Do Low-Carb Diets Really Work?

11/07/2016 16:45 | Updated 11 July 2016
Brand X Pictures via Getty Images

For decades, the dominant diet craze was all about low-fat. People seemed to think that consuming fat just made us fat in turn. In the last few years, the benefits of healthy fat have become generally accepted. People now look to fatty foods such as avocado, oily fish, nuts and coconut oil to reduce risk of disease and lower blood cholesterol levels.


Now, the reverse has occurred - low-carb diets are now quite common. Paleo, Zone and Atkins have all become quite popular. The problem with this is that our bodies need both carbs and fats for energy. Very low levels of both makes no sense, and eliminating them completely is a massive own goal.

The trick is in understanding where and when to use them. Here is where low-carb works, and firstly where it doesn't.

When Low-Carb Doesn't Work

Those who back low-carb diets claim that weight loss is sped up by cutting back on carbohydrates. Think of that whole 'no carbs before Marbs' idea put forward by TV shows like The Only Way Is Essex.

It is worth pointing out that weight gain and weight loss are managed by relatively simple science. When your body consumes more calories than are burned off, the excess energy is stored as body mass (weight gain). On the flip side, being in a calorie deficit over time will result in weight loss. It has little to do with the food you eat being predominantly carb or fat-based.


The majority of research has confirmed this. Pennsylvania University discovered that while those following low-carb diets lost more weight in an initial three-month period than those consuming more in carbs, the effects wore off afterwards. There was little to no difference after a year.

The reason for this could come down to water. Drastically reducing carbs, often done in preparation for a photo shoot or upcoming holiday (something I have trialled myself) will see a lot of water weight lost. While you may look leaner in the short term, this doesn't necessarily mean much fat has been used for fuel.

When Low-Carb Does Work

You have got to be sensible with carbohydrate timing. Carb intake should generally orbit exercise and activity. Working at a desk all day, I personally don't need carbs until around 4pm - before then it is mainly protein and moderate levels of fat on the menu - especially omega 3s - for brain function and focus. In that sense, low-carb at certain times in the day can pay off.

When I leave work, hit the gym and then return home, that's when I prefer to consume carbohydrates. They will fuel (and refuel) muscle glycogen pre and post-training, leaving you stronger and protecting muscle tissue from being used as an energy source. Carbohydrates in your evening meal can also aid the release of serotonin before bed, leading to better sleep.


Carb levels can be adjusted whether you're trying to bulk up or burn fat. If looking to lose weight, perhaps make do with one cup of rice after training instead of two - for example. That way you may still retain strength while reducing calories enough to stay lean. One thing's for certain though - cutting carbs out altogether is madness.

Calories Are Key

Fancy diets are marketable - they can sell books, training programmes and make a name for the individuals behind them. For that reason, it's no wonder so many people get hooked up on whether they should be low or high carb.

Calorie control is the absolute key to weight gain and weight loss. Heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua can get by on huge stacks of toast and big bowls of cereal for breakfast. He trains three to four times a day and needs sufficient calories to fuel this. His coaches have counted it out for him. If you lead a less active lifestyle you're going to need fewer calories - it's that simple.

Too much emphasis has been placed on the kind of food eaten - and not enough on the actual portion sizes.

You can read more of Alex's work at his personal website:
All images via