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Experts debate weight loss diet study interpretations, from low carb to Ornish

Should you eat a low-fat vegan diet or a high fat Atkins?
Should you eat a low-fat vegan diet or a high fat Atkins?Photo by Jason Bahr

In a perfect world, diet studies would yield a unanimous verdict on the best weight loss plan. But several new studies show different results, ranging from a triumph for low carb diets to equal benefits with the low-fat Ornish plan, reported USA Today on Sept. 2.

The first study showed that low carb diets improved heart health while yielding more weight loss than low fat diets. While low fat diet participants avoided foods such as meat and butter, the low carb dieters enjoyed steak and bacon while avoiding high carb foods such as bread and cereals. The low carb dieters lost an average of eight pounds more while reducing more body fat.

However, the second study took a different approach to determining the ideal weight loss plan. Researchers compared the results of 48 earlier studies on different brand-name diets. The plans included the low carb high fat ketogenic Atkins diet, the low fat Ornish plan and the "everything in moderation" Weight Watchers program.

The meta-analysis showed that dieters on low fat or low carb weight loss plans shed an average of 16 pounds more than those who did not diet. Those on the "moderate" program lost 12 pounds more. The head researcher contends that thus no difference exists.

Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute, Toronto, and McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, summed up his take-away message from his study: "All of the diets can lead to important reductions in weight, but there's no important differences between the diets."

But the lead author of the low carb diet study put a different spin on her results. Dr. Lydia Bazzano believes that her research offers important information on the best diet for the heart as well as weight loss, announced Tulane University on Sept. 2.

"Over the years, the message has always been to go low-fat," Bazzano said. "Yet we found those on a low-carb diet had significantly greater decreases in estimated 10-year risk for heart disease after six and 12 months than the low-fat group." However, choosing the right types of fats plays a key role in reaping the benefits.

The low carb diet participants consumed 41 percent of their calories from fat. But only 13 percent of those calories came from saturated fats such as butter. Therefore, added the nutrition researcher, the study is not an invitation to binge on butter.

"It’s not a license to go back to the butter, but it does show that even high-fat diets – if they are high in the right fats – can be healthy and help you lose weight," Bazzano added. Other types of healthy fats include nuts and avocado.