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Long-term Study Shows Low-Carb Diets May Have Health Benefits

May 17, 2004 -- Are you cutting carbs to lose weight? You're on the right path -- as long as you stick to it.

Two studies, published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, provide much-needed scientific evidence about low-carb diets and provide interesting insights into what types of diets work --and why.

"We can no longer dismiss the very low-carbohydrate diets," writes Walter C. Willett, MD, DrPH, with Harvard School of Public Health, in an accompanying editorial. "Dr. Atkins deserves credit for his observations that many persons can control their weight by greatly reducing carbohydrate intake."

Indeed, low-carb plans -- like the popular Atkins and South Beach diets -- have gained great popularity over recent years. Yet there is "a paucity of scientific evidence on their effectiveness," writes researcher William S. Yancy, Jr., MD, MHS, who is a professor of Medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

Yancy's six-month study pits a low-fat diet against a low-carb program -- finding that low-carb indeed works.

But the story doesn't end there. It seems that six months into a low-carb program, the dramatic weight loss ends abruptly. That's what researcher Frederick F. Samaha, MD, found in his year-long study of low-carb vs. low-fat diets. In fact, the low-carb and low-fat groups ended up getting similar weight-loss results.

The voice of reason from one nutritionist: Cutting back on food is what works. "There are many different paths to weight loss," says Sheah Rarback, RD, MS, RD/LD, of the University of Miami School of Medicine and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Whether you choose the low-fat or low-carb path, you must find a plan that works for you -- one that you can stick with, and that includes healthy foods," she tells WebMD. "Cutting back on sugar, refined flour, and white flour, that's what's important."

The details on the two studies:

Low-Carb vs. Low-Fat: A Six-Month Study

In his study -- funded by the Robert C. Atkins Foundation -- Yancy enrolled 120 overweight adults, all of whom had high cholesterol:

  • One-half followed a low-carb diet -- restricting intake to less than 20 grams of carbs daily.
  • The other half had a low-fat diet -- total fat less than 30% of calories, saturated fat less than 10% of calories, cholesterol intake less than 300 milligrams -- plus cutting calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories.
  • All were advised to exercise three times weekly, drink lots of water, and keep a "food diary" tracking their eating pattern.

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