Can a Low Carb Diet Sabotage Long-Term Weight Control Through Appetite Supression?

For most people, a low carb diet is not their first diet. We come to low carb after failure with isocaloric diets, where we starved while eating tiny portions that were supposedly ideal for our bodies, but not for our appetite. In between meals we watched the clock, counting the hours, minutes, and seconds until the next unfulfilling meal awaited. In between we sipped (or gulped) water, maybe ate carrot sticks or celery, and looked forward with a combination off desire and dread of the next low-calorie meal, hoping this one would fill us up, and usually disappointed that it didn’t.

We got used to hunger if we kept with it long enough. Hunger was just a part of dieting that couldn’t be avoided.

Then someone came along and told us about low carb – and the promise that you can lose weight and not be hungry. Hard to believe, but for many of us, that’s exactly what happened. Low carb diets – especially ketogenic ones, can kill an appetite dead.

It’s a dieter’s Shangra-La. Eat til full and lose weight. Months pass, and we change in two ways. First, the appetite suppression lessens simply because we begin to build a tolerance to it. I believe the power of Ketosis has the most impact on someone who has been high carb all their lives, but that appetite suppressant naturally lessens with time on the diet and the gradual reintroduction of carbs that is usually the natural progression of these diets.

The second change is we grow less tolerant of hunger. We’re less used to it, and as the ketogenic aspects of the diet lessen, through acclimation or through the gradual introduction of carbs, our lessened tolerance of hunger gets us in trouble as we eat greater quantities of low carb food, and the weight loss stops.

I’m wondering if building a ‘hunger practice’ into a low carb diet from the outset – periods where we practice being hungry for short periods of time – might prove beneficial as we progress to long-term weight loss and maintenance.

Just my own theory – does this resonate with any of you?



11 thoughts on “Can a Low Carb Diet Sabotage Long-Term Weight Control Through Appetite Supression?

  1. The problem isn’t with a low-carb diet. The problem as you stated it is “the gradual reintroduction of carbs that is usually the natural progression of these diets.”
    I find that if I don’t reintroduce the excess carbs, the hunger doesn’t return.
    That’s my experience on the low carb way of eating. I was a life long dieter till a year and a half ago. I lost weight, eat low carb, and don’t experience hunger unless I accidentally eat too many carbs. Then I put up with the hunger while I get my blood sugars back in line. Hunger is a symptom of eating too many carbs. Cut that out, and the hunger is gone.
    That’s my two cents.

  2. I have to agree with Arlene. The longer the stall in weight loss the more likely we think, why not, and eat more carbs, it won’t change anything. And it doesn’t change the weight, at first, but it does change the appetite. When I haven’t eaten enough fats (first) and protein, I get hungry. When I eat carbs, I get hungry. When I eat correctly, I have to remind myself to have something to eat.

    I think re-introducing carbs into the low carb diet is a big mistake. I was safer, better off etc when my thinking was “I am never eating those foods again”. Ever. But it’s human nature to think a diet ENDS. You diet, you lose and then go back to “real life”.

    And I think the Atkins threads where folks share recipes for low carb “treats” are a big mistake. Don’t make almond or coconut flour biscuits. You can’t eat biscuits. Don’t bake muffins or cakes. You can’t eat muffins or cakes. Don’t look for the lowest carb count cereal because, you can’t eat cereal without getting hungry.

    I think going to bed, just a little hungry is the way to go. I’ve gotten this advice from successful dieters (on any plan). I remember when I lost 80 pounds on 1200 calories a day. I went to bed hungry every single night. I always lost weight. I am hardly ever hungry on Atkins and perhaps I should be?

    1. To both of you (Arlene & Joanne),

      You are absolutely right – you introduce carbs – you get hungry.

      The question I am asking myself is: is lack of hunger every day, all the time, worth giving up certain foods forever?

      My knee-jerk reaction is to say ‘yes’, but I’ve come to question that, and it becomes a ‘meaning of life’ question: are there certain foods and certain occasions that warrant it: the piece of wedding cake, the first cupcake your 5-year-old baked all by herself? Should we be able to share in these moments where food becomes part of a tender memory without us blurting out: ‘I’m on a low carb diet.’?

      Yes – these moments might result in some awesome hunger – especially because we’re no longer used to the effects, and because we haven’t had to deal with hunger in a long time – but isn’t life itself something larger than just the avoidance of suffering? And is hunger – something that every human since our creation has known and shared with us – something that can’t be endured on occasion – like sore muscles after a workout?

      My point was that low carbers tend to fall off the wagon hard, and it’s because they’ve forgotten how to be hungry – a practice low calorie dieters go through daily, and if we occasionally, intentionally, enjoy some food that causes us to be hungry, is it a bad thing if we are in the right frame of mind, understand the hunger will come, and ‘work with it’?

      I’ll be the first to admit that this is dangerous territory. It’s why I’m asking questions rather than making pronouncements. Is it better to be safe than happy? Is it better to delude yourself that a fresh hot baguette with salted butter on occasion is ‘poison’ than to enjoy it fully, suffer the rise of hunger afterward, and have the fortitude to deal with it?

      1. No… Ex carb addicts are like ex smokers and ex alcoholics, you can’t have it. No different with the cake than an alcoholic at a champaign toast.

      2. For me, the bigger question is not whether or not I’d rather be “safe or happy.” It’s “why does food need to equate to happiness?” Can I enjoy a wedding without the cake? The experience of helping my child bake without eating the results? A bit off topic, perhaps, but I have done much personal work in the area of separating my emotions from my fuel. I know that food in itself can be a wondrous, sensual experience that contributes to happy, peaceful feelings, but for my money, I’ll enjoy those feelings by virtue of my connections with other humans anyway; I don’t need the chocolate cake to inspire them.

        1. It’s a valid perspective, Christine – I’m not knocking it – there’s no one right way to lose weight and keep it off – any successful strategy needs to be highly personalized. Me – I see my goal as finding my way to a place where eating right is done in a relaxed way – and so is eating wrong – and I swap between the two effortlessly and consciously. This is not discipline – this is practice. It’s a lot harder, and you wouldn’t be the first to say that I make thing hard on myself, but it’s what I’m pursuing right now. Whether I can get it to work for me is another matter entirely. We’ll see.

  3. I think your theory has some very valid points, and sounds plausible. I don’t have enough education in nutrition science to elaborate further on the scientific merits of your postulations- but it does resonate. I think the reintroduction of carbs must be gradual and in small amounts; most importantly, in the right forms. Protein should always predominate to stave off hunger- and if the hunger has not become hypoglycemic in nature, yes- we should just deal with it from time to time- we humans can survive a little hunger. I have found that while hungry, our reflexes and energy increase significantly- to a point, and this is perhaps nature’s way of ensuring we will have the energy to hunt or gather our next meal! That being said, the carbs we do reintroduce should be those which do not cause a huge spike and dip pattern in our blood glucose levels, which will produce the dreaded result of starting the sugar highs and lows roller coaster ride that is so hard to get off of. Ketogenesis notwithstanding, I think low carb can be maintained most easily by adding more fruit and vegetables , and pairing all grain carbs, like a small amount of brown rice, with protein.

  4. I don’t equate foods with celebration anymore. When I am around those who eat birthday cake, wedding cake, or this week my 4 year-old grand daughters very first cookies (baked in her new Easy Bake oven!) I just abstain. If I were celiac I would not eat them just to celebrate these events. It is a health issue with me.
    Now when I do get hungry, and it does happen when I’m away from home and there is no acceptable foods available (this week at a hospital it happened when I accompanied my sister for surgery and was stuck there for 7 hours) I drink water, put up with the hunger, and survive! The hunger is a real hunger, not an overpowering urge to stuff myself on carbs like it was before my low carb days. The hunger is a hunger that seems to me to be my body drawing on my actual fat stores if food is not available, as that is what it is trained to do now. If I eat carbs, the cravings drive me insane for days!!
    That’s just my experience talking here, and believe me I’ve only found this to be the case in the last 15 months I have consistently eaten >30 gms/day of carbs. Usually less. Before that you could not convince me that a special occasion did not call for cake!!!

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