The low-carb diet craze has been going on for years, but when a lot of people choose to eat low-carb foods, it can lead to health problems. One of the most common concerns is that low-carb diets cause people to gain weight. However, a recent study has shown that low-carb diets are not linked with weight gain, and that low-carb diets can even help you lose weight.
Can you lose weight by eating fat? Is the 80/20 rule the only way to eat? Do carbs make you fat? These questions are regularly asked by people on a quest to lose weight. But the truth is, we’ve been eating low-carb diets for so long now, because they work. There’s no debate about that.
Carbohydrates are the food groups that provide the body with most of its energy and these make up about 60% of the calories we take in. Carbs are a complex topic. There are a few different types of carbohydrates and on the surface it may seem that there is no difference between them. However, when we look deeper, we can identify several differences that can have a significant impact on our health. If you want to lose weight, the first thing you must do is to understand which carbs are the most detrimental to your health and which ones you should eat. You will know what to eat and what to avoid if you closely examine the impact of all these different types of carbs on your body. NEVER FEAR. Read more about long-term effects of low-carb diet and let us know what you think.
If you ask nearly anybody how to lose weight, they’ll almost always reply, “Cut down on the carbohydrates.” I’ve heard that hundreds of times as a nutrition coach.
Since the Atkins resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the low-carb movement has risen and fallen in popularity, but most people today believe that carbs are fundamentally fattening.
Healthy eaters order hamburgers without buns, skip the baked potato side dish, and return the bread basket to the kitchen. (Or don’t do it and feel bad about it.)
I’m sure you’ve heard (or thought) at least one of the following in the last few years:
- Carbs raise blood sugar and insulin levels, which increases body fat storage.
- Inflammation is caused by carbohydrates, particularly sugar and wheat.
- Carbohydrates, unlike fat and protein, are not required in the diet.
It seems to be straightforward and reasonable. That is the issue.
Simple comments about “excellent meals” and “bad foods” overlook biological complexity and the broader picture.
Let’s take a deeper look.
Is it true that carbohydrates raise insulin levels?
They do, in fact.
Is it true that higher insulin levels after meals contribute to weight gain?
(Because insulin is a satiety hormone, meaning it helps you feel full, the notion that it causes fat growth on its own is illogical.)
Is it true that carbohydrates cause inflammation?
That is debatable. Are we talking about corn syrup that has been processed? Probably.
However, when it comes to whole grains, this isn’t the case.
Are carbohydrates less essential than protein, fat, and the many micronutrients that help us stay healthy?
The answer is a resounding yes if you’re talking about processed carbohydrates.
It’s a different thing if you’re talking about whole, lightly processed carbohydrates.
Is it possible to lose weight by following a low-carb diet?
Of course it is possible.
Is it because it has a low carbohydrate content?
Maybe. Perhaps not.
Is it true that consuming the right quantity of carbohydrates may make you look, feel, and perform better?
Yes, it is possible.
The issue of not eating carbohydrates
Cutting carbohydrates (while decreasing total calories) seems to be a successful weight reduction approach for some individuals. If it didn’t, Atkins would never have gained traction in the first place.
But here’s the thing: cutting carbs costs us money.
To put it another way, most of us need some amount of carbs to operate optimally over time.
If we need to reduce weight fast, we may eliminate carbohydrates temporarily. However, for most of us, eating too little carbohydrates for too long may be catastrophic.
This is particularly true for those of us who engage in physical activity.
Sedentary people have reduced carb requirements. As a result, you may be able to get away with a little more restraint.
However, if you like exercising frequently and passionately, severely limiting your carb consumption may lead to:
- thyroid production is reduced
- Cortisol production has risen.
- testosterone levels have dropped
- emotion and cognitive performance are also affected
- catabolism of muscle
- Immune function has been inhibited.
To put it another way, your metabolism may slow down, your stress hormones may rise, and your muscle-building hormones may decrease.
You’re feeling terrible, disoriented, lethargic, and irritable… and maybe even ill.
Worst of all, you’re unlikely to shed that much weight in the long run.
Continue reading if you’re interested in the specifics and some research. Skip to the end if you simply want to know what to do.
Our bodies generate an essential hormone called T3 in order to operate correctly and maintain a healthy metabolism. T3 is the most active thyroid hormone and is critical for appropriate blood glucose control and metabolic function.
Low T3 levels may cause euthyroid unwell syndrome, which causes individuals to feel chilly and lethargic all of the time. (Imagine your metabolic “body motor” idle.)
T3 is highly sensitive to calorie and carbohydrate consumption, according to a classic research known as the Vermont Study. T3 levels decrease when calories and carbohydrates are too low.
The Vermont Study also discovered that another hormone, reverse T3 (rT3), is affected by calorie and carbohydrate consumption. T3 is inhibited by reverse T3, as the name suggests.
Reverse T3 may be reduced by eating adequate carbohydrates. It will rise if you don’t consume enough carbohydrates, obstructing T3’s essential function.
The Vermont Study isn’t the only one. Ketogenic (ultra-low carb) diets decrease T3 levels as quickly as famine, according to other studies.
Additional research shows that decreasing carbs from 409 g to 202 g and subsequently to 104 g, while keeping calories constant (in this instance at 2100 calories), substantially decreased blood T3 levels (from 91 to 86 to 69 ng/dL).
Finally, French researchers looked at four calorie-equivalent diets (2800 calories in this instance) that lasted one week each. Two of these diets had a carbohydrate content of 250 grams, which is a pretty average percentage. The low-carb diet included 71 grams of carbohydrates, whereas the high-carb diet had 533 grams.
T3 levels on the regular and high carb diets were the same (range from 163.3 to 169.5 ng/100 mL). On the reduced carb diet, however, they averaged 148.6 ng/100 mL. Naturally, rT3 increased in response to the low carb diet, but not in response to the normal or high carb diets.
Thyroid hormones have a role in more than simply weight reduction; they also have a significant impact on our general health and energy levels.
As a result, if you don’t consume enough or enough carbohydrates when training:
- T3 decreases.
- Reverse T3 rises, obstructing T3 even more.
- You’ll start to feel bad about yourself, and your training will suffer as a result.
If you’re active, you’ll need enough energy and carbs to keep your thyroid healthy.
Cortisol levels are rising, while testosterone levels are falling.
People who exercise frequently need to consume enough carbohydrates, according to research, otherwise their testosterone levels would drop while their cortisol levels will increase. This is a sure-fire way to acquire fat while losing muscle.
It’s also a sign of too much training stress, by the way.
Men who ate a high carbohydrate vs a low carbohydrate diet for 10 days had greater testosterone and sex hormone binding globulin, and lower cortisol levels, according to a research published in Life Sciences.
A few years later, another study expanded on same findings. Men and women who exercised on a regular basis were among the participants this time. Researchers also put them through certain performance tests in addition to looking at the impact of their food on hormones.
The participants’ testosterone (and other anabolic hormones) decreased while their cortisol increased when they ate a low-carb diet.
Only two of the six individuals were able to finish the cycling test after only three days on a low-carb diet! Meanwhile, all six individuals were able to pass the test after eating a higher carb diet for three days.
Researchers revisited the same issue in 2010, this time in respect to high-intensity exercise. In this research, men who followed a low-carb diet (consuming 30 percent of their calories from carbohydrates) saw their testosterone to cortisol ratio decrease by 43 percent. This isn’t good. Meanwhile, the testosterone/cortisol ratios of the control group (who received 60% of their calories from carbohydrates) remained unchanged.
- Inadequate carbohydrate consumption may lower testosterone levels (which no one wants); and
- Cortisol levels will rise (which no one desires); nevertheless,
- performance in a bad way (which no one wants).
Women’s hormones and carbohydrates
We now know that following a low-carb diet for an extended period of time may produce substantial hormonal changes.
This seems to be particularly true for women, whose bodies appear to be more sensitive to low energy or carbohydrate availability than men’s (perhaps because of the evolutionary importance of having enough body fat and nutrients to sustain a pregnancy).
While organs such as our gonads and thyroid produce hormones, the central nervous system (CNS), or brain, is in charge of our hormone manufacturing system.
The brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary glands are very sensitive to factors like energy supply and stress (which can include life stress and exercise stress).
Other glands, such as the adrenal glands, collaborate with the brain and pituitary. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis is the name given to this relationship.
Hypothalamic amenorrhea occurs when women don’t consume enough calories or carbohydrate, or when they consume enough calories but not enough carbohydrate.
Because of the HPA’s reaction to perceived hunger and stress, this implies altered hormones and halted — or irregular — periods.
Hormone levels fall in hypothalamic amenorrhea, causing a cascade of effects across the body. Low luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels result.
Furthermore, we’ve previously shown that not eating enough carbohydrates raises cortisol levels. When cortisol levels rise, your HPA axis tells your pituitary to slow down even more. This isn’t good.
Stress response, mood, digestion, immune system, libido, metabolism, and energy levels are all regulated by the HPA axis.
Your pituitary gland, in particular, is in charge of producing and secreting growth hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, prolactin, LH, FSH, and other vital hormones.
After all of that, here’s the key message: Many women attempt to eat low-carb in order to lose weight.
However, since low-carb diets may alter hormone synthesis, women who eat too few carbs, particularly active women, may experience:
- a menstrual cycle that has ceased or is erratic;
- decreased fertility
- blood sugar fluctuations and hypoglycemia;
- a higher percentage of body fat (particularly around the midsection);
- bone density decrease;
- Anxiety, sadness, and other forms of mental illness;
- chronic inflammation and exacerbation of chronic pain
- persistent tiredness and sleep disturbances; and
- a slew of additional long-term issues…
…which, unfortunately, is exactly what they wanted in the first place.
Protein is typically the first thing that comes to mind when we think about muscle development. However, even if your protein consumption remains consistent, reducing your carb intake may impact your muscle mass, according to studies.
In other words, even if you drink protein drinks or eat steak five times a day, if you don’t get enough carbohydrates, you risk losing muscle.
Three diets were compared in a recent research from the Netherlands:
- a high-carbohydrate diet (85% carbohydrates);
- a medium-carbohydrate diet (44% carbohydrates); and
- a low carbohydrate diet (2 percent carbs).
The overall number of calories in each diet was the same, as was the percentage of protein — 15%. (Yes, it’s a bit low, but it’s sufficient.)
What’s the end result? For starters, it’s in line with previous studies.
- With high and moderate carbohydrate consumption, T3 and reverse T3 levels were constant.
- The low-carb diet reduced T3 and reverse T3 levels.
But here’s where it gets fascinating. The researchers used urine nitrogen excretion to examine how the diets impacted protein breakdown in this investigation.
Because extremely low carbohydrates decrease insulin levels, the low carb diet accelerated muscle breakdown in this instance.
Again, you’d think that protein consumption would influence muscle breakdown. And, depending on what you’ve heard, you may believe that having more insulin is always “bad.”
Insulin, in fact, is necessary for muscle growth.
You restore muscle glycogen and generate an anabolic (building-up) hormonal milieu when you consume enough carbohydrates to satisfy your requirements. You get stronger and more buff. That’s excellent.
When you don’t consume enough carbs, muscle glycogen is depleted, and a catabolic (breaking-down) hormonal milieu is produced, resulting in greater protein breakdown and less protein synthesis. Slower muscle development — or even muscular loss — is a result of this.
Putting everything together
What’s the bottom line? T3 levels may be lowered, cortisol to testosterone ratios can be disrupted, a woman’s delicate hormone balance can be disrupted, muscle loss can occur, and muscular growth can be prevented if she doesn’t consume enough carbs.
Certainly not what the majority of us want!
But hold on a second.
Isn’t it true that low-carb diets are superior for fat reduction even if all of above is true?
Aren’t fat-adapted athletes equally as good as those who consume a lot of carbohydrates?
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Low-carbohydrate diets do not help you lose weight.
The reasoning seems to be simple and appealing: high carbohydrate intake causes insulin production, which causes fat accumulation. Low-carb diets keep insulin levels low, allowing you to stay slim while enjoying chicken wings, salmon, eggs, and butter.
Many individuals who attempt low-carb diets are pleasantly surprised at how quickly they lose weight… which is mainly water and glycogen. So, for the time being, it seems that low-carb diets are better.
Is there any long-term proof that low-carb diets is beneficial?
No, according to research. Over time, any distinctions between low-carb and other diets will go away.
Protein: The Underappreciated Success Factor
The majority of studies that claim low-carb diets are better have a methodological flaw: they don’t match protein consumption across groups. As a result, the low-carb group consumes substantially more protein than the high-carb group.
We all know that eating a lot of protein has a lot of benefits:
- Protein has a greater thermic effect, which means our systems have to “rev up” in order to digest it (if you’ve ever had the “meat sweats” after a huge steak, you’ll know what I mean).
- Protein helps individuals feel fuller for extended periods of time; and
- Protein aids in the preservation of lean muscle mass.
In other words, rather than a low-carb diet, the main “secret” may be a high-protein diet.
So, to be on the safe side, let’s look at a research where protein was matched. In this research, participants who ate a moderate carb diet (40 percent carbohydrates) had a substantially higher mood and lost about the same amount of weight as those who followed a ketogenic low-carb diet (5 percent calories from carbs).
In fact, as compared to those on a low carb diet, individuals who ate a moderate quantity of carbohydrates had a modest (albeit not statistically significant) propensity to shed more body fat (5.5 kg vs 3.4 kg in 6 weeks).
Insulin sensitivity was enhanced by both diets. The ketogenic diet, on the other hand, raised LDL cholesterol and inflammatory indicators, as well as making participants feel less energetic.
As a result, in this research:
- Those who ate a modest amount of carbohydrates felt better.
- Moderate carbohydrate eaters shed approximately the same amount of weight as low carbohydrate eaters, perhaps a little more.
- Insulin sensitivity was enhanced in both kinds of eaters.
- Low-carb dieters had poorer blood work and inflammation as a result of their diet.
Doesn’t it make you wonder why low carb is so popular?
Especially when a recent study of long-term low carb vs low fat diets — the biggest of its type to date — found that both low carb and low fat diets decreased weight and improved metabolic risk factors.
In this study, both diets resulted in similar weight reduction, waist circumference alterations, and assessments of numerous metabolic risk markers (blood pressure, blood glucose, insulin).
Nonetheless, it would be beneficial to learn more about what makes low-carb diets “work” in the first place. Do low-carb diets effective because they limit carbohydrates or because they tend to boost protein, according to a new study?
The researchers compared four distinct situations over the course of a year:
- typical protein and carbohydrate intake
- low carbohydrate, moderate protein
- low carbohydrate, high protein
- Protein-rich with a moderate carbohydrate content.
Surprisingly, the two groups who consumed the highest amounts of protein dropped the most weight.
What’s more, the actual kicker? Changing the fat and carbohydrate content of the diet had no effect on body composition.
Who needs carbohydrates anyway? I mean, who doesn’t?
We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all nutritional advice, as our name suggests.
Carbohydrate needs, like most things, follow a bell curve.
Carbohydrates are excellent for the majority of individuals.
- Around 70% of you will benefit greatly from PN’s basic hand-size portion recommendations. (For additional information, see our Calorie Control Guide.)
- Around 25% of you will benefit greatly from just raising or decreasing your carb servings by a little amount. This is what we mean when we say “eat for your body type,” and we go through our suggestions here.
Only a few individuals thrive on high carbohydrate diets.
- Only around 2.5 percent of the population — ultra-endurance athletes and a few other outliers — will survive on very high carbohydrate diets. (We’re talking about 70% of their total calories here.)
Only a few individuals benefit from a low-carb diet.
- Ketogenic diets are genuinely recommended for individuals with epilepsy since they seem to decrease symptoms and seizure frequency. Other neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, may potentially benefit from ketogenic diets, according to early data.
- People who are very sedentary, as well as those who are metabolically dysregulated (e.g., metabolic syndrome, diabetes), may benefit from a lower-carb diet for a period of time as part of a larger transition to greater exercise and a healthy metabolism.
The low-carb athlete is a one-of-a-kind creature.
You may be asking what happened to the other 2.5 percent of successful low-carbers.
These ultra-low-carb individuals actually exist, although in small numbers. Even in athlete trials when the overwhelming majority of individuals do better on high carb diets than low carb diets, a few will nearly always perform better on a low carb diet.
This research on professional cyclists is an excellent example. While the authors found that a high-fat, low-carb diet did not impair endurance in general — at least once athletes got used to it — individual reactions to this diet varied greatly.
When two of the five individuals ate a low-carb diet, they were fatigued sooner (taking 48 and 51 minutes to conk out, respectively). However, on the reduced carb diet, one individual improved by 84 minutes.
The evidence is clear: when it comes to carbohydrate needs, each athlete — each individual — is unique.
While the cyclists’ performance did not change on average depending on whether they ate high carb or high fat diets, there was one intriguing difference that the research authors discovered twenty-one years later in a review study.
Most riders thought they could more or less function normally after a week of adjusting to the low-carb diet… except for their sprint ability, which did not appear to recover when they were on a carb-restricted diet.
This is particularly essential to remember if you are a high-performing athlete. Sprinting skill may be crucial even in high endurance sports. Particularly when you get closer to the finish line.
But, before we go too far in the other direction and start carb loading, let’s remember one thing: most of us aren’t professional athletes.
While studies indicate that athletes perform better on average when they consume more carbohydrates, this is not a general rule. Individual differences will always exist.
What does this mean to you?
We may get so engrossed in fad diets that we neglect to examine the facts. However, most fad diets are unhealthy.
For many years, we believed that eating a lot of carbohydrates and limiting our fat consumption was the key to staying in shape. Consider the previous Food Pyramid, which placed grains at the bottom and oils at the top.
Most of us found that a low-fat, high-carb diet didn’t work for us. People were hungry and felt deprived, so they “cheated” by eating “fat-free,” high-sugar sweets, and ended up eating a lot of rice cakes.
Then the pendulum swung, and people jumped on the low-carb, high-fat bandwagon, and there was nut butter, bacon, and heavy cream all over the place.
Low carb, unfortunately, does not work for the majority of us.
Diets that are too restrictive aren’t the solution.
It’s tempting to make your diet plan more restricted if it’s not working for you. You may think that if you’re not losing weight on a low-carb diet, you should go completely ketogenic.
More limitation, on the other hand, virtually never works.
If you don’t have severe objectives, don’t go to extremes with your diet.
As unappealing as it may seem, strategic moderation is the only long-term solution.
Carbohydrates are required by the majority of people.
When we balance a fair quantity of lean protein, quality carbohydrates, and healthy fats, most of us will look, feel, and perform our best.
Our normal portion size suggestions aren’t simply based on our own preferences. They’re what we’ve found to be the most effective, based on extensive study and our experience with over 20,000 customers.
Experiment & have fun
Our suggestions allow you to be flexible, eat the high-quality meals you like, and tailor your consumption to your own experience, objectives, and requirements.
Don’t care for rice? Fine. Try a different carbohydrate source.
Don’t care for beef as a source of lean protein? What do you think of eggs?
Do you need extra carbohydrates to aid your athletic performance? Cool. Add a couple more servings and see how things go.
Are you interested in regulating your blood sugar by reducing your carb intake? Give it a go, keep track of your glucose levels, and see how you feel.
YOU are one of a kind. Your body is unique.
Your specific carb needs are determined by:
- objectives (fat loss, muscle gain, maintenance)
- the science of genetics (different body types, medical conditions)
- carbohydrate source (refined versus minimally processed)
- degree of activity (sedentary, weight-training, endurance athlete).
Maintain a straightforward approach.
Don’t limit yourself excessively; don’t overthink it; don’t spend time with “carb math.”
Take advantage of a broad range of minimally processed, unprocessed, and fresh foods.
Take note of how you seem, feel, and perform.
Make decisions based on the information you gather about yourself, not on what you believe you “should” do.
Your body and your experience are the only “rules” that apply. Don’t follow a diet plan designed for someone else’s physique.
Above all, carbohydrates are your buddy for most busy individuals!
To see the information sources mentioned in this article, go here.
Long-term Effects of a Very Low-Carbohydrate Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood and Cognitive Function. Brinkworth GD, et al. 169(20):1873-1880 in Arch Intern Med, 2009.
M. Gleeson and N. C. Bishop. Carbohydrate, glutamine, and anti-oxidant supplements alter immunological responses to exercise. 78, 554–561 in Immunology and Cell Biology.
Dietary-induced changes in thyroid hormone metabolism during overnutrition, E Danforth, Jr, et al. J Clin Invest. 64(5): 1336–1347, November 1979.
Effect of caloric restriction and food composition on serum T3 and reverse T3 in man. Spaulding SW, et al. 1976 Jan;42(1):197-200 in J Clin Endocrinol Metab.
Effects of slimming and diet composition on V02 and thyroid hormones in healthy individuals, Serog P, et al. Am J Clin Nutr, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 24–35, 1982.
Diet-hormone interactions: protein/carbohydrate ratio affects testosterone and cortisol plasma levels and their respective binding globulins in man, Anderson KE, et al. Life Science, vol. 40, no. 18, p. 1761-8, 4 May 1987.
Basal concentrations of anabolic and catabolic hormones in relation to endurance exercise after short-term dietary modifications, Tsai L, et al. 66(4):304-8 in Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol, 1993.
A.R. Lane, J.W. Duke, and A.C. Hackney. The effects of dietary carbohydrate consumption on free testosterone:cortisol ratio responses to short-term intense exercise training. 2010 Apr;108(6):1125-31 in Eur J Appl Physiol.
Effect of Carbohydrate and Noncarbohydrate Calorie Sources on Plasma 3,5,3-Triiodothyronine Concentrations in Man, Davidson MB, Chopra IJ. Endocrinology and Metabolism, vol. 48, no. 1, 1979. (4)
PH Bisschop, et al. Despite having a low T3-syndrome, isocaloric carbohydrate restriction causes protein catabolism in healthy males. Endocrinology and Metabolism (Oxf). Jan 2001;54(1):75-80.
Effect of glycogen availability on human skeletal muscle protein turnover during exercise and recovery, Howarth KR, et al. 109(2):431-438 in J App Physiol.
CS Johnston, et al. Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets offer no metabolic benefit over low-carbohydrate diets that are not ketogenic. May 2006;83(5):1055-61 in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Effects of Low-Carbohydrate vs. Low-Fat Diets on Metabolic Risk Factors: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Clinical Trials. Hu, T., et al. 2012 Oct 1;176 Suppl 7:S44-54 in American Journal of Epidemiology.
Relatively high-protein or ‘low-carb’ energy-restricted diets for body weight reduction and maintenance? Soenen S, et al. Physiology and Behavior, vol. 107, no. 3, pp. 374-80, Oct. 10, 2012.
The human metabolic response to prolonged ketosis without caloric restriction: submaximal exercise capacity preservation with decreased carbohydrate oxidation, Phinney SD, et al. Metabolism, vol. 32, no. 8, pp. 769-76, August 1983.
Ketogenic diets and physical performance. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004 Aug 17;1(1):2. Phinney SD. Ketogenic diets and physical performance. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004 Aug 17;1(1):2.
Effects of slimming and food composition on VO2 and thyroid hormones in healthy individuals, Serog P, et al. Am J Clin Nutr, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 24–35, 1982. Non-U.S. Government Research Assistance
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There are many misconceptions about low-carb diets that have been around for a long time. Countless studies have shown that eating carbs will not make you fat, you can eat fat and fit. The fact is, if you’re eating low carb, you’re eating to satisfy your body. If your body is not getting the energy it needs, you’ll feel hungry. And when your body is hungry, you’ll eat.. Read more about tired of low-carb diet and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why can low carb diets be harmful to your body?
Low-carb diets are not always healthy, as they can lead to deficiencies in certain nutrients.
Why were low carbohydrate diets not recommended previously?
Low carbohydrate diets were not recommended previously because they are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
What are the disadvantages of a low carb diet?
The main disadvantage of a low carb diet is that it can be hard to get enough fiber. This can lead to constipation and other digestive problems.
This article broadly covered the following related topics:
- low-carb diet side effects
- dangers of low-carb diet
- long-term effects of low-carb diet
- disadvantages of low-carb diet
- debunking low-carb diet