The Lowdown on Low Fat vs Low Carb

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine just published results from a 12-month study which aimed to identify which diet was the best – Low-carb or Low-fat. And the winner is…

Well, first, let’s see what were the basic questions (hypotheses) that the leader researcher, Professor Christopher Gardner  and his team were aiming to answer whether either of the following factors would dictate your success at losing weight:
  1. Genotype (that which predicts other factors such as your eye colour), or
  2. Baseline insulin secretion level (how much insulin your body produces to process glucose).

And the winner was?

Neither.

No evidence was found for the existence of a genotype or a baseline insulin level that would clearly favour your chances of losing weight.

Both diets resulted in an overall weight loss:

  • An average 13 pounds / 5.8 kg weight loss within the 609 study subjects
  • Wide variability – some gained as much as 20 pounds/9 kg while others lost as much as 60 pounds / 27 kg.

More detail about the methodology used can be found here.

Conclusions from the Research

Professor Gardner says “We have all heard stories of a friend who went on one diet – it worked great – and then another friend tried the same diet, and it didn’t work at all. It is because we are all very different, and we are just starting to understand the reasons for this diversity. Maybe we should not be asking what is the best diet, but what is the best diet for whom?”
His takeaway lesson from this study was that we should eat:
  • less sugar,
  • less refined flour,
  • more wholefoods (e.g. “wheatberry salad or grass-fed beef “), and
  • as many vegetables as possible.
Future projects are likely to focus on questions related to:
  • the microbiome (the billions of bacteria in our guts),
  • epigenetics (looking at gene expression rather than potential changes to the genetic code itself)

He goes on to say “I’m hoping that we can come up with signatures of sorts…I feel like we owe it to Americans to be smarter than to just say ‘eat less.’ I still think there is an opportunity to discover some personalisation to it.”

In his own words:

What Others Say

In the Telegraph article that discussed this research, they drew the conclusion that “the research showed the key to losing weight was simply eating less.”

Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, a UK campaign group, said: “The best diet in town is not a fad but much less of what you actually fancy – and stick to it.”

Some Thoughts

The findings of the research do not surprise me at all. And I applaud some of the conclusions that Professor Gardner draws – cutting down on (refined) sugars/flours, eating more (plant) wholefoods and vegetables – but there are some issues that require clarification.

  1. When weight loss is the only factor considered, other issues related to the overall health-promoting aspects of nutrition are marginalised. There appears to be no stated justification for Professor Gardner’s jump from talking about the results of the research (genotype and insulin secretion levels) to then recommending specific nutritional elements (less sugar, more wholefoods etc). If he is going to make these statements (especially if he includes “grass-fed beef” in the list of healthy wholefoods), then it would be useful to see some justification for such statements – and, as we would suspect, any justification would not come from a study that simply focuses on weight-loss without also measuring other health factors (cholesterol, triglycerides, mineral/vitamin balance, etc).
  2. Professor Gardner’s statement “It is because we are all very different, and we are just starting to understand the reasons for this diversity. Maybe we should not be asking what is the best diet, but what is the best diet for whom?” is somewhat misleading. It suggests that there is no evidence from large population studies (such as the largest of them all, The China Study) that optimal health appears to depend on diet, to a large extent, irrespective of the individual genetic variations within the members of that population. Indeed, the Stanford University research itself dismisses the primacy of genetics or “insulin secretion levels” as markers for future weight gain, let alone the uncharted, and more vital area, of overall health gain.
  3. There appears to be a misunderstanding in the media about what conclusions can be drawn from the study. Professor Gardner says “I feel like we owe it to Americans to be smarter than to just say ‘eat less.’ The Telegraph, on the other hand, states that “the research showed the key to losing weight was simply eating less.” No wonder the public get confused. And to add more confusion, Tam Fry (National Obesity Forum) states “The best diet in town is not a fad but much less of what you actually fancy – and stick to it.” Again, the implicit assumption here is that all foods are equal, all diets that do not include “moderation in all things” are fad diets, and, again, the mistaken implication that the research is suggesting we should simply eat less calories.
  4. Professor Gardner’s comment “Maybe we should not be asking what is the best diet, but what is the best diet for whom?” is, for me, a frankly shocking indication that he may not have looked at the wealth of research demonstrating that there is one diet that has been proven to be optimal for human health – a whole food plant-based diet, with minimal or no animal protein. I suspect that if his research subjects had been rural Chinese, Papua Highlanders, Central Africans or Tarahumara Indians from northern Mexico, then he would not have even bothered to do this research study since more or less everyone within those communities would already have been at their optimal body weight, largely regardless of genome or insulin secretion level.
  5. When such research projects are taken up by the media and then the public, they are thrown back, once again, on the mistaken belief that nutrition is simply a matter of the quantity and not quality of the calories being “eaten”. People do not eat calories. They eat food. And our bodies are made out of the food we eat.
  6. Yet again, this research focuses in a reductionist manner on genetic and individual biochemical responses in order to establish something so vitally important to our populations’ health and well-being. It still makes me recall Nero fiddling while Rome burned…

In my experience and that of my clients, even increasing the amount of calories consumed after making the transition to a WFPBD (whole food plant-based diet) from a standard diet (whether it be a meat-based, vegetarian or vegan diet), can cause excess fat to drop off the body. Just as a vitamin C supplement does not cause the same bodily responses as compared to the vitamin C derived from eating an apple, the calories “consumed” from eating animal foods (whether processed or unprocessed) have a very different effect on the body than those derived from eating plant foods (whether organic whole plants or even less-healthy processed plant-foods). And the added bonus from eating a wide variety of organic whole plants represents yet another step in the direction of optimal health from eating those less-healthy processed plant foods.

There is yet to be mainstream coverage and acceptance of the only diet proven to reverse heart disease and other chronic diseases. In the meantime, looking after your own diet can have a greater effect on your health, encourage other people’s appetite for dietary change, avoid further damage to other species, and help protect the environmental welfare of our land, sea and air.

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References

Gardner CD, Trepanowski JF, Del Gobbo LC, Hauser ME, Rigdon J, Ioannidis JPA, Desai M, King AC. AMA. 2018 Feb 20;319(7):667-679. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.0245. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial.

 

Weight Loss – Down to Exercise or Diet?

You have probably heard Michelle Obama and many others telling overweight people that they can drop their extra pounds by picking up their running shoes. But is this really the answer to the increasing epidemic of obesity spreading around the world?

An Instructor from T Colin Campbell’s Centre for Nutrition Studies considers that her personal experience suggests that this is simply NOT the answer…

Healthy Weight Loss = 80% Nutrition + 20% Exercise

 

 appeared in the 1998 edition of Shape magazine as one of their “Success Stories” for weight loss.

She was engaged in “an excruciating exercise program of power walking/jogging 35-40 miles per week, plus an additional 20 miles on the bike.” Of course she lost weight, but as the years passed she found that the unwelcome pounds came creeping back.

She read an article that, at the time, seemed to explain why this might be happening: “…as we age, our metabolism slows down due to natural muscle mass decreases, so we need to increase our calorie burning exercise. If we don’t, we gain 10 lbs every few years, even though we are still exercising.”

Discouraged by the thought of having to continually ramp up the extreme exercise as each year passed, she found that her health started to decline – “…high cholesterol, high blood pressure, swollen and painful joints, and hormonal issues. I was only in my forties, and my lack of health had become a source of great stress. I couldn’t imagine what I would be like in my 60’s. My joints already hurt so much!”

Eventually, she came across the landmark documentary film Forks Over Knives. Things changed from then on. And she was not alone. This very film revolutionised my life and the lives of many people I come across daily.

Terri, like many, many others, learned that optimal health was not about exercising more. Rather, it was about eating the right foods. “Not chicken and fish like I had thought, but whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits!”

  • Leanest cut of beef ~28% calories from fat
  • Skinless chicken breast ~ 24% from fat
  • Tuna ~21% from fat
  • Salmon ~ 40% from fat
  • Eggs ~70% from fat!

Nutrition is Key

Even though she continued to consider that exercise and stress management are important “…the real key—80% of the equation—is nutrition – in particular, eating plants.

Now, her main exercise is walking the dog daily for around 30-45 minutes with some gentle yoga four days a week – without the dog, I guess!

She says that her cholesterol levels have dropped and she no longer suffers from inflammation or pain.

While exercise and stress management are “…very important pieces to the health puzzle; it’s not whole without them. But, nutrition is the biggest piece of the picture. “You can’t outrun your fork.” “


Some edited thoughts (1.) from Dr. Greger

The food industries like to blame inactivity as the prime cause of obesity, not the promotion and consumption of their calorie-rich products. (2.) On the contrary, however, research suggests that the level of physical activity may have actually increased in the United States over the past few decades. (3.) We know that obesity is rising even in areas where people are exercising more. (4.) This is likely explained by the fact that eating activity levels are outstripping physical activity levels. (5.)…Researchers who accept grants from the Coca-Cola Company (6.) call physical inactivity “the biggest public health problem of the 21st century.” (7.) Actually, physical inactivity ranks down at number five in terms of risk factors for death in the United States and number six in terms of risk factors for disability. (8.) And inactivity barely makes the top ten globally. (9.)

diet is by far our greatest killer, followed by smoking. (10.)

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should sit on the couch all day…. in addition to helping you enjoy a healthy body weight, exercise can also ward off and possibly reverse mild cognitive decline, boost your immune system, prevent and treat high blood pressure, and improve your mood and quality of sleep, among many other benefits.

References

  1. Greger, Michael; Stone, Gene. How Not To Die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease (Air Side Edt) (p. 393). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition
  2. Freedhoff Y, Hébert PC. Partnerships between health organizations and the food industry risk derailing public health nutrition. CMAJ. 2011;183( 3): 291– 2.
  3. Westerterp KR, Speakman JR. Physical activity energy expenditure has not declined since the 1980s and matches energy expenditures of wild mammals. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008;32( 8): 1256– 63.
  4. Dwyer-Lindgren L, Freedman G, Engell RE, et al. Prevalence of physical activity and obesity in US counties, 2001– 2011: a road map for action. Popul Health Metr. 2013;11: 7.
  5. Laskowski ER. The role of exercise in the treatment of obesity. PMR. 2012;4( 11): 840– 4.
  6. Archer E, Hand GA, Blair SN. Correction: Validity of U.S. Nutritional Surveillance: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Caloric Energy Intake Data, 1971– 2010. http:// journals.plos.org/ plosone/ article? id = 10.1371/ annotation/ c313df3a-52bd-4cbe-af14-6676480d1a43. October 11, 2013. Accessed April 23, 2015.
  7. Blair SN. Physical inactivity: the biggest public health problem of the 21st century. Br J Sports Med. 2009;43( 1): 1– 2.
  8. Murray CJ, Atkinson C, Bhalla K, et al. The state of US health, 1990– 2010: burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors. JAMA. 2013;310( 6): 591– 608.
  9. Lim SS, Vos T, Flaxman AD, et al. A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990– 2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet. 2012;380( 9859): 2224– 60.
  10. Murray CJ, Atkinson C, Bhalla K, et al. The state of US health, 1990– 2010: burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors. JAMA. 2013;310( 6): 591– 608.

 


Joe’s Final Comment

For many years I also considered that exercise was the main answer. I would train for marathons, work myself into the ground – pushing my body so hard that I repeatedly wrecked my muscles and joints; but still I would find that my unwanted weight crept back, and those damned “love handles”  would never disappear.

Now, at the age of 56, my body feels like it is at its optimal weight – the lowest level since I was in my teens. I never go hungry or actively control the quantity of food I eat – and I eat A LOT!

Before “going cold turkey” into a WFPB diet, I was starting to feel old and pretty pessimistic about my future, even though I was very conscious of my dietary intake and had been a vegetarian on and off for most of my life.

Now, my arthritis has all but disappeared. My joints no longer ache. I no longer get constipated or have the recurrent mouth ulcers and nose bleeds that I had for years. Getting in and out of the car, or up from sofas, no longer causes exclamations of pain. I feel like I have more energy now than I had years ago. My mental attitude is consistently positive and…I am really looking forward to the future.

Of course my and Terri’s claims about the health benefits of a WFPB diet are merely anecdotal; but without a personal experience of the power of plant-eating I would not be able to recommend it to other people. I just wish my parents had been able to enjoy its health benefits instead of the lingering and painful diet-related diseases that they endured.

If you have a personal story that you think would inspire others, let me know.