The Buzz: Low and High Carbohydrate Diets

Fresh baked breadsWhat’s the buzz? 

In the endless battle between low-carb diets vs. high-carb (low fat), it seems like following either may contribute to a shorter lifespan, says new study.

What does the science say?
Carbohydrates are at the center of controversy again — but this time researchers give proponents of high-carbohydrate AND those of low-carbohydrate diets something to think about. A large study, published in The Lancet Journal of Public Health, looked at carbohydrate consumption and how it relates to all causes of death found that following a low-carbohydrate diet (less than 40 percent of calories from carbs) OR a high-carbohydrate diet (more than 70 percent of calories from carbs) puts you at a higher risk of death than than if you eat a moderate carbohydrate diet (about 50-55 percent of calories from carbs).

Sounds like our old friend Moderation, as boring as she sometimes may seem, is still one of our most healthy relationships. But, even so, that’s not the full story.

You may be thinking: Aren’t carbs “bad”? Who actually tries to follow a high-carb diet these days? A high-carb diet is essentially a low-fat diet in disguise. Those who follow a low-fat diet may still be stuck in the ’90s when it was common to fear fat, as scientists had previously thought that all fat was unhealthy — it turns out that some fats, such as plant fats, are actually good for us. Others may inadvertently follow a high-carb diet just as part of the American way of eating (give us all the cereal, pizza, and burritos!). Lastly, some diet programs, such as the Ornish diet, recommend focusing on foods that are lower in fat and higher in carbohydrates, although the emphasis is on whole-food forms like legumes and whole grains.

Meanwhile, “low-carb diet” is often code for a high-fat, higher-protein diet. (You have to replace the carbs with something!) It turns out that those who replaced carbs with plant-based fats and proteins — nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes — had a much lower risk of death than those who ate more animal protein and fat such as beef, lamb, pork, and poultry.

One important factor that wasn’t discussed in this study is the quality of the carbohydrates. Other research supports emphasizing whole-food sources of carbohydrates like starchy vegetables, whole grains, and fruit, while limiting refined carbohydrates for overall health.

What’s the takeaway?
It’s not a big surprise: Moderation wins again. (Really, we should all invite Moderation over for dinner sometime soon…actually, maybe every night.) While more extreme diets — whether low-fat or low-carb — may be appealing for their (often, short-term) weight loss benefits, they could actually be detrimental to long-term health. When it comes to health and longevity, it’s not just about macronutrient consumption: the quality of the foods you eat matters, and this study adds more fuel to the fire that plant-forward diets have a lot to offer.

Read more about the details of the study and what it means for you.