Should you cut carbs to lose weight?

Ah, the question on everyone’s minds, one that seems to spur endless debate. With the rise of paleo, Whole 30, and even the keto diet, low-carb diets reign supreme in the wellness world right now. Carbohydrates are under massive attack in the weight loss industry, just as fat was a decade ago.

If you’re trying to lose weight, you may be thinking about slashing carbs in an effort to drop those pounds. But, in order to maintain a healthy and thriving relationship with food, another food rule may not be exactly what you need.

Why do some claim that cutting carbs from your diet is essential to losing weight? The notion behind the low-carb diet is that you need to cut carbs in order to burn body fat. When you eat fewer carbs, your body’s insulin levels fall, which is necessary in order to burn fat. But is it essential to cut carbs to successfully lose weight? Does a low-carb diet actually win out over others for weight loss?

Even though they are often marketed as such, diets aren’t one size fits all. And that’s exactly what Christopher Gardner, Director of Nutrition Studies at Stanford Prevention Research Center demonstrated in his comprehensive, year-long study.  

In this study, Gardner and researchers looked at overweight and obese people to see if they would fare better on a low-carb or low-fat diet. Because previous studies have suggested that people are predisposed to be better able to metabolize fat or carbs, the researchers also looked to see if certain genetic markers or insulin response would predict if a participant would fare better on either of the diets.

Participants were split into two groups: “healthy low-fat” and “healthy low-carb.” At first, participants were instructed to limit their carb or fat intake to just 20g a day. After the first two months, the team worked with the participants to make adjustments as necessary, aiming to help the participants reach a balance that they could maintain for the rest of their lives and not drop when the study ended. The researchers helped teach the participants how to create healthy meals, using minimally processed ingredients and whole foods.

What was different about this study in comparison to others that have come before was that unlike many other weight loss trials, no extreme restrictive carb, fat, or caloric limits were set for participants for the majority of the study. Instead, researchers instructed the participants to focus on eating whole, real foods, and to eat as much as they needed to avoid feeling hungry. They were also told not to “game the system;” for example, they were told not to eat a low-fat brownie just because it was low-fat, or to choose a processed bag of low-carb chips even though they were low-carb.

Ultimately, participants learned to listen to their own hunger intuition, and they developed healthier relationships with food throughout the year. At the end of the year-long study, participants consumed fewer calories than they did when they started, but this wasn’t a conscious effort, and they didn’t feel deprived.

whole foods

The results of the study were interesting: those on the low-carb diet lost an average of 13 pounds, while those on the low-fat diet lost an average of 11.7. However, there was immense variability across the two groups. Some dropped upward of 60 pounds, while others gained close to 15 or 20. Both the low-carb and low-fat diets proved extremely comparable in their efficacy in helping people lose weight.

The researchers had also hypothesized that those that exhibited a greater insulin response to sugar might do better on a low carb diet. However, no correlation was found between either genetics or insulin response and the tendency to lose more weight on a specific diet. This finding casts doubt on the idea that some diets should be recommended to people based on their DNA makeup. However, the high level of variability between different participant’s results suggests there are individualistic mechanisms at play that influence a person’s success on a particular diet. Moving forward, the researchers plan on doing a deep-dive into the data to learn exactly what causes such drastic variability in dieting success between individuals, and what biomarkers may indicate what type of diet may work best for an individual.

The takeaway

If there was one thing that this study demonstrated is that ultimately, there is no such thing as a one-size fits all approach for what type of “diet” works best for weight loss. But one thing seems to be universal: the strategy for losing weight across the board is to opt for whole foods, eat less sugar, eat less refined flour and refined carbohydrates, and load up on as much produce as possible.

The key to weight loss is the QUALITY of the foods you eat. Different approaches work for different people, and just because you’re being sold a low carb diet as the best way to lose weight doesn’t mean it is the only way.

This pivotal research indicates that carbs are not evil, and cutting carbs all carbs may not be necessary (or the most effective!) way for you to lose weight. While it might certainly help you lose weight, you could also be missing out on a ton of delicious and nutritious foods for you.  So instead of cutting out all carbs from your diet, focus first on reducing your intake of added sugars and refined grains, and work with a doctor or nutritionist to develop the best dietary approach for you.

Author: Maggie Harriman

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