Weight loss is all about creating an energy imbalance. You want to be taking in less energy than you are using.
Low carb diets are one way of doing this and there is a lot of science backing them up.
But, does a low carb diet work for everyone?
After all, this diet approach is a departure from the normal nutrition advice we are given – and involves eating more fat and more protein than you might expect to on a diet.
The Science Behind Low Carb Diets
There has been a lot of research into low fat and low carb diets.
After all, most diets will try to limit fat, carbs or calories in some way.
Because of this research, we have a whole lot of proof that low carb diets are a good option.
Not only do they lead to significant weight loss, but they have even been associated with some other health benefits.
For example, one study compared low carb to low fat diets across a 12-month period.
They found that participants following the low carb diet lost significantly more weight in the first 3 months and the first 6 months than those on the low-fat diet.
The differences in weight were non-significant at the 12-month mark (1).
This outcome indicates that low carb diets can result in more weight loss early on, but lead to similar overall weight loss in the long-term.
That suggests that low-carb diets are at least as effective as low-fat diets for weight loss.
At the same time, many people may find that losing more weight early on helps them to stay motivated. That may make people more likely to stay on the diet.
A second study looked at similar outcomes across a year and found that the differences were not statistically significant, although the low-carb group did appear to lose more weight (2).
Another study found a similar outcome, with the low carb group losing significantly more weight across the entire study (3).
That study only ran for six months, so it isn’t possible to tell whether the observed effects would have been the same after a year or not.
A 24-week study also found that low carb participants lost more weight, although, in that case, the results weren’t statistically significant (4).
A 12-week study in adolescents looked at weight loss in low-carb and low-fat treatments. In both cases, the participants were not told to restrict their calories.
The low-carb group lost significantly more weight than the low-fat group in that study (more than twice as much weight loss) (5).
All of these studies support the idea that low-carb diets are at least as good as low-fat ones for weight loss, and there are many more studies with similar outcomes that I haven’t examined in detail (e.g. 6,7,8).
In many cases, the observed health benefits were only present for low carb diets (and not for low-fat ones), or they were stronger in the low carb diets.
Following a Diet
It seems like everyone is looking for an effective way to lose weight, and there are so many different diets out there to help.
With all that interest in weight loss, you would think that people find diets, follow them and lose the weight.
But, losing weight is hard.
Compliance to any diet is difficult, for a wide range of reason.
For example, people often have an emotional attachment to food and turn to it when there is a crisis in their life or when they are emotional.
After all, a tub of ice cream or a bag of cookies goes hand-in-hand with a breakup.
This means that no matter how hard people try, they often end up reverting to their old eating patterns.
Another factor is food addiction and the strong cravings that people get for food that they shouldn’t be eating.
There is also lifestyle to consider.
If you have friends who like going out for meals or like fast food, the social pressure can make losing weight that much harder.
And I’ve only listed a few factors that make following a diet hard.
Successful weight loss is really about changing your lifestyle in a way that works for you.
For some people, that change might be a low carb approach, for others, it might be something different.
Following a Low Carb Diet
There is this underlying assumption that low carb diets are harder to follow than low-fat diets.
This assumption might be because low carb diets are different than what people normally follow. For many people, this means that following a low carb diet might cause a dramatic change in their lifestyle and eating patterns.
But, at the same time, low carb diets have a major advantage.
With a low carb diet, you’re consuming more fat, more protein and less sugar than a conventional diet or a low-fat diet.
This helps to get around one of the worst parts of dieting – hunger.
Typically, diets that are high in protein tend to reduce hunger.
This means that you will often naturally eat less without even intending to.
That’s a major advantage if you’re trying to lose weight.
That pattern can actually make a low carb diet easier to follow than other approaches.
Does a Low Carb Diet Work for Everyone?
With all the evidence supporting them, it seems like a low carb diet should work for everyone, especially for people that struggle with weight loss.
Yet, as people progress with the diet, many do end up giving up and falling back to their old eating habits.
For example, one study comparing low fat and low carb diets found that 75% of participants completed the low carb diet intervention, which ran for 13 weeks (14).
That outcome was for a relatively short intervention.
If the same people were followed over six months or more, it’s likely that many more of them would drop out.
However, this isn’t unique to low carb diets,
As I mentioned above, all diets are hard to follow and a low carb diet is no exception.
That shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss the diet.
As for the question, does a low carb diet work for everyone, the simple answer is really no.
There isn’t a single diet type that will work for everyone.
People are different in very many ways, both physically and mentally. So, a diet that works amazingly well for one person can be completely useless for someone else.
A low carb diet can be a dramatic change, especially if you really enjoy foods like bread and pasta.
For some people, a low carb diet can have negative impacts on their mood although this certainly isn’t true for everyone.
People Who Should Avoid a Low Carb Diet
Carbohydrates are an important nutrient, just like fat is.
Because of this, there are some specific people who should be very careful about going on a low carb diet.
One group is pregnant women.
There is some potential for too much protein during pregnancy can have negative impacts on the baby. However, it is worth noting that having too little protein can cause just as many issues (15).
Pregnant women should take advice from their physician about their diet approaches, including the levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates.
The same thing is also true for people with significant diseases or who are on medications.
People vary so much from one another, which does mean that the impacts of a low carb diet do vary as well.
A healthcare professional can help you to be certain that your body is responding appropriately and that there aren’t any issues.
This is actually true for all significant changes in diet, exercise and even lifestyle.
Finally, athletes may also find a low carb diet to be a bad choice.
Some athletes may find that a low carb diet leaves them with little energy and endurance.
Again, this is a very individual thing, and some athletes do perform well on low carb diets.
The Type of Diet Matters
I’ve been talking about low carb diets in a very general sense, but there is a huge amount of variation.
For example, diets like the Atkins diet are extreme examples of low carb diets. That approach requires a dramatic change and involves almost completely avoiding carbs.
The radical nature of that change can leave many people feeling bad, especially early on.
After all, many high carb foods are also comfort foods.
You can adjust to an extreme low carb diet, and many people do find that they get easier over time.
On the other hand, many low carb diets are less extreme.
For example, some people might follow a calorie restricted diet, where they choose fat over carbs as much as possible – but might still consume things like bread and pasta on occasion.
As you can imagine, that approach is going to be less hard on the body and would be easier for most people to follow.
Personally, I find the extreme forms of low carb diets to be a bit concerning, although they do seem to work for some people.
On the other hand, the less extreme ones can really be effective and they don’t torture your body at all.
After all, we do still need some carbs, regardless of what diet we happen to be following.
It’s also worth pointing out that the research on low-carb versus low-fat diets has considered a wide range of different variations of those two diets.
For example, the studies often vary in what percentage of calories come from carbs or fat.
Likewise, some studies ensure that both diets provide the same calories while others do not.
This reinforces the idea that people can choose low carb diets that suit their own needs.
Carbs and Fat
There is a huge amount of debate about carbs and fat, especially among the general public.
I’ve seen a lot of people and blogs who are very strongly on one side or the other, arguing that one diet type is amazing and the other dangerous.
This debate is frustrating because it is overblown and people often aren’t looking at the right things.
At the end of the day, though, both carbohydrates and fats are sources of energy, and neither of them is inherently good or evil.
Additionally, each group is complex. For example, some types of fat are healthier than others, and the same is certainly true for carbohydrates.
Likewise, there are examples of really healthy and nutritious food that falls under a low carb diet, and similar examples for a low-fat diet.
Whatever diet approach you take, the idea is to pick one that works for you and works for your lifestyle.
There are so many options out there, and some of them might be a natural fit and others simply won’t be.
Low carb diets are often overlooked because people assume that they aren’t healthy or mightn’t be safe.
But, the reality is that they can be a very effective diet type.
This diet approach may also be a great approach for you if other types of diet simply aren’t working.