People following low-carbohydrate diets are more influenced by information they find online than by health professionals, which could put them at risk of “nutritional inadequacies”, research suggests.
Low and reduced-carbohydrate diets, which see followers limit intake of foods such as bread, pasta, cakes and sweets, have increased in popularity in recent years as a way to lose weight and as a possible strategy for managing type 2 diabetes.
They gained attention after the Atkins diet was introduced in 1972, and have gained a following after numerous celebrities reported using them to lose weight.
However, research led by the University of Glasgow found that most current and past dieters did not receive support from a healthcare professional when embarking on the diet, and that only a minority took a multivitamin supplement despite cutting key food groups.
Chaitong Churuangsuk, lead author of the study, 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 risk of nutritional inadequacies.
“Doctors have an important role to play, and can initiate discussions with their patients, provide information on both benefits and risks associated with particular diets, and refer to diet and weight management specialists.”
Researchers surveyed 723 UK adults who were either current or past followers of a low-carbohydrate diet, or people who had never followed the diet.
They found that a key motivation to follow such a diet was weight loss, with three in four followers reporting significant success in losing at least 5% of their baseline body weight.
However, the study found that access to support from doctors or dietitians was low, and that the internet was the most commonly cited source guiding or influencing people following low-carbohydrate diets.
It said that providing reliable resources online or increased access to healthcare support on how to follow a low-carbohydrate diet would support knowledge and ability to follow such a diet “while preventing the risk of inadequate vitamin and mineral intake”.
Current followers of such diets reported improvements in energy, happiness and confidence, however past followers reported more mixed experiences.
Dr Emilie Combet, one of the authors of the study, said: “The survey emphasises that there is a broad range of experiences as well as motivations behind every diet journey, with no one-size-fits-all approach.
“It is important that everyone embarking on a diet that cuts food groups is adequately supported, especially when limited knowledge of food and nutrition might have important consequences on health.”
Polls have estimated that three million people in the UK – approximately 7% of men and 10% of women – have tried low-carbohydrate diets.
Professor Mike Lean, another of the authors, said: “There is no magic diet, or magic food, for weight control. Instead, people have to find the best way to eat fewer calories. 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.
“We can’t stop people cutting carbohydrate, and it may suit some people at least in the short term, but there should be a health warning.”
The study is published in Nature Scientific Reports.