Are Low Carb Diets Healthy?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in low carb diet

Can You Eat Low Carb & Live A Long And Healthy Life?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Are low carb diets healthy?

are low carb diets healthyAtkins, Paleo, Keto…It seems like everyone is following a low carb diet nowadays. They are popular, but they are also controversial. At this point you are probably wondering are low carb diets healthy and is there any evidence to support it one way or the other?  I searched the literature to find the answer to that question. The answer is:

Yes, there is evidence that some low carb diets are healthy…

…but, not for the reasons low carb enthusiasts give…

…and, not for the diets they promote.

Let me elaborate.

 

Why Are The Arguments Of Low Carb Enthusiasts Misleading?

are low carb diets healthy enthusiastMost proponents of low carb diets claim they are healthy based on improvements in blood parameters, usually things like lower triglycerides, higher HDL, lower blood glucose and insulin levels, and lower blood pressure. They sometimes claim lower LDL levels and lower levels of inflammation, although clinical studies are inconsistent for the effects of low carb diets on LDL and inflammation. They then go on to extrapolate from these data to claim their diet will reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases.

These extrapolations are misleading for three reasons:

#1: Most of these comparisons are with the standard American diet. As I have said previously, almost anything is better than the standard American diet.

#2: Most of these studies are short term. The comparisons are generally made during the weight loss phase of these diets or at a time when the dieters have achieved significant weight loss. That is significant because weight loss improves all those parameters. If the comparisons were made during the maintenance phase or after most of the weight had been regained (as it usually is), the results might have been completely different.

#3: These blood parameters are imperfect indicators of disease risk. I find it particularly amusing that low carb proponents downplay the risk of saturated fats by saying that LDL and HDL cholesterol are imperfect indicators of disease risk and then use the same indicators to predict their diet will lower the risk of heart disease.

The only accurate way to determine the effect of a diet on disease risk is to conduct long term studies that measure the health outcomes of the diet. Those studies have been done, but they don’t support popular diets like Atkins, Paleo, or Keto.

 

Are Low Carb Diets Healthy and If So, Which Ones?

which low carb diets are healthyThere are, in fact, several long-term studies showing that low carb diets are healthy, but only if you ditch the animal protein and animal fats, and replace them with vegetable protein and vegetable oils.

For example, a 20-year study of 82,802 women in the Nurses’ Health Study found that women who ate a low-carbohydrate diet that was high in vegetable protein and oils had 30% lower risk of developing heart disease compared to women who ate high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets (T.L. Halton et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 355: 1991-2002, 2006). In contrast, the women who consumed a low-carbohydrate diet that was high in animal protein and fat fared no better than women consuming a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet.

A follow-up study with the same group of women compared the effect of the same diets over a period of 20 years on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (T.L. Halton et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87: 339-346, 2008 ). The results were very similar. Women consuming a low-carbohydrate diet high in vegetable protein and oils had an 18% decreased risk of developing diabetes. Once again, the women consuming a low-carbohydrate diet high in animal protein and fats had just as high a risk of developing diabetes as women consuming the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet.

This may have been because women consuming a low-carbohydrate, high animal protein and fat diet gained just as much weight over 20 years as women consuming a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. In contrast, women who consumed the low-carbohydrate diet high in vegetable protein and oils gained much less weight. At the end of the 20-year study, they weighed significantly less than the women in the other two groups (T.L. Halton et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 355: 1991-2002, 2006 ). This is not surprising, since we already know that vegetarians weigh less than their meat-eating friends.

However, it does run counter to what the low carb diet promoters have been telling you. They claim their diets help you lose weight. You do lose weight more rapidly on a typical low carb diet, but at the end of a year or two you end up weighing just as much as if you followed a low-fat diet (F.M. Sacks et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 360: 859-873, 2009) .  By the end of 20 years you will have gained significant weight compared to someone following a more plant-based diet (T.L. Halton et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 355: 1991-2002, 2006 ). It appears that the only low carb diet likely to give you permanent weight loss is a low carb vegetarian diet.

This is reinforced by another study showing that consumption of junk foods (potato chips and fries), sodas, processed meats, red meats, butter, sweets & desserts, and refined grains was associated with weight gain over a 4-year period (D. Mozaffarian et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 364: 2392-2404, 2011 ). In contrast, consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and yoghurt was associated with weight loss.

It’s not just women. A 20-year study of 40,475 men found that men consuming a low-carbohydrate diet high in animal protein and fat had a 37% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (L. de Koning et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93: 844-850, 2011 ). In contrast, men consuming a low-carbohydrate diet high in vegetable protein and oils had a 34% decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

 

Other Healthy Low Carb Diets

 

are low carb diets healthy vegetablesI have previously shared evidence that a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Several recent studies have shown that a low-carbohydrate version of the Mediterranean diet is preferable for managing people who already have diabetes.

For example, one recent study put people who had just developed type 2 diabetes on either the low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet or the low-fat, calorie-restrict diet usually recommended for overweight patients with diabetes (K. Esposito et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 151: 306-314, 2009). At the end of 4 years, only 44% of the patients on the low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet required drug treatment compared to 70% in the low-fat group.

Another entry into the low carb diet category is the eco-Atkins diet. It is a low-carbohydrate vegan diet (I find it amusing to label a diet “Atkins” when it has no meat and no saturated fat). For example, one recent study suggests it is more effective than a low-fat diet at reducing blood lipid levels and reducing blood pressure (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 169: 1046-1054, 2009 ).

If you want to follow a low carb diet, the low carb Mediterranean and eco-Atkins diets are both healthy diets. You could create your own plant-based low carb diet, but you can find meal plans and recipes for both these diets online.

What Does This Mean For You?

Vegan, vegetarian, and primarily plant-based diets like the Mediterranean diet are all healthy diets. Long-term studies show they decrease your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Long-term studies also show that plant-based low carb diets help keep the pounds off and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

In contrast, meat-based low carb diets offer no advantage over low fat diets at keeping the pounds off or reducing the risk of heart disease or diabetes. There are no long-term studies on meat-based low carb diets and cancer risk, but we already know that red meat is a probable carcinogen. We also know that plant-based diets decrease your risk of several cancers. In short, there is no long-term evidence that the low-carb, meat-based diets decrease your risk of any disease and some evidence they may increase your risk of disease.

So, are low carb diets healthy?  Yes, if you stop eating animal protein and animal fats and make vegetable protein and oils a part of your diet.

The Bottom Line

 

  • Ignore the claims by proponents of the popular low carb diets that their diets are healthy. Those claims are based on:
    • Comparisons with the standard American diet.  Anything is better.
    • Short term studies when the participants were losing weight.  Any diet looks good during the weight loss phase.
    • Blood parameters (HDL, triglycerides, blood sugar, etc.). These are imperfect measures of long-term health outcomes.
  • Long-term (20-year) studies of the effects of low carb diets on health outcomes have been performed. Those studies show:
    • People following a meat-based low carb diet (one that focuses on animal proteins and animal fats):
      • Gained just as much weight over a 20-year period as people following a low-fat diet.
      • Had the same or greater risk of developing heart disease and diabetes as people following a low-fat diet.
    • People following a plant-based low carb diet (one that focuses on vegetable protein and vegetable oils):
      • Weighed significantly less than the other two groups at the end of 20 years.
      • Had a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes than the other two groups.

In summary, vegan, vegetarian, and primarily plant-based diets like the Mediterranean diet are all healthy diets. Long-term studies show they decrease your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Long-term studies also show that plant-based low carb diets help keep the pounds off and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

In contrast, meat-based low carb diets offer no advantage over low fat diets at keeping the pounds off or reducing the risk of heart disease or diabetes. There are no long-term studies on meat-based low carb diets and cancer risk, but we already know that red meat is a probable carcinogen. We also know that plant-based diets decrease your risk of several cancers. In short, there is no long-term evidence that the low-carb, meat-based diets decrease your risk of any disease and some evidence they may increase your risk of disease.

For more details and the low carb diets I recommend, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure in Young, Healthy Adults?

Posted August 14, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Do omega-3s lower blood pressure in healthy adults?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adultsThe literature on the potential health benefits of omega-3s is very confusing. That’s because a lot of bad studies have been published. Many of them never determined the omega-3 status of their subjects prior to omega-3 supplementation. Others relied on dietary recalls of fish consumption, which can be inaccurate.

Fortunately, a much more accurate measure of omega-3 status has been developed and validated in recent years. It’s called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA compared to 26 other fatty acids found in cellular membranes. Using modern technology, it can be determined from a single finger prick blood sample. It is a very accurate reflection of omega-3 intake relative to other fats in the diet over the past few months. More importantly, it is a measure of the omega-3 content of your cell membranes, which is a direct measure of your omega-3 nutritional status.

A recent extension of the Framingham Heart Study reported that participants with an Omega-3 Index >6.8% had a 39% lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those with an Omega-3 Index <4.2% (WS Harris et al, Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 12: 718-724, 2018 ). Although more work needs to be done, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or less is generally considered indicative of high cardiovascular risk, while 8% or better is considered indicative of low cardiovascular risk. For reference, the average American has an Omega-3 Index in the 4-5% range. In Japan, where fish consumption is much higher and cardiovascular risk much lower, the Omega-3 Index is in the 9-11% range.

Previous studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure to a modest extent. Thus, it is not surprising that more recent studies have shown an inverse correlation between Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. However, those studies have been done with older populations, many of whom had already developed high blood pressure.

From a public health point of view, it is much more interesting to investigate whether it might be possible to prevent high blood pressure in older adults by optimizing omega-3 intake in a young, healthy population, most of whom had not yet developed high blood pressure. Unfortunately, there were no studies looking at that population. The current study was designed to fill that gap.

 

How Was The Study Done?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young healthy adultsThe current study (M.G. Filipovic et al, Journal of Hypertension, 36: 1548-1554, 2018 ) was based on data collected from 2036 healthy adults, aged 25-41, from Liechtenstein. They were participants in the GAPP (Genetic and Phenotypic Determinants of Blood Pressure) study. Participants were excluded from the study if they had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and were taking medication to lower their blood pressure. They were also excluded if they had heart disease, chronic kidney disease, other severe illnesses, obesity, sleep apnea, or daily use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Blood samples were collected at the time of their enrollment in the study and frozen for subsequent determination of Omega-3 Index. Blood pressure was also measured at their time of enrollment in two different ways. The first was a standard blood pressure measurement in a doctor’s office.

For the second measurement they were given a wearable blood pressure monitor that recorded their blood pressure over 24 hours every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes while they were sleeping. This is considered more accurate than a resting blood pressure measurement in a doctor’s office because it records the variation in blood pressure, while you are sleeping, while you are exercising, and while you go about your everyday activities.

 

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure In Young, Healthy Adults?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adults equipmentNone of the participants in the study had significantly elevated blood pressure. The mean systolic and diastolic office blood pressures were 120±13 and 78±9 respectively. The average Omega-3 Index in this population was 4.6%, which is similar to the average Omega-3 Index in the United States.

When they compared the group with the highest Omega-3 Index (average = 5.8%) with the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index (average = 4.6%):

  • The office measurement of systolic and diastolic blood pressure was decreased by 3.3% and 2.6% respectively
  • While those numbers appear small, the differences were highly significant.
  • The 24-hour blood pressure measurements showed a similar decrease.
  • Blood pressure measurements decreased linearly with increasing Omega-3 Index. [In studies of this kind, a linear dose-response is considered an internal validation of the differences observed between the group with the highest Omega-3 Index and the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index.]

The authors concluded: “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant, lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in normotensive, young and healthy individuals. Diets rich omega-3 fatty acids may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”

 

What Does This Mean For You?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adults questionPerhaps I should first comment on the significance of the relatively small decrease in blood pressure observed in this study.

  • These were young adults, all of whom had normal or near normal blood pressure.
  • The difference in Omega-3 Index was rather small (5.8% to 4.6%). None of the participants in the study were at the 8% or above that is considered optimal.
  • Liechtenstein is a small country located between Switzerland and Spain. Fish consumption is low and omega-3 supplement consumption is rare.

Under these conditions, even a small, but statistically significant, decrease in blood pressure is remarkable.

We should think of this study as the start of the investigation of the relationship between omega-3 status and blood pressure. Its weakness is that it only shows an association between high Omega-3 Index and low blood pressure. It does not prove cause and effect.

Its strength is that it is consistent with many other studies showing omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure. Furthermore, it suggests that the effect of omega-3s on blood pressure may also be seen in young, healthy adults who have not yet developed high blood pressure.

Finally, the authors suggested that a diet rich in omega-3s might reduce the incidence of high blood pressure by slowing the age-related increase in blood pressure that most Americans experience. This idea is logical, but speculative at present.

However, the GAPP study is designed to provide the answer to that question. It is a long-term study with follow-up examinations scheduled every 3-5 years. It will be interesting to see whether the author’s prediction holds true, and a higher Omega-3 Index is associated with a slower increase in blood pressure as the participants age.

 

Why Is The Omega-3 Index Important?

 

The authors of this study said: “The Omega-3 Index is very robust to short-term intake of omega-3 fatty acids and reliably reflects an individual’s long-term omega-3 status and tissue omega-3 content. Therefore, the Omega-3 Index has the potential to become a cardiovascular risk factor as much as the HbA1c is for people with diabetes…” That is a bit of an overstatement. HbA1c is a measure of disease progression for diabetes because it is a direct measure of blood sugar control.

In contrast, Omega-3 Index is merely a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, if it is further validated by future studies, it is likely to be as important for predicting cardiovascular risk as are cholesterol levels and markers of inflammation.

However, to me the most important role of Omega-3 Index is in the design of future clinical studies. If anyone really wants to determine whether omega-3 supplementation reduces cardiovascular risk, high blood pressure, diabetes or any other health outcome they should:

  • Start with a population group with an Omega-3 Index in the deficient (4-5%) range.
  • Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids in a double blind, placebo-controlled manner.
  • Show that supplementation brought participants up to an optimal Omega-3 Index of 8% or greater.
  • Look at health outcomes such as heart attacks, cardiovascular deaths, hypertension, stroke, or depression.
  • Continue the study long enough for the beneficial effects of omega-3 supplementation to be measurable. For cardiovascular outcomes the American Heart Association has stated that at least two years are required to obtain meaningful results.

These are the kind of experiments that will be required to give definitive, reproducible results and resolve the confusion about the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids.

 

The Bottom Line

 

An accurate measure of omega-3 status has been developed and validated in recent years. It’s called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA compared to 26 other fatty acids found in cellular membranes.

Although more work needs to be done, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or less is generally considered indicative of high cardiovascular risk while 8% or better is considered indicative of low cardiovascular risk.

Previous studies have shown an inverse correlation between Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. However, these studies have been done with older populations, many of whom had already developed high blood pressure.

From a public health point of view, it is much more interesting to investigate whether it might be possible to prevent high blood pressure in older adults by optimizing omega-3 intake in a young, healthy population, most of whom had not yet developed high blood pressure. Until now, there have been no studies looking at that population.

The study described in this article was designed to fill that gap. The participants in this study were ages 25-41, were healthy, and none of them had elevated blood pressure.

When the group with the highest Omega-3 Index (average = 5.8%) was compared with the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index (average = 4.6%):

  • Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure were decreased
  • Blood pressure measurements decreased linearly with increasing Omega-3 Index.

The authors concluded: “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant, lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in normotensive, young and healthy individuals. Diets rich omega-3 fatty acids may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”

Let me translate that last sentence into plain English for you. The authors were saying that optimizing omega-3 intake in young adults may slow the age-related increase in blood pressure and reduce the risk of them developing high blood pressure as they age. This may begin to answer the question “Do omega-3s lower blood pressure in young, healthy adults?”

Or even more simply put: Aging is inevitable. Becoming unhealthy is not.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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