Scaling Back on Carbs? Such Diets Ignore Healthy, Surefire Way to Lose Weight

July 20, 2004
Rocky Mountain News
by Lisa Ryckman

In the bizarro world of weight loss, carbs have cooties.

So since everybody else was doing it, I did it, too: the Atkins diet induction phase, two weeks spent inhaling as much bacon and butter as possible.

The results were stunning.

By the end of it, I had gained weight - three pounds of pure bacon and butter, to be exact - and would have traded my soul for a Cheerio.

On Atkins, of course, a Cheerio is a no-no, banished forever to the island of misfit carbs. It seems there are as many kinds of carbs as there are diets: good carbs, bad carbs, old carbs, new carbs, red carbs, blue carbs, carbs in a box, carbs with a fox. (Note: Green eggs and ham contain a total of 3 carbs.)

But a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and when it comes to dieting, that’s what counts - no matter what kind of food you eat. (Note: Green eggs and ham contain 227 calories.)

“We’ve gone low-carb crazy and forgotten the basic law of thermodynamics: calories rule,” says Houston dietitian Roberta Anding, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

The recipe for surefire diet success: Just use more calories than you consume - this is called an “energy deficit” - and 3,500 calories later you’re a pound lighter.

That simple nutritional truth seems to have been obliterated by an anti-carb gravy train carrying a load of dietary misinformation, public health types say. And the American public is eating it up.

People are spending billions on food and drink with “low-carb” labels because they believe they are healthier and safer, even though science says otherwise, says Barbara Moore, president and CEO of Shape Up America!, the nonprofit weight loss organization founded by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

“The American Heart Association has been talking about the benefits of a low-fat diet since 1960, and now you’ve got people abandoning all of that and eating more steak, more eggs, more bacon, more butter,” she says. “I’m worried they think that it’s healthy to do that. And it’s not.”

Moore, a former Rutgers University nutrition professor, says diets that advocate any less than the recommended 130 grams of carbohydrates a day are more than unhealthy - for some people, including kids and women of childbearing age, they’re downright dangerous.

Pregnant women need the folic acid found in breads and cereals to help prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus, Moore says. And kids need carbohydrates to feed their bodies and brains.

Anding, who works in adolescent and sports medicine at Texas Children’s Hospital, says she has seen the trickle-down effect of parental low-carb dieting on kids.

“I will tell parents they have every right to go on a diet, but it doesn’t belong on the family dinner table,” Anding says. “It’s like talking about your sex life in front of the kids. If you’re constantly expressing body dissatisfaction or saying that carbohydrates are evil, it’s not appropriate.”

People have gotten angry at Moore for dissing Atkins for one reason: It works. “The effects in the first two weeks are so powerful, that’s what hooks people,” Moore says.

It works, nutritionists say, because most people get most of their calories from too many carbohydrates. Cut back the carbs, and you cut back calories by default. And calories count - the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s working group on obesity recently issued a report with that title.

“A low-carb diet is a great way to lose weight - if you want to lose weight temporarily,” says Jim Hill, director of the University of Colorado’s Center for Human Nutrition. “There’s no difference due to diet composition. In the long term, it’s not going to stay off.”

In addition to calorie reduction, pounds come off on a low-carb diet because of a loss of water weight and a decreased appetite brought on by ketosis, which happens when the body burns fat without carbs.

There’s confusion out there about what’s being counted and why, a Shape Up America! survey shows. More than half the people surveyed mistakenly believe that carbohydrates play a more significant role in weight loss than calories.

And apparently, most people can’t tell a carbohydrate from a carburetor. In a survey for the Partnership for Essential Nutrition, a newly formed coalition of nonprofit consumer and public health groups, more than half of 1,000 adults knew oatmeal was a bowlful of carbs, but two-thirds didn’t know that an apple or a banana contained plenty, and only 20 percent correctly identified a tomato as a carb-carrier.

It seems that interest in low-carb diets might be waning, at least according to a recent survey by online market research firm InsightExpress. The number of Americans living the low-carb lifestyle appears to have dropped, and most people who aren’t on the diets say they wouldn’t buy reduced carb products because they consider a low-carb diet unhealthy.

“The fundamental problem is, you cannot stay with a low-carb diet,” Hill says. “Your body really runs on carbs. They just don’t give you a way of eating you can do forever.”

An analysis of the diets of nearly 2,700 people listed in the National Weight Control Registry, which Hill helped create, found that fewer than 1 percent who had maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for a year or more followed an Atkins-like diet.

“We tell them to go out and do Atkins, and when they fail, come back and do what they need to do to lose weight,” says Hill, author of The Step Diet Book, whose weight loss advice involves eating a little less and walking a little more.

If a low-carb counter is making you crazy at home, dietitian Melinda Manore counsels patience - it’ll all be over soon, probably within six weeks. “It doesn’t help a dieter to have so few options that they get tired of eating the same thing over and over and ultimately give up.”

Recent studies have shown that low-carb and traditional diets have the same weight loss and level of adherence after a year. Low-carb dieters had lower triglycerides and more good cholesterol after a year, but some people dropped out because their bad cholesterol rose so much.

Anding says that it’s important to realize that a diet devoid of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products makes other diseases more likely, such as diabetes and cancer.

“Just losing weight can improve blood fat,” she says. “We’re missing the boat if we only think about coronary disease.”

British television followed three physicians on low-carb diets for a month. All three lost weight, but one saw bad cholesterol rise by nearly 25 percent and another was hospitalized with severe stomach pain from constipation.

The Shape Up America! study also shows that most people really don’t know about the possible risks and side effects from a low-carb diet, including constipation, fatigue and headaches. There was even less awareness of more serious risks, such as bone loss and gallstones.

Anding, whose clients include the Houston Texans pro football team, says she sometimes recommends a low-carb diet for a player who needs to drop a quick 20 - but only during the off-season.

“I tell them, ‘If you want to sit on the bench, then go on a chronically low-carb diet.’ Carbs are like gasoline,” she says. “I have a Tahoe. If I put a teaspoon of gas in my Tahoe and try to drive home, it ain’t gonna happen.”