salmon on dinner plate

What was once a subject of public health debate is now a matter of clear scientific consensus. Low-carb diets can be safe, nutritious and should be included as an option within the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

A group of experts, including leading nutrition and health researchers and healthcare professionals, reviewed the evidence. They arrived at more than 15 areas of unanimous scientific agreement. These included the benefits, opportunities and considerations around lower carbohydrate eating patterns. 

Jeff Volek Ohio State headshot
Jeff Volek

A review of the state of science, as well as a summary of the consensus statements, appears in Frontiers in Nutrition

Importantly, the experts agreed on a consensus definition of low-carbohydrate diets as containing 50-129 grams of carbohydrates per day. Until now, no standard definition existed. 

Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, consuming 50-129 grams of carbs per day would provide about 10-26% of daily calories. 

In comparison, the current carbohydrate intake range allowed by the dietary reference intake (DRI) is 56-65% of daily calories. 

“This is a milestone achievement for the public health and scientific communities,” said lead author Jeff Volek, professor of kinesiology and nutrition. “Now that we have a clear definition of what constitutes a low-carb diet, and a shared agreement on the evidence-based benefits of a low-carb diet, this information should be included in dietary recommendations and accessible to the broader public.”

Other key takeaways about low-carb diets

  • The experts also agreed on several other important points. Low-carb diets are safe for the general public. 
    • However, initial medical supervision may be necessary for some people, such as those living with more medically complex conditions or taking certain medications.
  • Low-carb diets are helpful for addressing insulin resistance. 
    • This applies to both the general population and to those with or at risk of diet-related disease, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • Well-planned, low-carb diets can provide adequate nutrition and support high-quality diets similar to the healthy eating patterns currently recommended in the Dietary Guidelines.
  • Including guidance around a healthy, lower carb eating pattern in the Dietary Guidelines could help address health disparities and advance health equity.

“We’ve reached a critical mass of scientific evidence at this point,” Volek said. “And nutrition experts now agree, low-carb diets provide benefits beyond disease management.”

“In other words, they’ve been shown to not only help people with diet-related diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, they can also help generally healthy people reduce their risk of developing those diseases in the first place.”

Federal agencies reevaluating scientific basis for low-carb diet

The newly published consensus statements come at a time when the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are considering potential changes to the Dietary Guidelines. They are placing particular emphasis on the importance of health equity. 

The Dietary Guidelines provide evidence-based nutrition recommendations that broadly inform public health and nutrition activities. They include food and nutrition labeling, federal nutrition assistance programs, and education initiatives. All are foundational to addressing persistent health disparities in America.

Today’s body of research suggests that lower carb diets can have a beneficial effect on weight, insulin sensitivity and heart disease risk. These diseases disproportionately affect people from historically marginalized backgrounds, such as Black and Hispanic Americans. 

The expert group agreed the inclusion of a lower carbohydrate eating pattern in the guidelines could enhance health equity nationwide.

“If we really want to make sure federal nutrition guidance is keeping up with the science and serving America’s diverse populations with different health needs, priorities and preferences,” Volek said, “then the Dietary Guidelines should be updated to include a lower carbohydrate approach to eating.”

This research was funded by an unrestricted educational grant from SIMPLY GOOD FOODS. SIMPLY GOOD FOODS was not involved in the writing or submission of the final manuscript.

The other co-authors of the article with Jeff Volek, Department of Human Sciences, College of Education and Human Ecology, The Ohio State University, are William S. Yancy Jr., Department of Medicine, Duke University; Barbara A. Gower, Department of Nutrition Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham;  Stephen D. Phinney, independent researcher; Joanne Slavin, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota; Andrew P. Koutnik, Sansum Diabetes Research Institute; Michelle Hurn, The Dietetian’s Dilemma; Jovonni Spinner, Beacon Public Health; Mark Cucuzzella, Department of Family Medicine, West Virginia University; Frederick M. Hecht, Osher Center for Integrative Health, University of California, San Francisco. 

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