Does high-carbohydrate intake lead to increased risk of obesity? A systematic review and meta-analysis

BMJ Open. 2018 Feb 8;8(2):e018449. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018449.


Objectives: The present study aimed to test the association between high and low carbohydrate diets and obesity, and second, to test the link between total carbohydrate intake (as a percentage of total energy intake) and obesity.

Setting, participants and outcome measures: We sought MEDLINE, PubMed and Google Scholar for observation studies published between January 1990 and December 2016 assessing an association between obesity and high-carbohydrate intake. Two independent reviewers selected candidate studies, extracted data and assessed study quality.

Results: The study identified 22 articles that fulfilled the inclusion and exclusion criteria and quantified an association between carbohydrate intake and obesity. The first pooled strata (high-carbohydrate versus low-carbohydrate intake) suggested a weak increased risk of obesity. The second pooled strata (increasing percentage of total carbohydrate intake in daily diet) showed a weak decreased risk of obesity. Both these pooled strata estimates were, however, not statistically significant.

Conclusions: On the basis of the current study, it cannot be concluded that a high-carbohydrate diet or increased percentage of total energy intake in the form of carbohydrates increases the odds of obesity. A central limitation of the study was the non-standard classification of dietary intake across the studies, as well as confounders like total energy intake, activity levels, age and gender. Further studies are needed that specifically classify refined versus unrefined carbohydrate intake, as well as studies that investigate the relationship between high fat, high unrefined carbohydrate-sugar diets.

Prospero registration number: CRD42015023257.

Keywords: high carbohydrate intake; obesity; observational.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Dietary Carbohydrates / administration & dosage*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / adverse effects
  • Energy Intake
  • Humans
  • Obesity / etiology*
  • Observational Studies as Topic
  • Risk Assessment


  • Dietary Carbohydrates