Recently, many nutrition experts have been touting the benefits of a low-carb diet for people with type 2 diabetes and other health conditions. But it’s often been debated whether the diet itself is delivering meaningful metabolic benefits, or if it’s the weight loss that often accompanies it.
Now, research helps answer that question: A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight suggests that a low-carb diet may help reverse metabolic syndrome among overweight individuals even if they don’t lose a single pound as a result of the diet.
“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 Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., in a news release.
For the study, 16 men and women with metabolic syndrome—a cluster of symptoms that increase risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess belly fat, and abnormal cholesterol—were put on a low-carb diet for four weeks. The diet was specifically formulated to contain enough calories to keep their weight stable. But even so, over half of the participants actually reversed their metabolic syndrome. Meaning their risk of developing diabetes or having a stroke or heart attack was reduced as a result.
The participants were also put on a moderate-carb and a high-carb diet (each diet of the three diets was separated by two weeks), but researchers found that metabolic markers were most significantly improved on the low-carb diet.
“Our view is that restricting carbs even without weight loss improves a host of metabolic problems,” said Volek. “Obviously, quality of diet matters because quantity is locked down in this experiment.”
Interestingly, despite the fact that the low-carb diet contained more than double the saturated fat of the high-carb diet, it decreased saturated fat in the bloodstream and was associated with an increase in cholesterol particle size, which decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to Parker Hyde, a research scientist who worked on the study. Researchers also noted increased fat burning and improved blood sugar with the low-carb diet.
Of course, more research needs to be done to evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability of low-carb diets for people with metabolic syndrome over the long term, but Volek says things look promising: “Low-carbohydrate diets can be sustainable,” he told mbg. “I am involved with a long-term study with type 2 diabetics where we have shown excellent compliance for the past two years.”
If you currently have a chronic health condition, you should consult with your doctor before tweaking your diet. But to learn more about the low-carb (or lower carb) approach, check out our in-depth articles on the keto diet, Whole30, and paleo.