November 11, 2009

Does Low-Carb Make You Crankier Than Low Fat?

Photo: FL4Y

So scientists just did another study pitting low-carb diets against low-fat diets. They took a bunch of overweight Australians, put some on low carb and some on low fat diets, and followed them for a year. Both groups lost about the same amount of weight (30 lbs), but by the end, who was in a better mood?

Well, looks like the Low Fat team won this round.

Hooray for the Low Fat Team!!
Photo: terrapin

Yep: the low-fat dieters were feeling significantly more chipper after a year of dieting than the low-carb group.

But here's the most shocking result the researchers found:

After the first eight weeks, both groups improved in mood. And while the Low-Carbers went back to baseline, the Low-Fatters remained more upbeat than they were when they started, even a year later.

But wait a minute... isn't dieting supposed to be miserable? Doesn't it make us feel anxious, pissy, deprived, fatigued, and depressed?

Well, apparently not for this group. But the low carbers couldn't hang on to their improved moods, while the low-fatters did.

According to the researchers, “this outcome suggests that some aspects of the low-carbohydrate diet may have had detrimental effects on mood that, over the term of one year, negated any positive effects of weight loss.” They wondered if it was the "social difficulty" of going low-carb, or the impact the diet itself might have on serotonin levels.

(Personally, I'm not in either the low-fat or the low-carb camp: for me, I like a good balance of carbs, protein, and healthy fats. It's the kind of fats and carbs that matter to me--I try to eat the healthy kinds, not the junky kinds).

But it's funny, I hadn't realized how much I'd bought into the idea that "dieting is miserable" until this study reminded me that actually, that's not necessarily true. I've settled into healthy eating patterns and have been at a fairly stable weight for so long, I forgot that deciding to lose weight and succeeding can make you happier! Seems obvious, but so many aspects of the process are annoying that I kinda lost sight of the big picture.

In fact, I remember years ago when the Lobster and I decided to change our eating habits, track what we consumed, and try to lose weight, we refused to call it a "diet." We called it going on a "Thing."

We'd say things like:

"Wow, I didn't realize how small a serving of pasta was until we started the Thing."

"Hey look how loose these pants are, I think the Thing is working!"

Even now, when I start getting a bit sloppy about too many treats I'll say: "if I don't stop eating so much junk, I'm going to have to go back on a Thing."

But when we were on The Thing? I'd forgotten that we were actually pretty psyched about it most of the time. Sure, the tracking and measuring and planning was a huge pain in the ass, but there was a big sense of accomplishment at (mostly) sticking to our plans and (mostly) meeting our goals.

However, we only had about 20 or so pounds to lose. We weren't in a hurry, and we didn't have to do anything drastic. And lucky for us, we both have pretty "normal" metabolisms that respond obediently to increased exercise, fewer empty calories, and more muscle mass. I know many folks can do all the right stuff and not get results, which must be incredibly frustrating.

But it's interesting the way I automatically assume that "dieting" is some sort of unpleasant ordeal, when my own experience was that it was pretty darn rewarding, even though I was certainly happy to stop measuring and counting once I reached my goal. I know restricting caloric intake can be completely counter-productive for a lot of people--but this study reminded me that for other people, it can also lead to a better mood.

Now I haven't personally noticed my low-carb friends being any more depressed or cranky than other dieters, but now I'm wondering, after this study, if there are any extra mood challenges with that sort of plan. And I'm curious about the "social difficulty" of a low carb plan--I picture hordes of angry pitch-fork wielding villagers chanting "bread, you must east bread!"--but I expect it's probably a bit more subtle than that.

What have you folks found? Does "dieting" or otherwise consciously limiting your food intake make you feel more miserable, or more upbeat? Does low-carb feel any worse (or better) than other plans?


  1. I could never in a million years do a low-carb diet. Life isn't worth living without bread, rice and pasta.

    I did switch everything to whole grains or brown though, so I guess that fits with your approach.

  2. While I get a good mix of the three macronutrients, I normally limit my whole grains to just before and after a workout. I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables all the rest of the day.

    I find that:

    a. it makes me clearer headed and more focused which makes me happy but

    b. it becomes difficult in social situations when I try to stick to my "thing". Others keep wanting me to make exceptions. Which I may do -or may not. I just wish they would respect a simple "no thanks"...

    c. eating out can become near impossible. I am so sick of looking at menus and deciding that all I can eat is one of the salads.

  3. A low-carb diet is difficult to stay on due to all the good tasting pastas and other foods which are high in carbs. Eating fruits and veggies is helpful but can be hard to stick with.

  4. Restricting anything makes me cranky. I have no allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, though I'm already a picky eater, so if I like it, I eat it. Within reason, of course. I don't like the way my stomach and body feel after a high fat meal, nor too much sugar, so I rarely do either. I'm neither low fat nor low carb, just high quality (usually). My metabolism is stubborn, so it's been slow, but has progressed, and I'm happy about it.

  5. I'd be cranky, too, if I couldn't eat pasta, brownies, pizza, pancakes, or even plain-old sandwiches. If I ever went on a low-carb diet, I'd lose all my friends.

    And carb-free? Forget it. I worked at a restaurant that served a one and a half-pound burger. I'd always laugh when someone would order the jumbo burger with no bun.

  6. I don't know what to call my Thing. I have switched to reduced carbs over time, but really more about eliminating the processed carbs. I still do the brown rice, whole wheat. And I haven't eliminated sugar from my diet. I just don't do the corn syrup/agave/nutrasweet tango. More fruits & veggies and moderate servings. As for fat, I don't monitor it, really. Just avoid the deep fried, hydrogenated crap. I have tried increasing the healthy oils for the hell of it. It's a mish mash.


    My mood hasn't been better. More energy, more focus, more positive feelings. Things that used to piss me off don't anymore. It could be the aging process too, tho. As I get older, I just care less.

    Oh, does it matter that I take Vitamin D3, B-complex and low dose aspirin?

  7. Isn't low carb like that (dead) Adkins guy? Didn't he die slipping on ice?
    I mean, that's two strikes against low carb for me right there.

  8. Any mention of "diet" has me doing a mental b-line straight to "deprivation". Of course, that's just my personal perspective. Calling it a "lifestyle change" makes me appear a little to new-agey (as opposed to just being old-agey) and lemming-like.

    I would prefer to still visit all food groups on a regular basis - just for shorter stays.

  9. Ther were just too many restrictions with low carb. Too difficult for me. Besides, some of the best foods are carbs and it's easier to find substitutes for them!

  10. I try to limit my carbs, but yesterday I had a bout with a few bagels and today I feel great! I'll be sure to limit them again today though.

    Think any success at the scale would brighten my mood, but after a while I would definitely miss certain foods.

  11. I hate the idea of a diet too - it's too closely linked in my mind to deprevation and wacky eating plans like the cabbage soup diet, etc.

    And I cannot live without carbs - when I reduce them too much I feel physcially ill, and become the ultimate foul-moooded cow. ;) That said, I try to eat better carbs, and take a kinda (I try most of the time) low-GI approach in that I mix carbs of a high glycemic load with a good source of protein/veg/fruit to bring down the overall glycemic load of the meal. As a result of this I tend to eat smaller portions of the high-gi carbs.

  12. That's what the study said! I think low carb is not a wise dietary plan. I'm not sure why it's called low carb, but in my opinion, there is a big difference between processed sugars, and carbohydrates.

  13. Such a timely post since I was on this wavelength too! I also have a book review coming up Monday on a low carb/high protein "diet".

    Now saying that word, I always tell people to avoid "diets". Yes, I use the word in quotes on my blog.. the word does drive traffic.. but like you mentioned, diet assumes you are going on & then off something & that is not a program for life! You just can't go back to your old ways & expect to maintain the results!

    Even my post today talks to insanity being doing the same thing over & over & getting the same results. If it does not work, why do it again!

    Like you guys, I am more a 40-30-30 type person. Not low carb, not low fat... just a good mix that works for me!

    I wonder who was on this low carb diet in the study. In my post, I talk about carb lovers that go on a low carb/high protein diet & if you are a carb lover, this is juts not going to work for life! If I had to give up my carbs, I would be in a bad mood too!!! :-)

  14. Nature made us omnivores. But nature didn't intentionally give us high-fructose corn syrup, refined white sugar, or CAFO-finished beef.

    If I couldn't have grains and orange juice, I would be the b*tchiest, most ornery "thing"-er in the world.

  15. Low-carb made me so miserable I lasted less than a week! I'm moderately low-fat when I cut back, and that I can handle with no issues at all. I do eat almost entirely wholegrain carbs, but giving them up would kill me! (or my nearest & dearest - someone would die!)

  16. Carbs were my favourite food and I thought I couldn't live without them. But when I followed a controlled carb plan (based on the Carbohydrate's Addict Diet—CAD), the impossible happened: leftover pasta went moldy in my fridge because it stopped calling me. The CAD is not a very-low-carb plan, but a controlled carb plan. I was able to control carbs instead of them controlling me. I note that the low-carb group in this study had an extremely low carb intake, only 4% of calories. This is certainly more extreme than a controlled carb eating plan, and doesn't seem healthy.

    In contrast, the low-fat group got 30% of calories from fat, which is classed as low-fat, but not very low fat. The word "very" isn't usually used until 20% or under.

    To conclude that people are happier if they lower fat than if they lower carb seems to be too much of a generalization of the results of this particular study. They compared extreme low carb eating to moderately low fat eating.

    Moreover I've read many anecdotal reports of people who followed very low-fat diets but were always hungry, and ended up not being able to control their total calorie intake as a result. It seems that didn't happen in the study, as it says that both groups got the same total calories.

  17. "It's funny, I hadn't realized how much I'd bought into the idea that "dieting is miserable"

    Really? With a blog named Cranky fitness? lol

    I feel better physically when I eat healthier but emotionally I'm hanging onto my old habits. I once cried in a grocery store, mourning all the tasty things I couldn't/wasn't going to buy.

  18. Changing to a healthy lifestyle made a huge positive impact on my moods. I've lost over 120 pounds though, so it was a big lifestyle change for me, and the positives are huge.

    I don't just have better energy and improved health, but some serious concerns for my health and painful health problems are gone, and now, I LOOK a heck of a lot better which has in turn improved my self-confidence. This list could go on and on.

  19. I think one of the reasons we (Americans at least) always equate dieting with misery, is because we've been fed the line that if you're *not* miserable, you're not trying hard enough. Eating healthy (according to popular media) is all about nasty tasteless foods, while Happiness can be found in a Big Mac Extra Value Meal (super-sized of course!)

    The idea that eating "healthy" and "exercising" can be fun and rewarding and lead to a happier richer life is only *just* starting to gain ground. And then it's all about results results results. (results of course meaning how good you look in a bikini.)

    Rawr. Ok, stepping down off the soapbox now...

  20. Well Anonymous up there beat me to it - I don't really think we're comparing apples to apples here. The amount of "low" isn't consistent between the two groups for me.

    I did the South Beach for about 6 months, strictly. Now I wing it. As a carbaholic, I had a few tough days, but after that? Way way way happier. Because I slept better, had less mood swings, and wasn't tired all the time. I still go back to "phase 1" when I feel too much crap creeping into the Thing. Whenever I've tried to do low-fat I failed miserably. Because hi, low fat tends to have more sugar added in to make it taste better. And that just fueled my cravings.

    If you look at a decent diabetic type program, you're going to find it's just on the low side of the 40-30-30 that most healthy people aim for. And focuses on replacing empty foods for the better (brown) carbs. It also helps those of us who can't stop eating the Brownies after just one...we crave the whole damn pan.

    And social pressure? Oh gah yeah. People are very anti-low-carb at this point (look at the comments here). And think of how many restaurants plop a bowl of bread down as soon as you sit. Or how many party foods are based around carbs... It's very tough socially.

  21. I can't live without either. If I had to choose, I'd rather cut out the fat. I can't live without carbs.


  22. I'm one of the (roughly) 40/30/30 crowd. I have blood sugar issues so carbs and I have a troubled relationship. We had to go into counseling ("A Thing"), but we're okay now.

    In my opinion, VLC is would make ANYBODY cranky. Even the primal folks eat fruits and vegies and THEY can get a little pissy sometimes. (What's annoying is they look so hot. Have you seen Mark Sisson?)

  23. I did the whole low carb thing about 6 years ago and I'll just tell you I wanted to kill anyone I saw eating bread or other carbs I wasn't allowed to have. It was a short lived diet try for me like the many before and the many after.

    Once I stopped dieting and started to really learn about nutrition it all fell into place and those extra 100lbs went bye bye.

  24. I couldn't do a low-carb diet to save my life. I've never bought into the idea that an apple or bowl of oatmeal is going to make me fat. Is it just me?

  25. I can live without fat but PLEASE let me eat carbs!!!

  26. I am on the low-fat bandwagon, which seems so much easier than doing it low-carb...I just like fruit too much to not eat it! I do, however, eat whole grains for my breads, pastas and such and have traded out my flavored boxed rice side dishes for quinoa, so there's that.

    I know I'm eating much healthier and I do feel better, although in the beginning, I was miserable. Probably just the result of coming off all of the processed junk food and sugar!

  27. After trying many different diets with little results, I decided to completely go against my pasta-pasta-bread lifestyle and go low-carb.

    I was cranky for about a week, as I basically had to detox from my super sugar tooth. Otherwise I'm fine. :) I have never found another diet that is quite as manageable socially, and has given me as good results.

    People say low-carb is soooo hard and sooooo limiting. But unles you never ever cook and eat mcdonald's or fast food for every meal, it's not that bad. True, I cannot have my normal coffee and muffin for breakfast. (and trust me, that does tick me off sometimes).. but I can have yummy things like caesar salad and ribs and all other manner of awesome foods. It doesn't really feel much like a diet in the end, and I'm getting skinnier as a result! yahoo! :)

    I'm also learning how to cook, which is a pretty big bonus.

  28. I was on a strict, medically supervised low-fat diet for three years. I constantly felt like I was starving, had headaches almost every day and was sick with colds at least four weeks of every year. Despite the deprivation and as much exercise as I could manage, I gained weight. My blood pressure went up as did my cholesterol levels. Yes, I was terribly cranky, with good reason!

    When I found low-carb I was exultant. I lost 60 lbs. in just over two years, felt wonderful and had lots of energy. My blood pressure is now normal, as is my cholesterol. The headaches went away, and in the 12 years since I've followed a controlled carb diet I've only had two colds that lasted a week or more. It's no wonder my mood is a lot better on low-carb.

    I'm not saying everyone should follow a low-carb diet. But it should be realized that we're not all made the same, and some of us will do better if we control our carb intake, while others will do better on low-fat.

  29. Low carb doesn't mean NO carbs...just to correct a misconception.

    Low-carb lifestyle you can eat bread, rice and pasta. You just can't eat it daily.

    The first week on a low carb plan, is really difficult, you are coming off the sugar and it makes you cranky and you have a headache but after that it's pretty much smooth sailing. The protein you are taking in gives you a lot more energy and the bloating goes away. It's good.

    When I am really on track with low carbing I may eat pasta once a week, as opposed to more than that and if we have rice we will more than often eat brown rice or quinoa.

    I really like it and there are so many great recipes for low sugar/carb treats that it hardly feels like dieting.

  30. Ugh, I'm never going to do Low-carb. Being a vegetarian, I'd have to limit my diet to beans and...tofu? Blech.

    I never really concerned myself about low-fat either, but if I had to choose one I'd go with low-fat.

    My eating strategy is basically, "Is this a healthy, nutritious thing to eat?" if yes, proceed to gorge self on said food. If not, spend about 2 hours trying to resist, then furtively take a few bites, become overwhelmed with remorse, then go for a three mile run to compensate.

  31. I have tried both and I do think the low fat is easier to stick with but also so easy to cheat on..did you know that gummy bears have no fat? eat a few handfuls of those a day and I am one happy camper! getting bigger happy camper I might add but ohhh so HAPPY!

    I'm with you Cranky...all in moderation sticking to the healthy carb/fat/protien and little processed!

  32. Low carb makes me cranky first. Once I get used to it I'm fine. I think it takes a few days for my blood sugar to level off. And I find that often things like oatmeal that are high carb keep me full until I'm experimenting with a high carb breakfast and then lower the rest of the day to see what happens.

  33. I'm in the moderation crowd. I don't go too low on carbs nor do I go too low with fats. I like both. I eat both. What would make me cranky is to have to restrict either. And what makes me REALLY CRANKY is when I restrict calories too far and do too much exercise. So I don't do that.

    I do find that my body feels better without tons of starchy carbs going in, so I tend to get a fair amount of my carbs from fruits and vegetables. But I love my rice and steelcut oats and quinoa and lentils and eat those as well. Just not with every meal.

  34. I'm in the moderate camp too. I need the freedom to eat what I like (within limits of course) - if I put myself on a restrictive regime, I just rebel and do the exact opposite, gaining more weight in the process. If I had to choose I think I would find the low-fat diet easier than the low-carb one. I do feel happier when I eat my carbs - FACT! My friend goes on a chicken and vegetables diet when he wants to lose weight quickly - his wife finds him unbearable during this phase because he's always so cranky. Reason? No carbs!

  35. Well, I have been low carb for six months, and yes you are crabby at the start - in my opinion. But that's just your body doing it's typical attempt to destroy everything you work for. Frankly, your body seems to just want to sit in one place and grow the size of a house if you let it.

    I honestly think there is your mind, and your body acts completely independently unless "crow bared" into submission any way you can.

    Anyhoo, I have a generally upbeat mood since being in low carb, since I look forward to my meals, and I still stay thin. The sheer ability to eat decadantly solves any missing carbs.

    Also, the important thing in any diet is to set "special" days ahead. Either for yourself, or those social GT's that require you eat the wrong things (either low fat or low carb).

    You HAVE to indulge once or twice a month, and look forward to those. Then it's free, and you happily CHEAT the system by having your cake and eating it too, just less often.

    I can go off low carb for a day and eat carbs like a pig, and all I gain is water weight. Within one week that is gone, and not actual fat has accumulated.

    Be careful of the body/mind link again. That SOB will find ways to sabotage you if it can. It's still "stuck" in caveman times and thinks we're all about to starve to death, and will try every trick in the book.

    1. It will make you tired in attempt to cut energy usage
    2. It will make you move slightly slower in everything you gain weight back
    3. It will associate happy times with situations where you went off diet. Basically it associates activity with intake. So if Aunt "B" serves a lot of pie and treats, it'll make you love aunt B even more. Basically this means it would make a rain soaked beach with dead fish on it "seem fun" if you eat cake there a lot. ;)

    Just remember we all have these nasty "programs" running in the background that work to subjugate our will and you'll be fine.

  36. I also hadn't realized how much I should bought into the idea that "dieting is miserable" until this study reminded me that actually, that's not necessarily true.

  37. I looked this topic up because I am on day 2 of a VERY low-carb diet. And I'm bitchy as hell. Carbs were my life. Cereal for breakfast, sandwhich for lunch, rice or pasta with dinner, crackers for snacks...*sniff sniff* BUT, I know that too many carbs get stored as fat and can also put you on the road to diabetes. So I'm trying this diet just to see if I can. I like to challenge myself once in a while.

    Oh yeah, also no milk, diet soda/crystal light/cheese, and only 2 fruits a day. But it's only the first cycle to get big results fast (and keep you motivated). After that, carbs are introduced gradually. I'm holding out for cycle 3!


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