Research consistently shows that there’s no universal “best” diet. Instead, when it comes to reducing body fat, the best diet is the one that you can stick to for the long haul.
Diets that de-emphasize carbohydrates in favor of whole protein and fat tend to fit the bill because they give you an advantage over the biggest pitfalls that plague conventional diets, especially low-fat, calorie restricted models. Done properly, low-carb diets let you bypass hunger, preserve your metabolic rate, and avoid the headache of calorie counting and food obsession. Best of all, they lay the groundwork for establishing long-term eating habits that help you sustain your leanness.
This article will highlight the benefits of a low-carb diet and give you tips for avoiding the pitfalls that typically come from reduced carb eating plans.
Benefit #1: Less Hunger & Fewer Food Cravings
Two of the biggest pitfalls to dieting are hunger pains and cravings for high-calorie foods. Low-carb eating plans done properly circumvent these pitfalls, making adherence to the diet easier.
Protein is a highly satiating food because it leads to the release of gut hormones that tell your brain you’re full sooner than if you ate the same amount of calories from carbs. Reducing the quantity of high-carb foods has the added benefit of lowering levels of the metabolic hormone insulin, which reduces cravings for foods that are high in sugar.
Benefit #2: No Need To Count/Restrict Calories
The fact that low-carb programs reduce hunger and food cravings is nice, but the real prize is the fact that you don’t have to count calories. Studies show that when people are put on low-carb eating plans, they will automatically lower their calorie intake even when they are allowed to eat as much as they want. In contrast, low-fat dieters need to actively restrict their calories in order to achieve an energy deficit to lose body fat.
Counting calories raises anxiety and makes your body feel threatened, which elevates perceived stress. Higher perceived stress means that your body will release more cortisol. Calorie restriction also elevates cortisol, so if you pair the two together, you get the double whammy of cortisol from lack of food and worries about your diet.
High cortisol is the bane of a dieter’s existence because it primes the body for fat storage in the abdominal area, inhibits sleep, and triggers intake of high-calorie “comfort” foods. Higher protein, lower carb diets that are concentrated on whole foods such as meat or fish, nuts, and vegetables are a great solution because they allow you to automatically eat fewer calories, while staying satisfied and avoiding hunger.
Benefit #3: Quick Drop In Weight For A Psychological Boost
Most people who start a diet are a little bit desperate. We all want (and expect) to see immediate results when we are virtuous and follow our eating plans.
Five days with no results and we become disheartened. The second week begins and we are ready to throw in the towel in unfulfilled misery. Low-carb diets are the perfect solution because they convey near immediate gratification.
The cool thing that happens when you reduce carb intake is that you shed excess water from the body by reducing muscle glycogen stores, which are mostly water. Scale weight drops and you’ll probably find your clothes fitting better as this happens. It can give you an incredible psychological boost right when you need it.
At the same time, the high-protein, low-carb way of eating greatly reduces hunger cues to the brain, allowing you to seamlessly create a calorie deficit. Another effect is that insulin levels drop and fat burning kicks in. This process can be a little bit uncomfortable because it requires your body to develop the metabolic machinery to readily burn fat, but once it’s in place, you’ve set yourself up for long-term success.
Benefit #4: Preserve Lean Muscle Mass
Low-carb diets are naturally higher in protein, which helps you avoid losing muscle while dropping fat. The amount of calories your body burns at rest is proportional to your overall body weight and more influenced by muscle than fat because lean tissue burns more calories than fat tissue. Preserving muscle mass is the vital difference between maintaining fat loss and experiencing rebound fat gain.
This is illustrated in a study led by the U.S. army. Using young, lean volunteers, researchers compared a traditional diet that provided the U.S. RDA of protein of 0.8 g/kg/bodyweight a day with one that replaced a portion of the carbs with protein so that the diet provided 1.6 g/kg/bodyweight of protein a day. Results showed that 70 percent of the weight lost in the group that ate 1.6 g/kg of protein was body fat and they only lost 0.8 kg of lean mass,. In the 0.8 g/kg protein group, only 41 percent of the weight lost was from body fat. That group lost 2.3 kg of lean mass, which led to a profound drop in the volunteers’ daily energy expenditure.
The practical conclusion we can draw is that you need to achieve a minimal threshold of 1.6 g/kg of protein when going low-carb. Favor animal proteins from natural sources, such as fish, meat, and eggs, because these foods will provide the highest quality protein per calorie.
Benefit #5: Restore Insulin Sensitivity
Low-carb diets lead to lower insulin levels and greater glucose tolerance—a powerful combination that has the effect of increasing insulin sensitivity. This is the case for a wide range of different macronutrient concentrations, including very low-carb ketogenic diets of less than 30 grams of carbs a day (equaling roughly 10 percent of the diet) to moderate carb diets that supply 40 percent of the calories from carbs.
In fact, it appears that more important than going extremely low in carbs, is that your diet be high in fiber. Insulin and blood sugar are regulated by the rate of digestion and the amount of fiber a food contains. Certain carbs that are high in indigestible fiber, such as plants, decrease energy intake due to slower digestion compared to those that are quickly digested and low in this type of fiber. But, processed foods with added fiber, don’t have this benefit and don’t reduce food intake.
You can see the profound impact of natural foods on diet and health outcomes in studies that compare the effect of drinking fruit juice with eating whole fruit. In a survey of 187,382 people, those who drank fruit juice daily increased their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 21 percent. Those who ate at least two servings of whole fruit—grapes, apples, and blueberries— decreased risk of type 2 diabetes by 23 percent.
The take away is that for best results with a low-carb diet, you want to prioritize a high fiber intake by eating low-carb veggies at every meal (leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.). Berries can also be included in most low-carb diets. If you’re not on a very low-carb ketogenic diet, you can also include select higher carb vegetables and other fruits for greater variety.
Benefit #6: Reduce Blood Pressure
Reducing carbs in favor of higher protein intake can lead to meaningful reductions in blood pressure. The effect appears to be due to a confluence of factors.
A higher protein intake is thought to improve the overall function of blood vessels, allowing them to dilate and decrease pressure more effectively, whereas, carb restriction improves body composition and insulin sensitivity. Simply achieving a decrease in body fat of 1 kg is associated with a decrease in blood pressure of 1 mm Hg.
Altogether, studies suggest that hypertensive subjects who engage on a high-protein, low-carb eating plan can produce a 5 mm Hg decrease in systolic blood pressure reading. Adding exercise to the equation would have an even greater therapeutic effect
Benefit #7: Decrease Cardiovascular Disease Risk
One of the most powerful benefits of a low-carb diet for Americans and people who have adopted the Western diet is that they can impact all factors that are associated with heart disease risk. This is a game changer because mounting evidence shows that the traditional low-fat, high-carb diet drives up triglycerides to dangerous levels, creates an inflammatory environment, and raises LDL cholesterol.
This may be confusing because health policy has been telling you for years that saturated fat elevates cholesterol, however, a commentary published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism explains that cholesterol markers are worsened the most by eating high-carb diets.
Conversely, lower carb diets consistently lower LDL cholesterol, and if you consume adequate vegetables, and low-carb fruits, HDL will increase for a powerful benefit on total cholesterol markers. Triglycerides, which are fat molecules in your blood, are also reduced on low-carb diets that are done properly. This may surprise you since it makes intuitive sense that a higher fat intake would raise fat levels in the blood, however, this is not the case.
Because high-carb diets raise insulin, they put the body into a mode that favors fat storage and the synthesis of fatty acids, which leads to an increase in triglycerides in the blood. The one exception is when you have a sky-high saturated fat intake, which can lead to elevated triglyceride levels as well. This is just one more reason you want to favor lean proteins and fat from a variety of sources so that you’re not getting your fat all from saturated sources.
Now that you’ve got the data on the benefits of a low-carb eating program, it's time for strategies to make it a sustainable lifestyle. These tips will help you lose fat and keep it off for the long run.
Tip #1: Plan your diet around real foods. Eat high-quality protein (fish, meat, eggs, etc.), low-carb vegetables (leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.), and healthy fat for every meal.
Tip #2: Individualize your carb intake. A review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that in an overweight, minimally active population, less than 50 grams of carbs a day is ideal for fat loss. Up to 150 grams of carbs a day is recommended in leaner, more active people. Cycling carbs is another option in which training days are higher carb and rest days are very low-carb.
Tip #3: Develop a taste for vegetables and lower glycemic fruits because these carbs are well known for reducing food intake and cravings. Use olive oil, coconut oil, butter, vinegars, spices, and other flavorful condiments to enhance flavor and variety of vegetables and fruits.
Tip #4: Avoid simple carbs, foods with artificial no-calorie sweeteners, and high-glycemic complex carbs. Examples of these foods include bread, pasta, crackers, foods with added sugar, soda, diet soda, juice, sports drinks, cookies, cake, cereal, and grains.
Tip #5: Make sure you’re eating enough fat. Dietary fat from nuts, seeds, avocado, and coconut oil helps the body transition to burning more fat instead of always running on glucose.
Tip #6: Train! Exercise makes everything better. Not only will it accelerate fat loss and improve health markers, but it acts as a catalyst to improve fat burning, making the transition to a low-carb lifestyle that much easier.
Tip #7: Low-carb doesn’t mean no-carb. Including some complex carbs in your diet is necessary to support a healthy hormonal cascade.
Tip #8: Make sure you’re getting enough potassium and sodium. These are two nutrients that can become depleted on a low-carb diet, especially if you are exercising. One study found that supplementing with 3 to 5 grams of sodium and 2 to 3 grams of potassium allowed subjects to maintain circulation and avoid losing muscle mass on a low carb diet that included exercise.