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Low-Carbohydrate, High-Protein Diets May Help You Lose Weight... All of It

By Mike Ratchett

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Some fads, like parachute pants, big-ass pants, grungewear and the Backstreet Boys are annoying to be sure, but aren't likely to cause major health problems or kill you in the long run.

Fad diets, on the other hand, have the potential to do more serious harm than good. For decades, diet programs such as the Scarsdale Medical Diet, The Quick Weight Loss Diet and others have preyed upon overweight Americans (current estimates suggest that more than one third of all Americans are overweight) with claims of fast, safe, permanent weight loss.

Latest among them are the nearly ubiquitous "low-carb, high-protein" diets -- Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet, Healthy for Life, Protein Power, Sugar Busters, Enter The Zone, Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Foods and others -- all of which are based upon the "groundbreaking" premise that carbohydrates, not fat, are the true culprits when it comes to obesity and becoming overweight.

These "eat all the pork rinds, burgers (sans bun, of course), fried eggs and bacon you want" diets propose that by simply reducing the amount of carbohydrate intake, subscribers can sculpt their physical appearance and continue to eat most of the crap that conventional wisdom (not to mention solid scientific data compiled by researchers over the past 50 years) has long suggested as being the culprits that made them fat pigs in the first place.

While reports documenting the dangers of these and other fad diets are generally as easy to come by as the diets themselves, the latest wave of low-carb diets are enjoying an even greater degree of good press via the Internet and afternoon talk shows like "Oprah!," whose recent segments on Racheal and Richard Heller, authors of several low-carb diet books including Healthy for Life, resulted in two of the books catapulting shortly after the segments aired to the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on Amazon.com's best-seller list.

With easy access to Web sites lauding low-carb, high protein diets and blessings from powerfully influential personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Americans are flocking by the thousands to booksellers across the country, fueled by the hopes of becoming as thin as the waif models and sitcom stars they so admire, virtually without lifting a finger or recognizing the bad eating habits that make the U.S. a glutonous nation of overeaters and underachievers. And indeed, many of them shed pounds as promised, but usually not for long and often times at great risk of compromising their health in the long run.

There are experts in the fields of diet and nutrition and medical science on both sides of the low-carb, high-protein diet fence -- most of the supporters are simply medical doctors who've come to the conclusion that there are millions to be made by publishing books that say exactly what the public wants to hear -- but there is no significant data to suggest that low-carb, high protein diets of any kind are a healthful way to lose weight.

What all such diets share in common is that their pundits ask the consumers (literally, in some cases) to ignore dietary recommendations from the USDA, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association, and eat what they want without the well-documented consequences that most of us grew up believing. Such marketing tactics raise several questions as to the validity of the various claims made by authors of these diets and bring to the fore some very basic concerns that fad diets such as the low-carb plans may be jeapordizing our public health by pandering to our couch potato mentality.

Carbohydrates Make You Fat?

Not so, say most nutritionists and medical experts. The basis for most low-carb diets comes from a diet developed for diabetics in the '40s (before insulin and other oral treatments for the disease were available) by the New York Department of Health. The science behind the theory goes something like this: Carbohydrates are converted to glucose in the bloodstream, which the cells then burn for energy. The hormone insulin is essential for the transfer of glucose to the cells, so by decreasing carbohydrate intake, blood sugar levels decrease, thereby decreasing insulin production by the pancreas. With less insulin in the bloodstream, the body is supposedly "tricked" into using fat stores for energy, which leads to the quick weight loss associated with the overwhelming popularity of low-carb diets. This state is commonly called ketosis and is commonly labeled as "normal" by authors of low-carb, high-protein diet plans. But it's also a condition most widely seen in alcoholics, the malnourished, people suffering from untreated diabetes and in people recovering from all sorts of minor illnesses.

From a scientific standpoint, this theoretical trickery amounts to nothing short of misinformation. The average daily calorie count of low-carb diets falls between 1,500 and 1,700 per day, often less than that. A person who eats anything they want as long as they stay within that range, in combination with moderate physical activity, is almost sure to lose weight. But the rapid loss of weight in such cases is often attributable to water loss. Stored carbohydrate contains large amounts of water, and depletion of carbohydrate stores leads to a loss of the associated water that can result in an impressive initial weight loss. Ever wonder why you get thirsty after an extended workout? So much for the "magic" associated with these diets.

The fact is, it's neither carbohydrates nor insulin that is important as far as weight loss in a healthy individual. Weight is simply proportional to the number of calories a person takes in relative to how many they burn off. And insulin, despite what the low-carb camps would have you believe, is not an evil hormone. If it was, you can bet you wouldn't have an organ (the pancreas) dedicated to producing it. It's like saying that the human body is comprised of organs that amount to nothing more than tumors that eat us away from the inside.

It's also important to understand that by simply depriving the body of carbohydrates to induce a state of ketotis state does not necessarily mean you'll instantly begin burning fat for energy. Generally speaking, fat only comes available for fuel about 20 minutes into vigorous exercise. Most people don't work out long or hard enough to burn significant amounts of fat regardless of their carbohydrate intake. And with the proliferation of infomercial devices that promise "a full workout in five minutes," fewer and fewer Americans are getting anywhere near the amount of daily exercise they need for healthy bodies.

Still, the "microwave generation" clamors for any so-called miracle program that requires the least amount of effort on their part, thus the popularity of the "eat what you want, watch TV and lose weight" diets.

Eat Fat, Lose Weight?

On the surface, it just doesn't make sense: How can one eat fat and not eventually become fat? The Atkins Diet in particular, as well its many spinoffs, allows for almost unlimited intake of both high-protein and high-fat foods, but others, such as Protein Power and Enter The Zone suggest lean proteins and moderate fat intake. Supporters of the low-carb, high-protein diets are quick to assert that a high-protein diet does not necessarily equal a high-fat diet. And with the increasing availability of lean meats, they make an important point. But for most Americans, high-protein diets tend also to be high in fat. And despite widespread claims by authors of low-carb diet books, all major medical and health organizations maintain that a diet high in fat can lead to heart disease, cancer and a wide variety of otherwise preventable illnesses.

Then there's the issue of the effects of increased protein on the organs that have to deal with it: the liver and kidneys. Many of the low-carb diet authors caution people with a family history of kidney disease not to follow their plans, but rarely do they offer any reasons for the warnings. The reasons are many. Protein is metabolized in the liver, then excreted to the kidneys for disposal in the urine. Everyone from former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to organizations like the American Dietetic Association agree that increased protein load is stressful to both the liver and kidneys. Furthermore, kidney function decreases naturally with age in most Americans, whose diets are typically above the recommended percentage of protein at 12 to 15 percent. For the sake of perspective, Enter The Zone recommends a diet of 30 percent protein, and others recommend even higher percentages.

Another common load of nonsense put forth by authors of low-carb diets is that sugar causes diabetes and makes you fat. The only direct relationship sugar intake has on health is its role in tooth decay. Medical science debunked the myth that sugar causes diabetes some 20 years ago, when they determined that the cause of the disease is unknown, but is directly related to obesity, genetics and the normal aging process. Sugar doesn't make you fat, either. Eating too many calories makes you fat regardless of the source. You are what -- and how much -- you eat. Grandma was right.

The Bottom Line

It has long been suggested that Americans in general need to increase complex carbohydrate intake, eat moderate amounts of protein and decrease the amount of fat in our diets. We've been told to adjust our diets according to these suggestions because the preponderance of scientific data continues to support them. Given the high risk of long-term health risks of low-carb, high-protein dieting and the fact that none of the authors of the plans has ever published any data to validate their claims, does it make sense to ignore the establishment? Most experts and health organizations think not. On Oct.17, 1999, the American Dietetic Association issued an official press release condemning low-carb diets as unhealthy. Since then, other organizations such as the American Society of Sports Medicine, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association have followed suit.

Millions of Americans are desperate to lose weight, and naturally look for the easiest, most convenient way to do it. Fad diets offer just that, although often at great risk to the consumer, by promising miracle weight loss and recommending foods that people in this country feel are their birthright. We all like to hear good news about our bad habits or that the establishment has been wrong all along.

But the simple truth is that a well-balanced diet coupled with regular exercise -- both under close observation by a health professional -- is the only safe way to lose weight, keep it off and be healthy for life. By ignoring the fads (another is sure to pop up after low-carb diets lose their luster) and eating sensibly, you'll feel and look better in the long run.

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