There is no simple answer to this question – in fact, the amount of carbs you need to lose fat is likely going to be different than the amount of carbs your coworker, training partner, best friend or whomever, needs to lose fat.
Two people can have identical body compositions and activity levels, yet due to individual metabolic variations, one may be able to eat twice as many carbs as the other and still lose fat. This, naturally, can be very frustrating for some people. The only way to know for sure the proper amount of carbs you should eat to lose fat is to experiment and find what works best for you. Still, there are some general rules and guidelines that can at least give you a starting point from which to work.
How Many Carbohydrates Does The Body Need To Survive?
The answer to this question, on a strictly physiologic level, is zero. The body can manufacture glucose from other substances, and although the brain’s preferred fuel is glucose, it can use ketones(the by-products of fatty acid breakdown produced in very low insulin states) when no glucose is available. However, from a practical and performance standpoint, zero carbohydrate nutrition plans are not ideal for the vast majority of people. If you are interested in this kind of diet, there are countless books and articles about them, though I do not recommend following a ketogenic diet.
Do Carbs Or Calories Cause Weight Gain?
Some people believe that it is not calories, but carbohydrates, and your hormonal response to their ingestion (i.e. insulin release), that are responsible for weight gain. They argue that if insulin levels are kept low then fat storage is impossible regardless of the amount of calories consumed. Others believe that a calorie is a calorie and the laws of thermodynamics dictate that if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight.
I think that there is some truth to both arguments and they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Fat loss can be different from “weight loss.” It is theoretically possible to eat fewer calories than you burn but lose muscle tissue and gain body fat, as it is possible (though very difficult) to eat more calories than you burn, gain muscle but lose fat.
As a practical matter, however, it may not matter. What works for you, works for you. If you can get away with stuffing your face with protein and fat without regard for total calories, maintain a low body fat percentage, feel well and have optimal biochemistry (low CRP, high HDL, low triglycerides, etc.), then more power to you.
Most people, however, will find that calories must be controlled to lose fat. (Note: oftentimes, people who go on low carb diets attribute their weight loss to the lack of carbs when in fact it is the total calorie reduction that occurs with carb restriction that is responsible for the weight loss. These people would likely lose the same amount of fat with a modest reduction in carbs and fat, feel better while they are doing it, and have a better chance of keeping it off in the long run.)
Additionally, people generally feel better with at least some carbohydrate in their diets. The body uses stored sugar to fuel high intensity exercise, which should form the foundation of any fat loss exercise plan, so carbohydrates = improved exercise performance.
What Types Of Carbohydrates I Can Eat?
Certain sources of carbohydrates are better at blunting hunger than others. Vegetables and many fruits, with high water and fiber content, contribute to feeling full without providing significant amounts of calories. Other foods, specifically processed carbs like white bread, pasta and sugary candy and cereals pack a strong calorie punch and will likely leave you feeling hungry soon after eating them. Again, though, there is a huge amount of variability from person to person and you must experiment to see which carbs you react well to and which you’d do well avoiding.
Carb Intake Recommendation
If you have diabetes, insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, you will likely feel better eating a more moderate carbohydrate, higher (healthy) fat and protein diet. Because you feel better you will be more likely to stick with it in the long run. If you feel better eating higher amounts of carbs and are still able to lose body fat (and control blood sugar), then by all means do so.
Below are some very general guidelines for fat loss, but remember that everyone is different and certain “carb-sensitive” people may need to severely limit carbs in order to lose fat. In addition, the amount of protein and fat in your diet will also influence the amount of carbs you should be eating per day. Use these are starting points and adjust based on your response:
- Sedentary individuals with insulin resistance: 50-150 grams per day
- Otherwise healthy people looking to lose fat who engage in high intensity exercise: 1-3 grams per pound of body weight (along with 1-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight and 30-40 grams of healthy fat per day)
I recommend starting at the upper end and carefully tracking your intake. If your weight is not coming down appropriately (1-2 pounds per week), then begin reducing your carb intake until it does. Again though, if you feel sluggish or tired eating that much (or that little) carbohydrate, then adjust accordingly.
Most importantly, use common sense, work with someone who knows what they are talking about, and listen to your body.
Fantastic primer for those who are trying to lose weight/fat and are confused about carbs. As you said, there is no right or wrong for every person but this certainly gives some “food for thought”. I’ve never been truly overweight so I’ve never made myself mental by counting every calorie, but I do know that the amount of carbs I eat has a great effect on my fat levels… more so as one ages. Even small portions of processed carbs these days (bread, pasta, sugary drinks, pre-packaged convenience foods, fast foods) become unwanted body fat. I’ve become one of those carb-sensitive people. However, eating natural unprocessed low-GI high-fiber foods really has a positive impact.
What are your thoughts on completely cutting out wheat/gluten, certain grains, dairy, etc.?
Very interesting article. Thank you 😉
You are right there is no simple answer
the best thing people can do is monitor their own progress if they are trying to lose weight, come up with a structured plan say just as an example eating 50grams on rest days and 150grams on training days and adjust depending on wether they are losing or not
Just want to add white rice and white potatoes are not the enemy that everybody makes them out to be
Good article. One question…..when determining grams of carbs and protein is it preferred to use body weight or lean body weight ?
Spot on article
A little confused with recommendations and other poster if this actual or lean body weight. Unless i have mistaken the protein this would mean a 230lb person would be consuming 230 to 460 grams. I would of thought .5 to 1gm lbm would be ideal. Being in australia using kilograms i would use 1 to 2 grams here.
I have been doing the ketogenic diet for almost a year. I have found that when my body has switched into a ketogenic state that I am actually happier, healthier, and my mind is focused. I have hit those walls when performing high intensity workout sessions.
What is your opinion on periodic carb refeeds?
How should I work those into my lifestyle/diet?
I just wrote a long reply but got an error when I tried to submit. I have to see patients now and will try to put it back up later. Sorry.
Thanks for all the feedback. As far as LBM vs. total weight, as usual there is no right answer. If you use LBM I would just start on the higher end of the range. If using weight, then the lower end makes sense. But everyone is different which is why I don’t love general recommendations. If you’re not sure what to do, I would seek the advice of a professional who specializes in nutrition.
I did Adkins about 10 years ago and lost a good amount of weight, but to me, a low carb lifestyle (less than 50 grams a day) was unsustainable. The weight came back with a vengeance +15%. I have since lost most of the weight I had gained just by counting calories, so I am curious on the topic since it worked so well/fast for me before, but hesitant as I have to be careful that I don’t go down that rebound road again.
Is there a test a Dr. can do to test carb sensitivity that would give me a baseline for daily carb ingestion?
Is your range of carbs you gave also inclusive of fiber?
Lastly, if you are dropping carbs, would you increase one of the other macronutrients to keep at a minimum calorie level?
Your story is a pretty common one with Atkins. A 3-hour oral glucose tolerance test can give you some idea of carb sensitivity but the best approach is still experimentation to see what works best for you.
Yes, the carb ranges include fiber. I am not a fan of using “net carbs.”
If you do decide to limit carbs, you may or may not want to increase the amount of calories from fat and/or protein. It really depends on how many calories you are currently eating. If your calories are already low, then I would recommend bumping protein to offset the reduction of carbs and mitigate any metabolic slowdown from caloric reduction.
I hope this helps.
Will eating carbs at night make you gain weight? I’ve been told to cut carbs and bump up good fats at night.
Hey Andy, that’s a really great question. The truth is – eating carbs at night will not necessarily cause you to gain weight as long as you’re not eating more calories than you burn. When it comes to maintaining or changing your weight, calories have the biggest impact (not macronutrients or timing). Some people find that they are more satisfied on a higher fat diet, while others prefer a high carbohydrate approach. You might even find that moderate carb and moderate fat is best for you.
Going back to the topic of carbohydrates at night – there have been studies to suggest that eating carbohydrates mostly at dinner could improve weight loss, decrease body fat, and increase satiety. This strategy was also found to improve blood markers like cholesterol, fasting glucose, and improved insulin sensitivity. Of course, everyone is different. So you need to determine what works best for you.
Keep in mind, we recommend choosing healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as rice, beans, lentils, potatoes, sweet potatoes, oats, and other whole, unprocessed sources of carbohydrates. Whole foods are more nutrient dense, more satiating, are lower in calories than processed and packaged carbs such as chips, crackers, bread, and pasta. Hope that helps!
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor
Thank you, i do alot of reading on weight loss and, you sir are very intelligent, You dont contradict yourself and you have good guidlines. Thank You!!
Thanks for leaving a comment, Chris.
Hi Dr wants me to eat a low carb diet I am doing well feeling brighter – I dont eat at the moment Bread potatoes pasta rice I do eat eggs lean chicken fish turkey very little red meat & a lot of leafy greens I have limited myself to 1000 cals per day but dont know max carbs should be I have a list of 50 veggies with low cals & dont stray .
This is not a life style but I am determined to get weight down – I enjoy the food – can you tell me the aprox carb including veggie count . Thanks Maggie
Hi Maggie, it’s best to consult with your doctor. He or she will be able to tell you the max grams in carbs for you to eat (maybe it’s 50 or 75 grams), then you can determine how many veggies you need. In general, fibrous carbs (broccoli, carrots etc.) help fill you up and keep your carb count low. Good luck!