Can Cutting Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight?

Can Cutting Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight?

u One of the most common reactions to unexpected weight gain is to cut out all carbs. While this method can work, it is not always a great idea. In fact, for some people, it may even backfire. Can cutting carbohydrates make you gain weight? This article will find out.

Can Cutting Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight?

The act of cutting carbohydrates from your diet will not lead to weight gain in the immediate future, it could well lead to weight loss. However, in the long term, many people who make extreme changes to their diet will regain the weight they have lost, and most will gain even more weight than they started with!

To be clear, I am not against low-carb diets, nor do I think that they are a bad fat-loss strategy. The problem I have with them is that they are often seen as a quick fat-loss tactic, and they are rarely accompanied by the lifestyle changes that long-term weight loss requires.

Bottom Line: Cutting carbs can lead to short-term weight loss, but over time, weight regain often occurs unless your low-carb diet is accompanied by changes to your lifestyle.

The Science Behind Low-Carb Dietary Success

There is a reason why low-carb diets are very popular, they work. Very quickly. They are also simple to follow, and they feed into people’s misconceptions about nutrition. The idea that carbs are evil is very easy to sell to most people.

But what does the science say? Well, there have been a LOT of studies on low-carbohydrate diets and their success. A 2010 study by Foster et al found that following low-carb or low-fat diets led to successful weight loss when combined with behavioural treatment [1].

A study published in 2018 found that lowering carbohydrate intake led to an increase in energy expenditure in obese people when compared to a diet that was high in carbohydrates [2]. This means that reducing carbohydrates led to an increase in the number of calories burned:

“The difference in total energy expenditure was 209 to 278 kcal/d or about 50 to 70 kcal/d increase for every 10% decrease in the contribution of carbohydrate to total energy intake (1 kcal=4.18 kJ=0.00418 MJ).” (Ebbeling et al 2018)

Now, 50-70 kcal per day isn’t much, but as the study pointed out this could represent a loss of 10 kg in body fat over three years, just by reducing your carbohydrate intake while maintaining the same calorie consumption (i.e. increasing fats and/or protein to compensate).

This seems to indicate that low-carb diets will definitely lead to success, so why am I discussing it in an article about the possible downsides of low-carb diets?

Firstly, because I try to be a good fitness writer, and ignoring studies that don’t fit your narrative is a bad habit. But secondly, because there are some key points that separate this study from real life.

Can Cutting Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight?

Why Low-Carb Studies May Not Apply to You

It should be noted that the people in this study were given specific guidance and help by scientists. The study was designed so that people had already lost 12% of their body weight before starting. They were then split into three groups (high-carb, medium-carb, and low-carb).

Again, this is important for the study and not a criticism, but it also does not reflect the experiences of 99% of people who decide to go low-carb.

But the biggest thing you should note is that the study lasted 20 weeks. A long time for a study, and not a criticism at all, but this is not representative of real life, where time doesn’t freeze after you see good results.

What does happen? Well, for a lot of people, they start to see the weight coming back. In the next section, we will look at why.

Can Cutting Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight?

What Causes Weight Regain?

Weight regain is the dirty little secret of most diet and exercise programs. “Lose X kg in 4 weeks” sounds a lot better than “Lose X kg in 4 weeks and then regain it again over the next six months”. But it is sadly more common for people to regain their weight after a diet than it is for them to keep it off indefinitely.

A study by Grodstein et al in 1996 found that 40% of participants in their weight loss trial had regained more weight than they had lost within three years [3].

This was a particularly bad result though, and other studies have found less alarming results. A 2001 meta-analysis by Anderson et al found that the average participant in weight loss studies had regained 75% of their lost weight within 5 years [4].

But you don’t need to look into too many scientific journals to find examples of people who lost lots of weight and then regained it quickly afterwards. Celebrity gossip columns lived off these stories in the early 00s.

Personal trainers will be able to reel off large numbers of examples of clients who left them, gained the weight back, and then resigned up with them a year or two later.

Weight regain is not inevitable, but it is likely, here’s why.

Reason #1 Most Diets are Unrealistic

If you’ve ever worked in an office, then you’ve probably been exposed to the “January Detox” trend that someone decides to follow. They give up caffeine, junk food, bread, alcohol, and grains. They have to exercise every day, and all of a sudden they’re drinking a greens drink at their desk.

A month later, you see them bringing a bag of KFC into the office.

Why does this happen? Because most diets are not designed to be followed for very long. They are designed for very fast results. This is great for the person following the diet, and the person promoting it. “I lost 4 kg in three weeks” sounds great as marketing material.

But you are basically being asked to change your entire life in a very quick time. This makes it harder for you to stick the diet when life inevitably gets in the way.

Let me paint you a scenario. Your new diet and exercise program states that you have to get up at 7 am each morning, mix yourself a smoothie and then head to the gym. But last night, the dog was howling at 3 am and when you let him out, he vomited all over the floor. You stayed up until 5 am comforting your dog and cleaning up after him.

At 7 am your alarm goes off. What do you do?

You switch it off, get an extra hour of sleep, and then immediately run out the house so that you aren’t late for work. There’s no time for your smoothie, so you go to the drive-through. Your diet is ruined (at least according to the fad diet you are following) and you give up.

Bad diets do not allow you to lead real lives.

Reason #2 No Knowledge is Imparted

Many diets tend to focus on telling people what to do, rather than teaching them why they should do this instead. So a low-carb diet, for example, would say don’t eat the following foods: bread, grains, potatoes, etc. Rather than explaining why limiting these foods can help you to reduce your calorie intake temporarily.

This leaves the person following the diet confused. They have been told that doing x produces y result, without being given any context, so they assume that the solution to all their problems is removing carbohydrates.

This is not the case. They could remove all carbohydrates, but if they overeat then they will gain weight. They may also see unintended side effects from a diet that allows them to eat as much heavily processed meat as they want while removing all fibre from their diets.

Without learning the basics of nutrition, weight regain is highly likely.

Reason #3 Our Metabolism is Constantly Changing

To be honest, this reason is not quite as big of a factor as the others. But it frequently trips people up when they lose a lot of weight, so I have to include it! Your metabolism is (in very simple terms) a measure of all the calories that your body burns throughout the day. Even when lying down, your body will be burning calories, to help with digestion, thinking, and keeping you alive.

When we are larger, our metabolisms are actually very high. This is due to the increased demands that regular actions like breathing can take when you have a bigger body. This is why obese people can see spectacular results when dieting alone, without exercising.

As you lose weight, your metabolism will drop. Provided you are following the same workout program, and you don’t adjust your calorie intake, you may find that you are no longer in a calorie deficit. This means that your weight loss will stall, and it may even reverse.

There are other factors that can affect your metabolism. Age, lifestyle changes, injury/illness, hormonal changes (which are linked to age). One of the most common causes of weight loss roadblocks is not accounting for your body’s reduced need for calories.

The way to adjust to this issue is to re-measure yourself over time and reset your calorie targets based off of this information.

Reason #4 People See Diets as Short-Term Solutions

This issue is partly due to the people following the diet, and partly due to the industry itself. Most people see dieting as a short-term solution to their problem. “I gained weigh over Xmas, so I’m going to do a six-week crash diet and then resume my life as normal”.

This works really well, but after the six weeks the person is likely to gain weight back, and even gain excess weight.

Diets should really be lifelong. You should be changing your bad habits and replacing them with good habits that you can follow forever. You didn’t learn to brush your teeth for six weeks, you learned it so that you could do it twice a day forever.

The reason this approach isn’t popular with most dieters, is that the way to make it work is to take things slowly. This means that you are more likely to adopt lifelong habits, but also it means that you will take longer to see results.

“Get rich slow” schemes aren’t popular for this exact same reason!

Because people don’t want to purchase diet plans that promise slow results, the fitness industry is loathe to sell this sort of thing. Even the most ethical personal trainer on the planet is going to struggle to stay in business if they don’t try to jazz up their sales language.

This is why most (good) trainers try to meet the customer half way. They will promise excellent results, but will also explain why this has to take time.

Reason #5 Our Environment Doesn’t Change

Now, it is absolutely possible for you to change while staying in the same environment. However, if your environment is a big contributor to you gaining weight, and you don’t leave it, then you are likely to regain the weight.

Let me give you an example. Say you live with a partner who loves to order from Uber Eats (or wherever) 2-3 times each week. And that situation does not change whether you are dieting or not. This environment is very challenging for weight loss, as you 1) don’t have the support you need, and 2) you are surrounded by temptation.

This is not your partner’s fault, nor do you have to leave them in order to lose weight. But you do need to accept that you are going to have to disrupt this environment if you want long-term results. This could mean eating your main meal at lunch (away from home) and having smaller meals prepped in the evening. Making it easier to avoid eating the takeaway pizza (or whatever).

You can’t always change your environment, but you can plan for ways to make adjustments, which is crucial for long-term success.

Can Cutting Carbohydrates Make You Gain Weight? Final Thoughts

In the short term, cutting carbohydrates will lead to weight loss provided you are in a calorie deficit. But there is little likelihood that the weight will remain off in the long term as you are not addressing the fundamental causes of weight gain.

Most people who follow short-term diets will end up gaining weight, so in a sense cutting carbohydrates may lead to weight gain, but the specific act of cutting carbohydrates will not lead to weight gain.







About the Author Matt Smith

Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.

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