Physicians question effectiveness of low carb/high protein diets



    It sounds almost too good to be true.

    “Forget the fight against fat! Enjoy steak, eggs, cheese, even wine as you get healthy and lose weight!”

    So claims the SugarBusters! diet, one of the latest fads in a trend reminiscent of the low carbohydrate/high protein diet craze of the 70’s.

    Along with programs touting such names as The Zone, The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet, and Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, SugarBusters! is founded on the logic that cutting down on carbohydrates and sugars will decrease blood sugar levels and thus cause the pancreas to produce less insulin. Less insulin means that the body is forced to burn fat reserves for energy, resulting in quick weight loss.

    However, according to the mainstream medical and dietary community, these high protein diets are nothing more than a bunch of baloney.

    “It sounds very appealing, but when you’re eating a diet high in calories and high in saturated fat, you run an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Eating a lot of protein will also stress your kidneys,” said Diane Quagliani, registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetics Association.

    Both sides claim to have science on their side, resulting in more than a little confusion.

    Following are a few of the most popular current fad diets and their basic tenets.

    *Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution

    This tamed-down version of the 70s Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution calls sugar an “energy-sucker” and refers to it as the “Anti-nutrient.” The Atkins diet restricts processed/refined carbohydrates such as high sugar foods, breads, pasta, cereal, and starchy vegetables. It also recommends nutritional supplements including a multi-vitamin and an essential oils/fatty acids formula.

    *The Zone

    Developed by Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet claims to be “a metabolic state of optimal health where your body works at peak efficiency” because of an intricate balance that must be maintained between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Eating a 40-30-30 ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, respectively, at each meal will put a person in “the Zone.”


    The main premise of this diet is that low-fat diets don’t work because they allow for so much sugar, and that eliminating sugar will stimulate weight loss. SugarBusters! claims to teach dieters how to develop an individual diet plan, determine the glycemic levels of various foods, discover which foods to eat at what time of day, and avoid food combinations that add pounds.

    *The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet

    After its authors Rachael and Richard Heller were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998, book sales for this diet soared. The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet asserts that people can be addicted to food, particularly carbohydrates. This diet, along with the others, says no to carbos, yes to protein, but allows “reward meals” that can include carbohydrates.

    While the creators of these diets swear by them and cite countless testimonials, most doctors and dieticians are appalled.

    “There are no shortcuts to permanent weight loss,” Quagliani said.

    “They might lose weight initially, but they are losing water weight,” she said.

    Jan James, a qualified personal trainer and nutrition consultant with a masters degree from BYU, agreed.

    High proteins diets are prescribed by doctors for grossly overweight people in order to jumpstart their metabolism, but were not designed to be a self-prescribed type of diet or to be adhered to for long periods of time, she said.

    This is because large amounts of protein are dangerous, she said.

    “It puts the body into what is called acid ketosis. Breaking down protein produces ketones and reduces the ph level in the blood. It’s hard on the liver and kidneys. They can only handle so much of that,” James said.

    Additionally, the weight lost with these types of diets is not fat, it is water and muscle, specifically the part of muscle that is glycogen, made up of three parts water and one part sugar, James said.

    “You can lose 15 to 20 pounds of that,” she said.

    James also said that the problem with the American diet is not the amount of carbohydrates or sugars, but the amount of these substances in a refined state.

    Low carbohydrate diets are dangerous because they eliminate certain foods like whole grains and vegetables, said Quagliani.

    “Fiber is needed on a daily basis, and plant foods are being linked to preventing disease,” she said.

    The Food and Drug Administration, the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetics Association continue to endorse a balanced diets including all food groups as described by the Food Guide Pyramid, Quagliani said.

    Those who permanently lose weight are those who are committed to the fact that they must work to do it, entailing getting off the couch and establishing healthy patterns in nutrition and exercise, she said.

    Weight lost through low carbohydrate diets, on the other hand, all comes back plus more, James said.

    “Because the body doesn’t like it so it says, ‘when I get carbs, I’ll store them plus some,'” she said.

    James also said that people should not trust diets that have not been through the normal process of a research article, including a peer review by medical authorities.

    In spite of all these warnings, book sales and testimonials for these fad diets continue pour in. James attributes this to the public’s desire for a quick way to lose weight as well as to the fact that the diets have a kernel of truth to their philosophies.

    “The principles do work to a certain extent, but then they twist them and say they are applicable to everyone. I’m not in their heads to know what they are thinking, but I think they know it’s not true to a point and they are taking advantage of people’s wish for a quick fix,” she said.

    In rebuttal, Dr. Atkins says that governmental organizations like the American Dietetic Association are just behind in their research.

    “People in power just have a hard time admitting they were wrong,” he reportedly told Time magazine earlier this year.

    Resource centers on campus lean towards the official medical community’s recommendations. Women’s Services and Resources has pamphlets on file with titles like “Why Diets Don’t Work” and facts that support arguments against fad diets and advocate using the food guide pyramid.

    LaNae Valentine of Women’s Services and Resources said that the center advises a healthy all around lifestyle and refers people who want to lose weight to the dietician at the student health center.

    April Retford, a junior from Gilbert, Az. majoring in dietetics, said her nutrition class was given guidelines about how to recognize and avoid fad diets, and was also taught that the official food guide pyramid was the safest way to lose weight.

    See related story: Herbal dietary supplements may not always be safe

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