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The Low Carb Diet Plan: Solid Science or Snake Oil?

Author: Cecilia Snyder, MS, RD

Low-carb diet plans… quite possibly one of the most controversial diet plans of all time. Some people argue that eating lots of carbs will increase your risk of diabetes since all carbs break down into sugar, and that it will make losing weight nearly impossible. Others argue that not all carbs are not created equal, and that there’s room in your diet for all types of foods.

Low-carb diet plans like the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, and the Zone diet have been around for decades. But it doesn’t stop there. Even today, new low-carb diet plans like the keto diet continue to make waves. So love it or hate it, it seems like low-carb diets are here to stay.

Nevertheless, just because a diet plan is popular doesn’t mean that it’s backed by science. Let’s explore some of the claims that surround these diets and decide once and for all–are low carb diet plans solid science or are they just snake oil?

Low Carb Diet Plans: What’s their purpose?

Before we get too far into things… what exactly is a low-carb diet anyway? Put simply, there are three main categories of macronutrients that make up our diets. These include fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Each macronutrient provides us with energy and each plays its own unique role in the human body. Despite personal opinions, no one macronutrient has ever proven to be more important than the other for general health and wellbeing.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America (recommendations published by the USDA and HHS every five years to promote health, prevent disease, and help Americans reach and maintain a healthy weight) suggest consuming anywhere between 45 and 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates. For comparison, a low-carb diet might recommend consuming anywhere between 10 and 25% of calories from carbohydrates each day, and sometimes even less than that… but why?

Well, it’s mostly due to a theory about the role that the hormone insulin plays in carbohydrate metabolism. Each time your body metabolizes a carbohydrate you’ve consumed, it releases insulin. Because the hormone insulin induces a fat-storing state in the body, some research suggests that having lower insulin levels in the body improves metabolic function which in turn leads to greater weight loss. Basically, less carbs = less insulin = more weight loss.

But it’s important to remember that this is only a theory. And it’s not the only theory about low-carb diet plans. Other researchers credit the fact that protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates, and so it’s easier to stay in a calorie deficit when you’re eating more of those foods. The big takeaway here is that… no one really knows yet exactly why low-carb diet pans seem to help with weight loss. Chances are that it’s a combination of many factors!   

Low Carb Diet Plans: Do they really work for weight loss?

Here’s the thing about theories though–a theory isn’t much more than an idea until science and experimentation can either prove or disprove it. So where does the research stand on low-carb diet plans? Well, unfortunately the verdict is still out.

Some research supports the theory that low-carb diets can lead to quicker weight loss. Like this 2003 randomized trial that found participants following a low-carb diet plan lost 4% more weight in the first six months than participants eating the same amount of calories on a conventional diet plan. Or like this 2015 randomized trial that found a low-carb diet not only helped with weight loss, but also helped improve lipid profiles, blood glucose measures, and medication requirements for individuals with type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, some research contradicts these findings. This 2009 comparison of diets found that a reduction in calories and a commitment to sticking with your diet (whether it was low-carb, low-fat, or high-protein) was more powerful to weight loss than the individual type of macronutrient that you were focused on. And remember that 2003 trial I mentioned earlier? Well it turns out that even though a low-carb diet helped with weight loss initially, by the time the participants reach the one year mark, their weight loss was no more significant than any of the other groups in the study.

I’m sensing a trend here… and it smells like sustainability.  

Low Carb Diet Plans: Here’s what you’re missing!

While a low-carb diet plan might help jump start your weight loss, it might not be the type of diet plan that is going to help you keep the weight off for good. Let’s face it… most of us love carbs. And it’s hard to avoid them completely forever. Plus, they have some really important functions in the body. Carbohydrates are a great source of energy for our brains and our bodies, they’re the only foods that are jam-packed with fiber, and carbohydrates are some of the most nutrient-dense foods out there! Think of fruits, veggies, and whole grains!

So rather than restricting yourself from all of that carbohydrate goodness (which likely won’t last in the long run), why not find a way to work with carbohydrates, enjoy them in moderation, and lose weight all at the same time? Maybe you’re feeling like that’s a daunting task. Maybe you’ve got no idea where to get started. Or maybe you’re worried that you simply can’t have carbs without overdoing it. Well worry no more! With Noom, you can learn to do all of this and more.

Noom: The last diet plan you’ll ever need!

At Noom, we’ll encourage you to learn about and explore many different eating styles. And we definitely won’t tell you that one is right or wrong, or that one is better than the other. Instead, we’ll constantly remind you of the saying “different strokes for different folks!” And we’ll provide you with a solid set of tools that you can use to help determine for yourself which type of diet helps you lose weight, and which type of diet feels like the one you could stick with forever.  Don’t let a fear of carbs keep you from missing out on discovering your own personal food system that is enjoyable, sustainable, and supportive of your weight loss goals all at the same time. Sign up for Noom today, and get started learning how to focus on the quality of your carbs, rather than stressing about the quantity.