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Calories don't count: Low carb diet wins for weight loss in landmark study

Pile on the butter, but skip the bread, says a landmark new study.
Pile on the butter, but skip the bread, says a landmark new study.

After decades of handing out advice to reduce fat, count calories and eat carbohydrates such as whole grains, nutrition experts are reversing their weight loss and health recommendations. In a final blow to low-fat diets, a landmark new study shows that low carb diets accelerate weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease, reported the New York Times on Sept. 1.

Researchers found that by avoiding carbohydrates and eating more fat, dieters can significantly lower their body fat. At the same time, they are less apt to experience cardiovascular problems. The study is one of several recent research projects showing that low-fat diets do not succeed as well as low carb weight loss plans.

A significant aspect of the new study: Dieters did not have to count calories. They were instructed either to reduce carbohydrates or to reduce fat. The participants on the low carb diets, despite the freedom to eat as much protein and fat as they wanted, lost more weight.

Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, emphasized the fact that the study showed that "all calories are created equal" is false. "It shows that in a free-living setting, cutting your carbs helps you lose weight without focusing on calories. And that’s really important because someone can change what they eat more easily than trying to cut down on their calories."

The study is particularly ironic in its implications regarding heart disease. Those with conditions such as hypertension or other factors putting them at a high risk of stroke have been told to avoid saturated fat and eat freely of foods such as fat-free diet bread topped with fat-free margarine. Now the new study completely reverses that prescription.

"This study shows if you are overweight and have cardiovascular disease risk factors and haven't had success on other diets, certainly a low-carbohydrate diet is worth a try," said the lead author, Dr. Lydia Bazzano of Tulane University in New Orleans, in a Sept. 1 interview with the Baltimore Sun.

The study showed that dieters on the low carb diet lost eight pounds more than those on low-fat plans. They lost more body fat, and had no changes in "bad" cholesterol.

But the new research does more than offer a clear indication of which diet is best for those who want to win at weight loss while improving their heart health. It's also a triumph for the increasing number of athletes experimenting with defying carb-loading practices and beefing up their protein intake.

One new trend for dieters and athletes alike involves following a low carb diet that is timed to provide for a fasting window. For example, they might eat their last meal at 8 p.m., then not eat again until 8 a.m. to allow for the body to digest all food completely. In addition, researchers have been studying whether exercising on an empty stomach might actually help power your workout and boost your weight loss, reported nutrition scientist Dr. William Lagakos.

John Kiefer believes that by performing resistance exercise during fast, "you release adrenaline faster. Your body is more sensitive particularly to the fat burning properties of adrenaline and you get bigger rushes of adrenaline." Studies support his views, says Lagakos.

"Ketogenic dieting and glycogen depletion increase exercise-induced sympathetic activation and fat oxidation," he added. But two elements count: Following a low carb diet and timing both nutrient intake and exercise.

While some argue that the benefits result from a low intake of carbohydrates rather than a boost in fat and protein, Lagakos feels that both factors play a role. "Yes, it seems specific to glycogen depletion – however, when it comes to body composition, nutrient partitioning, and physical performance, dietary protein shouldn't be discounted," he argues.

When it comes to competition, Sami Inkinen ranks as a world-class athlete. In an exclusive interview, Sami discussed his diet and accomplishments, including his latest endeavor called the Fat Chance Row. Sami typically completes his workouts without breakfast. He also does not partake of additional carbohydrates or food during his exercise.

"Contrary to what many say, this has not negatively affected my top end performance in workouts or races," he said. "I can easily run two hours or complete a four to five-hour bike ride with only water now."

Sami and his wife Meredith Loring just completed two months of rowing from California to Hawaii. They completed more than 2,400 miles without outside assistance. They also participated in the inaugural Great Pacific Race.

The Fat Chance Row was designed to "raise awareness about the dangers of sugar and processed carbs, which we believe are behind our childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic," said Sami. Their low carb diet consists of whole foods, with no sugar or grains.

During the row, the couple ate freeze-dried meat and vegetables, nuts and nut butter. It sufficed to power them through even the initial weeks on the ocean, which were challenging, he added.

"The weather turned nasty, we got 25+ knot winds and waves the size of a house. Or at least that's how it appeared to us. Fighting and getting through these stormy conditions was the biggest challenge," he added.

Only two days posed challenges in terms of fatigue, Sami noted. "We knew that this could be due to lack of potassium, so I got out of it by eating much more of the salt that was also heavy in potassium. Other than that, we both fared surprisingly well and felt steady energy throughout the journey."

They even finished with a one-week sprint that featured their longest daily distances, adding up to more than 80 nautical miles daily. Sami believes that the diet that he's followed for several years made a significant difference.

"Simply by eating a whole foods based diet, with zero added sugar, no grains and overall low in carbohydrates, I've been able to more than triple the amount of fat my body can burn per hour," Sami said. Because he is up to 750kcal/hr now, he has become a more successful long-distance athlete.

"I can go longer and harder before bonking," Sami noted. Although his diet is low in carbs, he feels that it probably does not qualify as a true ketogenic diet based on his ketone readings. Moreover, although he has an exceptionally high rate of fat-burning, Sami turns to carbohydrates prior to competitions that are lengthy.

"Despite the very high rate of fat burn, I still make sure that my glycogen stores are filled up before a long race lasting more than three hours," he said. "In other words, I eat carbohydrate-rich real food, such as rice and potatoes, two days before an important race."

Now that he has shifted from the standard endurance athlete's high-carb, high-sugar diet to his Paleo-style low carb diet, Sami has noted the benefits. "I've had much less inflammation or sickness and it has allowed me to train harder and recover faster."

His advice to others: "You'll very likely live healthier and perform better if you eliminate added sugar and processed carbohydrates from your diet." And Sami avoids complex rules, making it easy to follow.

"My diet is very simple: whole foods with no added sugar or grains or processed carbohydrates. I eat mountains of vegetables, eggs, avocado, grass feed beef and butter. Macronutrients are roughly 10 to 15% carbohydrate calories, 20 to 25% protein and 60 to 70% fat," said the athlete.

Sami recommends Dr. Stephen Phinney’s and Dr. Jeff Volek’s high fat low carb diet books. He also agrees with Professor Timothy Noakes' views.

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