Low-carbohydrate diets: Effects on metabolism and exercise – A comprehensive literature review

Rodrigo C.O. Macedo, Heitor O. Santos, Grant M. Tinsley, Alvaro Reischak-Oliveira

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Background & aims: Low-carbohydrate diets (LCD) have gained substantial attention in recent years for their potential in health promotion and treatment of diseases, but they remain controversial in nutrition guidelines and exercise performance. Herein, through a literature review, we discuss the current evidence base by considering management of LCD and potential coupling of these dietary regiments with physical exercise. Methods: We performed a comprehensive literature review with no date limits as a means of including seminal to current studies. Results: Reduction of CHO intake decreases muscle glycogen, yielding greater fat oxidation and associated metabolic benefits. LCD may promote fat mass loss and regulation of biochemical parameters, such as lipid and glycemic biomarkers. The therapeutic potential of LCD towards noncommunicable diseases, particularly obesity and its comorbidities, is therefore reasonable as a dietary candidate in this context. Potential benefits to this approach are linked to enhancement of mitochondrial gene expression and mitochondrial biogenesis. As such, LCD may be a feasible tool in a ‘periodized nutrition’ for athletes and within clinical scenarios. Long-term observational follow-up studies have demonstrated increased mortality and cardiovascular implications of LCD. However, harmful associations may depend on the food source (e.g., animal-based vs. plant-based foods). Conclusion: LCD may decrease body mass, waist circumference, and improve fat and carbohydrate metabolism. When combined with exercise, LCD seems to be an effective strategy in regulating metabolic factors of cardiovascular diseases. Conversely, LCD may be associated with higher mortality and metabolic dysregulations if it contains large amounts of animal-based foods, particularly saturated fat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-26
Number of pages10
JournalClinical Nutrition ESPEN
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Carbohydrate restriction
  • Exercise
  • Glucose metabolism
  • Low glycogen
  • Low-carbohydrate diet
  • Obesity


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