Manic Monday: ADA on Atkins

May 31, 2011

On Wednesday night, Diane at Balanced Bites (maker of the fine “bacon is rad” tees) tweeted a link to an ADA review of The All-New Atkins Advantage. Wow, that sentence has more links than a golf course, chain mail vest, and sausage store combined.

The review makes perfect “Manic Monday” fodder, thanks Diane!

Without further adieu, I give you absolute garbage brought to you by the very people tasked with telling us what to eat. Great work guys!

The review starts out fine, with a largely unbiased (if not incomplete) summary of the book. Then the reviewer gets into the “Nutritional Pros and Cons”, which would be more accurately titled “A Public Flogging with No Restraint or Scientific Foundation” (emphasis mine for all quotes).

Thus, throughout the initial phase — and potentially the entire diet — an individual could consume less than 130 grams of carbohydrates, which is the minimum amount of carbohydrates needed daily to provide glucose for the proper brain function.

That 130g/day number comes from the RDA for carbohydrate, which is set as such because our brain and nervous system require roughly 130 g/day of glucose for energy. However, many people go months at a time eating fewer than 50 g/day of carbohydrates without dying. How can this be so? Two reasons – our brains can use ketones for fuel in lieu of glucose, and our livers can produce glucose from protein (gluconeogenesis). You don’t need to eat 130g/day of glucose just because your brain would use it if it’s available; our bodies can run our brains without us consuming any carbohydrate at all. This works especially well on a low-carb, moderate protein and fat diet.

This brings us to the topic of metabolic flexibility. If you consume tons of carbohydrate every day, your body shuts down fat burning (beta-oxidation) because you don’t need to burn fat for energy. At this point, you’ve lost metabolic flexibility. If you cut carbohydrate in this state, you feel a little off, because your body has to switch on fat-burning again, and it takes a while. This feeling is what some call the “low-carb flu” (great post at that link, well worth a read). Once you’ve been eating a low-carb diet for a few weeks, your body will be adept at using fat for fuel and running the brain on any dietary sugar in combination with produced glucose and ketone bodies.

Ignoring other possibilities for energy provision is, at best, restricting the availability of accurate information.

The claim that “natural fats, including saturated fats, are vital to good health” is very misleading. In essence, the amount of essential fatty acids needed by an individual is synthesized by the body, so there is no Daily Recommended Intake for saturated fat. Readers could easily interpret that as a green light for consuming saturated fats in excess amounts in the diet. This is erroneous. In fact, research supports that a diet rich in saturated fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

For starters, let’s review the definition of essential fatty acids:

Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are fatty acids that cannot be constructed within an organism (generally all references are to humans) from other components by any known chemical pathways, and therefore must be obtained from the diet.

By definition, essential fatty acids are essential because we can’t synthesize them in the body. We have to eat them. Go long enough without EFAs and you get sick and die. The reviewer is disgustingly wrong here.

I wish they cited a reference for the business about saturated fat increasing the risk of heart disease so I could go dismantle that study. Either way, you all know the drill on this one. Saturated fat does not cause heart disease.

The high protein content of the plan means eating less whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which reduces the amount of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber consumed. Additionally, the high proportion of dietary protein means eating more unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol.

Heaven forbid we eat fewer whole grains! You know, like people did before 10k years ago. Also, grains are bad. You can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from meat, if you so choose. In fact, the micronutrients present in meat are in their most bioavailable form – humans are better at getting their vitamins and minerals from meat. Nothing wrong with vegetables and some fruit though. For the record, I eat way more protein than Atkins recommends, but I still eat plenty of veggies and some fruit. We already touched on the saturated fat. Learn more about cholesterol here. In short, dietary cholesterol does not elevate blood cholesterol which does not cause heart disease (simplified a bit).

The authors recommend taking 500 to 1,000 milligrams of L-glutamine before dinner to control cravings. However, they state: “Although not much research has yet focused on L-glutamine’s role in this regard, a wealth of anecdotal evidence indicates it may help stop a binge before it happens.” The key word here is “anecdotal.” The public shouldn’t be a scientific guinea pig.

That last line really grinds my gears. Which is worse: A diet book author recommending a supplement (with clearly expressed reservations), or the federal government pushing a low-fat diet on the masses like religion with no proof at all? Americans have been guinea pigs for unfounded dietary guidelines for years, and the experiment continues to fail. Americans are getting fatter and sicker, while drivel like this is pumped out to ensure that no one breaks free and gets healthy. Disgusting.

Bottom Line: I would not recommend a low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss. Americans should be following a well-balanced, plant-based diet, rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables and low in unhealthy lipids (saturated, trans fats and cholesterol). Such a diet, if calorie controlled, can be both waist- and health-friendly and has been shown to also reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

I would recommend a low-carb diet for weight loss.* I don’t think it’s the only way to lose weight, but I’m sure it’s the easiest. Everything else here has been covered, except that I don’t think a “plant-based diet, rich in whole grains” can be healthy (though it can improve health if you get there from a twinkies and coke diet).

Oh, and calorie-restriced diets have been shown to do lots of good stuff, but if you don’t have the almost-inhuman ability to restrict calories for life, you can get all the same benefits from a low-carb diet and some intermittent fasting. Either way, any diet that includes whole grains is not optimal.

The Bottom Line:

The Atkins diet misses a bit IMO, because the focus should be more on food quality than macronutrient ratios. The ADA is pushing a crappy, refined/processed foods (grains) diet, so they can’t use that argument (which is why they don’t). If you want to focus solely on macronutrient ratios, there is nothing wrong with low-carb, in fact, it’s great for weight loss and confers benefits for blood sugar control and diabetes prevention.

Dear ADA: Please stop paying people to write this crap, and instead do what you should: promote good health through nutrition science and education.


*Remember, I have no education, training, or authority to recommend anything.

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