When it comes to losing weight, both a low-carbohydrate diet and counting calories can help you shed pounds and keep them off, as long as you stick with your chosen plan.
But that's about where the similarities end between these two dieting approaches.
Studies suggest that many people see results more quickly on a low-carb diet, but in the end, it's important to choose the diet that works best for you.
Speak with your doctor before starting any weight-loss plan, to make sure it's the right move for you based on your health status and wellness goals.
Calorie Counting by the Numbers
In a Nutshell: When you count calories, you keep tabs on the calories in everything you eat and drink. This approach helps you lose weight as long as you take in fewer calories than you burn.
How It Works: In order to know how many calories you should be consuming, the first step is to calculate how much you need to maintain your current weight — also known as your daily maintenance calories. According to Harvard Health Publishing, you can do this by multiplying your weight times 15. So for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you would likely need to consume about 2,250 calories each day to maintain that weight.
If you want to lose weight, you can then subtract 500 to 1,000 daily calories. Keep in mind that a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, so shaving off 500 each day should help you lose 1 pound per week, according to the Mayo Clinic. By the same token, eating 1,000 less calories per day would help you lose about 2 pounds per week, presuming your level of physical activity remains unchanged.
So, someone who needs 2,250 maintenance calories might subtract 500 to get 1,750, which would be his or her daily calorie goal to lose weight gradually and safely.
Cutting out 500 calories a day is a reasonable and realistic place to start, because this approach doesn't require you to radically change your eating habits, according to a 2018 article published in JAMA. The author, Eve Guth, MD, recommends swapping out high-calorie foods, such as doughnuts and soda, for lower-calorie foods that are also more nutrient-dense, like fruits and vegetables.
While some calorie-counting plans may not offer any carb recommendations at all, others suggest getting 45 to 65 percent of total daily calories from carbs, which is based on recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. That works out to 168 to 244 grams of total carbs for someone consuming 1,500 calories daily.
Advantages: One advantage of calorie counting over more structured diets is that calorie information is readily available and easy to track — especially now that many restaurants include calorie information on their menus or websites.
There are also many budget-friendly tools available to help you track what you're taking in. LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate App, for example, is a free download that calculates your intake and compiles daily nutrition charts for you, so you can see where exactly your calories are coming from.
Disadvantages: According to the 2018 JAMA article, many people consider calorie counting "to be too difficult, time-consuming or stigmatizing, whereas others may indicate that they simply cannot afford the healthier choices."
The Lowdown on Low-Carb Diets
In a Nutshell: Instead of focusing on calories, low-carb diets have you focus on your net grams of carbohydrates. Using this approach, your weight loss comes from a change in metabolism: As you restrict carbs, your body switches from using these sugars for energy to burning fat.
How It Works: Low-carb diets rely on counting net carbs, which are calculated by subtracting fiber from total carbs per serving. While there are a variety of low-carb diet plans that vary when it comes to the type and amount of carbs you can eat, most restrict carbs to 60 grams (2 ounces) per day, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While you're not required to count calories on a low-carb diet, nutrition experts still recommend keeping them in an overall healthy range. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, most women can safely lose weight on a diet of 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day, while men (and women who weigh more or who exercise regularly) should follow a diet of 1,500 to 1,800 calories.
Advantages: Many people on strict low-carb diets — like the ketogenic diet, for example — find it surprisingly easy to stay within these calorie limits, says Amy Goss, PhD, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "One of the things people like about the ketogenic diet is that calorie-counting isn't necessary," she says. "The majority of your calories are coming from fat, which is highly satiating, so people tend to eat less naturally without having to think about it."
And, as with calorie counting, there are plenty of tools out there to help you calculate your net carbs, such as the Atkins Carb Counter.
Disadvantages: Unlike calorie counting, low-carb diets restrict the types of food you can eat.
For example, according to Harvard Health Publishing, the ketogenic diet allows saturated fats like oils, lard, butter and cocoa butter, along with unsaturated fats including some nuts and seeds, avocados, tofu and olive oil. It also allows most protein sources and some fruits—like berries—in small quantities. However, fruit is typically excluded and vegetables are restricted to leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cucumber, celery and summer squashes.
Also, when your weight-loss goal is reached, you will need to continue on a lifetime maintenance plan that allows 80 to 100 grams of net carbs daily.
Tips for Low-Carb and Calorie-Counting Diets
Low-carb diets tend to cause more rapid weight loss than low-fat/low-calorie diets, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. But the biggest challenge is keeping the weight off — so choose the diet plan you can stick with for the long haul.
If you're counting calories, you may find it easier to make a list of the foods you'll include in the diet. Having a specific list — and keeping those foods stocked at home — will help you get in the diet groove. Plus, you'll only have to look up the calories once, then you'll have them handy every time you need to tally your intake.
It's more important to make every bite nutritious when you're eating fewer calories overall. That means incorporating plenty of lean protein, vegetables, beans, whole grains, fruits, nuts and fat-free dairy products into your diet, recommends Goss. Likewise, don't use up your calories on sugar-sweetened candy, baked goods or sugary beverages.
For those going low-carb, remember that many of these diets allow any foods high in saturated fat, like red meat and butter. You don't want to skimp on fat because it's your source of energy on a low-carb diet. But plan to get most of those fats from unsaturated sources like vegetable oils, avocados and nuts, Goss says, especially if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
"Really low-carb diets are supposed to be colorful and varied, with plenty of non-starchy vegetables and a limit on starches and sugary foods," Goss says. "You shouldn't be eating huge portions of meat and butter; they're so calorically dense you really don't need much."
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020: Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Low-Carbohydrate Diets"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why do doctors recommend a slow rate of weight loss? What's wrong with fast weight loss?"
- JAMA Network: "Counting Calories as an Approach to Achieve Weight Control"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- The University of Alabama at Birmingham Nutrition & Obesity Research Center: "Amy Miskimon Goss, Ph.D."
- Mayo Clinic: "Low-carb diet: Can it help you lose weight?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Should you try the keto diet?"