Counting calories is hard
The most common weight management strategy is calorie counting. The logic behind it is pretty simple.
To gain weight – Eat more calories than you burn and the excess will be stored in your body as fat.
To lose weight – Eat less calories than you burn and your body will use up fat stores to cover the deficit.
There’s no avoiding the calorie math. That’s why it works so well in the beginning. The problem is it’s really hard to do long term. You have to weigh every single bit of food, track the numbers, avoid restaurants, deal with people that don’t understand what you are doing, it’s a lot of effort. Anyone who tried knows this. And research confirms that just counting calories doesn’t deliver long-term results. The two authors of a 2017 study looking at calorie reduction concluded the following.
“Rather than simply reducing calories, understanding the influence of the food consumed on satiety, satiation, and energy compensation may be advantageous.” (1)
You can eat less without counting calories
The good news is that there’s a different path to weight wellness than calorie counting. It leads through satiety and appetite control and low carb can help you get there.
Reducing carbs can make you less hungry
When you reduce carbs, your body has to use fat for energy instead. When you run mainly on fat your body enters ketosis. This is a normal process that happens to everyone during sleep for example. With carb reduction you can achieve it when you’re awake too. Research shows that being in ketosis reduces hunger (2). Ketosis increases levels of cholecystokinin which is a hormone that signals feelings of fullness and it also decreases levels of ghrelin which is a hormone that signals hunger (3).
A well-formulated low carb diet with plenty of fibre, protein, and beneficial fats also helps avoid spikes in blood sugar that can result in increased hunger. A 2018 trial concluded that a low carb high-protein diet reduced fluctuations in blood sugar and resulted in increased satiety in patients with diabetes (4).
You burn more calories on low carb
Low carb doesn’t only make you less hungry it might even cause you to burn more calories. People who lose weight often have to deal with “slow metabolism.” That’s when your body deliberately burns less energy to protect itself from a famine. Yes, your body thinks you're starving. It doesn’t know what dieting is and has no clue there’s always some food in the fridge. This means people who lost weight have to eat even fewer calories to maintain their new weight.
The research on this topic is still young but there are early studies suggesting that low carb diets can help you burn more calories in this scenario. For example, a 2018 study showed that participants who lost weight burned 200-500 more calories per day on a low carb maintenance diet compared to a high or moderate carb maintenance diet (5).
Can low carb help long term?
All of this sounds great but the most important thing in weight wellness is whether something works long term. Nobody wants the weight to yo-yo back. Thankfully, there’s a 2013 meta-analysis that looked into that. It analysed studies that kept up with participants for at least 12 months. The conclusion was that low carb is effective and better than low fat for losing weight over the long term (6).
Do it at your own pace
Science shows that low carb and keto can be effective tools for weight wellness. These diets allow you to reach your goals without having to track calories for the rest of your life. They help you feel full and satisfied while eating. These are the attributes that will help you stick with your way of eating long term. It’s not the fastest who wins in weight wellness, it's the one that keeps going.
1) David Benton and Hayley A. Young, Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight, Perspect Psychol Sci. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639963/
2) A A Gibson et al., Do ketogenic diets really suppress appetite? A systematic review and meta-analysis, Obes Rev. 2015, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25402637/
3) Antonio Paoli et al., Ketosis, ketogenic diet and food intake control: a complex relationship, Front Psychol. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4313585/
4) Amirsalar Samkani et al., A carbohydrate-reduced high-protein diet acutely decreases postprandial and diurnal glucose excursions in type 2 diabetes patients, Br J Nutr. 2018, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29644957/
5) Cara B Ebbeling et al., Effects of a low carbohydrate diet on energy expenditure during weight loss maintenance: randomized trial, BMJ. 2018, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30429127/
6) Nassib Bezerra Bueno et al., Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials, Br J Nutr. 2013, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23651522/