Essay

THE LOWDOWN ON THE LOW-CARB DIET WARS

Increased credibility for the Atkins diet has driven critics to extreme tactics

ANN BROCKLEHURST February 23 2004
Essay

THE LOWDOWN ON THE LOW-CARB DIET WARS

Increased credibility for the Atkins diet has driven critics to extreme tactics

ANN BROCKLEHURST February 23 2004

THE LOWDOWN ON THE LOW-CARB DIET WARS

Essay

Increased credibility for the Atkins diet has driven critics to extreme tactics

ANN BROCKLEHURST

WHEN NEWS BROKE last week that Robert Atkins had been clinically obese at the time of his death, it was hard not to be reminded of events almost two years ago, when the diet doctor had gone into cardiac arrest while eating what was presumably his regular breakfast omelette. On both occasions, nutritionists reacted to reports of his ill health with barely concealed glee. “All those eggs, all that steak. His diet doesn’t work. It’s bad for you. We told you so!” crowed the advocates of low-fat eating just a little too happily.

Just as they had the first time around, colleagues and family of Dr. Atkins moved quickly to rebut his critics, accusing the doctors who had leaked the news of his 258-lb. death weight of being radical vegetarians who had misrepresented medical facts. The six-foot Atkins had weighed 195 lb. when he slipped last winter on an icy sidewalk and went into an eight-day coma, his supporters explained, and the 63-lb. weight gain occurred in hospital, provoked by organ failure, fluid retention and dramatic bloating. As for Atkins’ heart condition, his widow, Veronica, repeated that it had been caused not by his lowcarb eating habits but by a cardiac infection picked up overseas years earlier.

Last week’s macabre events contrasted unfavourably with the way things played out after Atkins’ cardiac arrest, from which the 71-year-old physician recovered rapidly. He went on to experience the public relations triumph of his life when The New York Times Magazine announced on its cover that “influential researchers are beginning to embrace the medical heresy that maybe Dr. Atkins was right.” That article became the most talked-about topic in New York since the terrorist attacks. And it began the escalation of the low-fat versus low-carb diet wars, which continue to this day.

The battle over Atkins’ supposed obesity is just an ultra-nasty instalment in the neverending series of news stories about the social phenomenon low-carb dieting has become. Consider, for example, that in one week in January, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, caused a mini-scandal (and foreshadowed last week’s events) by

joking, before both a large plate of pasta and a microphone he thought was turned off, that it was “bullshit that [Atkins] dropped dead slipping on a sidewalk.” Then, the very next day, officials at Florida’s department of citrus announced a major advertising campaign to repair the image of orange juice, a beverage once considered healthy but now dissed by low-carbers. That same day in England, the BBC aired an investigative documentary which took identical twins, put one on the Atkins diet, the other on a traditional low-fat diet, and then locked them both inside a sealed chamber to calculate how quickly they were burning calories.

That bizarre experiment, designed to verify whether Atkins-type dieters really do lose more weight by “peeing out calories,” concluded they did not. The only problem, however, is that Atkins never made such a claim. Rather, the notion seems to have originated with his devoted but wrong-headed followers, who wanted to show how easy the diet was. What Atkins himself actually said was that by testing their urine, dieters could see if their bodies were in ketosis— that is, burning fat. So, in the end, all the twin study did was knock down a straw man.

Atkins’ central point, in fact, was that a lowcarb diet confers a metabolic advantage that causes adherents to lose weight faster because the body processes different types of foods differently. While the BBC’s Horizon program rejected this claim, its results both contradicted and ignored a Harvard School of Public Health study released just a few months earlier. Compared to the twin experiment, the Harvard study stands as an altogether pleasant episode in diet research. Harvard scientists and chefs at the Ristorante Marino in Cambridge, Mass., provided participants with meals prepared from a meticulously crafted menu. For 12 weeks dieters picked up their daily food supply, which included that night’s dinner, a snack and the next day’s breakfast and lunch.

DEBATE over Atkins’ supposed obesity is just an ultra-nasty instalment in the ongoing coverage of low carb’s impact

The 21 participants were divided into a lowfat group, whose members lost 17 lb. on average, a low-carb group that ate the same number of calories and lost 23 lb., and a third group on a low-carb plan that got 300 more calories than everyone else and lost 20 lb. The counterintuitive results contradict the idea that the best way to lose pounds is to eat fewer calories, and support Atkins’ metabolic-advantage theory and the idea that it takes more energy to digest certain foods.

The Harvard study, designed as a pilot for a much larger study still to come, was too small to be statistically conclusive. It was led by the new guard in the diet wars, researchers with reputations to make, and was attacked, using familiar criticisms, by the old guard, who not only have reputations to lose, but an entire belief system. First off, the critics accused the poorer-performing dieters of cheating, a standard charge that’s easy to make since diet studies rely on the honour system, and it’s impossible to prove that some dieters aren’t secretly scoffing down Snickers bars. The critics also accused the Harvard pardcipants of violating the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy—in this case calories—can neither be created nor destroyed. But the obvious alternative explanation is simply that the conventional wisdom about nutrition is wrong. The prevalent theory that “a calorie is a calorie no matter what” doesn’t even acknowledge, for example, that differences in individual metabolism exist despite the fact that it’s completely obvious they do.

Although a very small minority of nutritionists concede that the calorie theory needs refining, the majority can’t give up their faith in low fat. They point to numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies that demonstrate people who follow low-fat diets lose weight. But what remains to be proven is whether low-fat diets work better or worse than low-carb alternatives. With definitive diet studies still to come, however, the public has chosen not to wait around and get fatter. It’s ignoring the dire warnings of nutritionists and opting for low carb.

The diet of choice this past year has been South Beach, which is so similar to Atkins that even weight-loss experts have difficulty telling the two apart. It’s now topping the hardcover advice best-seller charts, while Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution retains the No. 1 spot in paperback advice. This perennial popularity and branding power has made Atkins a lightning rod for criticism, not just with the low-fat nutritional establishment but also with the potato farmers and bread makers who hold him responsible for diminishing sales. Of course, his fans would point out that he has boosted the sales of eggs, and cheese, and may have posthumously helped save the beef industry from collapse after the mad cow scare. Not to mention his impact on the restaurant sector, now offering low-carb specials, crustless pizza, bunless burgers and Atkins-friendly wraps.

So how exactly did Atkins, who was ostracized as a quack for two decades, become such a powerful force? Well, as with most trends, the nineties version of low carb (not to be confused with Atkins’ early-seventies high-protein model) caught on quickly with influential early adopters like jocks and personal trainers. Other proponents were

paunchy doctors who surreptitiously went low carb and discovered that it not only worked but contradicted what they had learned in med school. When they dared to speak up, they were backed up by still more doctors who had found that overweight patients felt less hungry with low carb, lost more weight and, contrary to expectations, saw their cholesterol levels improve.

Of course, even if low-carb eating is eventually found to be perfectly healthy and a more efficient way to lose weight than lowfat, there’s no guarantee people will be able to keep pounds off. It’s something of a paradox that at the same time low-carb diet books are flying off the shelves, so too are Krispy Kreme donuts. Predictably, the enemies in the diet wars blame each other for causing the kind of deprivation that pushes lapsed dieters to gobble up such high-carb and high-fat treats. After all, that kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to people who follow the right diets. H1]

Ann Brocklehurst is a Montreal journalist abrocklehurst@videotron.ca