There are few studies comparing the effects of low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets with low-fat/high-carbohydrate diets for obesity and cardiovascular disease risk. This systematic review focuses on randomized controlled trials of low-carbohydrate diets compared with low-fat/low-calorie diets. Studies conducted in adult populations with mean or median body mass index of > or =28 kg m(-2) were included. Thirteen electronic databases were searched and randomized controlled trials from January 2000 to March 2007 were evaluated. Trials were included if they lasted at least 6 months and assessed the weight-loss effects of low-carbohydrate diets against low-fat/low-calorie diets. For each study, data were abstracted and checked by two researchers prior to electronic data entry. The computer program Review Manager 4.2.2 was used for the data analysis. Thirteen articles met the inclusion criteria. There were significant differences between the groups for weight, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, triacylglycerols and systolic blood pressure, favouring the low-carbohydrate diet. There was a higher attrition rate in the low-fat compared with the low-carbohydrate groups suggesting a patient preference for a low-carbohydrate/high-protein approach as opposed to the Public Health preference of a low-fat/high-carbohydrate diet. Evidence from this systematic review demonstrates that low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets are more effective at 6 months and are as effective, if not more, as low-fat diets in reducing weight and cardiovascular disease risk up to 1 year. More evidence and longer-term studies are needed to assess the long-term cardiovascular benefits from the weight loss achieved using these diets.