The Truth About Low Carb Diets and Long-Term Weight Loss


by Nadia Bashir May 16, 2018

Low carb diets have become popular in recent decades, particularly among people who want to lose weight. Although there are many types of low carb diets, they all share two characteristics:

  • They advocate avoiding refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and white bread, as much as possible
  • They’re all connected to misleading claims related to weight loss

What we’re told about low carb diets

The supposed key benefit of low carb diets is that they promote weight loss. These diets advocate that by reducing carbs, it’s possible to lose weight and achieve a healthier body. As a result, these diets have made people believe that all carbohydrates are bad for them (even though some carbohydrates are, in fact, healthy).

Low carb diets frame all carbs as unhealthy because food companies have simplified the messaging in marketing campaigns about low carb diets. After all, if the message seems simple and easy, it should make the promise of weight loss by low carb diets seem easy too.

This simplified messaging is similar to the simplified campaigns that food companies ran to promote low fat diets in the 1970s. Even today, food companies run ads that frame unhealthy foods as healthy options by labelling them as “low fat” and “99% fat free.” The message these companies try to convey is that eating less fat will make people less fat. This message is oversimplified and, therefore, inaccurate. But because it seems simple, it’s effective. Food companies are now using the same strategies to promote products as “low carb” and “carb free.”

What low carb diets actually do to your body

People believe in the low carb diet because it produces rapid initial weight loss. Once they cut out the carbs, they shed pounds quickly. What people don’t realize, however, is that this initial weight loss is nothing more than a decrease in water weight.

Remember that the abbreviation “carbs” comes from the full term “carbohydrates.” Notice the “hydrates” in this word? This isn’t a coincidence. “Hydrates” describes the binding of water molecules. Carbohydrates have their name because they bind to water. As a result, when you reduce your carb intake, there aren’t as many molecules in your body for water to bind to. So what happens? You excrete water, which produces the drop in water weight.

Why low carb diets limit long-term weight loss

Cutting carbs from your diet may help you lose weight initially. But it can make it harder for you to lose weight over the long term. Why? Because most people who adopt low carb diets end up cutting healthy carbs out of their diet too. And when they do this, they reduce their energy and, therefore, their ability to exercise effectively.

You need carbs to exercise efficiently because your body uses carbs as a source of energy. During rest, 70% of your energy comes from burning fat whereas 30% comes from burning carbs. But when you start exercising, this ratio flips. In other words, 30% of your energy comes from burning fat and 70% comes from burning carbs. Why does your body do this? Because it can break down carbs faster than it can break down fats.

If you don’t eat enough carbs before a workout, you may not exercise as well and burn enough calories because your body doesn’t have the energy it needs to sustain a high-performance workout. Restricting your carb intake while exercising regularly can also lead to overeating to compensate for low energy.

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Nadia Bashir
Nadia Bashir

Author

Nadia is the Founder of Inpression Editing. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and has expertise in research, health care, and psychology. She has been interviewed by well-known organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation and the National Post. She makes a mean gluten-free cinnamon—pecan bread and loves a good mint lemonade.



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