A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

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.

Are Low Carb Diets Healthy?

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.