Do Low Carb Diets Really Provide Better Weight Loss?


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Ketogenic diets are one of the hottest trends in wellness right now. This past year, I even wrote a keto cookbook. In fact, they have become so popular, that many variations of low carb diets are currently spearheading their way into the mainstream. While any focus on a healthier way of eating should be viewed as a positive, rather than a negative – the question remains: are carbohydrates really so bad? There is, of course – a complex scientific answer to this question.

First, we must look at the research. What does it say, what does it not say, and were the methods used to extract these conclusions properly conducted? Secondly – is there conclusive scientific evidence that the type of carbohydrates ingested, makes a difference? Third – is it possible that there is significant sensationalism around keto diets, which may tend to cloud the actual scientific data. Which in turn may be used to support their popularity? Lastly, is a Paleo Diet® actually worse for weight loss than a keto diet – or are there significant benefits to both approaches

To answer these questions, we must do a deep dive into the research of low carbohydrate diets. The newest study to gain widespread attention, focused only on 164 adults – not exactly a large enough sample pool, to say the least. While the media is quick to write attention grabbing headlines (i.e. “new study shows that low carb diets are better for weight loss”) the data rarely – if ever – supports these dramatic conclusions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

This study is no different. While the results did show good outcomes for people following a low carbohydrate diet – the study did not come close to proving that all carbohydrate intake is bad. It also did not show that a diet filled with healthy carbohydrates cannot be just as good (if not better) for sustained weight loss. As has been shown in numerous scientific studies, higher carbohydrate diets consistently have better long-term success in terms of compliance (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20). In simpler terms, this means that those eating more carbohydrates have a much easier time adhering to a dietary protocol, over the course of years of eating.

This should not be shocking. While keto (and other low carb diets) do typically result in some short-term weight loss – this is sometimes just water weight. Secondly, almost without fail, people do eventually return to consuming carbohydrates (though sometimes it is in a diminished volume). Subsequently, they often do gain back the weight they may have lost (21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30). Gary Taubes did an excellent job of analyzing and synthesizing nearly a century’s worth of research on this very topic, in his scientific tome Good Calories, Bad Calories.

A different study from earlier this year, showed that a low-carb diet and a low-fat diet both provided nearly identical results for dieters. This study followed 600 people over the course of a year and showed predictable results. The main takeaway from the sum of these studies is the conclusion that limiting sugar and eating high quality nutrient dense foods – a central tenant of The Paleo Diet – is the best strategy for long term weight loss (31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40).

This means vegetables are the best foods to eat, along with high quality proteins, and anti-inflammatory fats. When it comes to a healthy diet (and especially fat loss) – the body’s delicate biochemistry and neurology must be prioritized. What foods provide the best hormonal response, along with limiting cravings and supporting brain health? Over and over again – the scientific research has pointed to the foods consumed when following a Paleo Diet (41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50).

Another interesting aspect of these studies – they have highly variable results. For example, in the aforementioned study – one person lost a miraculous 60 pounds – while another gained 20. This shows the genetic variability inherent in all populations. It also illustrates that one specific diet is never going to be the solution for the entire population (51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60).

Controlling leptin, ghrelin, blood sugar, and limiting consumption of empty calories – are all cornerstones of any healthy dietary approach. This is because scientific data has shown that these elements all quickly lead to rapid weight gain, if not properly controlled (61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70). One fascinating study even showed that by modulating actual dopamine receptors (in this case, specifically the D2 receptors) – binge eating could be almost completely eliminated. This links in with other fascinating studies, which show that processed foods (like cookies) – may be as psychologically rewarding as hard drugs, like cocaine. It may appear shocking at first, but once the underlying neuronal circuitry is understood, there is truthfully very little difference between how the brain responds to these over-powering stimuli (71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80).

So, is a high carb/low fat diet the holy grail to weight loss, or is the answer consuming no carbohydrates at all? As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Moderate carbohydrate consumption (like the amount consumed in a healthy, properly implemented Paleo Diet) – seems to have the best long-term results (81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90). This is not to say that low carbohydrate diets do not have their benefits – they do. But as Dr. Cordain has rightly pointed out, there can also be significant issues that may arise in long term implementations of ketogenic diets (91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100).

In summary – neither approach is wrong, but carbohydrates (especially natural, low sugar forms) – are not bad. In fact, you will usually become very deficient in potassium, very quickly, if you do not consume at least some healthy carbohydrates. Of course, common sense wisdom like this (backed by strong science) – does not sell nearly as well as headlines like ‘lose 20 pounds quickly with the keto diet!’.

High quality protein, healthy fats, and low sugar carbohydrate consumption is really all you need to prioritize, to have a perfectly healthy diet. This is a simple, easy-to-remember paradigm, and it is applicable to anyone – no matter your age or gender. As always – don’t believe the hype. Carbohydrates won’t kill you, or absolutely cause you to gain weight. Sticking to whole, natural carbohydrates (which are low in sugar) is the best approach to a healthy diet. You can certainly experiment with a ketogenic diet, but it is not the only option for sustainable weight loss. For more reading on the fascinating topic of ketogenic diets, please read Dr. Cordain’s excellent piece.

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“3” Comments

  1. Very informative post! Can we say the difference between Keto diet and other Low-carb diet is Keto diet is more strict with the carbs than other low carb diet, such as Atkins?

    People get confused about all the different terms and various weight loss program popping up every day. We do need some more non-bias websites like this one to clear the path.
    https://gorgeousyouamazinglife.com

    • Hi Chrystal, thanks for your feedback! We really appreciate it. Another important difference we’ll point out is that while the Paleo Diet is lower carbohydrate than the western diet, our focus isn’t on macronutrient ratios. If you tell someone just to eat low-carb, they may start eating sticks of butter and think it’s healthy. Our focus is on the foods that we should eat (such as fresh vegetables and fish) and the foods we should eat (such as refined grains.)

  2. Thank you so much Casey for a great summary. I have been both a practitioner and professional promoter of Cordain’s Paleo Diet for some 2 decades.
    As you state in terms of NUTRIENTS in your conclusion:
    ‘High quality protein, healthy fats, and low sugar carbohydrate consumption is really all you need to prioritize, to have a perfectly healthy diet.’
    In practical terms of what FOODS to eat, I imagine this would therefore mean [as per Cordain’s Paleo diet] lots of non-starchy vegetables on the plate which, among other nutrients, provided baseline non-sugary carb; minimally processed flesh from non-farmed or as free-range as possible animals to provide mainly protein but also some healthy fat; to which many would add treenuts for both healthy protein and healthy fat; quality controlled olive oil [fat] for dressing and cooking; lower glycemic index fruits as preferred; and of course pro rata water depending on ambient weather and activity.
    As I see it, the main distinction between a lower carb program and a standard Cordain Paleo Diet seems to be less fruit, which in any case is now treated by Cordain with a caveat for those who are affected actually or potentially by elements of the ‘metabolic syndrome’. In this sense, perhaps lower carb and even ketogenic programs are but a healthy extension of a Cordain-derived Paleo Diet.

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