'Telling people what they want to believe'


Dean Ornish looks at Atkins and other low-carb diets in Journal of the American Dietetic Association

CHICAGO According to new figures from the Centers for Disease Control, obesity and lack of exercise cause more deaths in the United States than any preventable cause except smoking. Many people who want to shed pounds either lose their determination because there are no quick fixes or reach weight-loss plateaus and give up in frustration.

Are low-carbohydrate, high-fat plans, such as the Atkins diet, a workable answer to the obesity epidemic? Millions of Americans believe so, but conclusive research, especially on long-term effects of such diets, still is lacking.

Writing in the April issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and author of numerous diet books, seeks to "find common ground among seemingly contradictory information about different diets, present an evidence-based rationale for optimal nutrition and describe many of the half-truths and distortions of the Atkins diet and other similar diets."

Ornish writes that he and Atkins diet creator Robert Atkins agreed "that many Americans eat excessive amounts of processed foods high in simple carbohydrates," which people can consume in large quantities without feeling full. But even though they "agreed on the diagnosis," Ornish writes, the two "disagreed about the prescription."

"Dr. Atkins advocated substituting simple carbohydrates with high-fat animal protein foods" including bacon, sausage and butter, Ornish writes. "I would love to be able to tell you these are health foods, but they are not. Telling people what they want to believe is part of the reason that the Atkins diet has become so popular."

Ornish recommends replacing simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates: eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans (including soy products) and whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat flour. "These foods are rich in fiber, which enhances fullness without adding significant calories," Ornish writes.

In the article, Ornish looks at evidence that complex carbohydrates are beneficial; examines the science behind claims that the Atkins diet is "better" than a low-fat diet; discusses differences between risk factors and actual measures of a disease; and reviews the effects of low-carb, high-fat diets on blood cholesterol.

Ornish writes that health professionals should educate their clients and patients to develop a diet that is high in "good" (complex) carbohydrates, "good" fats (omega-3 fatty acids) and "good" (plant-based) protein and low in carbohydrates "that are less healthful."

"Losing weight is important," Ornish concludes, "but the history of medicine is replete with examples of weight-loss approaches that were harmful to health (e.g., amphetamines, fen-phen). The goal is to lose weight in ways that enhance health rather than in ways that may harm it."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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