People are attracted to a low-carb way of eating for a variety of reasons, but the most notable one is usually weight loss. How much weight can you realistically expect to lose?
The truth is that it's difficult to predict how much weight any one person will lose on a low-carb diet (or any other weight-loss diet, for that matter). There are simply too many variables at play.
But here are some reasonable weight loss goals you can anticipate based on scientific evidence.
The Basics of a Low-Carb Weight Loss Experience
You may be surprised to hear that on a low-carb diet weight loss mainly happens in the same way as on any other weight loss diet—by creating a calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than you expend).
The difference is that while a low-calorie diet has an externally-imposed calorie limit, a low-carb diet works with your body so that you desire fewer calories. It's like changing the demand rather than the supply of food. Carbohydrate reduction seems to work on the appetite system in multiple ways, including altering levels of hormones and other transmitters of information about hunger and satiety in our body.
In terms of specific weight loss, some research suggests that people lose approximately the same amount of weight on a low-carb diet as on a low-calorie diet, even though they are not told to limit the amount of food they eat (just the amount of carbohydrate).
Getting started on a low-carb diet can be nerve-wracking. You may worry about changing your daily meal routine, how you will feel, or have anxiety about the diet not working. Information on what to expect regarding weight changes your first month can ease your mind a bit:
The First Week of a Low-Carb Diet
The first week of a low-carbohydrate diet leads to a shift in the body's metabolism. This is because the body has been using primarily glucose for energy and must switch to using primarily fat.
Some weight will be lost—but it's water loss, not fat loss. This is because the glucose which is stored for easy use in our liver is in a molecule called glycogen which is bound up with a lot of water. When starting a low-carb diet, stored glycogen is released and broken down, and water is lost with it.
The weight loss tends to be more pronounced in people who restrict their carbohydrates to less than 50 grams per day (a very low carb diet), as opposed to those who stick to a low-carb diet which is between 60 and 130 grams of carbohydrates daily. A standard diet contains about 200 to 300 grams of carbohydrates daily, so a low-carb diet offers a dramatic drop.
One of the interesting (and sometimes discouraging) things about this water is that once gone, it doesn't all stay gone. Returning to eating a higher level of carbohydrate will definitely increase the number of glycogen stores, causing overnight weight gain (but not fat gain).
Even if you don't go back to eating a lot more carbohydrate, glycogen stores gradually build back up, with the glucose mainly coming from gluconeogenesis from protein.
This is not at all a bad thing, as the body needs to maintain a certain level of blood glucose, and having a reserve is important.
These changes can be concerning to scale-watchers who are anxiously tracking lost pounds. Even when you are losing fat, the fluid shifts occurring in your body may create what looks like stalls in your weight loss. The trick is not to get too tied to the scale during this time.
The Second Week of a Low-Carb Diet
It's good to think of the second week as a week of stability after the roller coaster metabolism shift of the first week. Even so, this is often where the real fat loss will start in most people who respond well to low-carb diets.
Some bodies do take a little longer to adjust, however, so try to remain patient.
It's also important at this time to ensure that you are not only reducing your carbohydrate intake but choosing healthy alternatives. For instance, since carbohydrates are found in many fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and alcoholic drinks, you will be eating more fats and proteins.
Be sure to choose healthy sources of protein and fats (called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) like:
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
- Fish higher in fat, like salmon
Fruits and vegetables are healthy, though you just need to choose low-carb options like:
- Broccoli and cauliflower
- Spinach and Kale
- Bell peppers
- Brussel sprouts
- Melons like cantaloupe and watermelon
The Third and Fourth Week of a Low-Carb Diet
Sometime in the second half of the first month, your body will probably settle into a pattern of weight loss. The rate at which you lose depends on many factors, the most prominent of which is how overweight you are to start. In other words, people with less to lose will lose much more slowly than those with a lot of extra fat.
Once the first couple of weeks are over, people may lose between half a pound and two pounds per week, which is considered a healthy rate. The usual advice is to weigh yourself once a week because of day-to-day weight fluctuations due to fluid, fiber consumed, and other factors. Also, women who are having menstrual cycles sometimes decide not to weigh in the second half of their cycles, especially if they tend to retain water at this time.
It's important to choose a consistent time of day to weigh yourself. Most of the time people choose to weigh first thing in that morning, before beginning to eat and drink, because this is the best basis for comparison. If you weigh yourself at another time of day, there will be even more fluctuations.
After the First Month on a Low-Carb Diet
In a large review study on over 1,000 people with obesity who followed a low-carb diet, the average weight loss was about 15 pounds for people followed between three and six months after beginning the diet. After two years of follow-up, the average weight loss was about 10 pounds; so still a reduction, but this data suggests that people do tend to gain some weight back. The review concluded that a low-carb/high-protein diet may be more effective than a low-fat diet at six months and at least as effective at one year.
Studies do not predict your individual weight loss (or gain back) but suggest that the diet may be challenging to adhere to for a long time. It's best to choose a way of eating that is healthy and includes food you enjoy so you will be more likely to stick with it.
A Word From Verywell
In the end, if you can manage your weight well with a low-carb diet and do not seem to miss carb-laden foods (for example, bread, rice, and pasta), this diet may be a sensible option for you. But be sure to follow the diet under the guidance of your doctor to ensure it is safe for you.
In addition to weight control, your low-carb manner of eating may have other health benefits too, like lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
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