Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Low Carb" Diet Study Really a Vegetarian Lifestyle?

Atkins-type folks will hold up the latest study led by Iris Shai of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as justification for continuing to devour defenseless animals.

Not so fast, Oh Meaty Ones.

First off, this was a limited comparison between three types of diets: low-fat, low-carb, and Mediterranean. In other words, the study can't say low-carb is best for lowering weight and cholesterol; it can only say that low-carb is the best of the three diets studied.

Second, look at the diets themselves:

The research was done in a controlled environment — an isolated nuclear research facility in Israel. The 322 participants got their main meal of the day, lunch, at a central cafeteria.

"The workers can't easily just go out to lunch at a nearby Subway or McDonald's," said Dr. Meir Stampfer, the study's senior author and a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the cafeteria, the appropriate foods for each diet were identified with colored dots, using red for low-fat, green for Mediterranean and blue for low-carb.

As for breakfast and dinner, the dieters were counseled on how to stick to their eating plans and were asked to fill out questionnaires on what they ate, Stampfer said.

The low-fat diet — no more than 30 percent of calories from fat — restricted calories and cholesterol and focused on low-fat grains, vegetables and fruits as options. The Mediterranean diet had similar calorie, fat and cholesterol restrictions, emphasizing poultry, fish, olive oil and nuts.

The low-carb diet set limits for carbohydrates, but none for calories or fat. It urged dieters to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein. [Emphasis added]

"So not a lot of butter and eggs and cream," said Madelyn Fernstrom, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center weight management expert who reviewed the study but was not involved in it.

The article goes on to say that "[t]he study is not the first to offer a favorable comparison of an Atkins-like diet." But that's not a typical Atkins diet. On Atkins, you're not discouraged from eating butter and eggs. A 3-egg cheese omelette cooked in a quarter-stick of butter is a valid option during the Induction phase of the Atkins diet. (Don't believe me? Check for yourself.) Strictly speaking, what researchers encouraged their low-carbers to eat was more a flexitarian version of The Zone. Dr. Dean Ornish lathers scorn on this "Veggie Atkins" in his own response to the study.

Personally, I doubt much of the anti-Atkins ranting. I do believe that carbs - refined carbs, not healthy whole grains - play a major role in modern American obesity. Let's call a spade a spade, though. If this study proves anything, it's the wisdom of eating fruits, veggies, and whole grains - and steering clear of animal products whenever possible.

If you can be healthy without eating meat, then why shouldn't you?

(Footnote: For those wondering, "Where do you get your protein from when you're a vegan?", see Kathy Freston's decisive article.)