Which Diet Is Best For Diabetics?

What Did This Study Show? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

High Blood SugarWhen you were first diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor probably told you that your life will forever be changed. Among other things he or she probably told you that you would need to make some radical changes to your diet.

But what changes? Both the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and Diabetes UK (the British version of ADA) recommend:

  • An individualized approach. This recognizes that we are all different. What works for some diabetics may not work for others.
  • A diet that incorporates more non-starchy vegetables and minimizes added sugars and refined grains.

But these recommendations are vague. Most people want a specific diet to follow. It’s here that Diabetes UK and the ADA part ways.

  • Diabetes UK gives its highest recommendation to the Mediterranean diet.
  • The ADA gives equal recommendations to the Mediterranean diet and both low-carbohydrate and very-low carbohydrate diets.

But which diet is best? It’s hard to know because most studies compare one of these diets to the standard American diet (SAD), and anything is better than the standard American diet.

Fortunately, one recent study (CD Gardner et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 116: 640-652, 2022) directly compares the two extremes of ADA-recommended diets, the Mediterranean diet and the Keto diet.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThis study recruited 33 participants with diabetes or prediabetes from the San Francisco Bay area. The participants in the study:

  • Were between 41 and 77 years old (average age = 60.5).
  • Were 61% male, 45% non-Hispanic white, and mostly (85%) college educated.
  • Had either prediabetes (61%) or diabetes (39%).
  • Had BMIs ranging from 22.7 (normal) to 39.7 (obese) (average BMI = 30 (borderline obese).
  • Had elevated levels of HbA1c (hemoglobin A1c, a measure of long-term blood sugar control).

People were excluded from the study if they were:

  • Underweight (<110 pounds) or morbidly obese (BMI ≥40).
  • Had extremely high cholesterol (LDL cholesterol >190 mg/dL) or blood pressure (>169 mmHg).
  • On insulin or certain medications to lower blood sugar levels.

This was a randomized, crossover, interventional study. Simply put, that means:

  • The study started with participants eating a typical American diet. The intervention was either a Keto diet or a Mediterranean diet.
  • Each patient was randomly assigned to one of the diets for 12 weeks. Then they “crossed over” to the other diet for 12 weeks. In this type of study each patient serves as their own control.
  • Finally, there was a 12-week follow-up period in which they could choose which of the two diets to follow.

It was a very well-controlled study:

  • Participants were given detailed guidelines to follow and received weekly individual education sessions by a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.
  • During the first 4 weeks of each diet, participants were provided at no cost all meals and snacks from a local food delivery service.
  • During the next 8 weeks of each diet, the participants purchased their own foods using the same guidelines they had been given during the first 4 weeks.
    • They were also provided with a recipe booklet and suggestions for diet-compliant menu items at local restaurants for each diet.
  • This was not designed as a weight loss diet. The participants were provided with 2,800 calories of food per day and instructed to eat until they were full.
  • Compliance with the diet was assessed in three ways:
    • During week 4 and week 12 of each diet phase, 3 unannounced 24-hour dietary recalls (2 on weekdays and 1 on a weekend day) were administered over the phone by a trained nutritionist.
    • Participants were also given an app to log in their food intake daily.
    • Participants on the Keto diet were given blood ketone monitors and strips.
  • Finally, at the beginning and end of the study and during weeks 4 and 12 of each diet phase participants went to a medical facility for blood work and weight measurements.

The primary focus of this study was measuring the effect of each diet on HbA1c. HbA1c measures blood sugar control over the previous 12 weeks (which is why each diet phase was 12 weeks long). But the study also measured the effect of each diet on LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.

What Were The Diets Like?

Vegetarian DietThese were not ordinary versions of the Mediterranean and Keto diets:

  • Sugar and refined flour are often part of the diet in Mediterranean regions. So, this study used the “Mediterranean Plus (Med-Plus)” diet which restricts both sugar and refined grains.
  • Keto convenience foods are often a witch’s brew of artificial ingredients. So, this study used the “Well-Formulated Keto Diet (WFKD)” which is composed of whole, unprocessed foods. In fact, both diets were whole food diets.

In summary, the two diets were:

  • Alike in that both emphasized non-starchy vegetables and minimized sugar and refined grains.
  • Alike in that they were both whole food diets.
  • Different in that the Keto diet eliminated legumes, fruits, and whole grains while the Mediterranean diet included them.

The macronutrient composition of the two diets was about what you would expect.

USDA

Guidelines

Baseline Keto

(Weeks

1-4)

Keto

(Weeks

5-12)

Med

(Weeks

1-4)

Med

(Weeks

5-12)

Protein 10-35% 18% 25% 22% 19% 21%
Carbs 45-65% 41% 12% 18% 37% 37%
Fat <30% 41% 63% 60% 44% 42%
  • The baseline diet was typical of the American diet. It was higher than recommended for fat. While carbohydrate intake appeared to be moderate, it was high in sugar and refined grains.
  • The Keto and Mediterranean diet interventions were separated into 2 phases. In phase 1 (weeks 1-4) every meal and snack were provided to the participants. In phase 2 (weeks 5-12) they purchased their own food.
  • As expected, carbohydrate intake was much lower, fat intake much higher, and protein intake slightly higher than baseline for the Keto diet. And this pattern was maintained during the 8 weeks the participants purchased their own food.
  • Macronutrient composition on the Mediterranean diet was not much different than baseline and did not change much during weeks 5-12.

The fat composition of the two diets was also different.

Baseline Keto

(Weeks

1-4)

Keto

(Weeks

5-12)

Med

(Weeks

1-4)

Med

(Weeks

5-12)

Monounsaturated 42% 48% 43% 52% 45%
Polyunsaturated 23% 15% 19% 23% 25%
Saturated 35% 37% 38% 25% 30%
  • The Keto diet was significantly lower in percent polyunsaturated fat and slightly higher in percent monounsaturated and saturated fat than baseline (the typical American diet) in weeks 1-4. However, remember that the Keto diet was 50% higher in total fat than the other diets. This makes it significantly higher in saturated fat than either the baseline or Mediterranean diets.
  • As expected, the Mediterranean diet was significantly higher in percent monounsaturated fat and lower in percent saturated fat than baseline in weeks 1-4.
  • Not surprisingly, both diets trended towards the baseline diet in the 8 weeks participants were buying their own food.

Other interesting differences between the two diets:

  • The Keto diet contained around 12% plant protein and 88% animal protein, while the Mediterranean diet contained about 50% of each.
  • Fiber intake decreased by 33% compared to baseline on the Keto diet, while fiber intake increased by 50% on the Mediterranean diet.
  • In terms of nutritional adequacy, the Keto diet was significantly lower in fiber, vitamin C, folate, and magnesium than the Mediterranean diet.

What Did The Study Show?

Question Mark1. Participants consumed around 300 fewer calories/day and lost about 15 pounds on both diets.

    • The authors speculated this was because both diets were more filling than the baseline diet, presumably because both diets were whole food diets while the baseline diet contained lots of processed foods high in sugar and refined grains.

2) Both diets reduced HbA1c (a cumulative measure of how much the diets improved blood sugar control compared to the baseline diet) by about the same extent.

3) LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) increased by about 10% on the Keto diet, while it decreased by about 9% on the Mediterranean diet. This difference was highly significant.

4) HDL cholesterol increased by about the same extent on both diets.

5) Triglycerides decreased by around 20% on the Keto diet and by 10% on the Mediterranean diet. This difference was also highly significant.

6) Finally, adherence to the Keto diet was less than for the Mediterranean diet. Plus, more people chose the Mediterranean diet during the follow-up phase when they were allowed to choose their own diet.

The authors concluded, “HbA1c values…improved from baseline on both diets, likely due to several shared dietary aspects. The WFKT [Keto diet] led to a greater decrease in triglycerides, but also had untoward risks from elevated LDL cholesterol and lower nutrient intakes from avoiding legumes, fruits, and whole, intact grains, as well as being less sustainable [easy to follow long-term].

Which Diet Is Best For Diabetics?

Mediterranean Diet Foods

Animal Protein Foods

Vs

 

 

 

 

Once again, I have covered lots of information in this blog. But if you are diabetic, you are probably wondering, “What does this mean for me?” Let me start by reviewing the purpose of this study.

  • This study was designed to compare the two extremes of recommended diets (Mediterranean and Keto) with respect to their effectiveness at keeping blood sugar under control.
  • These were both more restrictive versions of the two diets than most people follow. In this study, both diets:
    • Were whole food diets. No sodas, processed, or convenience foods were allowed.
    • Minimized the consumption of sugars and refined grains.

Now let me divide the discussion into two sections:

  1. Which diet is best for diabetics in the short term (in this case, 12 weeks)?
    • Participants consumed 300 fewer calories and lost about 15 pounds on both diets in spite of being given more than they could eat and not being encouraged to lose weight.
      • The authors attributed this to whole food diets being more filling.
      • However, it is also consistent with my contention that any restrictive diet will lead to short-term weight loss and improvement in blood sugar control. I summarize the 5 reasons for this phenomenon in last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” article
    • Blood sugar control over 12 weeks, as measured by HbA1c, improved by the same amount on both diets.
      • That is consistent with the American Diabetes Association’s position that a variety of diets, ranging from Mediterranean to Keto, are suitable for diabetics.
      • This also means that you can forget the advice that diabetics need to follow a low carb diet and give up fruits, whole grains, and legumes to keep their blood sugar under control.
      • However, this is not a “get out of jail free card”. Diabetics do need to avoid sodas, processed, and convenience foods and minimize sugar and refined grains.
    • There was considerable individual variability. Some people did better on the Mediterranean diet. Others did better on the Keto diet.
    • This is consistent with the American Diabetes Association’s recommendation that diabetic diets should be individualized.

In short, this study suggests that in the short term (12 weeks) the Med-Plus and WFKD Keto diets are equally effective at promoting weight loss and improved blood sugar control for both diabetics and prediabetics.

However, there is considerable individual variability, meaning that diabetics can chose the diet that works best for them.

2) Which diet is best for diabetics in the long term?

If both diets are equally effective short term, the important question becomes whether they are equally successful and equally healthy long term.

As noted in the author’s conclusion, this study raised several “red flags” which suggest the Keto diet might be less successful and less healthy long term. But this is a short-term study.

You may be wondering, “What do long-term studies show?” Unfortunately, there are very few long-term studies to guide us. But here is what we do know.

    • There are multiple studies showing that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers long term. There is no evidence that meat-based low carb diets are healthy long term. This includes the Atkins diet, which has been around more than 50 years.
    • A 6-year study reported that the group with the lowest carbohydrate intake had an increased risk of premature death – 32% for overall mortality, 50% for cardiovascular mortality, 51% for cerebrovascular mortality, and 36% for cancer mortality.
    • A 20-year study reported that women consuming a meat-based low carb diet for 20 years gained just as much weight and had just as high risk of diabetes and heart disease as women consuming a high carbohydrate, low fat diet.

In short, the few long-term studies we do have suggest that the Mediterranean diet is a better choice for long-term health and reduced risk of diabetes than low-carb diets.

The Bottom Line 

If you are diabetic or prediabetic, the American Diabetes association recommends a diet that is individualized and ranges from Mediterranean to low carb and very low carb (Keto).

However, low carb and Keto enthusiasts insist that diabetics need to follow a low carb or very low carb diet. And that seems to make sense. After all, aren’t carbs the problem for diabetics?

To resolve this question, a recent study was designed to compare the two extremes of the ADA-recommended diets (Mediterranean and Keto) with respect to their effectiveness at keeping blood sugar under control.

These were not ordinary versions of the Mediterranean and Keto diets:

  • Sugar and refined flour are often part of the diet in Mediterranean regions. So, this study used the “Mediterranean Plus (Med-Plus)” diet which restricts both sugar and refined grains.
  • Keto convenience foods are often a witch’s brew of artificial ingredients. So, this study used the “Well-Formulated Keto Diet (WFKD)” which is composed of whole, unprocessed foods. In fact, both diets were whole food diets.

In short, this study found that in the short term (12 weeks) the Med-Plus and WFKD Keto diets are equally effective at promoting weight loss and improved blood sugar control for both diabetics and prediabetics.

The authors concluded, “HbA1c values…improved from baseline on both diets, likely due to several shared dietary aspects. The WFKT [Keto diet] led to a greater decrease in triglycerides, but also had untoward risks from elevated LDL cholesterol and lower nutrient intakes from avoiding legumes, fruits, and whole, intact grains, as well as being less sustainable [easy to follow long-term].

If both diets are equally effective short term, the important question becomes whether they are equally successful and equally healthy long term.

As noted in the author’s conclusion, this study raised several “red flags” suggesting that the WFKD Keto diet may be less successful and less healthy long term than the Med-Plus diet. However, this was a short-term study.

So, the question becomes, “What do long-term studies show?” There are few long-term studies of low-carb diets, but the few long-term studies we do have suggest that the Mediterranean diet is a better choice for both long-term health and reduced risk of diabetes than most low-carb diets.

For more details on this study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Tips For Successful Weight Loss

Which Diet Is Best?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

It’s the beginning of January. Weight loss season has just launched again. Like millions of Americans, you have probably set a goal to eat healthier, lose weight, or both. But which diet is best? Vegan, Paleo, Keto, 360, Intermittent Fasting, low-carb, low fat – the list is endless.

And then there are the commercial diets: Meal replacements, low calorie processed foods, prepared meals delivered to your door – just to name a few of the categories.

You can choose to count calories, focus on portion sizes, or keep a food journal.

And, if you really want to live dangerously, you can try the latest diet pills that claim to curb your appetite and rev up your metabolism.

The advertisements for all these diets sound so convincing. They give you scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo to explain why they work. Then they talk about clinical studies they say prove their diet works.

If you are like most Americans, you have already tried several of these diets. They worked for a while, but the pounds came back – and brought their friends with them.

But, as the saying goes, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Surely some diet you haven’t tried yet will work for you.

There are such diets. But they will require effort. They will require a change of mindset. There is no magic wand that will chase the extra pounds away forever.

If you are searching for the perfect diet to start the new year, let me be your guide. Here are:

  • 4 tips on mistakes to avoid and…
  • 6 tips on what to look for…
  • 7 tips for making weight loss permanent…

…when you are choosing the best diet for you.

Mistakes To Avoid When Choosing The Best Diet

Avoid1. Endorsements

Endorsements by your favorite athlete or public person are paid for. They don’t necessarily represent their opinion. Nor do they assure you that they follow that diet or use that diet supplement.

Endorsements by Dr. Strangelove and his buddies can be equally misleading. They usually tell you that the medical establishment has been lying to you, and they have discovered the “secret” to permanent weight loss and the “Fountain of Youth”.

Recommendations of the medical and scientific communities usually represent a consensus statement by the top experts in their field. I would choose their advice over Dr. Strangelove’s opinion any day.

2) Testimonials

Most of the testimonials you see online or in print are either paid for or are fake.

Testimonials by your friends can be equally misleading. We are all different. What works for your friend or for your trainer may not work for you.

For example, some of us do better on low-carb diets, and others do better on low fat diets.

[Note: Some DNA testing companies claim they can sequence your DNA and tell you which diet is best. However, as I reported in a recent article in “Health Tips From The Professor”, independent studies show that DNA testing is of no use in predicting whether low-carb or low-fat diets are better for you.]

3) Diets Based on “Magic” Or “Forbidden” Foods or Food Groups.

I have often said we have 5 food groups for a reason. Each food group provides a unique blend of nutrients and phytonutrients. And each plant food group provides a unique blend of fibers that support the growth of different types of friendly gut bacteria.

The bottom line is that each of us does better with some foods than others, but there are no “magic” or “forbidden” foods that apply to everyone.

Magic4) “Magic” Diets.

I have written perhaps the first diet book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, that doesn’t feature a “magic” diet that is going to make the pounds melt away and allow you to live to 100. Instead, I recommend a variety of healthy diets and suggest you choose the one that fits you best.

However, I understand the allure of “magic” diets. Dr. Strangelove claims the diet will be effortless. He gives you some scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo to convince you the diet is scientifically sound. Then he cites some clinical studies showing the diet will cause you to lose weight and will improve your health parameters (things like cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure). It sounds so convincing.

Before you fall for Dr. Strangelove’s latest “magic” diet, let me share two things that may blow your mind:

  • The studies are all short-term (usually 3 months or less).
  • When you rely on short-term studies, the very low-fat Vegan diet and very low-carb Keto diet give you virtually identical weight loss and improvement in health parameters!

Those two diets are as different as any two diets could be. That means we can forget all the scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo as to why each of those diets work. Instead, we should ask what these two diets have in common.

The answer is simple:

#1: The clinical studies are comparing “magic” diets to the typical American diet. Anything is better than the typical American diet! It is high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, and highly processed foods. No wonder the “magic” diets look so good.

#2: The diets are whole food diets. Anytime you eliminate sodas, fast foods, and highly processed foods, you will lose weight.

#3: The diets eliminate one or more food groups. Whenever you eliminate some of your favorite foods from your diet, you tend to lose weight without thinking about it. I call this the cream cheese and bagel phenomenon.

  • If you are following a low-fat diet, it sounds great to say you can eat all the bagels you want. But without cream cheese to go with the bagels, you tend to eat fewer bagels.
  • If you are following a low-carb diet, it sounds great to say you can eat as much cream cheese as you want, but without bagels to go with your cream cheese, you tend to eat less cream cheese.

#4: Because they eliminate many of your favorite foods, “magic” diets make you focus on what you eat. Whenever you focus on what you eat, you tend to lose weight. That is why food journals and calorie counters are effective.

#5: Finally, whenever you lose weight, your health parameters (cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure) improve.

Tips For Successful Weight Loss

SkepticWhat should you look for in choosing a healthy weight loss diet? Here are my top 6 tips.

1. Choose whole food diets. Avoid sodas, fast foods, and highly processed foods.

2) Choose primarily plant-based diets. These can range from Vegan through semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Nordic. All are healthy diets. I have discussed the evidence for this recommendation in my book “Slaying The Food Myths”. Here is a brief summary.

When we look at long term (10-20 year) studies:

  • Vegetarians weigh less and are healthier than people consuming the typical American diet.
  • People consuming semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, and DASH diets are healthier than people consuming the typical American diet.

When we look at low-carb diets:

  • People consuming plant-based low-carb diets weigh less and are healthier than people consuming the typical American diet.
  • People consuming meat-based low-carb diets are just as fat and unhealthy as people consuming the typical American diet.
  • The Atkins low-carb diet has been around for more than 50 years, and there is no evidence it is healthy long-term.

3) Choose diets that include a variety of foods from all 5 food groups. I have discussed the rationale for that recommendation above.

4) Choose diets that consider meat as a garnish, not a main course.

5) Choose diets that feature healthy carbs and healthy fats rather than low-carb or low-fat diets.

6) Think lifestyle, not diet. If you choose a restrictive diet so you can achieve quick weight loss, you will probably be just as fat and unhealthy next December 31st as you are this year. Instead, choose diets that teach healthy eating and lifestyle changes that you can make a permanent part of your life.

Tips For Keeping The Weight Off

You know the brutal truth. Around 95% of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within a few years. You have probably gone through one or more cycles of weight loss and regain yourself – something called “yo-yo dieting”. You may even be asking yourself if it is worth bothering to try to lose weight this year.

Rather focusing on the negative statistics of weight loss, let’s look at the good news. There are people who lose the weight and keep it off. What do they do?

There is an organization called the National Weight Control Registry that has enrolled more than 10,000 people who have lost weight and kept it off. The people in this group lost weight on almost every diet imaginable. However, here is the important statistic: On average people in this group have lost 66 pounds and kept it off for at least 5 years.

The National Weight Control Registry has kept track of what they have done to keep the weight off. Here is what they do that you may not be doing:

1. They consume a reduced calorie, whole food diet.

2) They get lots of exercise (around 1 hour/day).

3) They have internalized their eating patterns. In short, this is no longer a diet. It has become a permanent part of their lifestyle. This is the way they eat without even thinking about it.

4) They monitor their weight regularly. When they gain a few pounds, they modify their diet until they are back at their target weight.

5) They eat breakfast on a regular basis.

6) They watch less than 10 hours of TV/week.

7) They are consistent (no planned cheat days).

Which Diet Is Best?

Now it is time to get back to the question you are asking right now, “Which diet is best?” I have covered a lot of ground in this article. Let me summarize it for you.

If you are thinking about popular diets:

  • Primarily plant-based diets ranging from Vegan to Mediterranean and Dash are associated with a healthier weight and better health long term.
    • If want to lose weight quickly, you may want to start with the more restrictive plant-based diets, like Vegan, Ornish, Pritikin or semi-vegetarian.
    • If you do better with a low-carb diet, my recommendation is the lower-carb version of the Mediterranean diet called Med-Plus. It is a whole food version of the Mediterranean diet that minimizes added sugar and refined grains (I will be talking more about it in next week’s “Health Tips From the Professor”).
    • If your primary goal is rapid weight loss, you could also start with one of the healthier of the restrictive low-carb diets, like the Paleo or the 360 diet. I do not recommend the Keto diet.
  • No matter what diet you start with, plan to transition to the primarily plant-based diet that best fits your lifestyle and food preferences. This is the diet you will want to stick with to maintain your weight loss and achieve better health long term.
  • Plan on permanent lifestyle change rather than a short-term diet. Otherwise, you are just wasting your time.
  • Eat whole foods. Big Food keeps up with America’s favorite diets and is only too happy to sell you highly processed foods that match your favorite diet. Avoid those like the plague.

If you are thinking about commercial diets featuring meal replacement products:

  • Look for meal replacement products that:
    • Do not contain artificial sweeteners, flavors, or preservatives.
    • Use non-GMO protein. A non-GMO certification for the other ingredients is not necessary. For a more detailed explanation of when non-GMO certification is important and when it is unnecessary, see my article in “Health Tips From the Professor”.
    • Have stringent quality controls in place to assure purity. “Organic” and/or “non-GMO” on the label do not assure purity.
  • Look for programs that can provide clinical studies showing their diet plan is effective for weight loss and for keeping the weight off. Many programs have short-term clinical studies showing they are effective for weight loss, but very few have longer-term studies showing the weight stays off.
  • Finally, look for programs that teach permanent lifestyle change. This should include guidance on exercise and healthy eating.

I do not recommend most commercial diets that feature prepared low-calorie foods “shipped right to your door” as a major part of their program. The foods are highly processed. Plus, they include all your favorite unhealthy foods as part of the program. Even if they include lifestyle change as part of their program, they are undermining their message with the foods they are providing you.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Weight Watchers is highly recommended by most experts in the field. Weight Watchers emphasizes journaling and counting calories, which is a plus because it makes you focus on what you are eating. They also have a good lifestyle program and support that can help you transition to permanent lifestyle change if you are willing to put in the effort. However, I don’t recommend their prepared low-calorie foods. They are no better than foods provided by the other commercial diet programs.

The Bottom Line 

Weight loss season is upon us. If you plan to lose weight and/or adopt a healthier diet this year, you are probably asking, “Which Diet Is Best?” In this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I give you:

  • 4 tips on mistakes to avoid when selecting the diet that is best for you.
  • 6 tips on how to choose the best diet.
  • 5 tips on what to look for when selecting a diet featuring meal replacement products.
  • 7 tips on how to keep the weight off.

Then I put all this information together to help you choose the best diet, the best meal replacement product, and/or the best commercial diet program.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

What Is The Truth About Low Carb Diets?

Why Is The Cochrane Collaboration The Gold Standard?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

low carb dietAtkins, South Beach, Whole30, Low Carb, high Fat, Low Carb Paleo, and Keto. Low carb diets come in many forms. But they have these general characteristics:

  • They restrict carbohydrate intake to <40% of calories.
  • They restrict grains, cereals, legumes, and other carbohydrate foods such as dairy, fruits, and some vegetables.
  • They replace these foods with foods higher in fat and protein such as meats, eggs, cheese, butter, cream, and oils.
  • When recommended for weight loss, they generally restrict calories.

What about the science? Dr. Strangelove and his friends tell you that low carb diets are better for weight loss, blood sugar control, and are more heart healthy than other diets. But these claims are controversial.

Why is that? I have discussed this in previous issues of “Health Tips From The Professor”. Here is the short version.

  • Most studies on the benefits of low carb diets compare them with the typical American diet.
    • The typical American diet is high in fat, sugar and refined flour, and highly processed foods. Anything is better than the typical American diet.
  • Most low carb diets are whole food diets.
    • Any time you replace sodas and highly processed foods with whole foods you will lose weight and improve your health.
  • Most low carb diets are highly structured. There are rules for which foods to avoid, which foods to eat, and often additional rules to follow.
    • Any highly structured diet causes you to focus on what you eat. When you do that, you lose weight. When you lose weight, your health parameters improve.
    • As I have noted before, short term weight loss and improvement in health parameters are virtually identical for the very low carb keto diet and the very low-fat vegan diet.

With all this uncertainty you are probably wondering, “What is the truth about low carb diets?”

A recent study by the Cochrane Collaboration (CE Naude et al, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 28 January 2022) was designed to answer this question.

The Cochrane Collaboration is considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine. To help you understand why this is, I will repeat a summary of how the Cochrane Collaboration approaches clinical studies that I shared two weeks ago.

Why Is The Cochrane Collaboration The Gold Standard?

ghost bustersWho you gonna call? It’s not Ghostbusters. It’s not Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It’s a group called the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Cochrane Collaboration consists of 30,000 volunteer scientific experts from across the globe whose sole mission is to analyze the scientific literature and publish reviews of health claims so that health professionals, patients, and policy makers can make evidence-based choices about health interventions.

In one sense, Cochrane reviews are what is called a “meta-analysis”, in which data from numerous studies are grouped together so that a statistically significant conclusion can be reached. However, Cochrane Collaboration reviews differ from most meta-analyses found in the scientific literature in a very significant way.

Many published meta-analyses simply report “statistically significant” conclusions. However, statistics can be misleading. As Mark Twain said: “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics”.

The Cochrane Collaboration also reports statistically significant conclusions from their meta-analyses. However, they carefully consider the quality of each individual study in their analysis. They look at possible sources of bias. They look at the design and size of the studies. Finally, they ask whether the conclusions are consistent from one study to the next. They clearly define the quality of evidence that backs up each of their conclusions as follows:

  • High-quality evidence. Further research is unlikely to change their conclusion. This is generally reserved for conclusions backed by multiple high-quality studies that have all come to the same conclusion. These are the recommendations that are most often adopted into medical practice.
  • Moderate-quality evidence. This conclusion is very likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.
  • Low-quality evidence. Further research is needed and could alter the conclusion. They are not judging whether the conclusion is true or false. They are simply saying more research is needed to reach a definite conclusion.

This is why their reviews are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine. If you are of a certain age, you may remember that TV commercial “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” It is the same with the Cochrane Collaboration. When they talk, health professionals listen.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors of this Cochrane Collaboration Report included 61 published clinical trials that randomized participants into two groups.

  • The first group was put on a low carbohydrate diet (carbohydrates = <40% of calories).
  • The second group was put on a “normal carbohydrate” diet (carbohydrates = 45-65% of calories, as recommended by the USDA and most health authorities).
    • The normal carbohydrate diet was matched with the low carbohydrate diet in terms of caloric restriction.
    • Both diets were designed by dietitians and were generally whole food diets.

The participants in these studies:

  • Were middle-aged.
  • Were overweight or obese.
  • Did not have diagnosed heart disease or cancer.
  • May have diagnosed type-2 diabetes. Some studies selected participants that had diagnosed type 2 diabetes. Other studies excluded those patients.

The studies were of 3 types:

  • Short-term: Participants in these studies followed their assigned diets for 3 to <12 months.
  • Long-term: Participants in these studies followed their assigned diets for >12 to 24 months.
  • Short-term with maintenance: Participants in these studies followed their assigned diets for 3 months followed by a 9-month maintenance phase.

What Is The Truth About Low Carb Diets?

The TruthAll the studies included in the Cochrane Collaboration’s meta-analysis randomly assigned overweight participants to a low carbohydrate diet (carbohydrates = <40% of calories) or to a “normal carbohydrate” diet (carbohydrates = 45-65% of calories) with the same degree of caloric restriction.

If low carb diets have any benefit in terms of weight loss, improving blood sugar control, or reducing heart disease risk, these are the kind of studies that are required to validate that claim.

This is what the Cochrane Collaboration’s meta-analysis showed.

When they analyzed studies done with overweight participants without type 2 diabetes:

  • Weight loss was not significantly different between low carb and normal carb diets in short-term studies (3 to <12 months), long-term studies (>12 to 24 months), and short-term studies followed by a 9-month maintenance period.
  • There was also no significant difference in the effect of low carb and normal carb diets on the reduction in diastolic blood pressure and LDL cholesterol.

Since diabetics have trouble controlling blood sugar, you might expect that type 2 diabetics would respond better to low carb diets. However, when they analyzed studies done with overweight participants who had type 2 diabetes:

  • Weight loss was also not significantly different on low carb and normal carb diets.
  • There was no significant difference in the effect of low carb and normal carb diets on the reduction in diastolic blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and hemoglobin A1c, a measure of blood sugar control.

Of course, the reason Cochrane Collaboration analyses are so valuable is they also analyze the strength of the studies that were included in their analysis.

You may remember in my article two weeks ago, I reported on the Cochrane Collaboration’s report supporting the claim that omega-3 supplementation reduces pre-term births. In that report they said that the studies included in their analysis were high quality. Therefore, they said their report was definitive and no more studies were needed.

This analysis was different. The authors of this Cochrane Collaboration report said that the published studies on this topic were of moderate quality. This means their conclusion is very likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionIf you are a bit confused by the preceding section, I understand. That was a lot of information to take in. Let me give you the Cliff Notes version.

In short, this Cochrane Collaboration Report concluded:

  • Low carb diets (<40% of calories from carbohydrates) are no better than diets with normal carbohydrate content (45-65% of calories from carbohydrates) with respect to weight loss, reduction in heart disease risk factors, and blood sugar control. Dr. Strangelove has been misleading you again.
  • This finding is equally true for people with and without type 2 diabetes. This calls into question the claim that people with type 2 diabetes will do better on a low carb diet.
  • The published studies on this topic were of moderate quality. This means their conclusion is very likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.

If you are thinking this study can’t be true because low carb diets work for you, that is because you are comparing low carb diets to your customary diet, probably the typical American diet.

  • Remember that any whole food diet that eliminates sodas and processed foods and restricts the foods you eat will cause you to lose weight. Whole food keto and vegan diets work equally well short-term compared to the typical American diet.
  • And any diet that allows you to lose weight improves heart health parameters and blood sugar control.

If you are thinking about the blogs, books, and videos you have seen extolling the virtues of low carb diets, remember that the Dr. Strangeloves of the world only select studies comparing low carb diets to the typical American diet to support their claims.

  • The studies included in this Cochrane Collaboration report randomly assigned participants to the low carb and normal carb diets and followed them for 3 to 24 months.
    • Both diets were whole food diets designed by dietitians.
    • Both diets reduced caloric intake to the same extent.

What about the claims that low carb diets are better for your long-term health? There are very few studies on that topic. Here are two:

  • At the 6.4-year mark a recent study reported that the group with the lowest carbohydrate intake had an increased risk of premature death – 32% for overall mortality, 50% for cardiovascular mortality, 51% for cerebrovascular mortality, and 36% for cancer mortality. I will analyze this study in a future issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.
  • At the 20-year mark a series of studies reported that:
    • Women consuming a meat-based low carb diet for 20 years gained just as much weight and had just as high risk of heart disease and diabetes as women consuming a high carbohydrate, low fat diet.
    • However, women consuming a plant-based low carb diet for 20 years gained less weight and had reduced risk of developing heart disease and diabetes as women consuming a high carbohydrate, low fat diet.

My recommendation is to avoid low-carb diets. They have no short-term benefits when compared to a healthy diet that does not eliminate food groups. And they may be bad for you in the long run. Your best bet is a whole food diet that includes all food groups but eliminates sodas, sweets, and processed foods.

However, if you are committed to a low carb diet, my recommendation is to choose the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet. It is likely to be healthy long term.

The Bottom Line 

The Cochrane Collaboration, the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, recently issued a report that evaluated the claims made for low carb diets.

All the studies analyzed in the Cochrane Collaboration’s report randomly assigned overweight participants to a low carbohydrate diet (carbohydrates = <40% of calories) or to a “normal carbohydrate” diet (carbohydrates = 45-65% of calories) with the same degree of caloric restriction.

If low carb diets have any benefit in terms of weight loss, improving blood sugar control, or reducing heart disease risk, these are the kind of studies that are required to validate that claim.

The Cochrane Collaboration Report concluded:

  • Low carb diets (<40% of calories from carbohydrates) are no better than diets with normal carbohydrate content (45-65% of calories from carbohydrates) with respect to weight loss, reduction in heart disease risk factors, and blood sugar control.
  • This is equally true for people with and without type 2 diabetes.
  • The published studies on this topic were of moderate quality. This means their conclusion is very likely to be true, but further research could have an impact on it.

My recommendation is to avoid low carb diets. They have no short-term benefits when compared to a healthy diet that does not eliminate food groups. And they may be bad for you in the long run. Your best bet is a whole food diet that includes all food groups but eliminates sodas, sweets, and processed foods.

However, if you are committed to a low carb diet, my recommendation is to choose the low carb version of the Mediterranean diet. It is likely to be healthy long term.

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor