Do Diets Work?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Food and Health, Obesity

dietingObesity in America?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

If you are like most Americans, you are either overweight yourself or have close friends and family who are overweight. That’s because 69% of Americans are currently overweight, and 36% of us are obese. Worldwide the latest estimates are that 1.5 billion adults are overweight or obese.

A new report, How The World Could Better Fight Obesity,  estimates that obesity is a $2 trillion drain on the world’s economy. That is equivalent to the global cost of war & terrorism and of smoking – and is double the global costs of alcoholism and global warming!

If you are like most Americans you have tried a number of diets over the years. All of them promised that they had the “secret” to permanent weight loss. You lost some weight initially, but here you are a few years later weighing as much as ever.

You are probably beginning to wonder whether any diets work long term. According to the latest study, the answer may just be “no”.

Really, Do Diets Work?

This study (Atallah et al, Circulation Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, 7: 815-827, 2014) was a systemmatic review of all of the randomized controlled studies of the four most popular diet plans – Weight Watchers, Akins, Zone and South Beach.

In case, you are unfamiliar with these diets, here is their philosophy:

  • Weight watchers is a food, physical activity and behavior modification plan that utilizes a point system to control calorie intake and features weekly group sessions.
  •  Atkins is based on very low carbohydrate intake, with unlimited fat and protein consumption.
  •  South Beach is relatively low carbohydrate, high protein diet that focuses on low-glycemic index carbohydrates, lean proteins, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Zone is a low carbohydrate diet that focuses on low-glycemic load carbohydrates, low-fat proteins and small amounts of good fats.

The investigators restricted their analysis to studies that were greater than 4 weeks in duration and either compared the diets to “usual care” or to each other. (The term usual care was not defined, but most likely refers to a physician giving the advice to eat less and exercise more).

Twenty six studies met their inclusion criteria. Fourteen of those studies were short-term (< 12 months) and 12 were long-term (>12 months). Of the long-term studies, 10 compared individual diet plans to usual care and 2 were head-to-head comparisons between the diet plans (1 of Atkins vs Weight Watchers vs Zone and 1 of Weight Watchers vs Zone vs control). The majority of participants in these studies were young, white, obese women. Their average age was 45 years and their average weight at the beginning of the studies was 200 pounds.

What Did This Study Show?

If you have struggled with your weight in the past, you probably won’t be surprised by the result of the study.

  •  Short-term weight loss was similar for Atkins, Weight Watchers and Zone in the two head-to-head studies.
  •  At 12 months, the 10 studies comparing individual diets to usual care (physician’s advice to eat less and exercise more) showed that only Weight Watchers was slightly more effective than usual care (physician’s advice to lose weight). The average weight loss at 12 months was 10 pounds for Weight Watchers and 7 pounds for usual care. That is a 3 pound difference for all of the additional effort and expense of Weight Watchers!
  • When they looked at the two head-to-head studies at 12 months, there was no significant differences between the diets. Average weight loss in these studies was 7 pounds for Weight Watchers, 7 pounds for Atkins, 5 pounds for Zone and 5 pounds for usual care. There was only one study comparing the South Beach diets with usual care. It was a study comparing the results with severely obese patients following gastric bypass surgery, and it also found no difference between the diet program and usual care. Based on hype about these diets, you were probably expecting more than a 5 to 7 pound weight loss 12 months later!
  •  By 24 months 30-40% of the weight had been regained for the Atkins and Weight Watchers diets, which was comparable to the results for patients who were just told to eat less and exercise more. Not only was the weight loss modest, it also did not appear to be permanent.
  •  Finally, many of the studies included in this review also looked at improvement in other health parameters such as HDL cholesterol levels, LDL cholesterol levels, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar control. The Atkins diet gave slightly better results with HDL levels, triglyceride levels and blood pressure in the short-term studies, but there was no significant differences for any of these parameters in the long-term head-to-head studies. None of the diets were any healthier than the others.

The investigators concluded: “Our results suggest that all 4 diets are modestly efficacious for short-term weight loss, but that these benefits are not sustained long-term.

A similar study in 2005 compared the Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and LA Weight Loss diets (Tsai et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 142: 56-66, 2005) and concluded “…the evidence to support the use of major commercial and self-help weight loss programs is suboptimal”.

weight loss and obesityA Weight Loss Diet That Actually Works?

My personal recommendation for the initial weight loss is a high protein diet – one that provides about 30% of calories from healthy protein and moderate amounts of healthy carbohydrates and healthy fats. The protein should be high enough quality so that it provides 10-12 gram of the essential amino acid leucine because leucine specifically stimulates muscle growth. The combination of high protein and leucine preserves muscle mass while you are losing weight. That is important because it keeps your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants.

However, the high protein, high leucine diet is still just a diet. It is an excellent choice for the initial weight loss, but what about long-term weight control?

The authors of this study said: “Comprehensive lifestyle interventions aimed at curbing both adult and childhood obesity are urgently needed. Interventions that include dietary, behavioral and exercise components…may be better suited to [solve] the obesity epidemic.” I agree.

The Bottom Line:

Your suspicions are correct. Diets don’t work!

A recent systematic review of 26 randomized controlled clinical trials of the Weight Watchers, Atkins, Zone & South Beach diets compared to the usual standard of care (recommendations to eat less and exercise more) concluded:

1) Contrary to what the advertisements promise, after 12 months all four diets gave comparable and very modest (5-7 pounds) total weight loss. The results with the diets were not significantly different than for patients who were simply told to eat less and exercise more.

2) By 24 months 30-40% of the weight had already been regained.

3) A previous systematic review of the Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and LA Weight Loss diet programs came to a similar conclusion.

4) My personal recommendation for the initial weight loss is a diet that is high in protein and the amino acid leucine because that type of diet preserves muscle mass.

5) For permanent weight control the authors of the recent systematic review recommended comprehensive lifestyle interventions that include permanent changes in diet, behavior and exercise. I agree. Diets never work long term – lifestyle change does!

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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Comments (1)

  • Merlena Cushing

    |

    Thanks for this excellent article. You are truly a help to me in explaining these differences. Glad you had hyperlinks to your two previous articles, too. I have requested Corporate make further critique of the HFLC diets so I can refute those with precise rebuttal – piece by piece. They have been working on my request according to field services. It has been a week now. Hope to hear soon. Nedra told me when I asked (Nutrition Matters seminar) that to answer it in depth, she would need more time – a whole seminar session – approximately 1 1/2 hours.. She had recently been to a huge seminar on the “keto” diets.

    I’m adding this article to the many by you which address most of what I have needed.

    By the way, the hyperlink to your comments is not live (gives an error message) in case you wonder why you haven’t had any until now. I had to take a circuitous route to get to an article that said “LEAVE A COMMENT” at the bottom.

    Thanks again for all of the good you do! Blessings, Merlena

    Reply

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

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.

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