Why the diabetes benefits of low-carb diets go way beyond weight loss

I guarantee anyone who’s used a low-carb diet to tame their type 2 diabetes is #TeamLowCarb4Life. And it’s a large team…

People use Atkins, Keto, Paleo, and other low-carb diets to get their metabolic health back all the time. The question is… why are these diets so dang beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes?

For a long time, experts thought it all came down to weight loss. Fat cells have fewer insulin receptors than muscle cells, after all. So, the more fat cells you have, the more likely you are to be insulin resistant.

But new research shows the metabolic benefits of low-carb diets might not be that basic…

It turns out, if you try a low-carb diet, you’ll experience big metabolic benefits even if you don’t lose a pound.

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The big benefits of going low-carb

A recent study from researchers at Ohio State University found that low-carb diets have metabolic benefits that go beyond weight loss.

Their study included 16 obese men and women with metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes. People with metabolic syndrome have three or more of these risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Excess belly fat
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol

People in the study followed a low-carb diet for four weeks. And guess what happened?

More than half of them reversed their metabolic syndrome even though they didn’t lose an ounce. The most dramatic benefit was lower triglycerides and improved HDL cholesterol… even though they were eating 2.5 times more saturated fat!

Exciting, right? But you may be wondering why they didn’t lose weight if they followed a low-carb diet. Aren’t those diets the gold standard for weight loss?

The answer is simple… researchers purposely fed them more calories to keep their weight stable. The whole point of the study, after all, was to see if the metabolic benefits of low-carb diets go beyond weight loss… and they do!

“There’s no doubt that people with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes do better on low-carb diets, but they typically lose weight and one of the prevailing thoughts is that the weight loss is driving the improvements. That was clearly not the case here,” said the study’s senior author, Jeff Volek, a professor of human sciences at Ohio State.

How many carbs do you have to cut?

Now, weight loss is still a major metabolic benefit of low-carb diets. Researchers believe many more study participants would’ve reversed their metabolic syndrome if they’d been allowed to lose weight. Still, it’s encouraging to know that’s not the only benefit of going low-carb.

But how many carbs do you have to cut to experience these benefits?

Related: Can a low-carb diet keep your body cancer free?

Well, that’s the interesting part…

I failed to mention earlier that participants didn’t just follow a low-carb diet for four weeks. They also followed a high-carb diet for four weeks and a moderate-carb diet for four weeks.

One person reversed their metabolic syndrome after following the high-carb diet. And three people reversed their metabolic syndrome after following the moderate-carb diet. Confused? Let me explain…

Even the high-carb and moderate-carb diets used in the study contained fewer carbs than people in the study usually ate. So, they were cutting carbs no matter what. The obvious conclusion here is the amount of carbs you need to cut to improve your metabolic health is different for everybody.

That means you don’t necessarily have to go full keto right away (unless you want to). Just start cutting carbs from your diet. Switch to zucchini noodles. Stop drinking juice. Eat eggs instead of cereal for breakfast. Opt for salads instead of sandwiches for lunch. Eventually, the signs of your metabolic syndrome will magically disappear.

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  1. Low-carb diet may reduce diabetes risk independent of weight loss — MedicalXpress
  2. Understanding Excess Weight and its Role in Type 2 Diabetes brochure — Obesity Action Coalition
  3. Metabolic Syndrome — Mayo Clinic
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.