The Atkins diet first appeared in 1989, telling us that the way to stay healthy and lose weight was to cut down on carbs and eat more meat instead. While it has since been classed as a pseudoscientific fad diet, and even dangerous, many people today think cutting carbs is the way to stay in shape.
However, we need carbohydrates to function, and a massive new study published in The Lancet: Public Health only reiterates this. It found that if you eat particularly high or low amounts of carbs, you’re at a higher risk of dying sooner. Therefore, eating a moderate amount of carbohydrates – like pasta, potatoes, and bread – is the healthiest option. Cutting down on carbs can make you lose weight quickly, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.
After all, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Every single cell needs this fuel to function, particularly the ones in your brain. Carbs provide immediate energy, as well as stored energy to be used later, helping to preserve important muscle that starts to be digested when energy levels drop too low.
To conduct their research, the scientists studied 15,428 people aged 45 to 64 from four US communities with a range of backgrounds. They were all participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study and had normal calorie intakes. The researchers then looked at whether the carb intakes of these people, reported through questionnaires, had any connection to mortality risk.
Research leader Dr Sara Deidelmann told The Guardian that the researchers had published a significant body of work “to thoroughly answer a question and not simply provide just one piece of the picture.”
Overall, the team found that having a diet comprising 50-55 percent carbohydrate was associated with minimal mortality risk. Those with diets that were more than 70 percent or less than 40 percent carb had the highest risk.
Fifty-year-olds with a moderate-carb diet tended to get another 33 years of life – one year longer than those on high-carb diets and four years longer than those on low-carb ones.
However, the team also found that what you replace carbs with on a low-carb diet can make all the difference. They discovered that replacing carbs with animal-derived proteins and fats, like meat, eggs, and butter, increased mortality risk, but replacing them with plant-derived fats and proteins had the opposite effect. These include foods like nuts, avocados, wholegrain breads, and lentils.
And, if you do eat carbs, choosing the right ones is really important. Avoid those high in refined sugar like cakes and cookies, and swap “white” carbs like white bread and rice for wholegrain alternatives and brown rice. Foods like sweet potatoes, oats, and quinoa are also great healthy carbs that will give you lots of energy.
So, avoid Atkins and the keto diet and keep eating carbs, particularly wholegrain ones. But if you really want to cut down, make sure to replace them with lots of plant-based alternatives, don't just eat loads of meat.