Jean Mayer, PhD., ScD.

Diet Revolution? Basically Old Hat
Washington Post 14 April 1973

Dr. Jean Mayer founded the first graduate school of nutrition in the United States. Described as “America’s nutrition superstar” by the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was a Professor of Nutrition at Harvard for 26 years until appointed president of Tufts University. Dr. Mayer was the author of more than 750 scientific papers and several books. He served on countless national and world health organizations, including UNICEF, and as chairman of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the French Academy of Sciences and of the French Academy of Medicine, Dr. Mayer was awarded 16 honorary degrees, numerous medals, prizes, and awards for his work.

The American Medical Association–and the New York County Medical Society—have taken the unusual step of warning the U.S. public against the latest do-it-yourself diet as propounded in “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.”

The basis of the low carbohydrate “ketogenic” diet in the book currently being featured in bookstores and serialized in a number of publications, is certainly not new or revolutionary. As the AMA report points out, it was originally devised by an English surgeon, William Harvey, and described first by one of his patients, William Banting, in 1863, and then by Harvey himself in 1872.

The rules of the diet even then, were: Eat little, if any, carbohydrates; at the same time eat as much protein and fat-containing food as you like, and don’t be bothered by the number of calories.

This basic diet appeared again in 1953 as the Pennington or du Pont Diet. (Although Dr. Pennington had placed some du Pont executives on the diet, the company has always protested the use of its name.) In 1960 it emerged again as The “Air Force” diet (Air Force medical officers similarly disown it). In 1961 it was the basis of the “Calories Don’t Count” diet; in 1964 it popped up again as the “Drinking Man’s Diet,” now featuring martinis. It became the Stillman diet (with water) in 1967. Now, it’s called “Doctor Atkins’ Diet Revolution.”

The AMA in its report on this latest revival asks rhetorically: If the diets are as successful in the long run as Dr. Atkins claims, “why then do they fade into obscurity within a relatively short period of time, only to be resurrected some years later in slightly different guise and under new sponsorship?” Then the report explains why the “diet revolution” cannot work.

Excretion of ketones–the products of incomplete combustion of fats–are touted as the reason for greater weight loss on low carbohydrate diets. But when measured, ketone excretion turns out to be extremely small–in fact, always less than two-thirds of an ounce per day. This certainly is not enough to account for much of anything.

It is true that at first, weight loss is indeed rapid on a low carbohydrate diet–not, however, because of greater fat loss but because of temporary loss in body water. It is also apparently true that many people who have been used to eating lots of carbohydrates lose their appetites when they suddenly cut way down. As a result they do lose weight, simply because their calories are restricted.

Once they get used to a low carbohydrate diet, however, their weight levels off or even goes back up, despite biochemical mumbo-jumbo to the contrary.

While a majority of the human race, particularly in Asia and Africa, remain thin on diets quite high in carbohydrates and very low in fat, we in the United States have more obese people on relatively low carbohydrate diets than almost any other area in the world. Moreover, Dr. Johanna Dwyer and I, in studying vegetarians in the U.S., have been struck by the fact that when people go on a diet devoid of high-fat animal products, there is generally a sizable drop in caloric intake and in weight.

Why are physicians and nutritionists concerned with the high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets? Primarily because diets high in saturated fat (also cholesterol) promote elevation of the level of cholesterol in the blood and therefore increase risks of coronaries and other diseases of the heart and blood vessel–most particularly in men. Ketogenic diets also often increase the amount of uric acid in the blood, which poses a real hazard for gout-prone individuals. In addition, people on low carbohydrate diets tend to suffer fatigue very easily.

The moral? First, that calories do count. Granted you may feel–at least Temporarily–less hungry on one type of diet than another. Granted excess intake of sugar is bad for your teeth and bad for your figure and may promote more irregular occurrence of hunger. But the secret of long-term dieting is still the same: moderation in the total amount of food you eat and increased walking and other forms of exercise to burn up more calories.

Most important of all, you have a duty to yourself and to your family to stay alive. If you are middle-aged, overweight–and particularly if you are a male–putting yourself on this faddish high-saturated-fat, high-cholesterol diet is playing Russian roulette with your heart and your blood vessels.