Diet Gurus Belly Up to the Debate Table

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 24, 2000 (Washington) -- You could call it a food fight sponsored by the government. Today's "Great Nutrition Debate" held by the Department of Agriculture pitted some of the nation's leading diet gurus against each other as they discussed the best way to lose weight and stay healthy.

Featured in the fray were Robert Atkins, MD, creator of the controversial Atkins diet; Morrison Bethea, MD, co-author of Sugar Busters!; Dean Ornish, MD, author of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease; Barry Sears, PhD, co-author of The Zone; and John McDougall, MD, founder of the McDougall Plan for healthy living.

The debate produced a lot of heat but little consensus on strategies for eating healthy. Moreover, there are no long-term scientific data about any of the diets pitched by the entrepreneurs. Agriculture Secretary Daniel Glickman said he was interested in funding long-term studies of differing diets, although he did not want to endorse any particular approach.

According to Glickman, Americans are spending an estimated $50 billion each year on weight-loss programs, even as some of the most popular diets differ sharply from federal nutrition guidance that recommends a balanced intake of dairy, meat, poultry, and fruits and vegetables.

Atkins, famous for his decades-old high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, insisted his program is the best. "It will correct diabetes, [high blood pressure], and most of the risk factors for heart disease," he said, adding that it helps children avoid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sugar cravings.

The Ornish diet is a strict contrast to that meat-and-eggs plan. Now approved for reimbursement by Medicare in a few trial locations to prevent heart bypass surgery, the Ornish program is a low-fat vegetarian diet. Ornish called the Atkins diet "hazardous" and said its anti-carbohydrate emphasis was "the big lie." He further attacked it by saying that it brings bad breath and body odor, and that this is evidence that it is toxic.

Ornish and American Dietetic Association spokesman Keith-Thomas Ayoob attacked Atkins for not producing evidence that his diet reverses heart disease. Atkins responded, "We're working on it. I haven't been able to fund a study." But Ayoob shot back, "Ten million books in print and you can't fund a study."

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Meanwhile, Sears attacked Ornish's plan, charging that patients on his diet had died of heart attacks. And Glickman told reporters that he personally would be unable to adhere to a vegetarian regimen.

Robin Woo, PhD, deputy director of Georgetown University's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, tells WebMD, "The [Atkins] low-carb, high-protein diet is excellent for the early management and treatment of some diabetes conditions. The Ornish diet, with the very low fat, is very good for some problems with [hardening of the arteries] and some of the cardiovascular conditions [such as heart disease and stroke]."

But Woo says, "The unbiased academic would say that none of those diets are ideal. They are for diseased states. They're not good for the long haul. We have to remember that we're omnivores, that we should have balanced eating."

Ayoob had a similar view, saying that "the real issue is long-term weight management," with research telling us that "diets don't work." Any diet would work in the short-term, he said, as long as it cut calories.

The other diet gurus proposed varying plans. According to Bethea, co-creator of a low-sugar diet, eaters should not drink water with meals and should avoid potatoes, beets, corn, and carrots. But under Sears' "zone" approach, individuals should focus on eating fruits, vegetables, and low-fat proteins.

McDougall, supporter of a low-fat, starch-based diet, maintained that both plans were "semi-starvation" approaches, because they were too complex and would leave people hungry.

The diet program kings agreed on relatively little. But their consensus areas included that water and physical activity are crucial to weight loss and health, that Americans should eat less refined and processed food, that smaller meals throughout the day are best, and that Americans should generally eat less food.

Woo tells WebMD, "The message is moderation in everything. Avoid taking intensive saturated fats and fatty acids. Make sure that you're positive in your eating habits, that you get good variety, that you eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, and that you get enough protein and calcium."

After their debate, the pack of diet gurus completed their day like Washington politicians might -- by smiling and clustering together for an official photo with Glickman.

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Vital Information:

  • Diet advocates meeting in Washington disagree on what a proper diet should be.
  • Although the presenters disagree on the types and proportions of foods that people should eat, the presenters noted that exercise and drinking water are key to good health and weight loss. Also, they agreed meals should be more numerous, but with smaller portions and fewer processed foods.
  • An observer notes that the presented diets work better for people with illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Balanced eating of different types of food, the observer says, is the best advice for long-term eating habits.
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