Why didn't low-carb dieting work for me?
May 4, 2012 8:59 PM   Subscribe

I tried a low-carb diet. I didn't lose much weight and my experience was different from what most other people report. Why?

(Anonymous because I don't care to talk about my weight on the Internet.)

In the spirit of self-experimentation, and with the intention of losing some weight, I decided to see what would happen if I modified my diet to reduce carbohydrate intake. For the last month or so I've been eating a diet that gets about 15% of calories from carbs, on average about 50-75g of carbs per day. (Which is to say: substantial carb restriction, but more carbs than you would consume on something like Atkins.) I lost 2-4 pounds, all of it in the first two weeks. This is within the normal range of fluctuation of my weight.

In many ways this was not what I expected from reading other people's accounts and talking to friends. People close to me have lost between 8 and 15 pounds on a diet similar to mine with little effort. I expected to be eating fewer calories but feeling full; in fact, on the days I tracked calories, it seemed that I was eating about as many calories as usual. People reported feeling an increase in energy level or alertness; I did not. People reported "cravings" for carb-rich foods; I had none. Basically, I have spent the last month eating very differently from the way I usually eat, but feeling more or less the same, and losing weight (if at all) at a pace so slow that I'm not sure anything's really going on. Why? I can think of a few possible reasons my experience might have been different from other people's.

1. It's possible that here are large individual metabolic differences between people, so that some people will lose significant weight on low-carb diet and others (like me) won't.

2. People's "carb cravings" seemed often to be related to sugar; I don't have much of a sweet tooth and my normal diet doesn't contain a lot of added sugar.

3. I am only slightly overweight -- I started at 6'1" and about 198 (now 195), or BMI 26.

4. My normal diet contains lots of carbs, but much of this comes in the form of whole grain (e.g. large portions of whole wheat pasta and whole wheat bread.) So maybe reducing these is less beneficial than cutting out soda, white bread, and candy?

6. I guess it's also possible that only extreme "Atkins-style" diets (say 20g carb per day) are effective, and what I'm doing is not substantially different from eating hundreds of grams of carbs per day.

7. I probably didn't eat as much vegetable as I should have. My diet was heavily weighted towards meat, cheese, and eggs, with some non-starchy vegetables included as an afterthought.

8. I haven't been doing serious aerobic exercise (I commute by bike about 20 mins / day and that's it.) In the scientific spirit, I didn't add exercise when I started the diet because I wasn't exercising before, and I'm curious about the effect of the diet.

Have other people here had experiences like mine? Did I do low-carb wrong, or is there a reason (one of the above, or another) that low-carb is not going to be a viable weight-loss strategy for me?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If you think 50-75g of carbs is a substantial restriction, you are mistaken. Try less than 10, or more like 5 and you will see the weight loss. 50-75 carbs a day is a normal diet to me, maybe even a little high, but mostly because I stay away from breads and pastas and prepared food.
posted by sanka at 9:08 PM on May 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

People horribly exaggerate the numbers when they tell friends and family how much they've lost. Realize that with a very serious diet and exercise program, you might lose 10 lbs a month -- and with an average diet and no extra exercise, you might lose 3 lbs a month. To even notice changes that small, you have to be absolutely scientific about measuring your weight -- take a moving average of the last couple of days, use a digital scale, don't weigh clothes.

Also, I believe the current medical consensus is that low carb might work, but only if it's extreme. I don't think anyone has even suggested that 20% or 30% less carbs would even do anything.
posted by miyabo at 9:15 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could your salt intake have been high, making you retain water? But, I have to agree with the above; I lost 50 pounds (over a long period of time) on low-carb. Eating 50+ carbs I maintain or even gain weight now. It really sucks, I know.
posted by kitcat at 9:15 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, by the above, I meant sanka.
posted by kitcat at 9:19 PM on May 4, 2012

on the days I tracked calories, it seemed that I was eating about as many calories as usual

That's why you didn't lose weight.

"Independent of the macro composition of your diet, a net negative energy balance (consuming less calories than your body needs) is alone responsible for weight loss."
posted by ludwig_van at 9:20 PM on May 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

50-75 grams of carbs is too much for a low carb diet. I've been on diets which were much more focused on balancing proteins, carbs and fats, and even then, 50grams of carbs were on the high end of what was permitted.

People I know have been on low carb diets and have lost significantly more weight than what you're reporting. If you're commited to this, maybe re-evaluate your meals and try again?
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:21 PM on May 4, 2012

1. Sort of, but not that much. The first weeks of carb reduction can trigger wildly differing reactions. Water and glycogen fluctuations make the bathroom scale a daily source of comedy for the novice low-carber.

2. Good on ya. I don't crave either. Cravings seem to be more of a cultural/lifestyle thing than a metabolic phenomenon; we basically live in a crazed carbocracy under the perpetual hypnotic urging to eat as many carbs as possible in order to facilitate the space-ghoul world domination agenda. Many people simply find it hard to exist for long outside of this social paradigm.

3. Irrelevant. Lean mass-bodyfat% would be helpful; BMI as a metric for individuals is so bad it's not even wrong.

4. Again, not really relevant. Glucose is glucose.

5. You forgot 5.

6. Correct; 50-75g of carbs is not enough to elicit full ketosis, or fat metabolism. In weight loss terms this matters little. Total calories is the only determinant of weight loss; being in ketosis doesn't alter this fact in any way, some people just find it more comfortable to run their bodies on fat during prolonged caloric deficit.

7. If you were getting 50-75g of carbs daily, and not eating bread, pasta, rice, sweets, etc. Where were you getting these carbs, if not veg?

8. Exercise is tangential to weight loss. Do it for it's own merits, not to lose weight. Discount exercise completely when assessing your diet, and you'll be clearer in your goals and less likely to use it to compensate for lapses in dietary discipline, which is the sole determinant of body composition in the long-run.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:23 PM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

edit: "50-75g of carbs is not low enough..."
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:24 PM on May 4, 2012

When I started eating low carb I was aiming for less than 25 g of net carbs per day. I could definitely tell the metabolic changes when I went into ketosis (because the getting there sucked) and that's when my serious weight loss started. Some people use home test strips to check when they're in ketosis, and that might be more useful to you as a measure of where you need to be. 50-75 g is a maintenance range for me, not a loss range.

Yes, I think that different people have different metabolisms and respond differently and lose weight at different carb points. Part of the process is figuring out how far down you have to go to lose weight.

My previous diet was predominantly whole grains, so I'm not sure how much difference that makes.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:29 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think kandarp von Bontee's number 6 point is of key relevance here, as an adjunct to a point that quite a few have made re: if you don't reduce calories you won't lose weight. Eating high protein is often more sustainable/attractive to people because it is filling, etc, while carbs tend not to be. But that is not the reason one loses weight.
Re: the question of restriction/reduction-- if 55-60 carbs is low-carb for you then it's low-carb...It is ridiculous to say that people's prior eating habits/weight/lifestyle have no bearing on how they need to approach a diet. The number of carbs is not the key thing, but the proportion of your diet you get from them, and the calorific make-up of your diet overall, is.
posted by jojobobo at 9:54 PM on May 4, 2012

Also: I would view comments about people's weight loss/their preferred diet's capacity to cause weight loss with skepticism. Diets are an emotional and socially loaded subject and people say all sorts of crap (not to mention a booming industry in which there is all sorts of documented bs-ing going on to manipulate that).
posted by jojobobo at 9:56 PM on May 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Did you take your measurements before and after starting your low-carb diet?

When I first went paleo (not super low carb, but no grains or sugar), I lost quite a bit of weight off the bat--went from 140 to 125 within a month or maybe six weeks at most, surely mostly water weight. But after that the actual weight loss totally plateaued and the main differences I note are purely in terms of inches gained or lost, which I now mostly monitor based on the fit of my clothing rather than carefully measuring down to the centimeter.

I do eat a lot of vegetables, well above the "five a day" suggestion, and I have increased my fat intake quite a bit. Tracking calories at the beginning, it seemed that on average I was eating about the same as when I previously tried Weight Watchers, though the macronutrient balance was completely different (much more fat than a WW plan would allow for), which makes sense given the higher calories from fat and much less of the "empty" calories from grain products or beans.

I also follow a fairly mellow primal approach to exercise, in that I walk and bike as much as possible, lift heavy things (in the form of kettlebell swings) several times a week, and I go to the rock climbing gym and do martial arts regularly. But all of this in pretty small doses compared to people with hour-a-day formal workouts.
posted by padraigin at 10:34 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

How has the quality of food been? Is it super-refined, "high-reward" food? Are you chewing your food well or is it mushy? (Chewing helps with satiety.) Are you getting your carbs from veggies and sweet potatoes, or cake and soda? How about nutrient density? These all matter.

Still, weight loss is different for different people. Some people aren't tempted to eat even enough to maintain their fat levels when on a healthy, ancestral diet. Others find better health but less of a weight change. Some find success with a ketogenic diet (very low carb) although there may be some reasons to only use this intermittently.

For anyone who wants to change their weight, though, it's important to be doing at least some fairly intense exercise like resistance training/lifting or some form of interval training. This will ensure that you lose fat and gain muscle, and not the other way around. With proper exercise, even a "yo-yo diet" can result in long-term positive body recomposition.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:21 PM on May 4, 2012

Like others have said, I think the key is that you were eating about the same and number of calories this before.

I lost about 50 pounds last year three months but I was exercising like crazy. However, when I stop the exercise and did Atkins only I wasn't losing any weight.

My personal hypothesis, and what I have read elsewhere is that people on high-fat and high-protein diets tend to eat fewer calories without really missing them. However, if you're still eating the same number of calories then the ketosis argument may or may not work depending upon the person. That's my two cents anyway.
posted by chinabound at 12:47 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with the posters who said that 50g per day is not low enough. Low carb dieting isn't like calorie counting where you can shave some off here and there and have it work. For LC you really want to get--and stay--into ketosis to see the weight losses you read about, and you can't do that at 50 grams a day.
posted by bink at 12:48 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to say that my husband and I are two more people that a few years ago went on a low-carb diet (ahem - Somersizing), but it wasn't just cutting down on carbs.

It was eliminating sugar, alcohol, white flours and the "funky foods" and eating things in certain combinations, such as protein + veg (which are counted as carb, but low-carb) or whole wheat things + veg, but never protein + carb, and always keeping fruit separate that did it. Her plan is also big on reading labels and finding hidden sugars, in products like pasta sauces and canned vegetables and even whole grain breads.

We each lost about 35 pounds following those rules over the months we were doing so, but when we went to "Level 2", adding things back in, we plateaued. Now we're back to where we were, and joke that we're still on "Level 2" as we chase our risotto with wine. Somers' theory about the food combining, as I recall, had something to do with insulin levels and bloat from "bad" food combination.

So, in your case, I'm going to agree that what you're doing needs to be more extreme. And after looking at the Somersizing page again, I'm thinking that my husband and I actually did really well on that plan, our doctor was happy with it after she looked at our books, and we should probably do it again.
posted by peagood at 5:02 AM on May 5, 2012

Are you following a specific low-carb diet plan or just doing it on your own? I've had great success with low-carb, both in terms of weight loss and increased energy.
What I've noticed on low carb boards is that the folks complaining that it doesn't work haven't read any books, aren't on a plan and are making up their own. Read, pick a plan you can follow, and stick with it - Atkins, Protein Power, Carb Addict's, paleo/primal, etc.
I think your carbs are too high and your veggie intake way too low. Yes, I eat more protein, but I also eat a ton of veggies, which is really important. And stay away from the shakes, bars and other low carb products if you can. "Eating clean" i.e. unprocessed foods really helps. Good luck!
posted by lawhound at 5:08 AM on May 5, 2012

The Schwarzbein Diet Overall, the number of carbs you are eating is not considered low-carb, despite the fact your carbs are much more restricted than average. The Schwarzbein Diet allows that level of carbs (in the form of "good carbs" like whole grains, fruits and veggies) and while I'm sure it is a much healthier way to eat, from what I see on low carb message boards a lot of people don't lose much weight on that plan.

I think differing metabolisms are also a factor. I've spent a lot of time on low carb boards and people seem to run the gamut in terms of how many carbs they can eat and still lose. You find people losing steadily on Atkins even though they regularly include a significant amount of cheats on the diet, and you find people who cut carbs to the bone in desperation (the nauseating "meat and egg plan") and still don't lose very much and you also do find people who lose steadily on Schwarzbein.

About 15 years ago I went on the Carbohydrate Cravers Diet, which at that time consisted of eating low carb for most of the day, and then allowed a "reward meal" every evening in which you could eat pretty much whatever you wanted, carbs included, as long as it was reasonably balanced. The premise of the diet had something to do with how insulin is released when you eat carbs constantly as opposed to when you restrict them to a small window of eating once a day. The first time I went on it I lost around 70 pounds in just a few months, with no hunger or cravings. I kept it off for a couple of years, then gradually gained it back as I got careless about eating carbs.

I've tried several times to go back on that diet to lose again and I have never been able to replicate that success. I've had PCOS since I was 25 (which has some tie-ins with insulin dysfunction) and have since developed type II diabetes. So I suspect that over the years my metabolism/hormonal makeup has shifted in such a way that I can't lose weight on a low carb plan unless I restrict my overall carbs fairly stringently.

(The "One Golden Shot" theory is legendary/mythical (depending on who you ask) among low carb dieters. Apparently lots of people have had the experience of losing a lot of weight easily the first time they try low carbing, but if they gain it back and try low carbing again, they can never get it to work as well as it did the first time. So that's another bit of anecdata pointing to some sort of metabolism issue.)

Gary Taubes explains the connection between carb intake, insulin and weight loss in the book Good Calories, Bad Calories if you have more than a passing interest in the theory of how low carbing works in your body.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:10 AM on May 5, 2012

Not sure how my Schwarzbein link migrated to the beginning of my post...
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:12 AM on May 5, 2012

Ok here's my advice for you. I've lost about 60 lbs following low carb diet principles.

1. I read Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat as well as Good Calories, Bad Calories. I would highly recommend those as does Serene Empress Dork above, if you want to get a handle on why exactly this is working or not working for you.

2. I would also recommend the following blogs: War on Insulin by Peter Attia and Diet Doctor by Andreas Eenfeldt. They both explain this far better than I can. On Diet Doctor I would start with this page: LCHF for beginners. and on War on Insulin I would start with this page, which describes Peter Attia's eating plan evolution, from merely cutting out sugar and refined carbs, to full-on ketosis, and the different effects he experienced in each stage.

3. The first thing I think when I look at your diet is that you're at the uncomfortable in-between stage of carb-restriction. What this means is that you're cutting out carbs, but not to the extent that you'll see an appetite restriction. Why is this? Basically when you eat carbs (any sort, whole-grain included -- the rise is just slower that's all) you increase secretion of the hormone insulin which causes you to partition the fuel you're eating differently -- such that more of it goes towards the fat tissue and less towards energy for doing work like walking or running or just going about daily business. This causes you to feel hungrier, as the muscle cells still want to energy to keep going. You thus start to eat more food, because of this higher appetite. This is what happens when you work up an appetite by going on a run, say. When you cut carbs below a certain level, you don't secrete much insulin, leading to fewer wild swings of blood glucose and a much more stable energy level. If you keep grams of carbs below about 40 for a couple days to a week, you'll enter what's known as ketosis (please don't confuse this with ketoacidosis, which is a dangerous side-effect of type-I diabetes, not at all the same thing), where your body starts moving to fat as its primary means of fuel, fueling your brain with ketones and producing new glucose as needed via the process of gluconeogenesis. In such a situation you'll be living off both the fat in your diet and the fat from your tissues, with the proportion depending on how much weight you have left to lose.

So yes, you may not have your carbs low enough -- try 20 -- 40 g and if that doesn't work, try even lower for the first couple weeks. Once you've experienced that appetite suppression effect is when you want to slowly start increasing carbs (if you want, there's nothing against keeping your carbs low).

4. Next, I'm concerned that I see no mention of the amount of fat you're eating. Low-carb is not just low-carb, it's low carb, high fat. If that sounds scary, please don't be scared. There is no rational reason for the fear of fat prevailing in American society today. Please look at the list of scientific studies linked here for more information. You want to aim for about 5 % carbs, 65 % fat and the rest protein, as a percentage of calories. Good choices for fats include butter and coconut oil.

5. Yes, different people are definitely different metabolically -- and as a person who's not all that overweight, the weight is going to come off slower for you. I have only about 10 lbs to go now, for example, and this weight is coming off much slower than the previous 60 lbs. But try fixing the other stuff first.

6. A note because I saw some people suggesting reducing intake of salt. That's actually a bad idea on a low-carb diet, because you tend to lose water as well as associated sodium on a low-carb diet. This can lead to low blood pressure and sometimes slight dizziness. Therefore, please eat your salt! In fact, supplement with a bit of chicken bouillon to ensure you're getting your sodium. The War on Insulin blog linked above has more on this.

7. And finally, my absolute favorite low-carb video, if you need to convince yourself or others of why this is a worthwhile eating plan: The Food Revolution.
posted by peacheater at 6:02 AM on May 5, 2012 [18 favorites]

8. One last note about the whole calories thing. If I hear calories in = calories out, one more time I'll scream. Yes, this is obviously true, since the human body is not violating the laws of thermodynamics, and at the same time absolutely useless as a weight loss principle. This is because we're not really capable of tallying all the various ways in which energy can leave our body accurately -- we ingest some amount of energy as food, and that energy can leave our body as useful work, in our excreta and as heat (which doesn't do much useful work). The remainder goes to our fat tissues to be stored. It's possible to eat the same number of calories and have very different effects -- perhaps you're a naturally lean person who uses most of the ingested energy to do useful work, and very little to put fat in fat tissue. Alternately you could be a fat person, who tends to put on the pounds, and more of the energy is diverted to fat tissue, leading to you feeling much hungrier. If you resist the impulse to eat (which is very very hard for long periods of time, which is why you have all that stuff out there about how hard it is to stick to a low-calorie diet) you feel half starved and lethargic.

You can think of this partition plan for your energy as a program that your body is using -- what you want to do is to change the program such that less of the energy you eat goes toward fat tissue and more towards letting you do useful work. Changing the amount of insulin you secrete is the simplest way of doing that -- ultimately by changing the percentage of carbs you consume. That way you'll end up eating less calories almost automatically -- but please note that you don't actually have to count these calories, and that doing so is really pointless -- you can't account for all the ways in which your body consumes energy anyway. Therefore, If you find that you're not experiencing the appetite-lowering effects of a low-carb diet, you probably still have too high insulin levels.
posted by peacheater at 7:26 AM on May 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Everyone's body reacts to things differently, but fwiw, I have to go under 25g of carbs a day consistently to lose any weight via a low carb approach. I've found the easiest way to do this successfully is fill my (small) plate or bowl with greens, then top with protein and a serving of non-starchy veg.
posted by smirkette at 8:17 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to share my experience as an explanation for why some other people might see results that you haven't. See, I went sort of half-assed low-carb about a year and a half ago. I lost ten or twelve pounds in the space of a month, maybe two, and it's stayed off.

But the thing is, I went off gluten only -- and still eat puh-LENTY of rice and chips and candy and gluten-free cookies and bagels. Even so, the protein/carb/fat ratio of my diet changed dramatically -- I'd never before been able to eat the amount of protein recommended by ex. Daily Plate, and now I routinely eat that much and more. But I'm still eating a heck of a lot of carbs. I mean, I'll sit down with a bag of corn chips and mindlessly nom while I play video games. I am certainly not the role model for weight loss success.

And yet I've experienced those side-effects you speak of, even though I'm very definitely not a low-carber, per se. My weight has stayed down, give or take a couple of pounds of fluctuation. I rarely get hungry anymore. I went through a carb-craving period at the beginning, and even "carb flu"... and when I accidentally get glutened, that comes back, and I want to devour all the wheat, because "Well, I already feel sick, what's one more day?"

So my theory is that some of the people who have experiences similar to mine when they go on a true low-carb diet, or who enjoy the same effects even on a half-assed low-carb diet, might have a mild or undiagnosed food sensitivity that they just happen to be addressing that way.

This is a roundabout way of saying: There are some huge differences in how our bodies handle metabolism, digestion, and so on. This should be more intuitive than it is -- even on the outside, people have different hair and skin and eyes (from a functional point of view, not just a cosmetic one). Some need glasses, some need moisturizer, some go bald, etc., etc. Why should we assume our internal parts would be more homogenous?

The mistake is believing we're machines, with interchangeable parts. The truth is a lot squishier than that. Sometimes something will work for one person and not for another, and we may never be sure why.
posted by Andrhia at 8:38 AM on May 5, 2012

I don't lose any weight low carbing unless I add in a lot of fat, but even then I only lose 1-2 lbs a week at most. However, my weight loss is more steady doing this than if I cut calories and exercise. Everyone's bodies are different.
posted by toerinishuman at 8:46 AM on May 5, 2012

Eat more fat. Eat even less carbs. I know it seems counter intuitive to everything you've been taught but low carb and low fat doesn't work as well. This website has a lot of very useful information about why on it.
posted by wwax at 8:53 AM on May 5, 2012

When you calculated your reduction in carbs, how did you do it? "Low carb" cookies, breads and ice creams? Or by just not eating that stuff at all, and getting your carb intake from vegetables? And even then, fruits and vegetables vary pretty widely off the standard quoted numbers.

When I was eating a low carb diet, I would only really lose weight when I increased my exercise level. (And a day of zero carbs and really hard, muscle-using work, REALLY took off the pounds.)
posted by gjc at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2012

Everyone's body reacts to things differently,

Quoted for emphasis. My partner and I went on a DIY low-carb thing a year ago, and I lost more weight faster, with a higher carb intake, than she did. She exercised, I didn't. We're the same age. I lost a steady 2-3 pounds per week; her loss stalled for ages.

Our bodies are machines. But you wouldn't expect your laptop to be able to do the same things as your car, and your body is not going to do the same things someone else's does.
posted by rtha at 9:53 AM on May 5, 2012

Everyone's different.

The loudest people are the most enthusiastic ones. (And the most fanatic.)

The diet that I worked on with my doctor was 30-45 g of carbs (aiming for 30). I increased protein and paid attention to veggies. It was hard to get used to but very successful. I slipped on it and need to get back to it (as well as more exercise).

I think you might want to try again with a lower carb goal and paying attention to eating good vegetables. I used Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything/How to Cook Everything Vegetarian a lot.
posted by wintersweet at 1:45 PM on May 5, 2012

Response by poster: Dude, track your calories. Subtract 200/day from what you're currently eating. Revisit the scale after two weeks.

That way you'll end up eating less calories almost automatically -- but please note that you don't actually have to count these calories, and that doing so is really pointless -- you can't account for all the ways in which your body consumes energy anyway. Therefore, If you find that you're not experiencing the appetite-lowering effects of a low-carb diet, you probably still have too high insulin levels.

The thing is, if his insulin levels weren't crazy-pants in the first place--and they often aren't in the not-very-overweight--then the appetite-lowering effect may not be that significant for him. It isn't necessary for him to try to calculate how many calories he burns in a day. If he can track his current calorie intake for a week, then he'll get an idea of the average caloric intake that doesn't produce weight loss. Then his goal is to eat a reasonable amount less than that.


Also it is worth nothing that while aerobic exercise is actually great for a large number of things, approaching weight loss by piling it on is not optimal. If you want to optimize your nutrient partitioning into muscle rather than fat then take up lifting. It will improve your hormonal milieu and you'll look better after you lose the weight because a greater percentage of the weight you lost will come from fat rather than muscle mass.
posted by Anonymous at 4:37 PM on May 5, 2012

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