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University study finds that low-carbohydrate diets are influenced by online resources

By Giselle Inglis

Dieting information found online may not be accurate and can potentially have harmful effects on people trying to live healthier lives.

A study carried-out by the University of Glasgow has found that people on low-carbohydrate diets are motivated by information found online and do not fit a one-size fits all approach to dieting. 

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, was examining the motivation behind low-carbohydrate diets and gave an insight into their popularity. 

The researchers surveyed 723 adults from the UK who were current or previous followers of a low-carbohydrate diet. Overall, the researchers concluded that the key motivation for a low-carbohydrate diet among participants was weight loss; three in four of the participants reported significant success in losing 5% of their baseline bodyweight. 

Followers reported that there was also an impact to mood, happiness, energy, and concentration. These reactions differed, however, with current followers of the diet tending to report a positive impact, while past followers reported a negative impact. 

The study also found that most dieters did not receive any support from a healthcare professional, and only a minority used vitamin supplements when limiting their intake of some food. As well as this, it was determined that current followers had a lower knowledge of carbohydrates than past and non-followers. 

Speaking to the University about this study, co-author Dr Emilie Combet outlined that limited knowledge of food and nutrition could have important consequences on health, stating: “The reliance on the internet as a source of information highlights the need to communicate sensibly about food, diet, and weight management, in the context of a very fragmented debate held online and in social media.” 

The lead author of the report, Chaitong Churuangsuck, said: “A low carbohydrate diet can be an option for weight loss for people with obesity, if this diet suits their preference, but a lack of professional guidance may put dieters at a risk of nutritional inadequacies.” 

“Doctors have an important role to play, and can initiate discussions with their patients, provide information on both the benefits and risks associated with different diets, and refer to diet and weight management specialists.” 

Co-author professor Michael Lean, speaking about the effectiveness of low-carb diets, said: “Low-carb diets have had a lot of hype from media and celebrities, but they are no better than high-carb diets. Their evidence is generally poor, and our earlier research found low-carb diets are associated with some vitamin deficiencies, with more diabetes, not less.” He stated that: “It may suit people at least in the short-term, but there should be a health warning.” 

Low-carbohydrate diets gained attention after the Atkins diet was introduced in 1972 and have now gained notorious popularity among celebrities as a way to lose weight and manage type 2 diabetes. A 2003 poll conducted for ITV found that 3 million people in the UK at the time had followed the Atkins diet with the poll finding that 7% of men and 10% of women in the UK had tried it. 

There is no single definition of what a low-carbohydrate diet is, as followers limit the consumption of foods which are a rich source of carbohydrates. This can include breads and pasta, but may also include fruits and potatoes. 

The study ‘Carbohydrate knowledge, dietary guideline awareness, motivations and beliefs underlying low-carbohydrate dietary behaviours’ is published in Nature Scientific Reports, and can be accessed here.


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