Skip to main content

See also:

For cholesterol, diabetes and weight loss, low carb diets are key to success

Is it time for a new diet?
Is it time for a new diet?
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

After years of advice to go for grains, minimize meat and beware butter, consumers increasingly are receiving a completely different message when it comes to controlling cholesterol, preventing diabetes and boosting weight loss. It is the dawning of the age of the low carb crusades. “We are really just uncovering a lot of myths about what causes high cholesterol and heart disease,” admitted Terri Johnson, a dietitian at Baton Rouge General Medical Center, to the Advocate on Sunday.

And as a result of those myths, more experts are agreeing that it's time to stop focusing on calorie-counting and fear of fat. "It’s been backward thinking for the last 40 years,” Johnson added. “Since the introduction of the low-fat diet, we’ve seen cholesterol go up, we’ve seen obesity go up, we’ve seen heart disease, cancer, hypertension skyrocket since the introduction of the low-fat diet.”

So what's the solution? Avoid refined carbohydrates and dig into a low-carb diet high in fats, with protein and veggies featured rather than grains and lots of fruit. That's what David S. Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Mark I. Friedman, VP of research at the Nutrition Science Initiative, prescribe in their paradigm proclamation of why calorie-counting doesn't work, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The medical science duo's declaration of independence from counting calories and fearing fat seeks to look at hunger in a different way. "According to this alternative view, factors in the environment have triggered fat cells in our bodies to take in and store excessive amounts of glucose and other calorie-rich compounds. Since fewer calories are available to fuel metabolism, the brain tells the body to increase calorie intake (we feel hungry) and save energy (our metabolism slows down)," explain Ludwig and Friedman.

Because protein and fat are more filling, these and other medical experts concur that low-carb diets are the way to go for weight loss as well as overall health. Those refined carbohydrates and products with added sugar (even supposedly healthy ones like Greek yogurt) cause cravings and are linked to conditions ranging from dementia to depression to diabetes to heart disease, agree physicians such as Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the diet game-changer "Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar--Your Brain's Silent Killers."

Increasingly, the tides are turning in the world of weight loss experts - and it's a low-carb sea change that began with Gary Taubes. He wrote two books proclaiming protein and fats to be the winners for health and weight loss. The first, "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health," condemned carbohydrates such as white flour and sugar. A science journalist, Taubes offered evidence that it's the quality of the calories that we consume rather than the quantity that is important.

In his second book, Taubes championed high fat low carb diets: "Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It." It turns the current food pyramid upside down, preaching protein over grains and fats over fruit. In addition, Tabues affirms that viewing all calories as alike is fattening proposition.

Despite the evidence that low-fat diets that are high in carbohydrates and low in fats simply do not work when it comes to weight loss and conditions such as diabetes, organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) continue to preach the same nutritional rules. "To get the nutrients you need, eat a dietary pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts while limiting red meat," they advise. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) takes a different attitude in that they decline to condemn grains and starchy vegetables - but they hedge their bets.

"There is no end in sight to the debate as to whether grains help you lose weight, or if they promote weight gain. Even more importantly, do they help or hinder blood glucose management?" asks the ADA without answering the question. And in a note that sounds as if it was written by a 12-year-old, the ADA chirps: "One thing is for sure. If you are going to eat grain foods, pick the ones that are the most nutritious. Choose whole grains. Whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber."

Why do these two organizations continue to preach low-fat diet myths? The most complete answer to that question comes in a provocative and thought-provoking new book by Nina Teicholz: "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet." She cites evidence that these health group and many medical specialists continue to make avoidance of fat into their mantra because of one man: Ancel Keys, who is famous (make that infamous) for turning saturated fat into the Grinch of dieting.

"The idea that saturated fat causes heart disease goes back to a theory rooted in the 1950s that was proposed by one scientist and became enshrined, first in the American Heart Association in 1961 and became basically over the years a fact. But it had never been tested. Evidence against it—when it was finally shown—[the claim] was really poor and inconclusive and has since fallen apart," explained Nina in an interview with Businessweek.

Some may be wondering: Why have these topics never surfaced before? The answer: They have. But the money that large food corporations can toss into advertising campaigns proclaiming evaporated cane juice to be "pure" and enriched white flour to be "healthy" has outweighed (literally) the quiet but persistent voices of researchers such as Dr. William Lagakos, who offers an eloquent explanation of why calorie-counting fails for so many in his book "The poor, misunderstood calorie: calories proper."

Others highlighting the multiple benefits of high fat low carb ketogenic diets are Steve Phinney and Jeff Volek. The duo co-authored "New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great" and "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable." Citing substantial evidence of the merits of keto-adaptation for weight loss and health, they argue that fearing fat is akin to believing an outdated myth. All calories are not created equal - and trying to lose weight on the "calories in, calories out" theory is a formula for failure.