Best Diet For Weight Loss

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Living, Nutritiion

The Diet Wars Heat Up Again

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

best diet for weight loss

What is the best diet for weight loss? One week the headlines say that low-carbohydrate diets are better. The next week it’s low-fat diets that are better. There is even the occasional headline proclaiming that it doesn’t matter which diet you follow as long as you control your calories. It is no wonder that you are confused.

It is unusual, however, to have conflicting headlines within the same week, but that is exactly what happened last week. Let me take you behind the headlines to the actual clinical studies and help you sort through the conflicting headlines.

Are Low-Carbohydrate Diets Best For Weight Loss?

The manuscript behind this headline was published September 2nd in the Annals of Internal Medicine (Bazzano et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 161: 309-318, 2014). This study was designed to determine which was the best diet for weight loss, low carb diet or low fat diet. The study recruited 148 overweight participants (mean age, 46.8, 88% female, 51% black) and randomly assigned them to either a low-fat diet or low-carbohydrate diet.

The participants on the low-fat diet were instructed to consume <30% of their calories from fat, while the participants on the low-carbohydrate diet were told to limit carbohydrates to <40 g/day. Neither group was told to limit calories. They met with a dietitian 10 times during the 12-month study and received information on dietary fiber (target = 25 g/day) and healthy fats (target = <7% saturated fat and little or no trans fats).

At the end of 12 months the low-carbohydrate diet resulted in significantly greater…

  • Weight loss (7.7 pounds)…
  • Decrease in triglyceride levels…
  • Increase in HDL cholesterol…
  • Decrease in the ratio of total to HDL Cholesterol…

…than the low-fat diet. In short, the results suggested that the low-carbohydrate diet was not only better than the low-fat diet for weight loss, but that it was also more effective in reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Case closed, you might be tempted to say. The low carb diet is the best the diet for weight loss. But there have been lots of other studies that have come to the opposite conclusion. So we have to ask the question: “Is this study significantly better than all of the studies that have failed to find any difference between the low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets with respect to weight loss and cardiovascular risk?”

What Are The Strengths & Weaknesses Of the Study?

Strengths of the Study: This was a very well designed study. In particular:

  • Dietitians met with the participants at multiple times during the program to assure adherence to the diet, which was very good.
  • The study utilized multiple dietary recalls, both during the week and on weekends.
  • The study had a diverse population.

Weaknesses of the Study:

  1. The study did not control calories. In fact, the caloric intake was ~160 calories/day greater for the low-fat group than the low-carbohydrate group for at least the first 6 months of the study. low carb dietThat alone would be enough to account for the 7.7 pounds difference in weight loss.The reason for the higher caloric intake of low-fat group is not known. It could be due to the lower palatability of the low-carbohydrate diet. Alternatively, it could be due to the lower satiety of the low-fat diet. It was low in both fat and protein, both of which contribute to satiety (the feeling of fullness after we eat).
  2. The study did not specify the type of carbohydrates consumed. The dietitians instructed the participants on the type of fat they should be eating, but not the type of carbohydrate. That was a significant omission. Diets high in sugars and refined carbohydrates provide less satiety and adversely affect cardiovascular risk factors compared to diets where the carbohydrate comes primarily from fresh fruits, vegetables and legumes.
  3. The study did not control protein intake. In fact, the low-fat group consumed significantly less protein than the low-carbohydrate group. As I pointed out in a previous “Health Tips From the ProfessorHigh Protein Diets and Weight Loss , higher protein intakes are essential for maintaining muscle mass during weight loss. That is important because loss of muscle mass can decrease metabolic rate (the rate at which we burn calories 24 hours a day – even at rest).

The amount of protein consumed by the low-carbohydrate group was close to the amount shown to maintain muscle mass during weight loss, while the amount of protein consumed by the low-fat group was close to the amount associated with loss of muscle mass during weight loss. That was reflected in the results. The low-fat group lost muscle mass while the low carbohydrate group actually gained muscle mass. The resulting difference in muscle probably meant that the low-carbohydrate group was burning more calories on a daily basis than the low-fat group.

In short, this is a good study, but it has important flaws. It is not a game changer.

Do Low-Carbohydrate & Low-Fat Diets Result In Identical Weight Loss?

The study behind this headline was published in the September 3rd edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Johnson et al, JAMA, 312: 923-933, 2014). This study was a meta-analysis that combined the results of 48 studies with 7286 participants. When the authors combined the data from all of the published studies there was no difference in weight loss for the low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets over a one or two year period.

The strength of the study is that it combines the results of multiple studies. That increases the statistical power of the observations and smoothes over the effect of outlier studies, such as the one described above. This is the study I would trust.

What Do The Experts Say?

Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health was best diet for weight lossquoted as saying: “…some people [would] do well on either diet. The key issue for each person is finding a way of eating that is healthy and can be maintained for the long term.”

Dr. Bradley Johnson (the author of the meta-analysis) was quoted as saying: “The take home message is that people should choose a diet they can adhere to…”

The Bottom Line

1)  Ignore the recent headlines suggesting that low-carbohydrate diets may be more effective than low-fat diets for weight loss. When you control for calories and protein intake there is no difference between the two diets with respect to long term weight loss.

2)  You can also ignore the headlines telling you that low-carbohydrate diets are better for cardiovascular health. You don’t need to avoid carbohydrates to have a healthy heart. You just need to make healthy carbohydrate choices – fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains instead of refined flour products and sugary junk food.

3)  Experts will tell you that the best diet is a healthy diet that you can stick with long term.

4)  My personal recommendations are to avoid extremes (either low-fat or low-carbohydrate). Instead:

  • Aim for moderate amounts of healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates.
  • Don’t ignore protein. Make sure you get enough protein to maintain your muscle mass.
  • Control calories by reducing portion sizes and choosing healthy snacks.

 

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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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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