Health or Headline? Does a Low Carb Diet Support Weight Loss
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health or headline

health or headline

nutrition bliss health over headlines blog post


About 4 million people watch The Today Show each morning. I used to watch it religiously as I got ready for work. However, sometime around 8 years ago my routine changed, so it’s been awhile since I tuned in. On Thursday morning, for some reason, I happened to click on the T.V. as I cleaned up after breakfast. And there was The Today Show crew. About 2 minutes after I turned it on, Dr. Oz was about to discuss a new landmark study about weight loss and a low carbohydrate diet. “Perfect timing!” I thought. I was curious to hear what he had to say to the millions of people tuning in. 

Let’s just say, that after watching the segment I wanted to grab The Today Show watching Jen from 10 years ago and say, “Take this diet & lifestyle advice with a grain of salt. It seems to be more about making headlines than health.”

no wonder everyone is confused.

If I hadn’t just spent that last 5 years of my life dedicated to understanding how nutrition influences the body and learning what our systems need to work together and heal – I may have believed what I heard. I mean, eating cheese and sour cream with your eggs to lose weight sounds good, right?! I’m not kidding.

My intention is not to pick on The Today Show or Dr. Oz. My goal is to help better educate my audience so that when you hear these “too good to be true” headlines, you can begin to make sense of what’s really going on. The Today Show headline for the segment was how low carb diets were a proven solution to weight loss and weight maintenance. After viewing the segment featuring Dr. Oz, I wanted to read the referenced study to dive deeper into the details. 

did the headlines match the content of the study?

Very loosely. By no means has this research study proved that low carb diets are the key to maintaining weight loss. In fact, the study doesn’t mention if the low carb diet group lost any additional weight as a result of the study. The participants were only selected for this study once they had lost weight on a calorie-restrictive diet first. And, the participants also had to maintain the weight loss for a period of time before they were allowed into this study. Sound overly complicated? Yeah, I thought so too.

Also, the study did mention that the low carbohydrate diet seemed to work best for individuals who had the highest insulin production before the study. This is an important point – and one that wasn’t mentioned in the headline. What this tells us, is that individuals who have insulin dysregulation (insulin is the hormone our body needs to release to use glucose – the energy source we get from carbohydrates) benefited from reducing their carbohydrates and consequently, stabilized their blood sugar. Meaning, this is a group that may benefit from reducing carbohydrate intake for therapeutic purposes, with guidance from a professional resource.

all carbs are not created equal.

Are all carbs bad? NO.

Are all carbs the same? NO.

Broad sweeping statements about “low carb diets result in weight loss” are confusing and dangerous. Our brain, heart, and liver need glucose (from carbohydrates) to function. And they require a lot of energy! Taking that energy source away is not the answer. Particularly in the name of weight loss. There are MANY other ways to approach successful weight loss that do not require starving vital organs.

Here is an helpful interview by the research paper’s author, Dr. Ludwig, from 3 years ago. He is a top researcher from Harvard, and a majority of his work has focused on carbohydrates. He shares helpful clarifications including that carbs are not bad. This interview also highlights key points including how refined and processed carbohydrates like bread, pasta, cakes, crackers, and cereals take a toll on our bodies. These foods have a high glycemic index, causing both our blood sugar and insulin to spike. Many healthy, plant-based sources of carbohydrates are available, low glycemic, and contain healthy phytonutrients &  fiber. So let’s not throw the apples out with the crackers and cakes, okay?

In the study highlighted by Dr. Oz, there was no mention of the types of carbohydrates people were consuming. And we already know, if any of the three groups were cutting out highly inflammatory, high-glycemic carbohydrates like breads, pastas, and crackers that will result in health benefits and regulating blood sugar.

burn more calories.

Another big headline from the study was highlighting that the body was proven to burn more calories when eating a high fat, low carb diet. For your reference, the macronutrient distribution for the low carb group in the study was 20% calories from protein, 20% calories from carbohydrates, and 60% calories from fat. Popular terms for this type of dietary pattern would be modified-keto or Atkins.

I personally did not find this particularly surprising since we know that using fat as a primary energy source is less efficient, and therefore requires more energy. Our body uses this back up energy system to protect us during periods of famine or starvation, not typically as part of an everyday lifestyle. When defining weight (or health for that matter) simply in terms of calories, this may appear favorable.

However, just like we know all carbs are not created equal, neither are calories. So, I already have some major issues with this rationale. Plus, celebrating higher calorie burn of a certain diet and equating that to improved health or a long term solution to weight loss or maintenance is a huge leap. We know there are many other factors that influence weight loss and maintenance beyond just calories. If that was the only factor, wouldn’t diets work?? 

big take-away

For me, the biggest frustration was with how the information was presented in the segment. It was shared as if this is a proven, healthful diet that could work for all people, rather than a therapy that may work for a specific niche of people. Second, weight gain is not something your body “does to you” that needs to be conquered. If your body is holding on to weight, there is a reason. Weight gain is a symptom illustrating that something is out of balance. Our body is our greatest asset and partner. Rather than fighting against it, it is much more advantageous to work with it and listen to what it’s trying to tell us.

Finally, this study highlighted such a small part of the health picture. It focused on weight, calorie expenditure, and a low carb diet pattern. It did not discuss or evaluate any of the many other aspects we know influence weight and overall health. Examples include inflammation in the body, the health of the gut, and the body’s ability to detoxify. Low carb diets have been shown, over time, to adversely influence each of these areas. This is one reason why it is not generally recommended for long term health.

final thoughts

Always dig deeper. In this one small example, I hope I highlighted how a study can be picked apart and transformed into a major headline. Then be presented by a big name, on a huge morning program, and likely get repeated on other news outlets. In many cases, a good headline spin will win out over sound health guidance or in-depth review. So be sure to watch how and where you get your information.

And, like any dietary pattern, there are always pluses and minuses. The critical part is to understand your own body, what it needs, and why. There is rarely good vs. bad or a right vs. wrong solution. A lot of middle ground exists, giving us room to find what works for us as an individual.

Lastly, when something sounds too good to be true – it probably is.

an image that says "with love, Jen" for nutritionbliss.com