Every New Year, the number one resolution on most peoples list is weight loss. There is no shortage of blog and magazine articles out there filled with the latest fad diets, promising rapid and easy weight loss. With so many different diets out there, how do you know what really works? The truth is you can lose weight trying a variety of different approaches, but the research shows low-carb and ketogenic diets come out on top for their ability to make you a fat-burning machine, as well as upgrading your overall health. They’ve also been proven to be the best choice for compliance (how well you can stick to it in the long-term) and satiety (how full and satisfied you feel throughout the day).
Unfortunately, over 90% of people will fail to maintain their weight loss by the end of the year. Why is it so difficult for people to lose weight and keep it off? They end up following a “diet” rather than incorporating new eating “habits” into their regime. Low-carb eating is more about small changes and habits, then overhauling your nutrition. There are a number of ways you can go low-carb and finding the right mix that fits your lifestyle, work schedule and training routine is the key to long-term success.
Let’s take a closer look at five great low-carb options for fat loss.
1) Ketogenic Diet (also called Very-Low Carb Diet)
A very low-carb or ketogenic diet is generally considered to be approximately 50g of carbs or less per day. It’s called a ketogenic diet because when you dramatically reduce your carb intake, your body switches over to burning mainly fat for fuel and a by-product of this process are ketones. Ketones, once thought to be detrimental to your health, now shoe potential as important fuels for your brain and body.
Practically, a ketogenic diet entails significantly decreasing your intake of starchy carbohydrates (e.g. breads, pastas, rices, sweet potatoes, root veggies) while dramatically increasing your intake healthy fats with moderate levels of your consumption of tasty lean proteins (0.6-0.8 grams per pound of your bodyweight) and nutrient-dense veggies. To give you and idea, two pieces of bread or one apple and one banana would equal your total carbs for the day. For this reason, there is not a lot of fruit on a ketogenic diet. The carb focus is from leafy greens and nutrient-dense, low carb veggies (i.e. broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, kale, etc.)
How do ketogenic diets support healthy weight loss? The research shows it dramatically improves your blood sugar control and the function of your blood sugar hormone insulin. After you eat a meal, your blood sugar levels increase and insulin’s job is to shuttle sugars from the bloodstream into your cells. However, the more overweight or out of shape you are, the greater the amount of insulin you need to get the job done. This means higher circulating insulin levels in your blood, blocking your body’s main fat-burning enzyme hormone sensitive lipase (HSL).
Studies show ketogenic diets help to improve the efficiency of your blood sugar hormone insulin (i.e. improving insulin sensitivity), making it easier for you to burn body-fat and lose weight. A ketogenic diet can also upgrade your overall health; improving blood pressure, lowering triglycerides, boosting heart health and cognitive function, and reducing inflammation.(1,2) If you’ve enjoy eating animal protein and tasty fats, and don’t mind keeping your fruit intake low this is a fantastic choice to trim belly-fat and lose weight.
2) Cyclic Ketogenic Diet
Sticking to a strict ketogenic diet full-time can be too difficult for some people. For others, they may want to enjoy a few higher carb meals along the way to keep themselves satiated and content. This is where a cyclic ketogenic diet can be a great alternative. In simple terms, a cyclic ketogenic diet means you follow the ketogenic diet approach described above (i.e. two to three weeks) then taper off to a low-carb diet or balanced macronutrient diet (i.e. a balance of proteins, carbs and fats.)
A recent study in Spain on a cyclic ketogenic diet followed 90 overweight and obese individuals for one year. They performed three weeks of a ketogenic diet, followed by three weeks of low-carb dieting, then four months of a balanced approach (this cycle was repeated twice). The results were impressive! The group lost 20-35 pounds during their ketogenic phase and during their maintenance plan, only gained a few pounds back.(3) Also, they significantly improved their blood sugar, insulin, blood pressure and inflammatory markers.
If you struggle sticking to a diet for a long period oftime, a cyclic ketogenic diet can be the perfect fit for athletes and active people, as well as middle ground between strict adherence and enough time to loosen the rules. The length of the cycle depends on you and the amount of weight you have to lose, typically 2-3 weeks ketogenic followed by and 4-6 weeks off is a good general guideline.
3) Classic Low-Carb Diet
A low-carb diet typically consists of 100g of carbs or less per day. A low-carb diet, along with its cousin the ketogenic diet, are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to promoting weight loss and upgrading your health for anyone with significant weight to lose.
As we discussed above, the hormone insulin plays a key role in your quest to lose weight. Carbohydrates exert the greatest impact on your insulin output, therefore decreasing your carb intake (and increasing your consumption of healthy proteins, fats and veggies) is a surefire way to improve your insulin sensitivity if you’re overweight, out of shape or in poor health.
The British Journal of Nutrition found a low-carb approach beat out a low-fat diet across the board, as well as delivering significant reductions in bodyweight, reductions in triglycerides and improved good HDL cholesterol.(4) Another great benefit of a low-carb diet is you can forget about counting calories. A recent study found that even an unrestricted calorie low-carb diet (that’s right, they could eat all the calories they wanted, so long as they kept carbs below 100g) lost more weight than people on a calorie-restricted low-fat diet, or a Mediterranean diet. Low-carb diets are simple, effective and allow you to focus on one thing… reducing your carbs.
4) Cyclic Low-Carb Diet
Just like a cyclic ketogenic diet, a cyclic low-carb simply means alternating your carb intake every few weeks. If you have a lot of weight to lose, it’s probably best to start with a cyclic low-carb approach because you’ll have more room for a fruit snack and modest amounts of starchy carbs (e.g. root and tubers like yams, yucca, beets, parsnips, carrots, etc). For some, a ketogenic diet can be too strict and lead to feelings of fatigue, irritability and possible “rebound” binges after a long period of restriction.
The benefits of low-carb eating aren’t just insulin based. Low-carb diets increase satiety and make you feel fuller between meals, due to the higher protein intake and output of the satiety hormone leptin.(5) While you don’t produce ketones on a low-carb diet, you can still burn significant amounts of body-fat, crucial for long-term success. Finally, there is a higher metabolic cost for your body to produce glucose from protein and fat (gluconeogenesis) on a low-carb diet, meaning you burn more energy throughout the day, even when you’re sitting at your desk!
5) Intermittent Fasting
Throughout history, our hunter-gatherers ancestors would have fasted for long periods of time as they searched for food. Today, you don’t need to hunt or gather as convenience food is everywhere and typically loaded with simple and processed carbs. We eat almost all hours of the day, something not seen throughout evolution.
If you are overweight, out of shape, or in poor health then intermittent fasting (IF) may be just the kick-start you need. IF effectively shrinks the number of hours in the day you eat, and expands the number of hours you fast or don’t eat. While not strictly a low-carb protocol, IF pairs well with a low-carb diet (or ketogenic) to promote fat loss. A successful IF protocol looks like this; delay your breakfast until 10h00-11h00am, eat lunch at 2h00-3h00pm, and finish with dinner at 6h00-7h00pm. Then, after dinner you fast until 10h00-11h00am the next morning. (The good news is should be asleep for eight hours so it’s not as difficult as it might seems!)
This approach is best suited for people who are very busy in the morning; business executives, parents trying to get their kids off to school, or anyone who needs to be productive right from the start of the day. The best part is IF also improves so many other key areas of your health; boosting brain function, cooling inflammation, improving heart health and slowing the ageing process.(6) It seems this ancestral approach unlocks some other amazing health benefits!
Low-carb and ketogenic diets are phenomenal for weight loss. One of the reasons for the rapid growth and popularity of the Paleo diet is that it fits really well with a low-carb and ketogenic eating. The natural emphasis on grass-fed and wild proteins, healthy fats and abundant veggies (and some fruit) while omitting processed sugars and many starchy carbs makes the Paleo diet a natural choice.
The New Year is a perfect time to build a new you. Transform you body and upgrade your health with your favorite version of a ketogenic or low-carb Paleo diet, you’ll look and feel better for it!
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS