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Low-Carbohydrate Diets May Be Useless For Weight Loss


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

See this delicious ravioli? This is your enemy, according to many diets. Abramova Elena/Shutterstock

Losing weight is difficult enough as it is, largely thanks to the omnipresence of sugary treats, snacks, dessert-like coffees, and the sheer and uncompromising deliciousness of cheese, to name just a few gastronomic offenders. Unfortunately, we are also bombarded by the media with a new fad diet seemingly every month, and it’s difficult to determine which one may be the most effective.

One of the most persistent diet trends is the low-carbohydrate diet. The hypothesis behind this is that eating too many carbohydrates drives up the body’s insulin levels, which causes the body to retain fat and suppress burning off calories. The key word here is “hypothesis”, as very little about this diet has been conclusively proven to be true, and a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has concluded that this type of diet is almost completely ineffective.


The low-carbohydrate diets generally suggest that you consume the same number of calories you do normally, but replace your carbohydrates, especially if they are refined grains and sugars, with fats or proteins. In order to test this diet's efficacy, the researchers – led by the National Institutes of Health obesity researcher Kevin Hall – managed to find 17 overweight and clinically obese patients that were willing to be confined to a hospital for two months while they were continually monitored by the most cutting-edge health equipment.

For the first month, they were given a diet similar to the one they were having in their normal daily lives, which included plenty of carbohydrates. For the second, they were given a very low-carbohydrate diet that totaled the same amount of calories.

Determining the effectiveness of diets is incredibly difficult, as there are so many additional factors that can affect a person’s ability to burn calories. Do they exercise? What if they spend some days completely sedentary and others running around? What if they don’t stick rigidly to their diet? As a result, many diets are based on nothing more than conjecture and scientific-sounding rhetoric.

Watch it: that oil in the background is coming to ruin your diet. YuliiaHolovchenko/Shutterstock


This study followed what some may call a “gold standard,” in that the diets and exercise of each patient within this admittedly small group of people were both carefully controlled. As a result, their data is some of the most reliable to date on the subject, and they concluded that a low-carbohydrate diet is essentially useless for weight loss.

“We saw daily insulin secretion drop substantially within the first week and stay at a low level,” Hall told Vox. “But we only saw a small transient increase in energy expenditure during the first couple of weeks of the [low-carb] diet, and that essentially vanished by the end of the study.”

So although there is a few weeks’ worth of calorie burn-off that matches what the dieting hypothesis suggests should happen, in the medium-to-long term, the effect disappears. Even when it comes to the initial insulin drop, the patients were only burning off an extra 100 calories per day.

Although a far larger study with far more participants of differing weights will need to be conducted to give more credence to these particular results, this is likely to be the most advanced, extended and carefully controlled experiment of its kind.


Many researchers and dieticians have said for some time that the mathematics behind weight gain or loss is relatively simple to derive. If you burn off more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. Indeed, this study suggests that a calorie is just a calorie, wherever it comes from – and that this basic equation may be the most reliable dieting aid around.

Cakes always win staring competitions. fizkes/Shutterstock

[H/T: Vox]


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