Los Angeles. 8-8-10. 7:12 AM. Headline News. Dr. Sanjay Gupta. CNN’s Fit Nation. I do not believe what I just saw and heard.
Right before bedtime this morning (yes, forever the night owl…), I happened upon a disturbing piece of television. A (presumably) credible health expert, on a major cable network, during a well-branded news segment, stood before two plates of food. One represented a “low-fat” diet – a turkey sandwich with white bread and a side of oily pasta salad. The other represented a low-carb diet – a greasy-ass hamburger patty covered with a slab of melted cheese, a tablespoon or two of mayo, and a side of veggies. Dr. Gupta was reporting on a newly published two-year study funded by the NIH (National Institute of Health), which compared the effectiveness of “low-fat” and low-carb diets.
[By the way, in the context of this study, I have to put the distinction of “low-fat” diet in quotes, since this studies’ version allowed for a whopping 30% of the total calories to come from fat… with the majority of that, it seems, coming from the saturated variety in animal products.]
Anyway, it turns out that both diets yielded approximately the same results in terms of weight loss: the study participants – all obese, by the way – experienced an average loss of about 24 pounds the first year, then maintained a 15-pound loss the second year. No surprise there, as the marginal weight loss successes of both of these diets hinged primarily around the fact that, if you take in fewer calories – even if those calories are coming in via a shitty diet, as both of these clearly were – you will lose weight.
And then, the unspeakable.
Dr. Gupta discussed what appeared to be the studies’ media trump card; that it was the low-carb diet that actually appeared to be more heart healthy, since the low-carb participants experienced a greater increase in their HDL (good kind) cholesterol. Gupta said that this had “a lot of scientists and doctors really paying attention.” (Really? Which ones? Truckloads of data discrediting the low-carb diet have been circulating since the first-generation Atkins craze of the 70s, with another avalanche of info pouring out in the 90s. Have these doctors and scientists missed this?) He also went on to suggest that these results were mainly attributable to glycemic index and insulin factors, given that there is “more flour and sugar” in the low-fat diet. (Really? Which low-fat diet? There’s not much sugar or flour to speak of in the low-fat regimens that I recommend.)
A Closer Look
The truth is, this was not a meaningful or cutting edge study on any level. Here are the highlights:
1. They started out with about 300 participants, all of whom were obese, as mentioned (which could limit the studies’ relevance and validity to people in other weight ranges).
2. Well over one-third of these participants dropped out during the study – 42% from the low-carb group, and 32% from the low-fat group – which, of course, speaks to the sustainability issue of “diets” to begin with.
3. After two full years, the remaining participants were only able to sustain a weight loss of 15 pounds… which, if you’re 250-plus and really out of shape, this is not a great result on any level.
4. At the end of the study, the low-fat group did better in terms of overall weight loss, lower LDL (bad kind) cholesterol, lower triglyceride levels, and lower total cholesterol levels (the only reading that ultimately matters when it comes to assessing heart disease risk).
And yet, what is the big daddy headline of this study for Dr. Sanjay Gupta and a host of others to rave about? The low-carb groups’ higher HDL levels. What the fuck?
I’m not sure what role a crack pipe might have played in these findings, but I figured I’d better include a pic of one, just in case!
A Quick Rant
I really don’t mean to bust balls on Sanjay Gupta. I know very little about him or his philosophies, and I’ll presume he’s a highly educated doctor and a skilled surgeon. And perhaps Dr. Gupta was just “phoning it in” on this segment… simply reporting the results of this study without the filter of his own personal research or scrutiny. I really don’t know.
What I do know is, if you’re gonna assume the role of “Chief Medical Correspondent” of a major cable network with a d and an r in front of your name, you better understand the social responsibility that entails. Folks are listening. Folks trust you. Folks presume you know what the hell you’re talking about. So now I shudder to think about how many motherfuckers will be having a low-carb-style “bunless” burger today for lunch – with extra cheese – thinking that it’s heart-healthy because “Dr. Gupta” suggested it was. I don’t mean to over-dramatize the point, and I’m sure no ill-will was intended, but the propagation of this particular message is fucking criminal negligence, and I am stunned that so many MDs and health authorities still buy into this low-carb lunacy.
And, of course, it doesn’t stop with Dr. Gupta’s little segment. Google this bitch, and you will find a variety of well-known sources regurgitating the results of this study as the public blindly takes it in, then continues to regurgitate it amongst themselves. Trust me; people will be quoting the findings from this fucked-up study for years to come. And it will likely sound something like this:
“A 2010 study by the National Institute of Health showed that a low-carb diet was more effective for the prevention of heart disease than a low-fat diet.”
“Bobby… Why the harsh tones?”
Listen – I acknowledge that I am clearly annoyed and frustrated by this whole thing, and that my blood pressure is feeling a bit higher than normal as I’m writing this. But just so you’ll know where I’m coming from here… This is not some kind of herbivore vs. omnivore issue, veganism vs. animal products debate, or even a my-dick-is-bigger-than-your-dick sort of bravado about who has the healthiest eating regimen. This is about quantifiable, irrefutable science. This is about a fad diet philosophy that, from a health and wellness perspective, has been categorically, comprehensively, and consistently dismantled through the decades. I understand that people can lose weight on the low-carb diet. But to remotely suggest that running high amounts of animal fat through your bloodstream will decrease your risk of heart disease? Again… criminal.
And this whole thing is also a bit personal for me, as well. It really bothers me to know that so much unnecessary suffering will stem from this kind of ignorance… that as a direct result of someone trying to do the right thing and adhere to the findings of a supposed “credible study,” that now someone’s friend, sibling, cousin, parent or child is gonna wind up getting their fucking chest split open on an operating table so they can have all of this “low-carb” animal fat cleared out of their arteries. And those will be the lucky ones.
Low-Carb Diet Bottom Line
If you’ve ever given any credence to the low-carb diet or, God forbid, if you’ve recently run across this ridiculous study and are thinking about taking it all to heart (so to speak), please do me a favor and consider the following:
1. To the extent that people lose weight on a low-carb diet, it is usually because of two main reasons. First, the highly-acidic, ketogenic nature of the diet creates a dehydrating effect in the body, which causes a loss in water weight… which shows up on the scale as weight loss. Second, low-carb diets are almost always lower in calories when compared to most people’s version of the standard American diet. And when you reduce calories, you generally lose weight. Simple mathematics. (Also, however, when you return to your “regular” diet, all the fat and water you lost comes roaring back… with a vengeance.)
2. To the extent that a low-carb diet causes an improvement in cholesterol or blood pressure numbers for somebody, it can only mean one thing: the eating regimen they were on prior to the low-carb diet was really fucked up. Seriously. And this would include any version of a “low-fat” diet that they may have been trying. (As I alluded to earlier, the “low-fat” diet that was apparently used in this study was not really low-fat, and, if it involved a bunch of flour and sugar – in addition to all of the animal products – was not really healthy, either.)
3. If – for whatever number of potential reasons – the low-carb diet causes an increase in HDL, so what? It doesn’t much matter where your HDL winds up if your total cholesterol is over 150. And I would wager that the vast majority of these folks – most of whom remained in the obese range, don’t forget – did not wind up with a total cholesterol under 150 unless they were already genetically predisposed to an ultra-low total, regardless of what they ate.
POST NOTE: As one of my readers pointed out – yes, no doubt – a higher HDL will certainly come in handy in a high cholesterol situation, so I shouldn’t have written that it “doesn’t much matter” where your HDL is. But what I meant to articulate with the above point is that even if you have a healthy looking HDL, once you get over 150 with your total cholesterol, you’re still playing with fire, and there is little guarantee that the higher HDL will be able to neutralize the inherent, time-tested danger of a plus-150 total cholesterol level.
4. There has never been a culture of people who have eaten the insane amount of animal protein inherent to the typical low-carb diet, that have exhibited any level of the superior health, wellness and longevity that the most long-lived cultures in our history have exhibited from a lower-fat, more plant-based regimen (like the classic Hunzan and Okinawan models that have been studied). We have never seen it, and I can tell you right now we never will.
5. Every single example I have ever seen of actual heart disease reversal through diet (either primarily or exclusively), has only involved a low-fat, heavily plant-based eating regimen. Every single one. (And these low-fat diets were low in fat, in the 10% to 15% of total calories range.)
6. From a global environmental perspective, the low-carb/high animal protein diet is absolutely unsustainable as a long-term eating philosophy. Between the gluttonous misappropriation of our earthly resources required to sustain modern animal agriculture, as well as the dire environmental ramifications that the factory farming industry has on the earth itself, it just doesn’t make sense that the same eating regimen that would prove to be the deadliest for the planet, would wind up being the healthiest for us. It simply cannot be.
So I say, let’s forget about these “flash in the frying pan” fad diets. Instead, let’s focus on healthy and sustainable lifestyle changes that promote wellness for us humans, the planet, and all the animals who share this space with us.