a standing desk.
Weight loss is hard and no one method works for all. Consult with a healthcare provider before making changes to your diet and consider consulting with a registered dietitian for a personalized plan.
Read the original article on Verywell Fitness.