Known for helping one shed pounds quickly, a low-carb diet limits carbohydrate foods (grains, starchy vegetables and fruit, foods with added sugar, most alcohol, etc.) and instead emphasizes foods that are high in protein and fat. Not all low-carb diets are the same, as there are high-fat, low-carb versions (like the keto diet) as well as high-protein, low-carb diets.
What makes the low-carb diet so effective? It’s due to causing glucose (sugar) stores to quickly run out; when that supply becomes low enough, your body starts to use fat for fuel (a combination of coming from your diet and your own stored body fat).
Related: Low-Carb Diet: A Beginner’s Guide
Did you know that low-carb diets have been used in the medical community for more than a century. Find out about the many health benefits of a low-carb diet below.
8 Benefits of a Low-Carb Diet
1. Fast Weight Loss
When it comes to losing weight, calorie counting is crazy, but shifting your attention to the types of foods you eat and focusing on mindful eating can make all the difference. Low-carb diets have a reputation for producing fast weight loss without feeling hungry or needing to count calories. In fact, many people experience weight loss following a low-carb diet even if they’ve tried “everything else” and never got the results they were looking for.
A 2014 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that after comparing the two in overweight adults, low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor reduction compared to low-fat diets, as demonstrated by 148 participants following both types of dietary plans over 12 months.
Why are low-carb diets, especially the keto diet, so effective for shedding excess pounds, even in people who normally struggle to lose weight? When we eat foods with sugar and carbohydrates, the hormone insulin is released as a reaction in order to elevate blood glucose (sugar). Insulin is often called a “fat-storage hormone” because one of its jobs is to signal cells to store as much available energy as possible. This energy is initially stored as glycogen from the glucose found in carbohydrates, since glycogen is our “primary” energy.
By eliminating carbohydrates from the diet and keeping the body’s glycogen stores low or almost empty, we can prevent insulin from being released and storing fat. Less insulin circulating around our bloodstream means that the body is forced to use up all of its glycogen stores, then reach into fat stores tucked away in our adipose tissue (body fat) for ongoing fuel.
2. Better Cognitive Function
Fat and carbohydrates usually have an inverse relationship in someone’s diet. Most people keep protein intake somewhat steady, but normally the more carbs and sugar people eat, the less healthy fats they consume. This is problematic because we need healthy fats for proper brain function, mood control and hormone regulation. While initially a sugary or high-carb meal might make you feel awake and alert, quickly after you’ll likely come crashing down and might feel tired, grumpy and irritable.
Sugar is addictive and has dramatic effects on the brain, especially when it comes to increasing cravings, anxiety and fatigue. On the other hand, certain kinds of healthy fats, including cholesterol, act like antioxidants and precursors to some important brain-supporting molecules and neurotransmitters that control learning, memory, mood and energy. Your brain is largely made up of fatty acids and requires a steady stream of fats from your diet in order to perform optimally.
Recently, a 2012 report published in The Journal of Physiology found evidence of strong metabolic consequences of a high-sugar diet coupled with a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive abilities. These effects were due to the association of consuming high amounts of glucose and insulin action, which control brain-signaling mediators. As one might expect, the unhealthy diet that was high in sugar but low in healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids was associated with lower cognitive scores and insulin resistance.
Research suggests the ketogenic diet is especially therapeutic when it comes to protecting cognitive health. Researchers believe that people with the highest insulin resistance might demonstrate a lower cerebral blood flow and, therefore, less brain plasticity. This is because insulin is a “vasodilator” and increases blood flow to promote glucose delivery to the muscles and organs, including the brain. This vasodilator function is stopped when someone develops insulin resistance over time from a high-sugar and high-carb intake, resulting in a decrease in perfusion of brain tissues and activity.
In certain studies, improvement have been observed in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients fed a ketogenic diet, marked by factors including improved mitochondrial function. A European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study pointed to emerging data that suggested the therapeutic use of ketogenic diets for multiple neurological disorders beyond epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, including headaches, neurotrauma, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disorders, brain cancer, autism and multiple sclerosis.
3. Reduced Risk of Metabolic Syndrome and Heart Disease
A 2012 study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology found that low-carbohydrate diets are more effective at reducing certain metabolic and heart disease risk factors than low-fat diets are, plus at least equally effective at reducing weight and other factors.
The study investigated the effects of low-carbohydrate diets (≤45 percent of energy from carbohydrates) versus low-fat diets (≤30 percent of energy from fat) on metabolic risk factors by conducting a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Twenty-three trials from multiple countries with a total of 2,788 participants were included in the analyses.
The results showed that both low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets lowered weight and improved metabolic risk factors. But compared with participants on low-fat diets, people on low-carbohydrate diets experienced a significantly greater increase in “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and a greater decrease in triglycerides.
They also experienced a lower reduction in total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol than the low-fat diet group. However, keep in mind that higher cholesterol levels have not been proven to contribute to heart disease!
These findings were true despite that reductions in body weight, waist circumference and other metabolic risk factors were not significantly different between the two diet groups. These findings suggest that satisfying lower-carb diets, which are higher in fat, can help beat heart disease factors just as well as diets that are harder to stick with and prone to leaving people hungry.
4. Lower Risk for Type-2 Diabetes
Researchers point out that despite the growing rates of type 1 and 2 diabetes and the accelerating cost of the resources needed to monitor and treat diabetic patients, the medical community generally hasn’t been successful at reducing either the number of people affected or the severity of the complications. While prescriptions for diabetes medications continue to climb, there’s a simple, effective, low-cost strategy that is proven to work with diabetes: Reduce the amount of sugar and starch in the diet.
Researchers from the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension at SUNY University of Brooklyn point out that a high-carbohydrate diet raises postprandial plasma glucose and insulin secretion, thereby increasing risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, dyslipidemia and obesity.
Many studies have shown that a low-carb diet is a natural diabetes treatment and effective tool in the prevention of patients with type 2 diabetes. It can also help lower risks for diabetes complications and related risk factors like obesity or heart disease.
A growing body of evidence shows that although a diet high in “healthy carbs” like whole grains is still recommended to many sick patients, low-carbohydrate diets are comparable if not better than traditional low-fat/high-carbohydrate diets for weight reduction, improvement in the dyslipidemia of diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well as control of blood pressure, postprandial glycemia and insulin secretion.
In a 2005 study published in The Upsala Journal of Medical Science, for two groups of obese patients with type 2 diabetes, the effects of two different diet compositions were tested with regard to glycemic control and body weight. A group of 16 obese patients with type 2 diabetes was put on a low-carb diet (1,800 calories for men and 1,600 calories for women) that consisted of 20 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein and 50 percent fat.
Fifteen obese diabetes patients were put on a high-carbohydrate diet to serve as the control group. Their diet consisting of the same calories for men and women included approximately 60 percent carbohydrates, 15 percent protein and 25 percent fat. Positive effects on the glucose levels were seen very quickly in the group following the low-carb plan. After six months, a marked reduction in body weight of patients in the low-carb diet group was also observed, and this remained one year later.
5. Help Fighting Cancer
Research shows that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar contributes to free radical damage and actually feeds cancer cells, possibly helping them proliferate faster. Because low-carb diets dramatically cut down sugar and lower intake of grains and processed foods, they might act like a natural cancer treatment, causing immunity to improve as oxidative stress goes down.
Studies indicate that carbohydrate intake influences prostate cancer biology, as demonstrated through mice that have been fed a no-carbohydrate ketogenic diet (NCKD) experiencing significantly smaller tumors and longer survival times than mice fed a Western diet. The mice fed the equivalent of the standard human Western diet had higher serum insulin, which was associated with significantly higher blood glucose and tumor tissue growth.
In the process of cutting off the supply of energy to cancers, healthy cells are luckily preserved since they’re able to use fat for energy. Cancer cells, on the other hand, thrive off of glucose and cannot metabolically shift to use fat.
6. Fewer Cravings and Not Going Hungry!
One of the biggest benefits of a low-carb diet or the keto diet is that eating more healthy fats and proteins in place of sugar and carbohydrates is super satisfying, since it effectively helps turn off ghrelin, the “hungry hormone.”
According to studies, insulin negatively regulates ghrelin, and high-density lipoprotein may be a carrier particle for increasing circulating ghrelin. In other words, carbs spike insulin quickly, which leads to cravings for more food later on as blood sugar drops and ghrelin increases. Fats and proteins, on the other hand, are known for switching on the body’s satiety hormones and allowing you to go longer comfortably between meals without needing to snack.
According to a report published in The Journal of International Studies of Obesity:
Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that have been recognized to have a major influence on energy balance. Leptin is a mediator of long-term regulation of energy balance, suppressing food intake and thereby inducing weight loss. Ghrelin on the other hand is a fast-acting hormone, seemingly playing a role in meal initiation. As a growing number of people suffer from obesity, understanding the mechanisms by which various hormones and neurotransmitters have influence on energy balance has been a subject of intensive research. It is now established that obese patients are leptin-resistant.
To get off the roller-coaster of insulin highs and lows, you need to gain control over your primary appetite hormones. The easier way to do this is to keep appetite-boosting sugar low and include quality proteins and fats with every meal, especially in the morning with breakfast, which sets the tone for the entire day.
Ketones that are created by the body during the ketogenic diet have also been shown to help curb hunger and to make intermittent fasting easier. In studies conducted on average weight adults, consumption of ketone supplements has been shown to lead to suppression of ghrelin, reduced hunger and less desire to eat.
7. Better Digestion
Less sugar means better digestive function for most people, since sugar feeds “bad bacteria” that can thrive in the gut. The result of a diet too high in sugar and carbs can mean the development of candida virus, IBS and worsened symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. Plenty of vegetables, quality proteins and healthy fats, on the other hand, can act like fat-burning foods that also help nourish the digestive tract and reduce bacterial growth.
Research from a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Gastroenterological Association showed that patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) report symptom improvements after initiating a very low-carbohydrate diet (VLCD). When participants with moderate to severe IBS were provided a two-week standard diet, then four weeks of a VLCD (20 grams of carbohydrates a day), the majority reported improvements in abdominal pain, stool habits and quality of life.
8. Better Hormone Regulation
You’ve already learned about the positive effects that a low-carb diet can have on insulin and appetite hormones, but going low-carb appears to also help balance neurotransmitter function in some people and thus improve mood.
When researchers from the Discipline of Psychiatry and School of Medicine at the University of Adelaide compared the hormonal and psychological effects of a low-protein, high-carbohydrate (LPHC) diet and a high-protein, low-carbohydrate (HPLC) diet in women with a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) over the course of 16 weeks, they found a significant reduction in depression and improvement in self-esteem in those on the low-carb diet.
All participants attended a weekly exercise, group support and educational program and completed the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale at the beginning and end of the study. The HPLC diet appeared to help balance hormones naturally and was associated with significant reductions in various depressive symptoms, enhanced feelings of well-being and higher likelihood of having better compliance with long-term treatment of obesity.
- As you can see, many studies show that following a low-carb diet can result in improvements in weight management, cognitive function, heart health, blood sugar, cancer prevention and more.
- Versions of low-carbohydrate diets include the ketogenic diet and Atkins — South Beach and Dukan begin low-carb before transitioning to healthier carbs.
- Evidence shows that to reap these kinds of benefits, it’s important to stay on a version of the diet for more than a month.
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