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NBA players spark low carb weight loss debate: Ketogenic versus carbs

Diets for athletes: High carb or low carb?
Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Kim Kardashian lost more than 50 pounds on a low carb ketogenic diet, and Jack Osbourne uses a Paleo low carb diet to manage his multiple sclerosis. But when a growing number of NBA players and other high profile athletes shifted from carb-loading to carb-cutting for weight loss, experts ranging from physicians to sports scientists found themselves engaged in a diet debate that continues to spread, reported Medical Daily News on August 14.

The athletes who sparked the controversy are Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Their high fat low carb ketogenic diet replaces carbohydrates such as pasta and pie with protein such as poultry and healthy fats such as pecans.

Professor Tim Noakes, a well-known sports scientist, argues in favor of the approach. He believes that they are effective both for dieters and athletes who want to improve their performance.

"If you’re hungry you’ll never control your weight," he pointed out in favor of low carb high fat (LCHF) plans for weight loss. As for athletes, "for events of more than five hours, fat-adapted athletes have an advantage," he added.

Sometimes known as the Banting diet, ketogenic diets work by shifting the body into fat-burning mode. Nutritional ketosis has been shown to provide an effective way to lose weight, reduce blood pressure and even improve cholesterol levels while disproving the notion that "a calorie is a calorie."

However, Dr. Celeste Naude and Professor Jimmy Volmink claim that their research shows no benefits from following a LCHF diet. They conducted research at Stellenbosch University and determined that people on low carb diets lost the same amount of weight as those on balanced plans, reported News 24 on August 14.

Volmink insists that no studies exist to show that ketogenic diets are safe and effective long-term. He contends that counting calories is the best approach combined with eating a balanced diet that includes grains.

But Dr. Eric Westman strongly disagrees. The physician co-authored a new book containing research showing that high fat low carb ketogneic diets trump low fat plans: "Keto Clarity: Your Definitive Guide to the Benefits of a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet."

He cites studies and evidence that in addition to helping dieters lose weight more easily, nutritional ketosis can help with epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and hypertension. Dr. Westman is particularly enthusiastic about the therapeutic use of low carb diets for type 2 diabetes.

A new study highlights how low carb diets can even alleviate the need for medication for those with type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that obese adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus experienced better glycemic control and reduced cardiovascular risk.

"At the end of our clinic day, we go home thinking, ‘The clinical improvements are so large and obvious, why don’t other doctors understand?’ Carbohydrate restriction is easily grasped by patients: because carbohydrates in the diet raise the blood glucose, and as diabetes is defined by high blood glucose, it makes sense to lower the carbohydrate in the diet," said Dr. Westman.

The response to low carb diets is rapid. "By reducing the carbohydrate in the diet, we have been able to taper patients off as much as 150 units of insulin per day in eight days, with marked improvement in glycemic control – even normalization of glycemic parameters," added the noted physician.

As for the prevailing food pyramids preaching grains and fat-free foods? They're built on myths, says Nina Teicholz, the author of "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet."

In an exclusive interview, she discussed her detailed chronology of how low-fat diets became the standard prescription for non-profit health organizations such as the American Heart Association. Particularly noteworthy is her investigation into what led to traditional doctor-prescribed diets such as the one defended by Naude and Volmink.

Nina found that the foundation of such food pyramids results from one man: Ancel Keys. "The Seven Countries study that Keys conducted in the late 1950s was like the “big bang” of modern nutrition research," Nina explained. "It concluded that saturated fat (because it raised total cholesterol) was the most likely cause of heart disease."

Consequently, the American Heart Association issued the nation's initial diet directives. The message: Slash saturated fat to avoid heart disease, boost grains.

"The rest of the history of our dietary guidelines unfolds from there. Keys's hypothesis became our public health advice," says Nina. But when you evaluate the study on which he based his advice, "you find that it contains many methodological flaws, including the fact that Keys selected only the countries that would support his hypothesis, such as Italy, Greece and Japan, which had low rates of heart disease and consumed little saturated fat, while ignoring those that would not (such as France, Switzerland and Germany, where people ate a lot of saturated fat but did not suffer high rates of heart disease). "

For athletes, then, the recommendations from Noakes and Dr. Westman are supported by the reality of research uncovered by Nina as well as the numerous studies conducted by the team of Jeff Volek and Dr. Stephen Phinney, authors of "The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance."