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June 2000 Issue
High-Protein/Low-Carbo Diet Fallacies
by Michael Fick
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The high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets espoused by Dr. Atkins, Sugar Busters, Barry Sears' Zone Diet, the Carbo Addicts' Diet, et. al. can help us lose weight quickly at first.

That single sentence is the extent of those diets' upside. The list starting with the next paragraph is a fly-speck on a period at the end of a sentence on a page in a book from a shelf in the library describing their established unhealthy downside. This includes the production of toxins in our bodies, kidney and liver damage, dehydration, depletion of calcium from our bones, clogged arteries and heart (especially with Dr. Atkins' diet), the often-temporary nature of their weight loss, and the irritability common with low-carbo diets. Those are the well-known, well-understood results; other problems including immune system suppression and allergy flare-ups are suspected.

  1. The basic premise of the high-protein hucksters is unproved, probably downright false. They claim carbohydrate consumption => blood sugar increase => insulin secretion => sugar stored as fat => obesity because of insulin resistance, and that cutting carbo consumption breaks that chain. They don't tell us, of course, that "There's not one shred of evidence that insulin resistance causes obesity", that many studies of insulin resistance, high and low carbo diets, and weight gain and loss still prove that weight gain and loss still boil down to simple arithmetic: Calories In minus Calories Out equals Weight Change, according to Dr. Gerald Reaven, ex-director of Stanford's Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is cited by the high-protein diet gurus as their inspiration, yet he proclaims they misunderstand and misinterpret his research. His new book, "Syndrome X: Overcoming the Silent Killer That Can Give You a Heart Attack", disputes their claims, especially those based on his findings that carbos can cause heart attacks in certain patients.

  2. Carbo metabolism produces only water and carbon dioxide, but protein metabolism produces ammonia, a very strong toxin. In self-defense, our liver converts the ammonia to urea and our kidneys flush the less-but-still-toxic urea from our bodies with extra water. This dehydrates us (that's the weight loss) and leaches minerals, especially calcium, from our bones. The ammonia and the extra workload of converting and flushing it damages our kidneys and liver irreparably over a period of two or three decades. Whichever is weaker - kidneys or liver - fails first, putting us in intensive care with a doctor who will say, "I wish you'd come in sooner. All we had to do to save your liver and kidneys was put you on a low-protein diet sooner to ease their load." (Millions of dogs go on Science Diet KD low-protein dog food to prolong their lives when their liver or kidneys start to fail, and researchers wanting to induce extreme arterial clogging in rabbits do so by feeding them extra sat fats and cholesterol ... just as with Dr. Atkins' diet.) The dehydration harms many body systems and functions, including joints, skin, digestion, metabolism, blood pressure, temperature control, brain function, and many more. That's all basic, established biology.

  3. All of our food is composed of carbohydrates, protein, and/or fat, so decreasing the carbo intake inherently raises the protein and/or fat percentages unless we also reduce the other two. But Dr. Atkins' diet recommends much higher protein and sat fat intake. This flies in the face of the fact that high sat fat consumption is the prime dietary determinant of high LDL cholesterol, which does grave (get it? ... grave) damage to most cardiovascular systems. (Some people do have genetic protection, but not likely you or I).

  4. My limited reading reveals only one "diet" blessed by the American Heart Association as safe and effective for clinically reversing heart disease: Dr. Dean Ornish's very Spartan "Program for Reversing Heart Disease". It calls for 15-20% protein, 3% saturated fat, 7% unsaturated fats, and >70% carbos. Compare that to Dr. Atkins' 60% fat (25% saturated), 22% protein, and 18% carbos, as determined from the recipes he recommends. His diet promotes three to four times the cholesterol of other diets, 175 times the cholesterol of Ornish's diet.

  5. One of the low-carbo fad diets books, Sugar Busters or the Carbo Addict's Diet - I forget which; the fad diets and gurus fade together after a while - comes right out and says something like, "By the way, this entire concept does not apply to athletic people, who need carbohydrates to function properly". Yet the fact that athletic activity prolongs our health and our lives significantly ranks right up there with another very basic health tenet: tobacco and excess sat fat are among our most effective voluntary killers.

  6. Without even looking for high-protein diet criticisms, I see three to five media reports each WEEK soundly criticizing high-protein diets, especially Dr. Atkins' version. The list of health sources that publicly, soundly, and frequently criticize the high-protein diets would fill more than a page in fine print.

  7. Many high-protein diet victims quickly get bored with it and resume their old habits and weight. Just think - almost no more desserts, fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta ... just primarily meat, eggs, and grease, followed way too often by prematurely failing health for long-term followers. For what ... smaller jeans?

  8. So why, if Dr. Atkins' diet has been around since the '70s and is so bad, is it not causing more health problems? First, most people abandon it before long as boring. Second, it takes many years, even two or three decades, for high fat intake to take us out. Third, who says high protein and sat fat intake is not harming us? All the research says it is.

I could go on researching high-protein diets endlessly, as there are millions of pages out there disputing their pseudo-science. But after the first 20 sources I found criticized them so soundly, I applied the 80/20 rule and quit looking. In the time it would take to research even one percent of the literature favoring carbos over protein and sat fat, I could get my own medical degree, perform my own research, and add to the criticism.

I don't need to be hit over the head with thousands of medical books to get the point: high-protein diets are a harmful hoax for most otherwise normal overweight people, and the high-sat-fat versions such as Dr. Atkins' are even more so. Are you willing to sacrifice your liver, kidneys, arteries, heart, skeleton, skin, joints, allergies - ultimately maybe your life - to fit into smaller jeans? Just as there are still no gizmos that significantly increase our gas mileage, there are still no known healthy shortcuts to weight loss. It's still all about exercise and a proper diet, complicated in some cases by genes or disease.

I usually try to say something funny in these columns. This column is no exception. Its one joke is repeated several times: "The Dr. Atkins high-protein, high-fat diet."

Too bad it's not funny.



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