Are Low Carb Diets Effective?

orange fillet with broccoli

Long-Term Success of Diets Restricting Carbohydrates

A low-carb diet restricts carbohydrates such as breads, cereals, rice, and starchy vegetables. Low-carb diets also encourage consumption of proteins and fats. The Atkins diet and the Zone diet are two examples of the many low-carb diets.

The Theory Behind Low-Carb Diets

Carbohydrates are known to raise blood sugar levels which then lead the body to release insulin. According to the Mayo Clinic, the theory behind low-carb diets is that insulin causes blood sugar to enter the cell and prevents fat from being broken down. It is believed by proponents of the diets, that the reverse must be true: low carbohydrate intake will result in lower blood sugar and insulin levels which will cause weight loss.

History of Low-Carb Diets

In the 1960s the “Stillman Diet” appeared on the market as a high-protein, low-carb, low-fat diet for weight loss. Other low-carb diets at the time included “The Drinking Man’s Diet” and “The Air Force Diet.” In the 1970s Dr. Robert Atkins published his book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. He claimed success using the diet with his patients. The diet was criticized by the medical community due to studies that linked excess fat and protein with cardiac risks. “The Scarsdale Diet” also got some attention during the 1970s. Dr. David Jenkins created the concept of the glycemic index in the 1980s. It categorizes foods according to their effect on blood sugar. In the 1990s, Dr. Robert Atkins reintroduced his low-carb diet through his book, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. Numerous other low-carb diet books were released during this time (i.e.”The South Beach Diet”) and large numbers of people began dieting the low-carb way despite the medical community’s warnings of the risks.

Some Interesting Facts About Low-Carb Diets

  • There is no standard definition as to what constitutes a low-carb diet. Different low-carb diets subscribe to different carbohydrate level restrictions.
  • Much of the initial weight lost during a low-carb diet is water weight, not fat. By significantly reducing intake of carbohydrates, the body burns glycogen which contains large amounts of water. This causes the body to release significant amounts of water resulting in weight loss. This water weight is easily regained if the dieter returns to a regular diet.
  • It does not appear as though a low-carb diet is any easier to follow on a long-term basis than other restrictive diets. Studies show that, when compared to low-fat diets, the drop-out rates are basically the same for both types of diets.
  • No studies have been conducted for a long enough period of time to show what health risks, if any, there might be over many years from significantly restricting carbohydrates.

The Bottom Line About Low-Carb Diets

If low-carb dieters have the same problem staying on their diet as do people on low-fat or other weight loss diets, it means that low-carb diets are no more effective than other diets. Effectiveness must be measured according to long-term effects. Any diet that consumes fewer calories than are burned causes weight loss. However, ninety percent of diets fail, resulting in the dieter regaining the lost weight plus more. Most people who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for years have the following in common:

  • They exercise regularly using a form of aerobic exercise that fits their lifestyle.
  • Their eating plan is flexible, allowing for all kinds of foods including treats.
  • Their main goal is health rather than just weight and they have realistic weight goals.
  • They focus on a lifetime of health rather than short-term weight goals (such as losing weight by the summer, by Christmas, or for a reunion).
  • They are positive and playful about their weight loss.

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