Earlier this week, a bombshell study hit the tabloids — err, I mean science media — that has set off hand wringing among Atkins enthusiasts and cheers from the sugar and grain industries and their useful idiots in the blogosphere:
- For fat loss, low-fat diets beat low-carb diets handily, new research finds – Screeched the Los Angeles Times
- You Don’t Need To Go Low-Carb To Burn Body Fat, Study Says cluckled NPR
- Low-fat or low–carb? New study settles debate offered the always-reliable KSL.com
The Sugar Association’s best bud, Dr. David Katz, among others, was among the loudest to cheer on this “low carb is dead” celebration; almost every major story I’ve seen about this study has quoted him on it.
Low Carb Community Fights Back
Fortunately for both humanity and common sense, some sober minds in the low carb community have already dissected issues both with the study and, more importantly, with how this message has been received and discussed in the media. Here are a few takes you might want to consider.
Zoe Harcombe responds here: Did a low fat diet beat a low carb diet for fat loss?
Among other great points, Zoe noticed that: “The body fat loss for the 6-day intervention was calculated as 394 grams for the low-fat group and 236 grams for the reduced-carb group. The difference is 158 grams – about the weight of an apple. However, 158 grams divided by the smaller of the 2 numbers (236) = 67% and that’s where the 67% comes from.Even more disingenuous is the method of calculation. I wondered how body fat lost could possibly even be calculated to that degree of accuracy (because it can’t). The briefing paper shared the methodology: “The researchers measured the amount of fat eaten and the amount of fat burned, and the difference between them determined how much fat was lost from the body during each diet.”
What?! The researchers have assumed that dietary fat has no other use within the body – any eaten needs to be burned and that’s all that can happen. That is a completely invalid assumption. Fat is the most versatile macro nutrient to the body. It can be used for energy and it can (and is) used for the maintenance and growth of every cell in the body… Even if the calculation is as simple as grams of fat eaten – grams of fat burned = grams of fat lost, and it isn’t, we can reverse engineer the numbers to show that the reduced carb group were burning 145 grams of fat a day vs. 81 grams of fat a day being burned by the low fat group. So the headline could have been ‘reduced carb diet burns almost twice as much fat as low fat diet.'”
Ian Lane at the Metabolism and Medicine blog also dissects what happened here: Did low fat oust low carb for fat loss, after all?
After a lengthy discussion that’s worth the read, he concludes: “my personal takeaway resembles Dr. [Jim] Johnson’s: A single 6-day intervention study of 17 people proves nothing, nullifies nothing and is generalizable to no one. (But, it may provide insights or generate new questions, if it’s replicated and these results can be reproduced.)”
Bill Lagakos, in his analysis, A brief explanation of Hall et al., ie, THE LOW CARB WAR, makes the following observations:
He says “this study didn’t break low carb (that’s a ridiculous conclusion). But it was pretty cool, and probably included the most accurate and comprehensive assessment of energy balance EVER.”
He pointed out that the short duration of the study could have influenced fuel-burning, saying “Energy expenditure declined in both groups (as expected), slightly more so in low carbers. After 6 days. Ebbeling showed that this is reversed by 4 weeks, or approximately enough time to adapt to the new fueling scenario.”
Finally, he noted “OK, so if LF actually DID beat LC (in 6 days) (which it didn’t), here’s a [fringe] hypothesis about how it may have happened: at baseline, participants were weight stable: eating 109 g fat per day & burning 109 g fat per day. Suddenly drop fat intake from 109 to 17, but body is still burning 109. It takes a few days to downregulate fat oxidation to match intake & re-establish homeostasis. Glucose oxidation doesn’t have this problem: drop carbs from the diet and glucose oxidation shuts down rather quickly.”
Andreas Eenfeldt, Sweden’s most popular Diet Doctor also added:
(see his post for this key graph): “In the blue reduced carb (RC) group fat burning is going up like crazy. In the red reduced fat (RF) group the fat burning is actually decreasing slightly, even though they are on a semi-starvation diet. So here’s the situation after six days in the two groups:
- The low-fat group has lost slightly more body fat but at the same time reduced their fat-burning capacity.
- The low-carb group has lost more weight and more glycogen but slightly less body fat. However their fat burning is speeding up a lot (and their glycogen stores are getting low) so it’s time to really burn the fat.”
Finally, Ivor Cummins (of the excellent Fat Emperor blog), whom I interviewed a few months ago re: a post on calories-in-calories-out, offered this insightful comment on Ian’s blog, which I think is well worth mulling:
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – so much is artfully wrong with this study…..it’s unlikely to have happened by chance stupidity. This methodology is becoming common – comparing a ridiculously short-term isocalorific pseudo-low-carb (29%), to an ultra impossible low-fat (8%). It is becoming known that short-term ultra-low-fat (whilst ridiculous in real life), can generate the apparent effects that the experimenters are specifically mining for. Keeping the ‘low-carb’ not really low carb at all, enhances the errors, and tuning the timebase to be very short ensures no metabolic adjustment to allow benefit to accrue. The whole deceitful mess is massively magnified by eliminating the crucial hunger-driving factor from the equation. Yes, I suspect these guys know exactly what they are doing here; while it may not be direct remuneration into their personal bank accounts, the question of their funding is still pertinent. What is driving their deceit?”
Excellent question from Ivor.
Especially in light of the fact that low carb has historically trounced low fat in study after study after study after study. See Authority Nutrition’s analysis: 23 Studies on Low-Carb and Low-Fat Diets – Time to Retire The Fad
Beyond the Debate Over This Study: The Irrepressible Pathology, Fantastic Myopia and Overwhelming Stupidity That Defines Modern Nutrition “Science” (and the Journalists Who Cover It)
I don’t know, blog.
I’ve spent years and written thousands of posts and articles on these types of topics. I’ve talked to hundreds of experts in the field and read dozens of books. I’ve engaged with almost all of the most visible and impassioned critics of the “low carb high fat is good; calorie counting and low fat not so much” point of view and done my best to be empathetic and a good listener, even though I have almost never received the same in kind.
I deeply believe in “win win” outcomes. I believe that we know a lot less about nutrition, diet and obesity than most people think we do. And I’m flexible enough of mind (and spirit) to accommodate and even embrace new ideas that fly in the face of what I think I know. (e.g. Denise Minger recently suggested that ultra-low fat diets, such as the one tested in this study, might be a useful tool for some people in some situations. Possibly! Fine.)
But here’s the thing. Guys like Katz are never ever going to listen or engage in any critical discussion. It’s beyond their cognitive ability. Meanwhile, for a multitude of reasons, we likewise cannot trust most “science” journalists even at relatively distinguished media institutions like the New York Times, the WSJ, NPR and Science. They’re too entrenched in the conventional paradigms to venture outside their comfort zones. This isn’t to say every journalist is lazy or a dupe. But most are. That’s reality.
“He’s a what?
He’s a what?
He’s a newspaper man
And he gets his best ideas
From a newspaper stand;
From his boots to his pants
To his comments and his rants
He knows that any little article will do!
Though he expresses some confusion
‘Bout his part in the plan,
And he can’t understand
That he’s not in command;
The decisions underwritten
By the cash in his hand
Bought a sweater for
His weimariner too
Now I’m no mad man,
But that’s insanity.”
So Now What? How Can We Break Through and Fix This Huge Unseemly Mess?
As Winston Churchill observed: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
And the firehose of lies, half-truths and distortions in the field of nutrition shows no signs of letting up.
The answer isn’t to mince around but rather to come up with a big, bold, simple, clear, emotionally compelling, truthful counternarrative that all (or at least most) of the stakeholders in the low carb and paleo world can get behind and then – in unison – rally around that counternarrative.
Enough with the circus. Enough with the Katzes of the world. They know no subtlety, so they shall get none in return.