Cutting Carbs? or Cutting Calories?

- POSTED ON: Sep 17, 2012

Which is better or most effective, cutting Carbs, or cutting Calories?

Everything I’ve seen and experienced personally, leads me to believe that calories matter even when one chooses to eat low-carb. There’s a possibility that one can eat a few more calories by reducing carbs, but … for most people … the amount of extra calories doesn't appear to be a very large number.

 It seems like there are an endless number of specific diets and rules for weight loss. One of the most popular of these rules is that cutting carbohydrates (carbs) is the best way to lose weight.

The Atkins diet, first popular in the the most famous low-carb diet. This diet recommends limiting foods high in carbs, such as bread, pasta, rice, and starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes. Carbs are replaced with foods containing a higher percentage of proteins and fats (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and cheese) and other low-carb foods (mostly vegetables).

What does the evidence show us about whether low-carb diets really are better for weight loss and weight-maintenance than other diets?

Conventional wisdom says that a “calorie is a calorie” and it doesn't matter what types of food the calories come from, and therefore, all reduced-energy (calorie) diets should lead to equivalent weight loss.

However, some studies have reported that low-carb diets, in the short-term, lead to greater weight loss than other types of diets. What are some possible explanations for these results?

1. Changes in body composition

Energy is stored in the body as protein, fat, and glycogen, which is a form of carbohydrate. If there is an imbalance between how many of these nutrients are ingested (through the food that is eaten) and how many are used by the body for every day functions, body composition will change.

In turn, this will affect body weight because of the different impact that the relative amounts of stored protein, fat and carbohydrates have on body weight.

However, the vast majority of studies in which they’ve measured calorie intake very accurately (that is, they’ve locked people in a room and measured exactly what they’ve eaten for several days), show absolutely no difference in weight loss based on the composition of the diet. High-protein diets and high-carb diets resulted in the same weight loss.

2.  Changes in metabolic rate

The body’s metabolic rate (the amount of energy expended by the body in a given time) is dependent on the composition of the diet. Consumption of protein, for example, is known to result in a larger increase in energy expenditure for several hours after a meal compared with the consumption of fat or carbs.

But the overall effect of diet composition on total energy expenditure is relatively small. As a result, the assumption that a “calorie is a calorie” is probably a reasonable estimation as far as energy expenditure is concerned.

3.  Changes in hunger levels and satiety

Some diets can lead to reduced hunger, improved satiety (feeling full), and can be easier to stick to than others. There is an enormous amount of research on this.

The problem is that it’s extremely difficult to accurately measure what people are eating over extended time periods. In general, people rarely stick to their diets for more than just a few weeks, making it almost impossible to adequately compare the effects of different diets.

And so, is cutting carbs the best way to lose weight?  Maybe.

However, all diets with similar calorie content appear to have a similar effect on weight loss in the long-term. This is probably because the body adapts rapidly to changes in relative protein, fat and carbohydrate intake levels.

The truth is that losing weight and keeping it off in the long-term is difficult. It requires permanent changes to the number of calories you eat each day. My own maintenance struggle has involved experimenting with many different diets, or ways of eating.

  I believe the best diet for a person, is whatever diet that person is able to live with comfortably long-term. My own maintenance involves a continual process of looking for a way of eating that satisfies that criteria for me, personally.  As a part of that process, I’ve made Dieting into a rather enjoyable Hobby for myself, which is why this website is named DietHobby.

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Existing Comments:

On Sep 18, 2012 Alma wrote:
I have just finished 4 months of Low Carbing and as soon as I ate a sugar pastry, I found weight gain AGAIN. I will look at Calories from now on and know that will work better for me. I'm not willing to give up on all the rainbows of fresh fruits and vegetables and I don't feel it is necessary to lose pounds.

On Sep 18, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Hi Alma, on low-carb most people will drop 3 to 7 lbs or more the first couple of weeks, from the loss of glycogen and its associated water. As soon as carbs are reintroduced that glycogen & associated water returns to muscle storage, and that initial weight loss returns. Any fat lbs that are dropped will stay off, with only the chemicals and water returns. In my own experiments, several different times, several months of low-carbing...using the SAME calorie level as when eating a "balanced" food plan always caused a few lbs of initial weight loss, and then my weight leveled out with no further loss. Then as soon as I returned to "balanced" eating...again at the same calorie level, those initial lost pounds returned... which means that Low-Carb earned me a ZERO NET wieght loss. **** Therefore, my own experiments show that in MY body, whether I'm eating low-carb or just a low-calorie balanced diet....If I eat at the same calorie level...however my micronutrients are distributed,....the same calorie level maintains my same fat lb body weight.

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