The Big Fat Lie Discredited

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In July of 2002, an award-winning journalist published an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?” In this article, Gary Taubes argued that Atkins and other proponents of high-fat, low carbohydrate diets had got it right and that virtually everyone else was wrong. Taubes’ central thesis was that advice from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the National Cholesterol Education Program, and numerous other organizations, to reduce dietary fat, was at least partially responsible for the rapid rise in obesity in the 1990s. He implied that by telling Americans to eat fewer high fat foods, and especially those from animals, and eating more high-carbohydrate foods was contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Gary Taubes believed the big fat lies about diet and disease he read in Atkins book The New Diet Revolution (published by Avon Books in 1998). Taubes interviewed Atkins in depth and his article was little more than a rehashing of the Atkins dogma. Taubes suggested research would soon prove Atkins and the authors of other diet books, such as Enter the Zone, Protein Power and Sugar Busters, were right when they claimed that advice to eat lean animal products and more carbohydrate was the main reason Americans were getting fatter. So was telling Americans to eat less fat, particularly saturated fat and more carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables what caused them to gain weight in the 1980s and 1990s?

New Study’s Data Finds Fat Fattening

The Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial examined data from nearly 50,000 women who were initially examined between 1993 and 1998 and followed for 7.5 years. About half were advised to follow a lower fat and saturated fat diet that was higher in carbohydrate from more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while the others simply continued their normal diets. Compliance with the low-fat diet was poor. Nevertheless, when the researchers looked at the relationship between percent fat calories and weight change over 7.5 years, their results showed “Weight loss was greatest among women in either group who decreased their percentage of energy from fat.”1

This new study also observed that women who ate more fruits and vegetables lost more weight. There was also a trend toward eating more fiber and weight loss, too. It should be noted that neither those assigned to eat the low-fat diet or maintain their current diet were told to reduce their calorie intake. The women in this study who most reduced the percentage of calories from fat were also the most likely to have lost weight. These results certainly are inconsistent with the claims of fad diet books like Atkins, Sears, and the Eades who suggested dietary advice to reduce fat and eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables was largely responsible for America’s growing epidemic of obesity.

The biggest fear of most clinicians was that diets very high in saturated fat and very low in carbohydrate, like Atkins recommended, would adversely impact blood lipids, clog arteries, and promote heart attacks. Atkins claimed “….ketogenic levels of carbohydrate restriction will lower normal cholesterol levels slightly, an elevated cholesterol level moderately, a midrange triglyceride level impressively and a high triglyceride level dramatically….”. In fact, a ketogenic diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol has been proven to dramatically raise triglycerides, total and LDL-cholesterol levels, and lower HDL-cholesterol.2

Bottom Line:

The results of these two studies clearly discredit the claims of those who advocate high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss or blood lipid improvement.

References:

1 JAMA 2006;295: 39-49

2 JAMA 2003; 290:912-20

By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.

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