People are attracted to a low-carb way of eating for a variety of reasons: blood sugar control, to lower blood pressure, and to improve many other health indicators. But there's no doubt about it: most people try cutting carbs in order to lose weight. So, is losing weight different on a low-carb diet? And what can you realistically expect when it comes to weight loss? This is the first of three or four articles regarding weight loss on a low-carb diet, and this one will focus on the first month.
How Is the Low-Carb Weight Loss Experience Different?
You may be surprised to hear that on a low-carb diet weight loss mainly happens in the same way as on any other weight loss diet - by creating a calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than you expend). The difference is that while a low-calorie diet has an externally-imposed calorie limit, a low-carb diet works with your body so that you desire fewer calories.
I think of this as changing the demand, rather than the supply, of food. Carbohydrate reduction seems to work on the appetite system in multiple ways, including levels of hormones and other transmitters of information about hunger and satiety in our body. In study after study, people lose approximately the same amount of weight on a low-carb diet as on a low-calorie diet, even though they are not told to limit the amount of food they eat (just the amount of carbohydrate). Because of this, people who respond well to low-carb diets often talk about feeling "normal around food", and not having the compulsions to eat that they usually do, once they adjust to eating a reduced-carbohydrate diet.
The First Week
The first week of a low-carbohydrate diet is a special case. The body has been using primarily glucose for energy, and must switch to using primarily fat. This means that it's the least comfortable time (Here are some tips to help you over that hurdle), but it also means that a few pounds will be lost that are not fat, but water. This is not because of being bloated, but because the glucose which is stored for easy use in our livers is in a molecule called glycogen, which is bound up with a lot of water.
When we use the glucose, our bodies get rid of the extra water. In the normal course of a regular diet with stable weight, the amount of glycogen fluctuates only a little, but during weight loss, and especially weight loss from low-carb diets, the amount of glycogen is reduced, and with it, the water.