Over the years we've seen countless diets that have promised to help us shed unwanted pounds with ease, but many of these thin fast diets are like get rich fast – they tend to help us lose dollars faster than weight.
Which Diet is Better, Low Carbohydrate or Low Fat? It all depends on the foods and the amounts you choose.
On the flip side, low-carb and low-fat diets by names you may know like Atkins, Keto, Jenny Craig, and Paleo have shown endurance among all the fleeting fashions. They also come with tons of supporters and naysayers – many of them paid spokespersons – so it can be difficult to find a trustworthy voice when looking for the nutritional approach that is right for you.
Let's take a look at the differences between low-carb and low-fat diets to decide which is better for weight loss and improving health.
Fats and carbohydrates: the good and the bad
Fats, carbohydrates and proteins make up the trio of macronutrients that the body needs to function properly. Dietary fats support cell growth, protect the organs and absorb some nutrients. Carbohydrates act as the main source of energy after they have been broken down into simple sugars by the body. Dietary proteins provide essential amino acids that aid in protein synthesis and promote tissue growth and repair.
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These macronutrients – especially fats and carbohydrates – have gained different reputations among dieters because different types of fats and carbohydrates give our bodies different nutritional value.
For example, fats often get a bad rap, but only two of the four main types of dietary fats are associated with health problems. Saturated and trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and are linked to heart disease and stroke when consumed in large quantities. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower bad cholesterol. Experts generally recommend replacing "bad fats" with "good fats".
Carbohydrates are also often denigrated by diet gurus. But again, it depends on which type you choose. Carbohydrates are either simple or complex, depending on the chemical structure of the food and the speed at which the sugar is digested. Simple carbohydrates, which are often found in processed foods like soda and breakfast cereals, due to ingredients like sugar and high fructose corn syrup, are digested quickly. They are low in nutritional value and have been linked to weight gain, coronary artery disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are digested more slowly and do not increase blood sugar like simple carbohydrates. They can be found in foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
How the diets work
Low-fat diets allow foods with 30% or less of total calories from fat (think protein, whole grains, skinless chicken breasts, and low-fat dairy products). Since fat has 9 calories per gram and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, it is theoretically more beneficial from a caloric point of view to consume more complex, carbohydrate-based foods while limiting fats. Jenny Craig is a popular low fat diet that achieves its goals through portion control and limits users to low fat, low calorie meals.
Low-carb diets limit total carbohydrate consumption to varying degrees, from a moderate intake of carbohydrates (defined as 26% to 44% of total calories) to very low intake (less than 10% of total calories). Examples of low-carbohydrate foods are fish, meat, cheese, oils, eggs, and green leafy vegetables. The philosophy behind this diet is that by lowering the insulin response in the body – which enables fat to be stored – weight loss occurs.
The popular keto diet is a version of the very low-carbohydrate approach that puts the body into a metabolic state called "ketosis" when the body's tissues are low in carbohydrates. During this state, fats are converted into ketones, which instead of carbohydrates, fuel the body and accelerate weight loss.
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Low-carb vs low-fat
In terms of weight loss, some studies found no significant benefit in choosing a low-carb diet versus a low-fat diet. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Epidemiology analyzed data from 23 studies comparing participants who were on a low-carb diet with those who were on a low-fat diet. The researchers found that both diets were equally effective at reducing body weight, and both diets were effective in reducing blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and blood sugar in the participants.
These results were supported in a clinical study published in JAMA, by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine. The researchers randomly assigned just over 600 participants to either a low-carb or low-fat diet. After 12 months, the researchers found no significant difference in weight loss between the two diet groups.
However, low-carb diets have been linked to faster fat loss, according to a study published in Diet & Metabolism. The researchers assigned 28 participants to either a very low-carb or a low-fat diet, and found that the low-carb dieters saw better short-term weight and fat loss over a 2 month period.
One benefit of low-carb diets may be that they are more effective at reducing hunger, since protein (an important food source in most low-carb diets) is more calorie-reducing than carbohydrates or fat. A study published in Nutrition journal rated how different snacks affected appetite. Compared to high-fat snacks, high-protein snacks improved appetite control, the feeling of satiety and reduced subsequent eating.
Both diets also have a fair share of deficits. The low-fat trend has become confusing for some dieters as so-called healthy products that are touted as "low-fat" could be loaded with sugar or other processed additives. In addition, many are confused about the types of fats they should be eating. For the first time in 40 years, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, jointly published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, will likely remove all recommendations against total fat consumption when the guidelines are updated in late 2020, according to reports, at one point Lack of evidence attributed that total fat intake is linked to direct harm, as "total fat" includes unsaturated fats such as nuts and fish, which have been shown to be nutritionally beneficial.
The American Heart Association has warned of the dangers of low-carb diets and issued a statement against the high-protein, high-fat, and low-carbohydrate approach, claiming that people who follow such diets may experience insufficient vitamin and mineral intake at themselves suspended for heart, kidney, bone and liver abnormalities.
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Which Diet Is Better?
Both low-carb and low-fat diets can be beneficial for people seeking weight loss and improved health, but carbohydrates and fats are simply nutrients that make up food – the quality of the food itself is the most important factor in overall health. Complex carbohydrates such as legumes, starchy vegetables, and whole grains should be consumed (in moderation, of course). Likewise, healthy fats from foods like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds help fight fatigue, increase brain performance, and control weight.
Rather than preferring one strict diet over another (where failure rates – and disappointment – tend to be high), consider a strategy that allows you to swap simple carbohydrates for complex carbohydrates and replace "bad fats" with "good" ones. And remember, don't let fads distract you – while a low-carbohydrate diet can lead to faster weight loss in the short term, a diet needs to be fun to be sustainable. The best bet is to take wisdom from both diets, implement it into your routine, make it a habit, and then get out of the diet mindset entirely.