The Belly Busting Power of Counting Carbs Versus Counting Calories

Shana Spindler PhD
Shana Spindler PhD
September 13, 2021

Weight management is a concern for millions of people around the world. But not all weight loss is equivalent. Maintaining lean muscle while losing fat, especially excess abdominal fat, is important. A recent study led by Barbara Gower, Ph.D., at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reveals that counting carbohydrates works better than counting calories to reduce abdominal fat in middle-age adults.

For years, recommendations for a healthy weight-loss diet included low calories and low fat. But there are only three macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fat—and if you decrease one, you must increase the others. For many people, a low-fat or low-calorie diet means an increase in carbohydrate intake, which can cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar. This is a potential precursor to metabolic disorders, such as diabetes.

"Some people were having a very adverse response to a low-fat, high-carb diet. These people were vocal,” Dr. Gower explains. “They brought the fallacy of ‘one size fits all’ to light through extensive publication, in both the scientific and popular press. This led to questioning of the entire logic of ‘low fat,’ which was never based on rigorous science.” 

In a pivot away from the one-size-fits-all approach, studies in young adults have shown that low-carbohydrate diets can lead to quick fat loss, especially in belly fat. However, data in the middle-age and slightly older population, which is particularly vulnerable to abdominal fat, has lagged.

Dr. Gower’s group compared the fat-loss potential between a carb-counting diet and a calorie-counting diet in 50 overweight or obese adults, focusing on those who were 45 to 75 years old. The team studied not only overall weight and fat loss, but also changes in body composition—with special attention to abdominal fat.

Carb Counting Boosts Abdominal Fat Loss

After 15 weeks on the diets, both groups lost weight and total body fat, but only the participants on the low-carbohydrate diet lost a significant amount of belly fat. This abdominal fat loss was even more pronounced for participants with underlying insulin-resistance, which improved with the low-carb approach. The low-fat dieters, on the other hand, slightly increased their insulin-resistance.

The abdominal region contains a type of fat called visceral adipose tissue, which is a deep fat that wraps your organs. Once considered an inert energy storage depot, this type of fat is metabolically active, secreting hormones and inflammatory molecules.

“The low-carbohydrate diet was really good at improving fat distribution in the areas that are associated with increased risk for metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Valene Garr Barry, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “The thing that’s novel about this study is the age range. People up to their early 70s were doing really well. They dropped the weight fast, and they weren’t miserable. They weren’t hungry.”

Tracking Carbs the Healthy Way

Low-carbohydrate diets are effective, and companies are taking notice. Commercialized, low-carb products can lead to a confusing grocery shopping trip.

“A lot of people go out and buy low-carb bars, but companies pump the bars full of sugar alcohols, which still have carbs that cause insulin spikes and keep your body from adapting,” Dr. Garr Barry explains. “We try to tell people to avoid packaged food and avoid sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners.”

For their study, the team created specific diets for each group of participants. The low-carbohydrate diet was made up of 5% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 65% fat. Participants in this group limited total carbs to 20 grams per day (eventually increasing to 30 grams at eight weeks), with much of those grams coming from vegetables. In contrast, the participants on the low-fat, low-calorie diet were limited to 1200 to 1600 calories per day—ensuring a 500-calorie reduction from their baseline caloric needs. All participants were given guidance on meal planning and healthy food choices.

If you’re on a low-carb, high-fat diet, make sure you’re getting healthy fats, Dr. Garr Barry advises. “We’re not saying that you should load up on butter. We’re saying that you should eat things like fatty fish, olive oil, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—more of a Mediterranean-type diet.”

In the study, the low-carbohydrate meal plan recommended four ounces each of protein and dairy at each meal, one cup of non-starchy vegetables and two cups of leafy vegetables daily, and healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocados, for the remaining energy needs.

Monitoring your individual responses to food is an important step to finding your optimal diet. “Diet is not one size fits all,” Dr. Gower emphasizes. “Some people thrive on low fat. Others cannot tolerate carbs…This is a complex issue.” But with your health at stake, an issue worth pursuing.

Read the Original Study

Greater Loss of Central Adiposity from Low-Carbohydrate versus Low-Fat Diet in Middle-Aged Adults with Overweight and Obesity

Weight management is a concern for millions of people around the world. But not all weight loss is equivalent. Maintaining lean muscle while losing fat, especially excess abdominal fat, is important. A recent study led by Barbara Gower, Ph.D., at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reveals that counting carbohydrates works better than counting calories to reduce abdominal fat in middle-age adults.

For years, recommendations for a healthy weight-loss diet included low calories and low fat. But there are only three macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fat—and if you decrease one, you must increase the others. For many people, a low-fat or low-calorie diet means an increase in carbohydrate intake, which can cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar. This is a potential precursor to metabolic disorders, such as diabetes.

"Some people were having a very adverse response to a low-fat, high-carb diet. These people were vocal,” Dr. Gower explains. “They brought the fallacy of ‘one size fits all’ to light through extensive publication, in both the scientific and popular press. This led to questioning of the entire logic of ‘low fat,’ which was never based on rigorous science.” 

In a pivot away from the one-size-fits-all approach, studies in young adults have shown that low-carbohydrate diets can lead to quick fat loss, especially in belly fat. However, data in the middle-age and slightly older population, which is particularly vulnerable to abdominal fat, has lagged.

Dr. Gower’s group compared the fat-loss potential between a carb-counting diet and a calorie-counting diet in 50 overweight or obese adults, focusing on those who were 45 to 75 years old. The team studied not only overall weight and fat loss, but also changes in body composition—with special attention to abdominal fat.

Carb Counting Boosts Abdominal Fat Loss

After 15 weeks on the diets, both groups lost weight and total body fat, but only the participants on the low-carbohydrate diet lost a significant amount of belly fat. This abdominal fat loss was even more pronounced for participants with underlying insulin-resistance, which improved with the low-carb approach. The low-fat dieters, on the other hand, slightly increased their insulin-resistance.

The abdominal region contains a type of fat called visceral adipose tissue, which is a deep fat that wraps your organs. Once considered an inert energy storage depot, this type of fat is metabolically active, secreting hormones and inflammatory molecules.

“The low-carbohydrate diet was really good at improving fat distribution in the areas that are associated with increased risk for metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Valene Garr Barry, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “The thing that’s novel about this study is the age range. People up to their early 70s were doing really well. They dropped the weight fast, and they weren’t miserable. They weren’t hungry.”

Tracking Carbs the Healthy Way

Low-carbohydrate diets are effective, and companies are taking notice. Commercialized, low-carb products can lead to a confusing grocery shopping trip.

“A lot of people go out and buy low-carb bars, but companies pump the bars full of sugar alcohols, which still have carbs that cause insulin spikes and keep your body from adapting,” Dr. Garr Barry explains. “We try to tell people to avoid packaged food and avoid sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners.”

For their study, the team created specific diets for each group of participants. The low-carbohydrate diet was made up of 5% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 65% fat. Participants in this group limited total carbs to 20 grams per day (eventually increasing to 30 grams at eight weeks), with much of those grams coming from vegetables. In contrast, the participants on the low-fat, low-calorie diet were limited to 1200 to 1600 calories per day—ensuring a 500-calorie reduction from their baseline caloric needs. All participants were given guidance on meal planning and healthy food choices.

If you’re on a low-carb, high-fat diet, make sure you’re getting healthy fats, Dr. Garr Barry advises. “We’re not saying that you should load up on butter. We’re saying that you should eat things like fatty fish, olive oil, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—more of a Mediterranean-type diet.”

In the study, the low-carbohydrate meal plan recommended four ounces each of protein and dairy at each meal, one cup of non-starchy vegetables and two cups of leafy vegetables daily, and healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocados, for the remaining energy needs.

Monitoring your individual responses to food is an important step to finding your optimal diet. “Diet is not one size fits all,” Dr. Gower emphasizes. “Some people thrive on low fat. Others cannot tolerate carbs…This is a complex issue.” But with your health at stake, an issue worth pursuing.

Read the Original Study

Greater Loss of Central Adiposity from Low-Carbohydrate versus Low-Fat Diet in Middle-Aged Adults with Overweight and Obesity