The Low-Carb Craze: Are Carbohydrates Killing Us?

A new study seems to suggest that eating more carbs will shorten your life. The Nutrition Diva takes a closer look to find out what we can really take away from this latest research.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #446

Low-carb Diet - Are carbs bad for us?

A big new study, published last month in the Lancet, suggests that cutting back on carbohydrates and eating more fat may extend your life. At first glance, this new finding might seem to validate the low-carb diet as the healthiest way to eat. But, as usual, there’s a lot more to this study than the headlines imply.

First, some background on how the study was conducted. Researchers compared dietary and health records from citizens of 18 different countries around the world over a ten-year period, collecting data on about 135,000 people.

They divided the subjects into groups based on how much carbohydrate, protein, and fat they typically ate as a percentage of their total calorie intake. Then, they looked at how many people in each category developed heart disease and/or died during the study.

What they found (and what you probably heard in the news) was that the people who had the highest carbohydrate intake also had the highest risk of mortality and heart disease and that those who ate the most fat had the lowest mortality rates.

But before you dig out your copy of the Atkins, South Beach, or Dukan Diet, here are a few details that you may not have gotten from the news coverage.

The study found that allocating more than 60% of calories to carbohydrates increases your risk of death and disease. But, as I’m sure you know, not all carbs are the same. Refined carbs like sweetened beverages, white bread, baked goods, and sweets are all known to contribute to disease risk. Minimally processed carbohydrate foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, on the other hand, are all known to decrease disease risk.

This particular analysis did not differentiate between the two types of carbohydrates. A diet getting 60% of calories from soda, white bread, and candy was put in the same category as a diet getting 60% of calories from beans, brown rice, and broccoli. What's more, the study's authors point out that populations with the highest carbohydrate intakes also consume the most refined carbohydrates.

Are diets high in carbohydrates the problem or diets that are high in refined carbohydrates? I think we can all guess the answer.

This analysis also does not suggest that low carb diets are the way to go. In fact, those whose carbohydrate intakes were below 50% of calories were no healthier (on average) than those with intakes between 50-60%. According to the researchers, this analysis “does not provide support for very low carbohydrate diets.”


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.