Low-carbohydrate diet induces metabolic depression: a possible mechanism to conserve glycogen

Authors: Hugh S Winwood-Smith, Craig E Franklin, and Craig R White

Published in: American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, volume 313, number 4


Long-term studies have found that low-carbohydrate diets are more effective for weight loss than calorie-restricted diets in the short term but equally or only marginally more effective in the long term. Low-carbohydrate diets have been linked to reduced glycogen stores and increased feeling of fatigue.

We propose that reduced physical activity in response to lowered glycogen explains the diminishing weight loss advantage of low-carbohydrate compared with low-calorie diets over longer time periods.

We explored this possibility by feeding adult Drosophila melanogaster a standard or a low-carbohydrate diet for 9 days and measured changes in metabolic rate, glycogen stores, activity, and body mass.

We hypothesized that a low-carbohydrate diet would cause a reduction in glycogen stores, which recover over time, a reduction in physical activity, and an increase in resting metabolic rate.

The low-carbohydrate diet reduced glycogen stores, which recovered over time. Activity was unaffected by diet, but metabolic rate was reduced, in the low-carbohydrate group.

We conclude that metabolic depression could explain the decreased effectiveness of low-carbohydrate diets over time and recommend further investigation of long-term metabolic effects of dietary interventions and a greater focus on physiological plasticity within the study of human nutrition.

Winwood-Smith HS, Franklin CE, White CR (2017) Low-carbohydrate diet induces metabolic depression: a possible mechanism to conserve glycogen, American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative PhysiologyPDF DOI