Health & Fitness

Low-Carb vs. Low-Fat Diets: The Lowdown for a Lower Weight

Aya Embabi
5/31/16, 12:00 AM

There is an overwhelming number of diets that supposedly help you lose weight, and many of these are fad diets, whether it’s the paleo diet, the military diet, the yogurt diet, the list goes on and on. But there are a few classic diets that have been around for a long time, and still remain popular, including the low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. As a matter of fact, there is quite a bit of debate regarding which of these two diets is more effective for weight loss. Before we decide whether one is better than the other, it’s important to define each diet.

Low-Carbohydrate Diet:
When people think of carbohydrates, they often just think of foods like bread, pasta, and rice. While those are sources of carbohydrates, many other foods also contain carbohydrates, including:
- Dairy Products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Starchy Vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas)
- Fruits
- Sweets and Desserts (cookies, cakes, ice cream) – everyone’s favorite!

So, a low-carb diet would limit all of these foods, and place more focus on eating protein and fat. As far as commercial diets, the most popular low-carb one is probably the Atkin’s diet, but there are many other kinds, which can vary a bit in the exact amount/sources of carbohydrate permitted.

Low-Fat Diet:
Low-fat diets became popular around the 1950s and 1960s, when studies first showed that decreased fat intake was linked to lower cholesterol levels. By the 1980s, low-fat diets were being recommended to everyone for better overall health, and the 1990s came with a boom in low-fat products, from yogurt and cheese to chips and cookies. Some low-fat or fat-free products can be beneficial, like milk and cheese. The problem is that many low-fat products, such as yogurt and cookies, contain higher amounts of carbohydrates/sugar to make up for the lower fat content, which most people don’t realize. So people often choose these foods, thinking that they are making the healthier choice, but that may not be the case.

The general premise of the low-fat diet is to decrease intake of fat, and consume more protein and carbohydrates. However, now that more is known about the different types of fat, and that each type can have different health effects, the idea of a low-fat diet is a bit more complicated.

Which diet is better?

Many research studies have been done to compare low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets, and a large majority of the research shows that low-carbohydrate diets tend to cause more weight loss than low-fat diets. There are many reasons for this difference:

1. Firstly, carbohydrate is stored as glycogen in the body, and each gram of glycogen is bound to 3 to 4 grams of water. So for people on a low-carbohydrate diet, the body needs to get glucose from another source for cell processes and brain function, so it starts to use up its glycogen stores, which also removes the water attached to the glycogen. This is why you can see very dramatic weight loss early on in a low-carb diet, because it’s largely water weight. However, once that water weight comes off and the glycogen stores are used up, the body turns to our fat stores for energy, and that is what leads to fat loss.

2. Low-fat diets aren’t always effective, because it depends on what the fat is being replaced with. You can lose weight if you lower your fat intake and instead choose lean protein (grilled chicken, sautéed fish, etc), whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice), fruits, and vegetables. However, if the fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates and sweets (white rice, pasta, bread, pastries, cookies, etc), it would be very difficult to lose weight.

3. Most low-carb diets allow for, or encourage, intake of healthy fats, like nuts and seeds, canola/olive oil, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc). These foods are good sources of omega-3 fats, which are not only good for heart health, but can help you feel fuller longer, eat less throughout the day, and thus, help with weight loss. Low-fat diets often don’t include these kinds of foods.

So what’s the bottom line?
The question of low-carb versus low-fat diets has been debated for quite some time, but a majority of the research studies done on this topic point to low-carb diets as the better option for weight loss.This does not necessarily mean that everyone should be on a low-carb diet, or that you should choose any low-carb diet. There are many different low-carb diets out there, and some are quite extreme in their limitations.

Overall, if you’re choosing between a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet, the research shows that the low-carbohydrate diet will probably help you lose more weight. But it’s important to be reasonable and choose a diet plan that is not just effective for weight loss, but is still well balanced and not too restrictive so that you don’t feel deprived of the foods you love. Everything in moderation!


Aya Embabi

Aya Embabi is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the U.S. and she has a Bachelors degree in Biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, and a Masters degree in Clinical Nutrition from Universi...

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