Avoid low-fact diets: Despite the hype, no verdict yet on high-fat, low-carb regime

September 22, 2014


If you have been reading the newspaper recently, you will have come across some startling new nutrition advice. A much hyped new study, conducted with just 150 participants, calls for us to “embrace fat”—even the saturated kind. The alleged benefits? Weight loss and, most incredibly, healthier hearts.

Unfortunately, this media attention is much ado about nothing.

Low-carb diets have been advocated by various “experts” for at least 225 years. Many sources credit John Rollo with being the first to promote a low carbohydrate diet for diabetics in the late 1700s. In the 1860s, an English undertaker by the name of Banting published his famous “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public.”  His diet, which advocated giving up several starchy foods, was so popular that for decades dieting was actually called “Banting.”

James Salisbury, the 19th century American physician and food faddist, promoted the steak he named for himself as part of a high-meat diet in 1888.  Since then, the number of promoters for this dietary approach has been endless. I recall my mother eating cottage cheese in order to lose weight when I was growing up in the 60s, because of diet books written by doctors with nothing but theory to back them up.  Probably the most famous of all is Robert Atkins, whose book Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, published in the mid 1960s, is still a bestseller.

In the two centuries during which these diets have been promoted, there have been hundreds of studies comparing low-carb to low-fat diets.  One would think that by now it would be clear which was superior if there really was a difference.  But if you take all of these diet studies, and analyze the enormous body of data they produced, there is no proven difference between them as far as weight loss is concerned. In fact, another such analysis was published the day after the over-hyped low-carb study with this same conclusion.

More to the point, however, is that this most recent study really did not actually prove that low-carb diets are superior. The low-fat diet in the study was not that low in fat, and the low-carb group ate significantly fewer calories.  If anything, the study only confirms that fewer calories result in more weight loss.

Moreover, the study provided intensive dietary counseling, not available to most people, and only followed participants for a year. Everyone who knows anything about weight loss knows that as soon as a diet ends, the pounds go right back on.  Indeed, studies show that only 15 to 25 percent of those who lose weight are then able to keep it off.

I honestly have no opinion as to whether altering the fat or carbs in your diet is the best way to lose weight, and I am considered an expert in nutrition. Of course, it is possible that this current study may, in fact, herald the breakthrough that we’ve all been waiting for.  But there would need to be many more studies to confirm these findings before we lay to rest this centuries-long debate.



PHOTO: A customer chooses meat at a meat market in Beijing May 31, 2013, in this file photo. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

There is not much useful information in the diet area beyond the old “food pyramid” concept. Pretty much, if you avoid eating sucrose and keep everything else, particularly portions, within reason, you’ll be fine. You can’t eat too many vegetables, so fill up on them. Exercise is a must, also.

Posted by yrbmegr | Report as abusive

Calories are really simple. If you burn more than you eat, you lose weight. The onther way around, you gain weight.

Dosen’t matter what the calories are from, any more than your savings account differentiates between lemonade stand or house sold.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

One item to be avoided in your diet (as entirely as possible) is hydrogenated oil also known as shortening. I have done so for about 30+ years and my cholesterol is near ideal and I have no circulatory issues.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

Adkin lives!

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Hydrogenated oils and fats are unhealthy for you. While they do exist naturally, the proportion of hydrogenated oil/fat to unsaturated ‘in the wild’ is extremely low.

That said, the only real, successful long term weight loss comes when you take in 15% to 20% fewer calories than you burn in a day. Cut more than that, and the cravings set in and the starvation slowdown triggers in your metabolism activate. That sets you up for the binge and weight gain.

Posted by Burns0011 | Report as abusive

Eh, the data’s pretty much there son:

http://authoritynutrition.com/23-studies -on-low-carb-and-low-fat-diets/

You should get out more….see my website for more.


Posted by thefatemperor | Report as abusive

don’t forget sugar, its not a carb
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6 -oM

Posted by wastingtime | Report as abusive

This article is useless. Seres rambles on about things from a century ago, then cites one or two studies, but doesn’t say who funded or who conducted them. And no link to look at the studies themselves.

Atkins works, and numerous studies show that despite all the “fat is a boogey man” hype blood profiles and blood pressure actually improve while you are on Atkins.

Posted by oldbluejeans | Report as abusive

So, fat people eating American diets based in carbs switch their diet to low-carb, high fat and lose a bunch of weight.

Those people, satisfied with their weight loss, revert to their prior lifestyle of a carb-based diet. They then gain the weight back.

Therefore, the low-carb diet doesn’t work?

That means after a lifetime of binge drinking, I get a bunch of DUIs. I quit drinking and have no DUIs. Satisfied with my lack of DUIs, I start drinking again, and start getting DUIs again. Therefore, not drinking is not a good strategy?

You don’t “go on a diet” – you have to “change your diet.”

Posted by Dontezuma | Report as abusive

[…] Reuters Blogs (blog) […]

Posted by Avoid low-fact diets: Despite the hype, no verdict yet on high-fat, low-carb … – Reuters Blogs (blog) | Health News | Report as abusive

Just cram those arteries full and you’ll be fine.

It’s a no-brainer.

Posted by KurtisEngle | Report as abusive

[…] Avoid low-fact diets: Despite the hype, no verdict yet on high-fat, low-carb … I recall my mother eating cottage cheese in order to lose weight when I was growing up in the 60s, because of diet books written by doctors with nothing but theory to back them up. Probably the most famous of all is Robert Atkins, whose book Dr. Atkins … Read more on Reuters Blogs (blog) […]

Posted by Avoid low-fact diets: Despite the hype, no verdict yet on high-fat, low-carb … | Report as abusive

OMG, a low-FACT diet? That’s priceless!

Posted by NBE | Report as abusive

The idea that eating fatty dead animal flesh is going to make someone healthier is ludicrous and panders to people searching for the comfortable way to lose weight. There is no way around it… Eating animals is not good for you. Your body can’t digest animals as easily as plants and while it may taste great… nutritionally you are asking for a world of pain. All the talk about you need more this less that…, Atkins, Paleo, blah blah… is garbage and doesn’t work in the long run. You need to change the way they view food and realize that plants should be the base of your diet. Not to mention the impact that eating meat has on the environment. 70% of the grain grown in the us is used for animal feed… not humans. Children are dying everyday from malnourishment and instead of using our valuable resources AKA water, Gas, and land (water – 1 lb. of meat = 2,500 gallons, instead of not showering in reaction to the drought just stop eating meat. Grain – 1 lb of meat = 16 lb of grain that could feed up to 10 people per day. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy. That’s a 70-percent loss.) Bottom line if you want to be healthy, live longer and care about the world at all… you should stop eating meat, dairy and eggs as they contribute by far the most health and environmental dangers.

Posted by Colin.Hofer | Report as abusive

Do low carb, low meat, lots of vegetables and when you do eat meat and carbs, practice portion control.

Do a bit of everything, never take seconds. Avoid any sugary products or products using refined anything.

Change your life around to include exercising as a priority over the partying, drinking and even working.

When people tell me “Oh! You’re doing a low carb diet/paleo diet/whatever diet”. I reply: I’m not doing a diet. I did a life change and it’s going to be that way forever now.

Posted by NicoinMauritius | Report as abusive

the world must drop the consumption model of the past and promoting new paradignas cultivate sustainability is an importat contribuition in the agrifood industry

Posted by pecurto | Report as abusive

Most low-carb studies compare a low-carb diet to a junk food diet and then say: “See it’s the BEST!”

They also focus on measuring weight loss rather than overall health.

If the low-carb advocates actually believed in their diets, they would compare them to a healthy, whole food, plant based diet or at least the Mediterranean diet and measure ALL the health affects over time. But they won’t. They know their diet would fail.

Posted by GeorgeBMac | Report as abusive

Carbs are only good if you plan to do some serious walking, running or bicycling and in the early part of the day. There is an old rule of thumb no matter what you eat and that is “Eat breakfast like a King, Lunch like Prince and dinner like a Pauper. This has worked especially well in the southern European Culture where the main meal used to be at lunch, then a little nap, back to work and then eat a very lite dinner like fish or some tappas or fruit and veggies. The worse thing you can do is eat before retiring to bed or sit and watch TV. This is America’s biggest problem. Our working conditions with a short lunch break leads to some serious health problems, it would be better to take a 2 hour break and eat a bigger lunch, relax, take a little nap then go back to work, we would a much healthier society if we broke this 9-5 death trap.

Posted by stonehillady | Report as abusive

oily foods containing cholesterol dangerous, if done continuously@kejarcitamu.com

Posted by Dafiq | Report as abusive

This article does not talk about the new study details but rather dispels the findings using indirect unrelated facts.

Posted by kidputers | Report as abusive

I could be completely wrong but I think that who is paying for study to be done should be included with results. I think if you eat fat then get fat ,but this is a great aid in weight loss
=> http://goodchoice1.weebly.com/

Posted by choose1 | Report as abusive

Sounds like a bunch of dumb republicans who don’t believe in Global Warming. Whatever science says, do the opposite.

Posted by raptor501 | Report as abusive

For decades I have considered myself to be overweight (by about 40-45 lbs) and had the waistine to prove it. This despite the fact that for even longer I have been on a very spartan diet: fresh fruit for breakfast with granola and rice milk, vegetable salad for lunch and a raw vegetable soup for dinner. I ate out occasionally and maybe weekly had a salmon salad sandwich at home with corn chips and a beer. Every couple of weeks I might have a breakfast of eggs, potatoes and toast. I liked to have a daily piece of whole wheat toast and a cup of coffee during break time. Late at night I snacked on 3-4 rice cakes (the ones about 4″ across). I have never consumed much processed sugar (occasional cookie or ice cream). I exercised an hour at a gym 2-3 times per week. My weight was steady throughout.

My sister and niece both went on the Atkins weight loss diet about 10 years ago. It worked for both of them. My sister had been way overweight for as long as I could remember. Despite their success, I didn’t think that giving up the few carbs I thought I was taking in could possibly have any effect. Six months ago I decided to bite the bullet and quit the bread, rice cakes, potatoes, and other suspect carbs – just as an “experiment.” I am taking in more meat/fish, but not a lot.

In a month I started losing weight. I am now down about 20-25 lbs. Whether I can keep the weight off is another matter, but at least now I know how to take the pounds off.

Posted by AnonymousBosch | Report as abusive

” and the low-carb group ate significantly fewer calories. If anything, the study only confirms that fewer calories result in more weight loss.”

We’ll that is exactly what a low carb diet induces: the spontaneous reduction of calories in the diet. The hormone insulin that is released upon carbohydrate and protein ingestion blocks fat metabolism. The more insulin you have in your blood, the less fat is burnt. If you stop eating carbohydrates your body discovers that it has a lot of fat in the storage. You naturally eat less. [3]

If you conduct an iso-caloric study between low-carb and low-fat you won’t find a difference. It is the hormonal change of a low-carb diet that lowers calorie intake: that’s how low-carb diets function.

Second thought: there are a few studies on low carb diets which instruct the low carb group to increase carbohydrate intake ‘As participants lost weight, they were able to increase carbohydrate intake at 5-g increments each week‘ [1]

And another one ‘After the first 12 weeks, participants gradually increased carbohydrate intake (5 g/d per week) by consuming more vegetables, a limited amount of fruits, and eventually small quantities of whole grains and dairy products, until a stable and desired weight was achieved’ [2]

So, essentially, they instruct the participants in one group to change their behaviour so they stop loosing weight. And, in the end of the study, the authors conclude: no difference in low carb or low fat groups. Well, shoot me. They should be fired.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19366 978
[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20679 559
[3] https://harmenjeurink.wordpress.com/2012  /10/15/koolhydraat-arm-dieet-is-superie ur/ (Dutch)

Posted by Harmen | Report as abusive

The major problem with discussions about weight loss, fat in the diet, protein, carbohydrates, etc., is that “Nothing Based Opinions” flood discussions and studies; “nutritionists” overwhelm discussions whereas it is rare that a dietitian can get a word in edgewise. If anyone dares eat all the things in all the amounts at all the times people say one should, one is going to end up morbidly obese. This is all very difficult, more and more dietitians need to weigh in on this, no pun intended.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

I have a MS in Nutrition. Simply examining carbs, fat, and protein is pointless. Healthy diets are those that emulate regional diets where the population is healthier overall when compared to most other populations. France, Japan, and Spain are essentially the healthiest countries. People in Japan and Mediterranean countries consume a fair amount of fish and vegetables. People in Mediterranean countries consume large amounts of olive oil. Aside from this, daily moderate exercise is absolutely necessary for health. Walking is probably the best, easiest type of exercise. It’s natural and good for the entire body. Reliance of cars combined with office-type jobs will cause a plethora of health problems. It’s not nutrition that is key. It’s your lifestyle, beginning with childhood, and regular high-quality, fresh foods. Think France, Spain, and Japan.

Posted by byrond2 | Report as abusive

Dr Seres: I know you stated “I honestly have no opinion as to whether altering the fat or carbs in your diet is the best way to lose weight, and I am considered an expert in nutrition”, but do you have an opinion as to whether Type 2 Diabetes is a disease that can be characterized as “carbohydrate intolerance”? There is general agreement that weight loss is an important factor for most diabetics and as a nutritionist I suspect you know the option of “low carb” vs “low fat” in treating diabetes is much clearer based on many recent studies that show T2D in most cases is actually curable with carbohydrate restriction. And to stay with very low carbohydrate restriction the rest of your life requires increased consumption of good fats (unless you are sadomasochistic!). And oh, by the way, most people who have cured their diabetes this way find they lose weight in the process and are no longer insulin dependent.

Posted by vtfactotum | Report as abusive

[…] Avoid low-fact diets: Despite the hype, no verdict yet on high-fat, low-carb regime. […]

Posted by Avoid low-fact diets: Despite the hype, no verdict yet on high-fat, low-carb regime | Slinking Toward Retirement | Report as abusive

You should do a lot more research…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

What the nutrition field needs is far fewer nutritionists and dieticians and far more biochemists.

Posted by ottoISmyboy | Report as abusive