Are You Dying to Lose Weight?

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Are You Dying to Lose Weight?

On ?Saturday Night Live,? Billy Crystal, impersonating Fernando Lamas, used to declare that it was more important to look good than to feel good. Many people had noticed how wonderful Bill Clinton was looking and were shocked a few summers ago to learn he was not feeling good as well. The former president had lost more than 20 pounds on the popular South Beach Diet created by a cardiologist (Dr. Agatston) and was seen jogging regularly. So it was quite a surprise when headlines reported he had been admitted to New York Presbyterian Hospital due to chest pain and was told he needed bypass surgery. Fortunately, tests showed Bill Clinton had not suffered a heart attack but did show his chest pain was due to severe clogging of several of his coronary arteries. But how can one?s arteries grow more clogged while following a diet developed by a cardiologist?

The need to look good and lose weight has driven many others besides Bill Clinton to try popular low-carbohydrate diets written by physicians such as the late Robert Atkins, the Eadeses (Protein Power) and Arthur Agatston. The problem with these diets is that while they may help people lose weight in the short term, there are no long-term scientific studies that demonstrate they are either safe or effective. These diets are usually even higher in saturated fat and cholesterol than the typical American diet because they allow large amounts of eggs, cheese and meat. Both saturated fat and cholesterol have been proven to raise ?bad,? or LDL, cholesterol levels in the blood and promote atherosclerosis, which is the primary cause of most heart attacks in this country. This is not to suggest that the South Beach Diet was solely responsible for former President Clinton?s clogged arteries. Certainly his penchant for fast foods in the past, along with his family history of heart disease, contributed as well. It was also reported that Clinton had stopped taking his cholesterol-lowering and blood-pressure-lowering drugs because he believed he didn?t need them.

Most people think losing weight will unclog arteries, but this is not necessarily true. Dr. Fleming found that blood lipids and many other blood components that contribute to clogged arteries and/or heart attacks grew worse despite the loss of a lot of weight after a year on the Atkins-style diet.1 Indeed, even studies funded by the Atkins organization reported several cases of people developing angina (and other forms of heart disease) for the first time in their lives after several months on a low-carbohydrate diet.

There is a far better approach for anyone who wants to lose weight and not risk making their heart disease worse. It is the low-fat, high-fiber diet advocated by Pritikin and Ornish. In the past 30 years, the Pritikin Research Foundation alone has helped fund more than 100 studies published in peer-reviewed clinical journals. What these studies and those of Ornish and others prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that practically all known and suspected risk factors for heart disease can be reduced or eliminated with a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and very low in saturated fat and cholesterol-rich animal products. In an analysis of 4,587 people who followed the Pritikin Program of diet and exercise for just three weeks, total and LDL cholesterol levels plummeted on average 23%. Triglycerides fell 33%.2 And in a five-year follow-up study of 62 men who were scheduled for bypass surgery and chose instead to come to the Pritikin Longevity Center, 80% never needed the surgery. Most of those with high blood pressure or diabetes who went through the Pritikin Program were able to get off all their medications but still end up with blood pressure and blood sugar levels as low or lower than when they entered the program on medications.3 Dr. Ornish?s research has shown that a very-low-fat diet with very limited amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol enabled most subjects with severely clogged arteries to lose weight and partially unclog their arteries.

Bottom Line:

It is hoped that Bill Clinton?s experience will help to educate Americans that there is more to a healthy weight than the numbers on a scale. A diet that is high in animal products will likely have enough saturated fat and cholesterol to clog arteries, cause angina and increase the risk for heart attacks.


Are You Dying to Lose Weight Are You Dying to Lose Weight?

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


1. Prev Cardiol 2002;5:110-8

2. Arch Intern Med 1991;151:1389-94

3. J Cardiac Rehab 1983;3:839-46

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