When you have celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian, LeBron James, Adriana Lima, Vanessa Hudgens, and Halle Berry who all swear by low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets it certainly piques your interest.
But in reality does a low-carb, high-fat diet work?
Many of the most popular diets of the past decade espouse the benefits of including fat and cutting down on carbs as the ideal way to lose weight, and to remain fit and healthy.
In a way I’m pleased that fat no longer holds the terrible reputation it did during the 1980s and 1990s, when “low-fat” was the craze.
However, have we simply gone from one extreme to another?
Does a Low-Carb High-Fat Diet Work?
I would hazard a guess that if anyone is asking this particular question about low-carb, high-fat eating then the foremost thing on their mind is losing weight and burning fat (and potentially their overall health).
So, initially allow me to simply focus on this particular aspect of this type of diet.
I mentioned that I’m glad that fat doesn’t get the bad rap it used to, and to be honest we’ve learned far more about fat over the past 30 years.
It used to be the case that we thought eating fat would simply make us fat.
However, times have changed and most people are now aware that if you consume more calories than you burn then you’ll put on weight.
This excess of calories isn’t limited to one macronutrient either. If you eat too many calories of protein, carbs, or fat then you’ll put on weight.
So, we can’t place the blame on one of these alone.
There is scientific evidence that this approach to eating may help you to lose weight, as well as protecting you from certain diseases.
With that said, there also happens to be research which suggests that low-carb, high-fat diets can actually lower your defences against certain conditions.
Plus this type of eating plan can also produce some pretty undesirable side effects.
Nevertheless, as to whether you can lose weight with this type of eating regime, the answer is a definite yes.
As long as you are restricting refined carbs from your diet (basically the type of carbs that taste wonderful, but you know they’re not good for you) and you’re eating the right type of fats, i.e. an avocado and some nuts, as opposed to a chocolate bar and two cookies (both full of the “wrong” type of carbs as well), then you’ll definitely lose weight.
But, it would be very wrong of me to leave the debate there, as there are so many other factors you need to take into consideration.
Why You Need Fats In Your Diet
Fat is an essential nutrient, which means it must be included in your diet.
I think the main issue with eating fats is that it is the most energy-dense of the nutrients at 9 calories per gram.
That’s actually quite a large step when you consider that carbs and protein only contain 4 calories per gram.
Additionally, I’m not knocking low-fat diets, as they can be healthy, especially in terms of reducing the risk of developing certain chronic diseases including, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
However, not consuming enough fat can also be a cause for concern.
If you’re not consuming enough fat in your diet, the results may include:
- Dry skin
- Decreased energy
- Feeling hungry in-between meals
- Increased risk of depression (as well as various other mental and cognitive issues)
- Reduced ability to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K
- Hormonal imbalances
Come to think of it – it’s amazing that many of us made it through the latter part of the last century in one-piece when you consider how big a thing “low-fat” was.
As a healthy adult it is suggested that 20-35% of your daily calorie intake should come from fats.
Therefore, if for example you’re currently consuming 2,000 calories a day, then approximately 44 to 78 grams should be in dietary fats.
For someone following the current “ultimate” low-carb, high-fat diet, Keto, their daily fat intake could be as high as 70%.
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Using the example above that would equate to 156 grams of fat a day.
To be completely honest, the initial figures I have quoted are just basic recommendations from dietitians and healthcare professionals, and how much fat you should be eating on a daily basis is more of an individual thing.
Fat will basically satisfy your hunger and help to keep you fuller for longer.
Why You Need Carbs in Your Diet
The main reason it’s important to have carbs in your diet is because they are your body’s main source of energy.
They are basically the fuel for your body’s major organs including, the brain, heart muscles, kidneys, and central nervous system.
Many carbs are a great source of fibre, which can help aid digestion, and keep you feeling fuller for longer once again.
Fibre also happens to keep your blood cholesterol levels in check.
The body has an amazing way of actually storing carbs in the muscles and liver when you’re not consuming enough carbs through your diet, and it will use these “stored carbs” for energy use at a later time.
When you’re not getting enough carbs in your diet your blood sugar levels typically drop.
If they fall below the normal range of 70-99mg/dL this will cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels).
Hypoglycemia is something that we typically associate with people who have diabetes.
For someone who has diabetes, low blood sugar levels may be caused for a variety of reasons, such as missing meals, intense exercise, or taking too much diabetes medication.
One of the major signs of low blood sugar levels is tingling and trembling lips, although you may also experience weakness and blurred vision.
Low blood sugar levels are usually treated by consuming carbs like toast or having your main meal. Often for a “quick-fix” this may involve a sugary drink or something sweet.
With that said, this is actually the aim of the most famous low-carb, high-fat diet, the ketogenic diet (obviously without the trembling and weakness, although this can occur during the first week).
In order to reach “ketosis” most people will need to restrict their carb intake to less than 50 grams a day, but this can go as low as 20 grams.
Ketosis is when you no longer have enough sugar (glucose) for energy, so your body starts to burn fat for energy, which will cause ketones to build up in your body.
At first glance, if your body is now burning fat for energy, this should lead to weight and fat loss.
It is recommended that most adults should normally aim for 45-65% of their daily calories coming from carbs, with various studies stating that the healthiest option is between 50-55%.
Going back to the 2,000 calories a day example I used above, let’s say that your ideal split of macronutrients is 50% carbs, 25% protein, 25% fats (I’m not saying that this is the “perfect” macro split, but you would certainly be healthy and never hungry).
This would mean that your carb intake should be 1,000 calories, you would need 500 calories in protein, and 500 calories in fat.
This works out to 250 grams of carbs, 125 grams of protein, and 56 grams in fat.
So, you could actually say that 100-150 grams of carbs a day would be considered “low-carb”.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of exactly how low-carb the keto diet is.
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The Different Types of Fat
Of course, not all types of fat are created equal.
Some are good for your health, whereas others are definitely not.
So let’s take a look at the different types of fat:
Many people will assume that saturated fats are bad for you (even the name “saturated” stirs up thoughts of clogged-up arteries), but in truth this isn’t always the case.
People who consume high levels of saturated fat are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, and are often told to replace this in their diet with polyunsaturated fats.
I think my first introduction to saturated fats being replaced by the “better” polyunsaturated fats came as a child, watching TV adverts for Flora margarine (I’m not sure if this is just a UK thing).
Flora Ad Circa 1987
Flora Ad Circa 1991
The most common sources of saturated fats are animal oils, although this doesn’t include fish oils.
For those who are on high-fat diets, coconut oil seems to be a big thing, and this is yet another source of high saturated fats.
The debate still rages on to this day as to whether saturated fats are bad for you, but to stay on the safe-side I wouldn’t recommend having anymore than 10% of your daily calories in saturated fat.
Monounsaturated fat is typically identified as being beneficial for your cardiovascular health.
You’ll find monounsaturated fats in vegetable oils, as well as numerous nuts and seeds.
The popular high-fat avocado is a source of monounsaturated fat.
There are actually a few different types of polyunsaturated fats, which are most commonly found in fish and plants.
Possibly the most well-known polyunsaturated fat is omega-3, but there are actually 2 different types of omega-3 found in fish, and a completely different form of omega-3 found in plants.
With that said, it is highly recommended that you get all 3 types of omega-3 into your diet.
Examples of fish high in omega-3 include salmon, sardine, mackerel, tinned tuna, etc.
I like to sprinkle my morning oats (sorry high-carb) with milled flax seeds and nuts like walnuts, which also have a high omega-3 content.
Another type of polyunsaturated fat is omega-6, which is found in leafy green vegetables and various vegetable oils.
Omega-6 fats did receive a lot of bad press for a while because it was believed that excessive consumption could lead to inflammation and some chronic diseases.
However, recent studies show that omega-6 fats can protect the heart.
Realistically, omega-3 fats should be prioritized, but you can still eat omega-6 fats, just not to excess.
I’m sure you’ve all taken a shocked inhale of breath at the mere mention of trans fats – we all know these are the fats we should definitely avoid.
Trans fats are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
They are often found in the form of hydrogenated oils in various processed foods.
I’m talking packaged, convenience, and fast foods.
However, there are also small traces of trans fat found naturally in dairy fat and beef fat.
The Different Types of Carbs
There are three main types of carbs, namely sugars, starches, and fibre.
Depending on their chemical makeup and how the body breaks them down, carbs are often referred to as “simple” or “complex”.
However, many foods can actually be made up of both simple and complex carbs, which can make it difficult to work out if a carb is good or bad for you.
Simple carbs are made up of basic sugars, which are easy to digest, and often they can be a great source of energy.
Many of these sugars are naturally occurring in certain foods, such as milk and fruits.
However, there are equally as many simple carbs that have refined sugar added to them, such as fructose, glucose, maltose, corn syrup, corn sweetener, sucrose, honey, etc.
This is most noticeable in food products like chocolate bars, baked goods, and carbonated drinks.
Complex carbs typically contain longer chains of sugar molecules, which the body takes longer to break down and use for energy.
Complex carbs are most commonly associated with whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes.
So, you can already start to see a pattern emerging here – complex carbs take longer for the body to break down, which means that you’ll stay fuller for longer, and they tend to come from natural products.
Whereas, simple carbs are often manufactured and have additional sources of sugar added to them.
However, it would be very wrong of me to label every single complex carb as a “bad carb”.
As I’ve mentioned, many fruits and vegetables are forms of simple carbs, and yet they provide you with various essential vitamins and minerals, which are vital for your health.
These fruits and vegetables contain basic sugars unlike the refined sugars which are added to the other types of bad carbs.
In reality, ninety-nine times out of 100 we will know whether a simple carb is good or bad.
I think we are probably aware that foods like pastries, energy drinks, ice cream, cookies, soda and carbonated drinks, chocolate bars and candy, etc. have had “something” added to improve the taste.
And this addition is typically a refined sugar.
Complex carbs are the good guys, but they are still often avoided by those on a low-carb diet.
Examples of complex carbs include, flour, whole wheat bread, pasta, potatoes, brown and wild rices, barley, corn, legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, black beans, etc.
However, complex carbs can be produced with whole grains or processed grains.
As you can probably guess the processed variety are not looked upon as kindly, as they provide far fewer nutrients than the whole variety.
The common types of processed grain complex carbs are white rice and white bread, pasta, and any baked goods made by using white flour.
One of the easiest ways to identify the difference is to scan the packaging of any complex carb products, such as breads and pasta, and see whether the first ingredient contains the word “whole”, e.g. whole wheat flour.
Basically, the more sugar, and the fewer vitamins, minerals, and fibre a carb contains, the worse it is for you.
Are Low-Carb High-Fat Diets Healthy?
Okay, so diets such as keto may currently be all the rage, but in truth are low-carb, high-fat diets healthy?
From a personal perspective, the healthiest of diets will include a wide variety of foods that you find enjoyable, and that you consume in the right amounts in order to promote your overall health and wellbeing.
I’m really not one for recommending “diets” as this typically involves you having to restrict certain ingredients, or even cutting out a complete food group.
Some of the best-known and most successful diets aren’t particularly low in carbohydrates or high in fat. They are simply nutrient dense, easy to follow, ways of eating that can aid weight loss.
With that said, many low-carb, high-fat diets can be extremely hard to follow and they pretty much take all the enjoyment out of eating.
I know that food is a necessity and many people will only eat in order to satisfy an essential human function, but where’s the pleasure in that?
And this coming from someone who has spent time (many years ago) eating nothing but chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, and spinach multiple times a day.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, everything in moderation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally discounting low-carb, high-fat eating, but you must ensure that you are making the right and healthy food choices if this is your preferred method of eating.
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If you are making the correct food choices then low-carb, high-fat will definitely help you to lose weight and burn body fat, as well as reducing the risk of many chronic conditions and diseases.
However, let’s not forget some of the side effects of eating in this way, such as liver problems caused by increased fat intake, nutrient deficiencies, increased risk of bad cholesterol, and constipation.
There are also many temporary side effects that can come about from this type of diet including, fatigue, bad breath, headaches, muscle cramps, skin rashes, and diarrhea.
For me, there just aren’t enough long-term studies into low-carb, high-fat diets.
We are simply seeing the “fantastic” short-term benefits in terms of weight loss. I’d like to know more about this type of diet before I can label it as healthy or unhealthy.
Who knows what will happen if you follow this way of eating for 30,40, 50 years, etc.
I don’t think any “forced” way of eating can ever be sustainable, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise.
At the end of the day the healthiest way to eat is with a balance of ALL the essential macronutrients, which will ensure that your body performs in the way it should.
You can enjoy certain foods more than others, you can even have the occasional treat, but always remember, everything in moderation.
Plus, if you really want to lose weight then you simply need to lower your calorie intake slightly and increase your calorie expenditure slightly (by being more active).
Remember it’s not all about your diet and nutrition, exercise plays a major role in maintaining your ideal weight and living a healthy lifestyle as well.
It really is that simple.
The only thing standing in your way is not your diet, it’s your MIND.
So, does a low-carb, high-fat diet work?
Yes, in terms of losing weight and burning body fat, but hopefully you can now see that there is far more to the equation.
I’m not completely against this way of eating, but as you can probably tell I’m not really into what I consider fad diets, and restricting or completely cutting out complete food groups.
Living a healthy lifestyle is nothing more than eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet, while ensuring that you’re active in some way on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, the reason many of us turn to “quick fixes” in terms of nutrition or exercise is simply because we have let the basics slip.
Whether one way of eating is healthier than another, the debate may continue forever, but you’re now aware of my opinion.
Thank you for reading.
Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.