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.

Eating Of The Green

Why Is Eating Green Good For Your Heart? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

You may be one of the millions of Americans who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day a couple of weeks ago. If so, you may have sung the famous Irish folk song “The Wearing of the Green”. If you are Irish, that song has special meaning for you. However, when I hear that song, I think of “Eating of the Green.”

And when I think of eating green, I don’t mean that everything we eat should be green. I am thinking of whole fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. We have known for years that fruits and vegetables are good for our health. Consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, inflammatory diseases, and much more.

For today’s health tip, I am going to focus on heart health and an unexpected explanation for how fruits and vegetables reduce our risk of heart disease.

Why Is Eating Green Good For Your Heart?

health benefits of beetroot juiceWe have assumed that whole fruits and vegetables lower our risk of heart disease because they are low in saturated fats and provide heart-healthy nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber. All of that is true. But could there be more?

Recent research has suggested that the nitrates found naturally in fruits and vegetables may also play a role in protecting our hearts. Here is what recent research shows:

  • The nitrates from fruits and vegetables are converted to nitrite by bacteria in our mouth and intestines.
    • Fruits and vegetables account for 80% of the nitrate in our diet. The rest comes from a variety of sources including the nitrate added as a preservative to processed meats.
    • Although all fruits and vegetables contain nitrates, the best sources are green leafy vegetables and beetroot. [Beet greens are delicious and also a good source of nitrate, but beetroot is the part of the beet we usually consume.]
  • Nitrite is absorbed from our intestine and converted to nitric oxide by a variety of enzymes in our tissues.
  • Both reactions require antioxidants like vitamin C, which are also found in fruits and vegetables.

Nitric oxide has several heart healthy benefits. For example:

  • It helps reduce inflammation in the lining of blood vessels. Inflammation stimulates atherosclerosis, blood clot formation, and is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
  • It relaxes the smooth muscle cells that surround our blood vessels. This makes the blood vessels more flexible and helps reduce blood pressure.
  • It prevents smooth muscle cells from proliferating, which prevents them from invading and constricting our arteries. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis.
  • It prevents platelet aggregation. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke due to blood clots that block the flow of blood to our heart or brain.

It is well established that nitrates from fruits and vegetables reduce blood pressure. More importantly, they can help slow the gradual increase in blood pressure as we age.

However, few studies have asked whether this reduction in blood pressure translates into improved cardiovascular outcomes. This study (CP Bondonno et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 36: 813-825, 2021) was designed to answer that question.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study made use of data from the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Program. That program enrolled 53,150 participants from Copenhagen and Aarhus between 1993 and 1997 and followed them for an average of 21 years. None of the participants had a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Other characteristics of the participants at the time they were enrolled in the study were:

  • 46% male
  • Average age = 56
  • BMI = 26 (>20% overweight)
  • Average systolic blood pressure = 140 mg Hg
  • Average diastolic blood pressure = 84 mg Hg

At the beginning of the study, participants filled out a 192-item food frequency questionnaire that assessed their average intake of various food and beverage items over the previous 12 months. The vegetable nitrate content of their diets was analyzed using a comprehensive database of the nitrate content of 178 vegetables. For those vegetables not consumed raw, the nitrate content was reduced by 50% to account for the nitrate loss during cooking.

Blood pressure was measured at the beginning of the study. Data on the incidence (first diagnosis) of heart disease during the study was obtained from the Danish National Patient Registry. Data were collected on diagnosis of the following heart health parameters:

  • Cardiovascular disease (all diseases of the circulatory system).
  • Ischemic heart disease (lack of sufficient blood flow to the heart). The symptoms of ischemic heart disease range from angina to myocardial infarction (heart attack).
  • Ischemic stroke (lack of sufficient blood flow to the brain).
  • Hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in brain).
  • Heart failure.
  • Peripheral artery disease (lack of sufficient blood flow to the extremities).

Is Nitrate From Vegetables Good For Your Heart?

strong heartIntake of nitrate from vegetables ranged from 18 mg/day (<1/3 serving of nitrate-rich vegetables per day) to 168 mg (almost 3 servings of nitrate-rich vegetables per day). The participants were grouped into quintiles based on their vegetable nitrate intake. When the group with the highest vegetable nitrate intake was compared to the group with the lowest vegetable nitrate intake:

  • Systolic blood pressure was reduced by 2.58 mg Hg.
  • Diastolic blood pressure was reduced by 1.38 mg Hg.
  • Risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of ischemic heart disease (angina and heart attack) was reduced by 13%.
  • Risk of ischemic stroke (stroke caused by lack of blood flow to the brain) was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of heart failure was reduced by 17%.
  • Risk of peripheral artery disease was reduced by 31%.
  • Risk of hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain) was not significantly reduced.

Two other observations were of interest:

  • Blood pressure and risk of peripheral artery disease decreased with increasing vegetable nitrate intake in a relatively linear fashion. However, the other parameters of heart disease plateaued at a modest intake of vegetable nitrate intake (around one cup of nitrate-rich vegetables per day). This suggests that as little as one serving of nitrate-rich vegetables a day is enough to provide some heart health benefits.
  • Only about 21.9% of the improvement in heart health could be explained by the decrease in blood pressure. This is not surprising when you consider the other beneficial effects of nitric oxide described above.

The authors concluded, “Consumption of at least ~60 mg/day of vegetable nitrate (~ one serving of green leafy vegetables or beets) may mitigate risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Are Nitrates Good For You Or Bad For You?

questionsYou are probably thinking, “Wait a minute. I thought nitrates and nitrites were supposed to be bad for me. Which is it? Are nitrates good for me or bad for me?”

It turns out that nitrates and nitrites are kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They can be either good or bad. It depends on the food they are in and your overall diet.

Remember the beginning of this article when I said that the conversion of nitrates to nitric oxide depended on the presence of antioxidants? Vegetables are great sources of antioxidants. So, when we get our nitrate from vegetables, most of it is converted to nitric oxide. And, as I discussed above, nitric oxide is good for us.

However, when nitrates and nitrites are added to processed meats as a preservative, the story is much different. Processed meats have zero antioxidants. And the protein in the meats is broken down to amino acids in our intestine. The amino acids combine with nitrate to form nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing chemicals. Nitrosamines are bad for us.

Of course, we don’t eat individual foods by themselves. We eat them in the context of a meal. If you eat small amounts of nitrate-preserved processed meats in the context of a meal with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, some of the nitrate will be converted to nitric oxide rather than nitrosamines. The processed meat won’t be as bad for you.

Eating Of The Green

spinachYour mother was right. You should eat your fruits and vegetables!

  • The USDA recommends at least 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit a day.
  • Based on this study, at least one of those servings should be nitrate-rich vegetables like green leafy vegetables and beets.
  • If you don’t like any of those, radishes, turnips, watercress, Bok choy, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, chicory leaf, onion, and fresh garlic are also excellent sources of nitrate.
  • The good news is that you may not need to eat green leafy vegetables and beets with every meal. If this study is correct, one serving per day may have heart health benefits. That means you can enjoy a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables as you try to meet the USDA recommendations.

Finally, if you don’t like any of those foods, you may be asking, “Can’t I just take a nitrate supplement?”

  • For blood pressure, there are dozens of clinical trials, and the answer seems to be yes – especially when the nitrate comes from vegetable sources and the supplement also contains an antioxidant like vitamin C.
  • For heart health benefits, the answer is likely to be yes, but clinical trials to confirm that would take decades. Double blind, placebo-controlled trials of that duration are not feasible, so we will never know for sure.
  • Moreover, you would not be getting all the other health benefits of a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Supplementation has its benefits, but it is not meant to replace a healthy diet.

The Bottom Line

We have known for years that fruits and vegetables are good for our hearts. We have assumed that was because whole fruits and vegetables are low in saturated fats and provide heart-healthy nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber. But could there be more?

It is well established that nitrates from fruits and vegetables reduce blood pressure. More importantly, they can help slow the gradual increase in blood pressure as we age.

However, few studies have asked whether this reduction in blood pressure translates into improved cardiovascular outcomes. A recent study was designed to answer that question.

When the study compared people with the highest vegetable nitrate intake to people with the lowest vegetable nitrate intake:

  • Blood pressure was significantly reduced.
  • The risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of ischemic heart disease (angina and heart attack) was reduced by 13%.
  • Risk of ischemic stroke (stroke caused by lack of blood flow to the brain) was reduced by 14%.
  • Risk of heart failure was reduced by 17%.
  • Risk of peripheral artery disease was reduced by 31%.
  • Blood pressure and risk of peripheral artery disease decreased with increasing vegetable nitrate intake in a relatively linear fashion.
  • However, the other parameters of heart disease plateaued at a modest intake of vegetable nitrate intake (around one cup of nitrate-rich vegetables per day). This suggests that as little as one serving of nitrate-rich vegetables a day is enough to provide some heart health benefits.

The authors concluded, “Consumption of at least ~60 mg/day of vegetable nitrate (~ one serving of green leafy vegetables or beets) may mitigate risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Of course, you may have heard that nitrates and nitrites are bad for you. I discuss that in the article above.

For more details about 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.

Health Tips From The Professor