Many of us still believe the best use of low-carb diets is weight loss. Surprise, there are numerous other health benefits of LCHF diet that have more to do with metabolic flexibility. It is a great intermittent or long-term approach (for some) to maintain a healthy weight, reduce hunger, protect the brain and decrease oxidative stress.
However, this doesn’t just mean stuffing your face in fat. Many of the benefits are present when eating healthy fat foods like salmon, avocados, grass-fed butter or beef, nuts and seeds, olive oil, seafood, etc. This is a deep dive on LCHF health benefits, so buckle up!
Keto vs. LCHF Diets
The question of how low-carb should I go doesn’t have a one-fits-all answer. Some people will enter ketosis faster, depending on their fat adaptation, genetics, and metabolism. Active people can turn glucose into glycogen in the muscles fast, others slower.
For fat loss, mental clarity, or metabolic health, experts swear by the keto diet. But keto allows for 5% of all calories from carbs, which for some people (especially hormone imbalances in women) is extremely restrictive and hard to adhere to. The goal with LCHF isn’t to be in ketosis constantly.
Just cutting out refined sugars and reducing carbohydrate intake can provide some of the mentioned benefits, especially in people who are overweight and have poor blood sugar control.
LCHF on the other hand allows for 20-25% of total calories from carbs. We’re left with 25-40% protein and 30-55% of fat. This is easier to adhere to, doesn’t require as strong a metabolism shift, and can be beneficial in many people too.
The Catabolic Nature of Low-Carb
The most important thing to understand is the catabolic nature of this diet. Going on low-carb or keto is about taking some time off of sugar. When this happens, you don’t spike up glucose in the blood, nor insulin.
The glycemic variability decreases, you produce different energy (from fats) and reduce oxidative stress, which can be beneficial for metabolic health. You start burning your own fat for fuel, autophagy is stimulated, and you remove dysfunctional cells and reduce inflammation.
Keto or Low-Carb diets share the same philosophy, with different macros. The benefits from intermittent fasting are pretty similar to low-carb too. Actually, keto is a form of intermittent fasting from sugars, which is the goal.
The 8 Health Benefits of the LCHF Diet
Now that we know LCHF is similar to Keto, slightly less restrictive, and easier to adhere to, let’s see what LCHF has in store. Why would someone choose to eat a low-carb, high-fat diet?
Some of the research will include ketogenic diets, carbohydrate restriction or reduction, LCHF, or low-carb diets. Point is to see what happens when we limit sugar intake. Some of the Keto effects will be exaggerated for LCHF, but keeping that catabolic diet nature in mind is key.
When it comes to weight loss the basic equation is energy balance. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’re in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight. If you eat more than you spend, you will gain weight, simple as that.
It is important to note that removing carbs from the diet will initially lead to weight loss, which results in water loss. But afterward, in the short to mid-term, it seems that LCHF diets are pretty effective at burning fat too.
Ketosis starts when we’re in sugar starvation mode. Glucose is so low, that even gluconeogenesis can’t create enough glucose to sustain energy needs. This is when we break fat into ketones, which we use for energy. (1)
In many studies low-carbohydrate diet was superior to low-fat or high-carb diets in terms of bodyweight reduction, improvement in body composition (more muscle-to-fat ratio), reducing fat mass, and maintaining (or increasing) lean muscle. (2) (3)
- Compared to a low-fat diet, research shows that groups eating the low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) way showed significant reductions in visceral and android fat of 22.2%, and 11,2% respectively. (4)
- A similar study shows LCHF group lost 9.9 kg while the low-fat lost only 4.1 kg bodyweight. The low-carb group significantly lowered triglyceride levels (burning fat) while the low-fat reduced LDL cholesterol. (5)
In terms of time effectiveness, the LCHF diet was significantly better at 7% bodyweight reduction to 3% in the low-fat group at 3 and 6 months but fell short at 12 months. However, the LCHF group had lowered triglyceride levels and increased HDL (the good) cholesterol. (6)
The LCHF diet can be superior to a high-carb diet in terms of weight loss and fat loss, especially in the short to mid-term. The combination of resetting insulin sensitivity, increased fat mobilization, lower inflammation, and triglyceride reduction seems beneficial for weight loss.
Satiety and Cravings
It is well known that fats can make you fuller for longer. Each gram of fat provides 9kcal, while 1g of carbs is 4kcal. But aside from this, there is a “metabolic reason” behind why this occurs.
When we eat too much glucose, we’re bound for a refill. Once we spike blood sugar levels, insulin is secreted. If we’re constantly eating simple sugars after these spikes follows sugar drop or hypoglycemia, which causes an “energy-crash”. When we run on fats the energy is more stable.
From a primal perspective, when our ancestors would eat fat, that would signal safety. Partially because energy is to be produced longer until food needs to be consumed. This also has to do with the slower rate of gastric emptying, giving a longer (higher) signal of satisfaction after fat ingestion.
A study comparing appetite suppression found that high-fat or high-carb soup administered intragastrically didn’t affect hunger or fullness. But when the same food was eaten (ingested) the high-fat soup induced fullness, satiety, and suppressed hunger more than the high-carb soup. This just goes to show how palatable food can signal safety. (7)
- Low-carb may be superior (especially in men) for reducing appetite and hunger. (8) It’s effective in reducing carvings and weight loss. (9)
Very low-carb diets or keto, have also shown reduced desire to eat, especially with energy restriction. People seem fuller and more satisfied. (10)
There is a YY peptide in our digestive system, known to affect appetite. A low-fat diet can suppress it, hence why a low-carb diet may be better at promoting satiety. (11)
Low-carb high-fat diets can improve appetite control, reduce hunger and slow down gastric emptying. Fats make us fuller for longer, and they’re more palatable. The satisfaction feeling and energy production last longer, so fat-adapted people don’t need that frequent food refill. Also, reducing sugar can reduce sugar cravings after adaptation to fat.
When we eat sugar, blood sugar levels rise, and so does insulin to transport the sugar. Excessive sugar consumption over long periods can lead to hyperinsulinemia. Cells in tissues can’t properly recognize insulin, so the pancreas starts producing a lot of it. We get into a state of increased insulin and high blood sugar. This is called insulin resistance and is associated with inactivity, inflammation, beta-cell failure, and obesity. (12)
By reducing carbs intake, we can give insulin time to reset. Plus, elevated blood sugar increases oxidative stress and inflammation – and is detrimental to metabolic health. The idea of the LCHF diet is to run on fats (at least for a period), reduce oxidative stress, and reset insulin sensitivity.
The ketogenic diet may improve lipid and glycemic control, especially in those with type 2 diabetes or blood sugar control problems. It seems that Keto was efficient in reducing LDL, triglycerides, hemoglobin A1c, and total cholesterol, and most importantly, patients lost weight and had lower fasting glucose levels. (13) Kinda logical when you don’t eat sugar, aye?
- LCHF can reduce HbA1c, cause significant weight loss and have an antihyperglycemic effect, reducing sugar spikes. and improve glycemic control (14) (15)
How people will respond to using fat for fuel, is (different) dependent on their metabolism and “fat adaptation”. But even if we aren’t in rigorous ketosis, just excluding refined sugar and reducing carbohydrate intake to 25%-ish, seems to be effective in many.
Eliminating or lowering sugar can insulin some time off to reset. Many studies show that LCHF or Ketogenic diets may improve insulin sensitivity, improve glycemic control, and lipid metabolism. If not for the long term, at least intermittently LCHF diets may be beneficial. LCHF diets also reduced hemoglobin A1c, cholesterol, and triglycerides and some people discontinued insulin use.
The energy on a Ketogenic or LCHF type of diet will be slightly different for most people. Not so intense, hyperactive, and shaky. Not so high, distracted, and overexcited. When we run on fats for fuel we get more stable energy with fewer energy crashes that we can maintain for longer. This is due to the difference in the metabolism of carbs vs. fat.
It goes without saying that for sports performance, incorporating anaerobic or high-intensity movements Keto or LCHF is very unlikely to help. Weightlifting, sprinting, jumping – fast glycolytic sports.
Some mechanisms behind low-carb or keto diet and maintainable energy may come from the way fat metabolism can improve mitochondrial function. By doing so, we are optimizing our energy banks or power cells which are responsible for producing energy (ATP). (17)
- During exercise, low-carb or ketosis can increase metabolic flexibility, reduce glycogen breakdown and increase the mobilization of fat. (18)
- In people with cognitive decline the brain’s less effective at metabolizing glucose. When they run on fats – ketone BHB they can fuel the brain better (secondary energy source). (19)
Energy efficiency is higher when running on fats. This doesn’t mean more or more intense energy though. When you run on fats for fuel, per every unit of oxygen, the amount of energy produced is higher, that’s what we mean by efficiency.
Shifting our metabolism to use fat for fuel will result in less intense, more stable energy, and easier to maintain for longer. Fat-adapted people experience fewer sugar drops, energy crashes, or hyperactivity. Metabolically, energy efficiency is higher when burning fat for fuel, as we produce more energy per each unit of oxygen.
When it comes to brain performance, we think of cognitive function, better memory, sharper focus, and great learning ability. In some of these, Keto or LCHF is superior to high-carb, in others not so much.
The brain uses glucose as a primary source of fuel. When we deplete our glucose, we can use fats (ketones) to fuel brain function. Fat-fueled brains have reportedly higher mental clarity and alertness.
- Especially in people with neurodegenerative diseases, where glucose utilization in the brain is compromised, ketones offer a secondary source of fuel that can improve cognitive function. One leg balance and gait speed were improved on an LCHF diet with a ketogenic drink, in elderly people at high risk for dementia. (20)
- An oral ketogenic compound AC-1202 showed the potential in improving cognition in people with Alzheimer’s Disease. (21)
- A high-fat low-carb diet can also help those with mild cognitive impairment, especially in the realm of memory. As neurodegeneration is linked to brain inflammation, eating less sugar and more healthy fats can assist in reducing inflammation. (22)
- Another big factor for fat-fueled brains and improved alertness is the ability of keto brains to reduce excess glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, hence why you’d experience the high-jacked, intense energy on carbs. There’s less hyperactivity on fats, and also the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA is increased. This can prevent overstimulation, fight stress and even improve focus. (23)
- In older patients with cognitive impairment, keto shows the potential to improve memory, energy, and glucose metabolism. Higher ketone levels meant better memory. (24)
Fat-adapted brains are reported to have better mental clarity, focus, and alertness. The fat-fueled brain is less hyperactive since it is better at removing excess glutamate. In people with cognitive impairment, ketones offer a secondary source of fuel and are likely to improve cognitive function.
As we age, so does our brain. As we get old, with more oxidative stress, the brain shrinks and becomes less effective.
The logic behind LCHF or Keto for the brain isn’t one-sided. It’s both the reduction of refined carbs that reduces oxidative stress and the anti-inflammatory benefits of healthy fats. This is the so-called anti-aging for your brain.
- The energy deficit in neurodegeneration is usually related to abnormal glucose uptake which may cause neurotransmitter imbalances, inflammation, and metabolic damage shown in Alzheimer’s Disease. (25)
- It seems that keto diets in many animal models for neurological diseases show improvements in measures like oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, by modulation of certain cellular pathways. (26)
- One of the key factors with LCHF is the metabolism shift. Using fats for fuel is more efficient, in terms of oxygen usage (Unit of O) per energy produced (ATP molecules). Simply put, it takes less of a toll on your brain.
- Also, low-carb high-fat diets may improve (optimize) the function of mitochondria, which means producing more energy. This also translates into lower inflammation and better metabolic health. (27)
The good side of LCHF is high in omega-3 fatty acids. These are polyunsaturated fats found in avocado, salmon, walnuts, flax seeds, olive oil, etc.
Omega 3’s are potent antioxidants, with potent anti-inflammatory properties. They are important for regulating microglia activation, molecular signaling in the brain, and neuroinflammation. (28)
As we age, oxidative stress increases, our brain shrinks, and our cognition decline. Reducing (refined) sugar intake can reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Using fats to fuel the brain will take less of a toll on your brain, produces less ROS, and lower inflammation. Healthy fats like omega 3 FA’s are also neuroprotective, and fat-soluble vitamins (A,E,K,D) are important for brain health. Plus, LCHF diets offer a secondary source of glucose, which are ketones for the brain and may improve cognition in neurodegenerative diseases.
Oxidative Stress and inflammation
Just being alive requires energy production. On top of that, we have to perform activities, digest food and think (oh my). All of these processes lead to the production of free radicals and increase oxidative stress. Too much stress increases disease risk and damages our DNA.
How do we fight it? As shown before with the energy efficiency model, running on healthy fats produces fewer free radicals. This means automatically taking some time off of sugar may be a good thing.
Processing sugar produces more free radicals which create more inflammation and oxidative stress – potentially leading to developing insulin resistance and metabolic health issues. (29) Hypertension, atherosclerosis, and other heart-health issues originate from these (and increased sugar intake). (30)
To put it in context, better mitochondrial function means a better ability to fight oxidative stress and produce more energy through aerobic pathways.
- Keto or low-carb diet is known to modulate these oxidative processes and potentially protect against oxidative stress. (31)
- In rats, 60% of calories coming from fats reversed oxidative damage and had potent antioxidant activities. (32)
- One of the most popular ketones bodies, BHB or B-Hydroxybutyrate is known to reduce ROS, and reactive oxygen species, and improve electron transport efficiency, and mitochondrial function. (33)
Burning fat for energy takes less of a toll on our body and produces fewer free radicals (ROS) and less oxidative stress when compared to energy from carbs. This is why replacing, reducing, or limiting sugar intake is known to reverse many metabolic issues. It is advised that we switch from saturated to unsaturated fat, and replace refined carbs with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. (34)
Excess sugar causes oxidative stress. Using fats for fuel is more metabolically efficient and produces fewer free radicals compared to carbohydrate fuel. LCHF diets eliminate or limit sugar intake, and focus on fats. On top of that eating healthy fats (omega-3) has potent antioxidant properties. Keto or LCHF can also improve mitochondrial function, increasing energy production and reducing oxidative stress.
Cholesterol Profile (HDL & LDL)
In terms of cholesterol, it seems unreasonable that a fatty diet can improve it, isn’t it? Well, LCHF diets help you mobilize fat for fuel. This means in a sugar-starvation mode you might start burning up some triglycerides in your adipose tissue AKA belly fat.
Generally, risk factors for heart health are high LDL and triglycerides, while HDL is known as the good cholesterol we want to rise.
Eating less sugar and more fat will provide you with more cholesterol, that’s a fact. However, it is important what you eat. Don’t expect to reduce LDL when stuffing your face with bacon, margarine, sausages, and doughnuts.
Keto or LCHF diets have been shown to reduce triglycerides, and increase HDL or »the good cholesterol«, which is healthy. However, when it comes to LDL, research shows that the LCHF diet may increase, decrease or maintain LDL cholesterol. (35)
Here are two examples:
- LCHF diet has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol, with individual responses varying. (36)
- The Keto diet has shown improvements in body mass index and weight while decreasing LDL, triglycerides, glucose, and total cholesterol, and increasing HDL levels. (37)
Fueling on healthy fats like omega 3 FA’s has been shown to reduce triglycerides, improve lipid metabolism and increase HDL. Also, as potent antioxidants, omega 3’s can reduce inflammation and even improve endothelial function. (38)
Point is, eat your omega 3’s. Salmon, flax seeds, avocado, seafood, walnuts, olive oil, olives, mackerel, cod liver oil, sardines, shrimp, chia seeds, pick your own.
LCHF has been shown to increase fat mobilization which reduces triglyceride levels. Fueling on healthy fats improve (increases) HDL levels too. In terms of LDL cholesterol, research is mixed showing the potential of maintaining, increasing, or decreasing it. But generally, going on healthy fat, low-carb diet is known to improve cholesterol profile.
- LCHF diet offers similar benefits to Keto or Intermittent fasting. By reducing sugar intake we can lower inflammation and oxidative stress.
- Metabolically, running on fats seems more efficient for energy production, stability, and maintenance. Fat-adapted people experience fewer energy crashes, better mental clarity, and fat loss.
- From a brain perspective healthy fats are like vitamins (A,D,E,K), and Omega 3 FA’s show potent neuroprotective effects.
- LCHF can be a great intermittent diet for weight loss, glycemic control, and resetting insulin sensitivity too.