If you’ve tried to lose weight, the standard advice is to eat less and move more, allowing the extra pounds to melt off your body. It’s the weight loss mantra that doctors have been touting for decades, so why has obesity continued to skyrocket in the US?
More than 40% of American adults are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now, a group of obesity doctors and scientists are arguing that calorie restriction may be doing more harm than good.
The body fights back when people eat less, said Dr. David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who leads the team. Restricting calories not only makes people hungrier, it also slows metabolism, he noted.
“While people can lose weight in the short term, very few people can ignore their hunger and fight those metabolic issues to maintain their weight loss,” Ludwig told TODAY.
Instead, Ludwig and his colleagues suggest a new approach, what they call the carbohydrate-insulin model. If overeating isn’t fueling obesity, stop counting calories and simply cut back on carbs to control your insulin levels.
“Insulin: You can think of (it) as the best fertilizer for fat cells. Too much insulin, fat cells are programmed to store calories. So there are not too many calories in the bloodstream. And that is why we are hungry,” Ludwig said.
Low-carb diets have become increasingly popular in recent years. Most involve cutting out refined carbohydrates, including bread, rice, and sweets. Instead, the focus is on protein and healthy fats, like avocados and nuts.
The popular ketogenic diet is a more extreme form that restricts carbohydrates to between 30 and 50 grams per day, which is a challenge for many Americans, considering that a single bagel has 48 grams of carbohydrates.
But more research has found that low-carb diets are not only effective, they are sustainable.
Jennifer Haines, 42, said being overweight made her feel uncomfortable, tired and depressed. She tried diet after diet, including counting calories, but nothing really worked because she couldn’t follow any plan.
Three years ago, he joined a study led by researcher Jeff Volek, a professor in the department of human sciences at The Ohio State University, who has been studying low-carb diets for 25 years.
After six weeks on her low-carb diet, Haines lost 20 pounds and kept going. He has now lost 88 pounds in total since starting the eating plan in 2019.
“Within the six-week study that I did, I looked like a completely different human being,” he said. “It was wonderful”.
The diet wasn’t easy at first as Haines was forced to cut out her favorite foods like pasta, bread and potatoes. But seeing the results was the motivation she needed. She called keto a lifestyle change, not a diet.
Pictures of their body’s fat stores before and after adopting the new low-carb eating plan showed a difference just six weeks later.
“People have a remarkably healthy response to these diets,” Volek said. “The body responds in a really elegant way. When you limit carbohydrates, the body becomes really good at burning its own body fat because it doesn’t have a lot of sugar to burn for fuel.”
When people diet well by limiting carbohydrates, eating moderate amounts of protein and embracing fat, they feel full and naturally restrict calories without counting them, Volek added.
He and his colleagues consider weight loss a secondary benefit because they often use the low-carb diet to treat type 2 diabetes, he noted.
Volek’s studies have found that people on low-carb diets can lose more than 10 percent of their body weight and keep it off, which Haines says has been a game changer.
“I feel great. It’s easy for me to get up. It’s easy for me to go to sleep. I feel much more comfortable with myself,” she said.
This new approach also removes some of the stigma surrounding obesity, which is usually treated as a behavioral problem. Doctors often assume that people are overweight because they eat too much or have little willpower. This approach takes the blame off the patient and views obesity as a biological problem, focusing on the regulation of the hormone insulin.
Volek and his team at Ohio State are also studying the benefits of low-carb diets for other diseases and conditions, including some types of cancer, as well as mental health.
Depending on which version of the eating plan you’re on, whether it’s keto or just a low-carb diet, you can still eat some carbs, it’s just a matter of following them closely.
As always, talk to your doctor to make sure an eating plan is right for you, and remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all diet. The best is what you can keep for the long term.