What Science Says About a Low-Carb Diet

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition
low carb diet

In the modern weight loss world, “carb” is definitely a four-letter word. Many different diets have many different strategies for slicing and dicing them. However, many agree that cutting out carbs and following a low carb diet will help you lose weight.

And no wonder: The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report states that as Americans have become more obese, the biggest change in their diets has been an increase in carbohydrates.

This isn’t brand-new advice, though. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association indicates that low-carbohydrate diets were advocated as far back as 150 years ago. In the 1970s, they exploded in popularity.

But is it good advice? Some past popular low-carb diets did not include peer-reviewed science about their safety or efficacy. However, scientists have studied low-carb diets for decades now. Here’s what their results say about the success and safety of dieting—and living—a low-carb life.

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What qualifies as “low-carb,” anyway?

low carb diet

Because there are so many different weight loss strategies tied to cutting carbs, pinning down what “counts” as low-carb can be tricky. Plans like the ketogenic diet prescribe fewer than 50 grams per day of carbohydrates, while other successful plans offer up to 140 grams daily, says The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that a low-carb diet ranges from 50 grams to 150 grams of carbohydrates per day. They also explain that all of these lower carb approaches have a similar goal; directing the body away from storing energy as fat and instead, using the body’s fat stores for fuel.

Do low-carb diets work?

low carb diet

This is the most important question. And the answer is yes: In some studies, low-carb diets produce more initial weight loss than low fat and other diets. In a study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, obese men and women on a low-carb diet lost four percent more weight in the first six months than those on a “conventional” diet. In the same journal, another study found that severely obese participants on a low-carb diet lost more weight in six months than those on a low calorie and low fat diet.

In the long-term, though, low-carb diets seem to work about the same as other approaches. In the study above where low-carb was four percent better, the differences in weight loss after a year was not significant. In the journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, a review of 53 studies found that low-carb diets were slightly better than low fat diets in the long run. However, the overall difference in weight loss was less than three pounds.

The main factor, as with any weight loss program, is sticking to the plan. Plans with very low amounts of carbs (less than 50 grams per day) might work better for losing weight. However, adherence to these plans in the long-term may be low, according to a study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Low-carb plans with slightly more carbs may work better for more dieters because it’s a plan they enjoy and can stick to.

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Are there any downsides to low-carb diets?

low carb diet

Low-carb diets can lead to decreased triglyceride levels and higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, says the journal Nutrition. But they may also increase “bad” LDL cholesterol. These diets may also leave dieters without some key phytochemicals and micronutrients—things that your body needs to protect you from cancer and other diseases. However, the journal also explains that moderate reduced-carbohydrate approaches that allow good-quality carbs, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other negative implications.

Are low-carb diets safe in the long-term?

low carb diet

It depends on how low-carb you go. According the European Society of Cardiology, living an extreme low-carb lifestyle can actually be dangerous to your overall longevity. They explain that in a study, scientists found that dieters who had a lower intake of carbs were at an increased risk for death compared to those who had a higher carb intake. Those who had the lowest carb intake increased their risk of early death by 32 percent.

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