What is more effective for weightloss: low-fat or low-carb?
These days fat is fashionable – on your plate, not Reddit – while carbs find themselves propping up the table of waistline-friendly ingredients. This fat-friendly school of thought was bolstered recently by the snappily named ‘carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis of obesity’, which suggests low-carb diets allow you to harness the power of decreased insulin levels, leading you to shed weight due to faster fat oxidation.
The most recent recent research, however, would have you throw out this theory and return to the days of margarine and cutting fat off your bacon. The heathens.
The new study, published in the journalCell Metabolism, has been heralded as proof we were right all along and, fresh out of jail, fat should be put back on the no-fry list. But, hey, confusing and controversial is a great way to sell papers, right? (Remember when researchers suggested high-protein diets were as deadly as smoking?) Thankfully, the guys at Examine.com have gone through this study with a fine toothcomb and, somehwat unsurprisingly, found the headlines don’t quite live up to the hype.
The study involved locking away 19 obese volunteers in a metabolic unit (where scientists keep an eye on medical guinea pigs 24hrs a day) and reduced either the carb or fat content of their diets to slash 800kcals. After six days results showed that, although carbohydrate restriction led to sustained increases in fat oxidation and a loss of 53g/day of body fat, the fat restriction diet led to increased fat loss of around 89g/day.
Initially this looks like a solid win for low-fat reactionaries and a heavy blow for low-carb converts. But dig a little deeper and the grease-free veneer begins to crack.
The varying energy density between carbs and fat means carb levels ended up being 352 grams for Restricted Fat versus 140 for Restricted Carb, and the fat levels 17 versus 108. “In other words, ‘moderately lower carb than typical diets’ versus ‘oh my goodness I can count my fat gram intake on my fingers and toes!’” says Examine’s Kamal Patel. This means that while the results correctly represent a low-fat diet they don’t do a real-life 100-gram-and-under low carb diet (or ketogenic diet) justice.
In fact, the study authors even wrote: “Very low carbohydrate diets were predicted to result in fat losses comparable to low fat diets.” So, if the confines of the study allowed researchers to reduce carbs to a similar level of fat, the diets would have actually seen similar weight loss. “That makes those ‘New Study Shows Low-Carb Failure!’ headlines sound a bit silly,” says Patel. We couldn’t agree more.
(Plus, is six days really long enough to draw long-term conclusions about the efficacy of a diet? Probably not.)
In Patel’s opinion both diets have the potential to be effective, but he concludes: “In the long-run, the choice between restricting fat or restricting carbs to achieve a caloric deficit may come down to one thing: diet adherence.” Take both of these systems out of the metabolic unit, into the real world and it becomes easier to see which is more effective. Research suggests insulin-resistant individuals (that's most of us) have an easier time adhering to a low-carbohydrate diet. Plus, new dieters often pair low-carb with higher protein, which has the power to supercharge your weight loss by boosting metabolism and increasing satiety. “And since there are plenty of high-sugar but low-fat junk foods but not so many high-fat but low-carb junk foods, low carb intakes can sometimes mean an easier time staying away from junk food when compared to low fat diets,” says Patel.
The nutrition nerds have spoken. This study doesnotsignal the end low-carb dieting. Instead, it shows that you don’thaveto forego bread to see the pounds fall off. Losing weight isn’t easy and the more options you have at your disposal the better; whatever way you choose to cut your calories can work as long as you stick to it. You’re welcome, pasta lovers.
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