Low-carbohydrate diet could shorten life expectancy by up to four years

A new study suggests that a low-carbohydrate diet, such as the popular Atkins diet, could shorten a person’s life expectancy by up to four years.

The study “Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis” was published in the Lancet medical journal. The authors observed a group of test subjects for an average of 25 years, finding that those who got 50-55% of their energy from carbohydrates (the moderate-carb group) had a slightly lower risk of death compared with low- and high-carb groups.

Low-carbohydrate diets

Low-carbohydrate diets or low-carb diets are dietary programs that restrict carbohydrate consumption to one-quarter or less of total dietary calories. Foods high in easily digestible carbohydrates (e.g., sugar, bread, pasta) are limited or replaced with foods containing a higher percentage of fats and moderate protein (e.g., meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, cheese, nuts, and seeds) and other foods low in carbohydrates (e.g., most salad vegetables such as spinach, kale, chard and collards), although other vegetables and fruits (especially berries) are often allowed. The amount of carbohydrate allowed varies with different low-carbohydrate diets.

A low-carbohydrate diet is defined as less than 130 grams of carbohydrate daily or less than 26% total dietary calorie consumption. A very low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet (VLCKD) is defined as 20–50 grams of carbohydrates daily or less than 10% of a 2000 calorie per day diet, whether or not ketosis occurs. The low level of carbohydrate comprising a VLCKD induces ketosis in most people.

Low-carb diets, such as the Atkins Diet, have been widely popularized as methods for weight loss and lowering the risk of some illnesses.

Potential hazards

The recent Lancet study suggests that eating more meat (e.g., beef, lamb, pork, chicken) and cheese in place of carbohydrates was linked to a slightly higher risk of death, as increased consumption of animal proteins and fats have been linked to inflammation and ageing in the body. However, the study also suggests that replacing carbohydrates with more plant-based proteins and fats (e.g., legumes, nuts) could slightly lower the risk of death.

Of course, there are limitations to the recent Lancet study. First and foremost, the study was based on self-reported data regarding what people ate, which might not be accurate. Moreover, diets were measured only intermittently, at the start of the trial and six years later, so test subjects’ dietary patterns could have changed over the subsequent 19 years.

That said, the study does provide further evidence that low-carb diets could be harmful to people’s long-term health.

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