Untested alternative weight loss diets, such as very low carbohydrate diets, have unsubstantiated efficacy and the potential to adversely affect cardiovascular risk factors. Therefore, we designed a randomized, controlled trial to determine the effects of a very low carbohydrate diet on body composition and cardiovascular risk factors. Subjects were randomized to 6 months of either an ad libitum very low carbohydrate diet or a calorie-restricted diet with 30% of the calories as fat. Anthropometric and metabolic measures were assessed at baseline, 3 months, and 6 months. Fifty-three healthy, obese female volunteers (mean body mass index, 33.6 +/- 0.3 kg/m(2)) were randomized; 42 (79%) completed the trial. Women on both diets reduced calorie consumption by comparable amounts at 3 and 6 months. The very low carbohydrate diet group lost more weight (8.5 +/- 1.0 vs. 3.9 +/- 1.0 kg; P < 0.001) and more body fat (4.8 +/- 0.67 vs. 2.0 +/- 0.75 kg; P < 0.01) than the low fat diet group. Mean levels of blood pressure, lipids, fasting glucose, and insulin were within normal ranges in both groups at baseline. Although all of these parameters improved over the course of the study, there were no differences observed between the two diet groups at 3 or 6 months. beta- Hydroxybutyrate increased significantly in the very low carbohydrate group at 3 months (P = 0.001). Based on these data, a very low carbohydrate diet is more effective than a low fat diet for short-term weight loss and, over 6 months, is not associated with deleterious effects on important cardiovascular risk factors in healthy women.