The ketogenic or “keto” diet has become one of the most popular diets for weight loss and health improvement. This very low-carb, high-fat diet puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis, where it starts burning fat for fuel instead of carbs.
On a standard keto diet, carb intake is limited to just 20-50 grams per day. This ultra-low carb intake helps drive the process of ketosis. However, within the 20-50 gram range, there is still debate over the optimal daily carb target.
Some keto followers stick to 20-30 grams of net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) for maximum ketosis. Others find they can stay in ketosis with a slightly higher carb intake of around 50 grams. This article reviews whether aiming for 50 grams of carbs daily is likely to be effective and sustainable on a keto diet.
What is Ketosis?
The keto diet aims to put your body into ketosis, which is a natural metabolic state characterized by higher blood ketone levels.
Ketones are produced in the liver from fatty acids. They can be used as an alternative fuel source when glucose (blood sugar) is in short supply.
On a standard higher-carb diet, the body burns glucose for energy. But on keto, carb restriction shifts the body to using fat and ketones instead.
After 2-4 days of drastically keeping carbs low, ketone levels ramp up, blood sugar drops, and most people start experiencing signs that they’re in ketosis. Symptoms may include:
- Bad breath
- Increased urine volume and frequency
- Dry mouth
- Reduced appetite and cravings
- Nausea, digestive discomfort
- Sleep problems
As the body adapts to running on fat and ketones, most of these side effects start to disappear. The goal is to remain in this fat-burning metabolic state while losing weight and improving health.
Why Cut Carbs So Low on Keto?
The main reason carbs need to be restricted so low on keto is because a very low carb intake is needed to drive the process of ketosis.
The fewer carbs you eat, the faster and more efficiently the body can switch to burning fat and enter ketosis.
However, there are a few reasons why super low-carb diets can be unrealistic and unsustainable for some people, especially in the long-term:
- Very low carb diets restrict enjoyment of fruits, starchy veggies, grains and legumes.
- They require diligence and effort to strictly track carb intake.
- Eating out and social gatherings with food involve extra planning.
- Low-carb flu symptoms like fatigue, cramps and poor energy may persist.
- Athletic performance may suffer.
This has led some health experts to recommend a slightly more moderate carb range of up to 50 grams daily for keto diets. This may relieve some of the diet restrictiveness and make keto more sustainable long-term without affecting ketosis too drastically.
Factors That Impact Ketosis
Although going super low in carbs can drive the process of ketosis fastest, a few factors influence how low carb intake needs to be to maintain it. This includes:
- Metabolic Health: People with obesity, insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes tend to need to cut carbs more to reach ketosis.
- Exercise Habits: Regular exercisers can often stay in ketosis at slightly higher carb intakes than sedentary people.
- Carb Quality: Complex carbs high in fiber have less impact on ketosis than refined and sugary carbs.
- Protein Intake: Eating adequate protein is important for feeling full on keto. But too much protein relative to fat intake can hinder ketosis.
- Intermittent Fasting: Going longer between meals and giving the body a break from digestion can allow for slightly higher carb intakes while staying in ketosis.
Considering all these factors, some active individuals and carb-sensitive people may be able to stay in ketosis closer to 50 grams of carbs daily, while others need to stick closer to 20 grams for best results.
Ketosis Occurs at Carb Intakes Below 100 Grams
Although very low carb diets drive ketosis fastest, research confirms that ketosis is likely to occur at carb intakes below around 100 grams per day. However, the degree of ketosis reached will vary.
For example, one study tested the effects of 0, 50 or 100 grams of carbs per day on urinary ketone excretion over 42 days in obese men (1).
Average ketone levels were:
- 0 grams carbs: 119 μmol/day
- 50 grams carbs: 87 μmol/day
- 100 grams carbs: 25 μmol/day
Ketone levels were highest at 0 carbs, moderately elevated at 50 grams, but far lower at 100 grams per day.
Another study compared ketone levels over 12 weeks in obese patients on a calorie-restricted diet with either 41 or 94 grams of carbs per day (2).
The 41-gram group reached higher ketone levels on average (1.0 mmol/L vs. 0.6 mmol/L), although both groups achieved measurable ketosis.
Overall, research suggests that ketosis can occur at 50 grams of carbs or less daily, although it may be lighter and more unstable than with carb intakes of 20 grams.
50 Grams of Carbs Allows for More Vegetables
One of the biggest complaints about keto diets is that non-starchy vegetables have to be tightly restricted.
Unfortunately, most healthy carb sources like fruits, starchy veggies, beans and whole grains are limited on standard keto diets to just 20-30 grams of carbs per day.
Going up to 50 grams daily allows room for a greater quantity and variety of non-starchy vegetables, while still maintaining ketosis.
For example, here are some examples of high-volume non-starchy veggies and their carb counts:
- Broccoli (1 cup/91 grams raw): 6 grams of carbs
- Cucumber (1 cup/104 grams raw): 3 grams of carbs
- Mushrooms (1 cup/70 grams raw): 2 grams of carbs
- Tomatoes (1 cup/149 grams raw): 4 grams of carbs
- Bell peppers (1 cup/149 grams raw): 5 grams of carbs
- Asparagus (1 cup/134 grams raw): 3 grams of carbs
- Carrots (1 cup/128 grams raw): 6 grams of carbs
- Lettuce greens (1 cup/55 grams raw): 1 gram of carbs
Focusing on these low-carb veggies makes it easier to reach a big chunk of 50 grams of carbs per day. However, going much over 50 grams makes it extremely difficult to squeeze in many servings of the lowest carb veggies while keeping total carbs low.
50 Grams Provides Room for More Variety
Another benefit of increasing carbs to around 50 grams is that it leaves room in the diet for small portions of foods that can increase variety, dietary quality and enjoyment of the diet.
Some examples of carb counts for small servings of higher-carb foods:
- Berries (0.5 cups/72 grams): 7 grams of carbs
- Root veggies – potato, sweet potato (0.5 cup/72 grams cooked): 15 grams of carbs
- Legumes (0.5 cup/72 grams cooked): 20 grams of carbs
- Whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice (0.5 cup/72 grams cooked): 15-20 grams of carbs
- Squash (0.5 cup/72 grams cooked): 10 grams of carbs
- Milk (1 cup/244 grams): 12 grams of carbs
Although higher-carb foods need to be consumed in very small portions, having the flexibility to incorporate a serving or two daily can increase satisfaction and nutrient intake, while still maintaining ketosis.
50 Grams May be More Sustainable Long-Term
There is some evidence that following a ketogenic diet with around 50 grams of carbs daily may be more sustainable and easier to stick to in the long run than going super low-carb.
One study followed overweight police officers assigned to a ketogenic diet with no calorie restriction for 12 weeks (3).
One group ate 20 grams of carbs daily and the other had 50 grams of carbs daily.
After 12 weeks, the officers eating 50 grams of carbs experienced (3):
- 2x greater reductions in cravings for sweets, fast food, and carbohydrates
- 54% greater decrease in appetite
- Greater feelings of fullness
Despite the difference in carb intake, weight loss was similar between groups, indicating that the higher-carb group remained in ketosis.
In another study, patients with type 2 diabetes followed a low-calorie keto diet for 56 weeks with either 20-25 grams of carbs daily or 90-100 grams of carbs daily (4).
Both groups experienced improvements in:
- Hemoglobin A1c
- HDL cholesterol
- Blood sugar levels
- Liver function
Again, the moderate and very low-carb groups saw similar results.
Overall, these studies suggest that a slightly more moderate carb restriction in the 50 gram range can still produce ketosis and weight loss, while potentially being more satisfying long term for some people.
50 Grams May Support Exercise Performance
Athletic performance is one area that sometimes suffers on very low carb keto diets.
Some people feel that eating 20-30 grams of carbs leaves them feeling drained and weak during exercise.
Increasing carb intake to around 50 grams allows room for some carbs right before or after workouts to provide muscles with easily accessible fuel.
One study had elite race walkers follow either a standard diet or a keto diet for three weeks. The keto group was given 50 grams of carbs daily.
The keto walkers experienced a significant decrease in exercise economy (or how efficiently the body uses oxygen during exercise) compared to those on the high-carb diet. However, this effect was less pronounced compared to athletes on more restrictive 20-gram keto diets (5).
Although performance may still decline somewhat on 50 grams of carbs, it allows athletes to preserve more strength and energy than lower-carb versions of the keto diet.
50 Grams Doesn’t Work for Everyone
While going up to 50 grams of carbs may be easier to stick to for some people, others find they lose ketosis more quickly at this intake.
Some people rely on very low carb keto diets to help manage conditions like epilepsy, brain cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and type 2 diabetes. For these therapeutic uses, 20 grams of carbs or less per day allows them to reach higher ketone levels most reliably.
Additionally, those with obesity, insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes often have more difficulty entering and maintaining ketosis on higher carb intakes compared to healthy people.
One study found that while healthy people could achieve measurable ketosis at carb intakes around 50 grams per day, those with type 2 diabetes needed to restrict to around 30 grams or less to achieve ketosis (6).
If you don’t feel you’re benefitting or experiencing the signs of ketosis at 50 grams of carbs, then lowering towards 30 or 20 grams may be necessary.
How to Make 50 Grams of Carbs Work for Keto
Here are some tips for successfully sticking to around 50 grams of carbs daily on a ketogenic diet:
- Focus on getting most carbs from non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes and zucchini.
- Save berries, root vegetables and small portions of legumes or grains for after workouts for muscle recovery.
- Limit processed low-carb junk foods. Get carbs from nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Keep high-sugar fruits like bananas and grapes to a minimum.
- Skip the keto breads, baked goods and sweets. They’re easier to overeat.
- Consider intermittent fasting. Time-restricted eating helps compensate for slightly higher carb intakes.
- Test to make sure you’re actually in ketosis. Check urine ketones or blood ketones once or twice a week.
- Adjust your carb intake down towards 30 or 20 grams if needed to resolve symptoms or get back into ketosis.
With the right carb choices and avoiding processed foods and sweets, 50 grams of carbs per day or less can still maintain ketosis for many people.
Sample Menu for 50 Grams of Carbs Daily
Here is a sample menu meeting around 50 grams of net carbs:
- 3 eggs cooked in olive oil
- 1⁄2 avocado
- 1 cup sautéed spinach
- 1 ounce cheddar cheese
- Coffee or tea with heavy cream
Carbs: 9 grams
- Tuna salad made with 1 can tuna, 2 tbsp mayo, mustard, 1 celery stalk, 1 tbsp onion
- Raw veggies like bell pepper strips, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber
- 1 ounce nuts like almonds, pecans or walnuts
- Water infused with lemon or lime
Carbs: 10 grams
- 6 ounces grilled salmon
- 1.5 cups sautéed zucchini
- Side salad with 2 cups lettuce, cucumber, tomato and 1 tbsp dressing
- 1⁄2 cup raspberries
Carbs: 16 grams
- 1 serving pork rinds
- 1 ounce cheese
- 1⁄4 cup hummus with celery sticks
- 1⁄4 cup pumpkin seeds
Carbs: 10 grams
Total carbs: Around 50 grams
As you can see, non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats, proteins and small portions of nuts, seeds and berries help make up the bulk of this menu. An occasional root vegetable or legume portion can also fit into 50 grams of carbs.
The Bottom Line
Research has shown that ketosis is likely to occur with carb intakes under 50 grams, or even under 100 grams in some cases. However, ketosis achieved at 50 grams of carbs or more tends to be lighter and less stable than at 20-30 grams of carbs.
Aiming for around 50 grams of carbs daily may be more manageable and sustainable for some people than super low-carb keto diets. Potential benefits include better vegetable intake, diet satisfaction, exercise performance and long-term compliance.
However, others find they need to stick closer to 20-30 grams to maintain ketosis and receive maximum therapeutic benefit. This is especially true for those with obesity, diabetes or insulin resistance.
Overall, finding the lowest carb intake you can sustainably stick to while maintaining ketosis is the best long-term approach. This “carb tolerance” level varies between individuals.
Testing ketones and finding the sweet spot for carb intake helps ensure you’re remaining in ketosis and optimizing the benefits of the ketogenic diet.