Low Fat, Low Carb-Either Still Works: Media Misses The Mark Again

Hey everyone, Michael here. This is the first article on the blog from my friend Dr. Chris Berger. He’s an exercise physiologist and university professor, so he has a lot of good information to share. I hope you enjoy!

Admit it – You’ve had it with the latest studies telling you what to do.  I know I have.  As a doctor of my profession, high-quality data are the lifeblood of what I do.  I carefully structure my research and the classes that I teach on the basis of the best science out there.  But even us PhDs have to roll our eyes occasionally at what gets published and, more importantly, how the media run with it.

Consider, for example, the attention a new study got from the New York Times.  On Tuesday the 20th of February, the Times published a piece titled, “The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds”.  Alright.  Let’s break this down shall we?  First, “weight loss” has no key.  Weight is the product of mass times gravity so, I suppose, you could go into orbit and be happy with your weight absent gravity but… I have some bad news for you – you’d still be FAT!  Next, the notion that something as complicated as body composition (and our very personal concepts of what is ideal) does not have a “key”.  Why do we keep thinking that celebrities have a “secret” or that there is some trick to having a healthy body composition?  Any rational expert in the health sciences will tell you that body composition is dynamic and that obesity is multifactorial.  We owe our percent body fat to a lot of things.  Have we engineered physical activity out of our lives? (Yes)  Are we readily exposed to high-calorie palatable foods?  (Yes)  Have we cut the hell out of PE in schools?  (Ask your kid about that one or…do you not want to interrupt his video game?)  My point is that when you see news of a study that concludes that it’s this – this one thing here everybody – that is making us fat, you need to be critical of the work.

Not surprisingly, this study cited by the Times was praised by an MD – a cardiologist to be exact.  Now don’t get me wrong, I respect physicians.  I just wish that they would respect me.  I have something they don’t have – a thorough understanding of how physical activity impacts body structure and function and the research skills to find out more.  And without them, one draws bone-headed conclusions.  Don’t believe me?  Repeating:  The Times published a piece titled, “The Key to Weight Loss Is Diet Quality, Not Quantity, a New Study Finds”.  Yet what the study ACTUALLY concluded was the following (and I’m copying this verbatim):

In this 12-month weight loss diet study, there was no significant difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat diet vs a healthy low-carbohydrate diet, and neither genotype pattern nor baseline insulin secretion was associated with the dietary effects on weight loss. In the context of these 2 common weight loss diet approaches, neither of the 2 hypothesized predisposing factors was helpful in identifying which diet was better for whom.

But do you even need a PhD or an MD to translate this for you?  THEY FOUND NO DIFFERENCE.

Americans are fat for a lot of reasons but I’d like it to be the case that when we make personal efforts to improve our health, we do so with good information.  We rely on the news media to so inform us.  Instead, what we often have is a rush to headlines and an “endorsement” by somebody who seems credible.  Clickbait.  Bear this in mind for the next time you hear the “breaking news” on something in the health sciences.  Educate yourself on how to read and be critical of studies using the attached guide from the International Food Information Council Foundation and be careful not to jump to conclusions.  There is a lot to know in the health sciences and it’s not likely that one research paper will tell you it all.

Christopher Berger, PhD, ACSM EP-C, CSCS

References:

Gardner CD et al.  Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018 Feb 20;319(7):667-679.

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