Ultra Low-Carb Dieting is Not the Weight Loss Answer
One of the most common questions I get at my nutrition seminars is “how can I cut carbohydrates out of my life?”
While I hope it would be clear that having a zero carbohydrate diet is not a viable option, there are plenty of diets and weight loss plans that do cut carbohydrate intake to less than 25 grams per day (which usually means that less than 10% of calories come from carbohydrates).
While these diets can produce major weight loss in the short term, ultra-low-carb dieting is not typically sustainable.
Carbohydrates are in Everything
Think about all of the foods that have carbohydrates: grains, legumes (beans and peas), potatoes, dairy and fruit! Cutting down carbohydrate intake to less than 25 grams essentially means the only carbohydrate sources that will fit your diet are non-starchy vegetables (think lettuce, broccoli, and tomatoes).
Not only does this make eating out and living a normal lifestyle nearly impossible, but it ignores what truly causes weight loss: a calorie deficit.
Cutting out carbohydrates, or any other macronutrient for that matter, is not a magic weight loss tool. In fact, a lot of scientific research has shown that having a reasonably lower-fat diet will actually cause greater fat loss than being deprived of carbs.
I asked Stephanie Mull, MS, RD, CSSD, dietitian at the George Washington University Weight Management and Human Performance Lab, to discuss what has allowed her clients to see the most successful weight loss results. Stephanie noted that lower-fat diets consistently deliver greater fat loss results.
According to Stephanie, “if calories are controlled, eating a high-fat diet will displace calories from protein, which supports muscle mass, and from carbohydrates, which are a quick-burning fuel source for our organs and muscles. Once dietary fat is decreased in [most] clients, body fat starts falling. It’s counterintuitive to provide your body with the dietary source of fuel that you are trying to burn off from your own stores.”
Why Low-Fat Diets Work
Essentially, fat is a slow burning fuel source for the body that cannot be utilized quickly during activity, nor can it be used effectively by certain parts of our body as a fuel source, such as the red blood cells (Weisenhorn, et al., 2016). By keeping fat low but maintaining adequate carbohydrates and protein for the body, we ensure a greater supply of energy for activity and every day functions as well as the preservation of muscle during fat loss.
Now, please note, I do not operate my practice or philosophy on absolutes. Yes, most people who carry excess body fat need to reduce their carbohydrate intake, especially from refined sugars. And yes, there are some people who do benefit from a higher fat, ultra-low carbohydrate diet (including patients with unmanaged epilepsy and certain types of cancer) (Schachter, 2017).
However, my clients are generally healthy, physically active individuals looking to decrease body fat and increase muscle mass. For these individuals, the science shows that severe carbohydrate deprivation is difficult to maintain and will lead to decreased performance.
For the majority of my clients, keeping total calories from fat to around 20% will yield better results in the long run than going low-carb. Less active individuals may find that a moderately low carbohydrate diet (perhaps 30% calories from carbohydrates, but not an extremely low level like 10%) is easier to stick with.
The overall answer is that each person is different and it’s important for them to follow a plan that works best for them and their lifestyle.
I welcome any follow-up questions and comments as always. Please feel free to send me a message for further discussion!
Mull, S. (2017, September 1). E-mail interview.
Weisenhorn, E.M.M., van’t Erve, T.J., Riley, N.M., Raife, T.J., & Koon, J.J. (2016). Multi-omics Evidence for Inheritance of Energy Pathways in Red Blood Cells. European Molecular and Cellular Proteomics, 15(12), 3614-3623. doi: 10.1074/mcp.M116.062349
Schachter, S.C., Kossof, E., & Sirven, J. (2017, April 12). Ketogenic diet. Retrieved from: http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/treating-seizures-and-epilepsy/dietary-therapies/ketogenic-diet