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Low carb diets trounce low-fat for heart health and weight loss in meta-analysis

What works best: Low carb or low fat?
What works best: Low carb or low fat?
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

After decades of being advised to eat low-fat diets rich in grains, fruits and vegetables and to avoid saturated fats, consumers are waking up to a new message: Eat fat and protein, not grains and orange juice, if you want to promote health and lose weight. It's the result of a meta-analysis that marks a sea change in diet advice.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the new study is the largest yet to evaluate whether saturated fat is linked to coronary artery disease. And the answer after pouring through 32 studies and 27 trials: Saturated fat has been unfairly demonized for decades.

The researchers reported that they could find no link between heart disease and the consumption of high fat foods such as butter, beef and bacon. Their results supported previous studies by Jeff S. Volek, Ph.D., R.D., who evaluated a group with metabolic syndrome and concluded that high fat low carb diets trumped low-fat plans.

Co-author of "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable," Volek's laboratory group assigned both men and women to either a low-fat diet or a low-carb diet. The low carb diet improved all indicators, from higher fat loss to lower blood sugar level.

Volek, who also co-authored the high fat low carb ketogenic diet book "New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great," recommends restricting carbohydrates to less than 50 grams per day. In place of carbohydrates, he suggests consuming healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and avocado.

Aseem Malhotra, interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University Hospital in London, concurs. He attracted international attention when he proclaimed that sautrated fat is not the issue in an article for the British Medical Journal. "Saturated fat has been demonized ever since Ancel Keys’s landmark 'seven countries' study in 1970," wrote Dr. Malhotra.

However, based on subsequent research, it's clear that study was used to propagate a ban on foods such as butter and beef without reason. "Correlation is not causation," says the cardiologist.

The first person to proclaim that low-carb diets trounce low-fat diets was not a medical expert, however. Science journalist Gary Taubes is regarded as the diet daredevil who challenged the conventional food pyramid in his carb-condemning book: "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health."

Taubes pointed out that the advice to eat a high carb low-fat diet has resulted in soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. He cited research showing that for weight loss and health, low carb high fat diets proved more effective both in the initial phase and over time.

Taking up the high fat low carb butter baton is another journalist, Nina Teicholz. She traces the history of the "eat grains, avoid fat" mantra to Ancel Keys in her book "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet."

"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.

However, the American Heart Association continues to preach the grains gospel, emphasizing low-fat guidelines. Their Web site tells consumers to eat "fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, while limiting red meat."