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What Counts as a ‘Low Carb’ Diet and Is It Right for You?

Feb. 7, 2024 — Atkins, keto, the Zone, the paleo diet – it seems like low-carb diets have been around forever, and they’ve only grown in popularity over the years. But despite their renown, it remains unclear what exactly “low carb” really means. 

A study recently published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition analyzed over 500 articles about low-carb diets and found that, among the scientific community, there remains a real discrepancy about what “low carb” means. 

The study’s principal investigator, Taylor Wallace, PhD, CEO of Think Healthy Group and an adjunct professor of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University, said that given the sheer amount of research that has been put into studying low-carb diets, it’s striking that we don’t have a clear definition. 

The range of evaluated studies – all published between 2002 and 2022 – found that most trials defined low-carb as having 100 grams or less of carbohydrates daily. But many also had much stricter definitions, with carbs taking up only 40-60 grams per day. 

The variability, Wallace said, should underline the fact that low-carb diets might not be right for everyone. 

“There’s a lot of data that shows that low-carb diets work in cases like diabetes and weight loss,” said Wallace. “But I also think that there’s a lot that we don’t know, and we shouldn’t overstep to ‘Eat as much saturated fat as you want, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re on a low-carb diet.’ That’s a little bit out there for me.” 

The other issue Wallace pointed out was that most of the studies did not examine participants beyond the 6-month point, which doesn’t shed light on how sustainable these meal plans are in the long term

A systematic review and meta-analysis

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