Although everyone would love to see that one ultimate “heavyweight match,” which pits low carb diets against high carb diets and gives us a winner with an undisputed knockout, the research world just doesn’t operate like that. Instead, research inches along with small studies on specific populations, usually for a much shorter time than we would like—for reasons of cost and practicality—and delivers specific measurements. It’s then up to health professionals to look at, evaluate and draw conclusions based on the findings.
And the news is very good indeed.
In the last few decades, peer-reviewed journals have published more than 80 studies or review papers investigating low carb diets. Some focused mainly on the effect on weight loss. Others were interested in the effects on blood lipid levels such as total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, HDL (“good”) cholesterol and triglycerides (a kind of fat in the blood that increases risk for heart disease). Still others looked at measures of inflammation, which is now understood to also be a risk factor for heart disease. And a few looked at the effect of low-carb diets on medication dosages, particularly in type 2 diabetics, as well as measures of diabetic risk such as fasting insulin and a special type of sticky protein called hemoglobin A1c. (A reading of over 6 on this measure is nearly always an indicator of diabetic complications to come.)
My own review of the literature shows two possible weight-loss outcomes when low carb diets are compared to low fat ones. Usually the low carb diet produces more weight loss than the low fat or low calorie diet; once in a while it produces the same amount of weight loss. Never does the low carb diet produce less weight loss than the “conventional” diet it is being compared to. We now have enough available good human research to draw certain conclusions:
- Low carbohydrate diets do not adversely affect cardiovascular risk profiles. In fact, your cardiovascular risk profile stands a very good chance of improving. LDL cholesterol particle size tends to change for the better, HDL size and amount tends to go up and triglycerides almost always come down. In fact, such HDL and triglyceride changes from a low carb diet occurred in one study to such an extent that they were similar to commonly used cholesterol-reducing drugs! Imagine a diet that has the health benefits of a drug without its normal laundry list of side effects (not to mention high prices).
- Low carbohydrate diets seldom result in less weight loss than an equal-calorie low fat diet. Although once in a while they “tie” on the weight-loss scale, most of the time they produce greater weight loss than their counterparts. And they appear to be a lot easier to stay on, largely because the satiating nature of fiber from vegetables, fat, and protein reduce hunger.
- Inflammatory markers seem to improve on low carb diets. Undoubtedly this will be a fertile area of new research in years to come, but right now it sure looks good.
- Diabetic indicators like A1c and glucose control and insulin sensitivity almost always improve. In some studies, medication use either dropped or was halved with the help of a physician.
Are you beginning to see a picture emerging? All in all, these results are great news for followers of the Atkins Diet. I am confident that there is a lot more to come as this wonderful approach to a healthy life continues to attract devotees and increasingly gets the serious—and long-overdue—attention from the research community.