Do Carb-Restricted Diets Impair Memory?

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Low Carbohydrate Diets May Be Bad for the Brain

Do low carb diets impair memory? Carb-restricted diets were once the rage, and although the enthusiasm for them has waned from the days of the Atkins craze, people are still concerned about the types of carbohydrates they’re eating. Low carbohydrate diets are effective for weight loss, but, according to research, there’s also concern that not consuming enough carbs could impair memory.

Can Carb-Restricted Diets Cause Memory Impairment?

According to a study published in the journal Appetite, there’s good reason to reconsider carb-restricted diets. When researchers placed 19 women on a low carb diet consisting of 20 grams of carbs per day, their performance on memory tests declined as did their reaction times. Even more telling, when they added carbohydrates back into their diet, memory performance improved.

When these women were compared to a group of similar women placed on a low calorie diet, the low calorie dieters outperformed the carb-restricted eaters on memory tests – although the low carb dieters had sharper attention skills.

Why Would Carbohydrate Restriction Impair Memory?

This result isn’t surprising when one considers how the brain operates. While the rest of the body can use fats and proteins as fuel sources, the brain is dependent upon glucose for energy. On top of that, the brain is quite sensitive to insufficient levels of glucose. When there isn’t enough to adequately supply the brain, the liver produces ketone bodies from the breakdown of fat – which the brain uses as an alternative energy source.

Some carbohydrate restricters depend on ketone bodies to fuel their brain since they’re not taking in enough carbohydrates. Ketone bodies aren’t the brains preferred fuel source, so it’s not surprising that memory skills suffer.

Most People Don’t Need a Carb-Restricted Diet to Lose Weight

Low carbohydrate diets are popular because they cause quick weight loss – but it’s deceiving since most of the initial weight loss comes from water loss as glycogen levels are depleted. This fast weight loss reinforces in people’s mind that a carb-restricted diet is better than a low-fat one. A recent study showed that people lose weight faster on a low-carb diet, but were less likely to maintain their weight than people who followed a low-fat diet.

The Bottom Line?

Restricting carbs too much could impair memory and there’s little evidence that low carbohydrate diets work better for weight loss in the long term. Consider the benefits and the risk of memory problems before choosing a carb-restricted diet.

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