Will Low-Carb Diets Ultimately Make Us Fat?
Many low-carb diets emphasize eating only "good" carbs from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but supermarkets are being flooded with low-carb junk food.
At 36 years old, Nicola Myrie received a stern warning from her
doctor. Lose weight or risk a cardiac event in six or seven years. The New York
City accountant immediately went on her own diet of watchful eating. After four
months, she despaired at shedding only 6 of her weight loss target of at least
Then her cardiologist suggested The South Beach Diet, a
multistage approach to weight loss starting with a low-carb plan and later
allowing the addition of "good carbs." In three months, Nicola dropped
22 pounds and found significant improvements in her blood pressure,
cholesterol, and homocysteine levels - a blood chemical linked to inflammation
and heart disease.
"I feel fantastic, like I'm in my 20s again," says
Nicola, remarking on her renewed confidence and energy. Once she loses 20 more
pounds, she vows to maintain some of the South Beach Diet's principles of
eating throughout her life.
Friend or Fad?
If health and food experts are right, Nicola's lifelong plan
may not materialize.
Hundreds of studies have shown that restrictive diets like the
low-carb plan don't keep the weight off in the long run, says Mark Kantor, PhD,
associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of
Maryland. He predicts that the popularity of low-carb diets will last no more
than five years.
A spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association agrees.
"Anything that you have to adhere to has to be un-adhered to at some
point," says Lisa Dorfman, MSRD. "People live normal lives. They go to
vacation; they go to parties; they have social lives. The problem is that many
of those [low-carb] programs don't accommodate those natural and normal life
Dorfman sees the low-carb craze waning and likens it to the
low-fat fad of the '90s. A decade ago, the low-fat trend created a stir that
not only demonized fat, but also produced hundreds of products that reduced or
Low-carb advocates beg to differ. "To call it a fad is to
ignore history," says Matthew Wiant, senior vice president and chief
marketing officer for Atkins Nutritionals Inc. "Low-carb diets were popular
for the first couple of million years people were on the planet. It's only been
since the advent of agriculture and refined food products that higher-carb
diets have become the norm."
Wiant points to several short-term studies that show the
benefits of low-carb diets: quick weight loss and improved cholesterol levels.
To counter the naysayers, he says there have been long-term studies (12 months
long) of the diet that demonstrate sustained weight loss without increasing
their risk of heart disease.
Yet Kantor expects research to someday catch up with the ills
of low-carb diets. "In the long term, there is no question that low-carb
diets will be shown to be dangerous," he says, noting that hundreds of
epidemiological studies around the world have demonstrated that
high-carbohydrate foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains reduce
risk of heart disease and prevent cancer.
Wiant responds in defense of low-carb diets. "It's
irresponsible to conclude, based on the data out there, that the long-term
studies will show some kind of huge reversal of [improved cholesterol]
numbers," he says.