Low-carb Eating In The News

I’m always looking for mainstream news articles about low-carb eating because I believe the only way our society will move away from the message that carbohydrates are necessary or good for us will be when the mainstream media begins bombarding us with information to the contrary.

This week, two articles caught my attention.  The first was a blog by CNN’s Medical News Senior Producer, Ben Tinker, who wrote a health blog in The Chart section of CNN’s website titled “Sugar not only makes you fat, it may make you sick” which covered a recently published study in JAMA Internal Medicine in which researchers concluded there was “a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for [cardiovascular disease] mortality”. 

Tinker’s blog dabbles lightly into sugar regulation, a subject that may become very debatable in the few years as the evidence against sugar consumption and chronic diseases increases.  Currently the FDA considers sugar a “safe food” and as such, food manufactures can add as much as they want to their products.  Tinker mentions that 15 countries currently tax sugary foods as a method of regulation.  It will be interesting to see if in the next decade we’re paying “sin tax” on items that contain sugar, similar to the way smokers pay tax on cigarettes.

While Tinker’s blog could have also mentioned the research strongly suggesting that sugar is arguably the worst of a host of highly-processed, refined carbohydrates that lead to chronic metabolic diseases and CVD, it’s a good start to getting the general public aware that sugar isn’t as “sweet” to your body as it may seem.

Then came a second article which just made me shudder.  Alexander Van Tulleken published an article in the Daily Mail Online detailing a 30-day diet experiment he and his twin brother performed where one ate a high-carb/low-fat diet and the other ate a high-fat/low-carb diet.  Both brothers have been promoting the results of their “experiment” in almost any news outlet they can find.  While their reasoning for wanting to test the impact and potential benefits of changing their diet are laudable, the way they went about it and the “facts” they’re now spewing to anyone that will listen are almost laughable.

According to the article, Alexander (or Xander, as he’s oft called) was living in America and contemplating the reasons for his expanding waistline.  His twin brother Chris, who lived in England, had remained relatively lean in comparison.   Alexander acknowledged the current debate over fat vs. sugar in relation to overall weight management and health and decided to try an experiment with his brother to test out whether it is dietary fat or sugar consumption that leads to weight gain and ill health.  The idea here being that as twins and assuming all other aspects of their life were similar, any health/weight changes would have to be directly the result of their dietary consumption.

Van Tulleken went on a “no-carbohydrate diet – essentially no sugar”, while his brother Chris went on an “extremely low-fat diet” which consisted of foods with less than 2% fat.  They both could eat as much as they wanted from their chosen eating style for 30 days. 

Unfortunately, this is where the science stops and the misinformation begins.  Here are some of the quotes, directly from the article, that summarize Alexander Van Tulleken‘s experience:

 “…both of these diets were miserable…”

“…take away carbohydrates and the joy goes out of meals.”

“…remove all fruit and veg – they all have carbs – and you get constipated.”

“… Though I was never hungry, I felt slow and tired, and my breath was terrible.”

Then there was Chris Van Tulleken’s experience:

“He never felt full, so was constantly snacking”

“…he found that all the pleasure had gone out of meals: pasta without olive oil is boring.”

Van Tulleken’s article then proceeds to provide a summarization of the insulin hypothesis – the theory that insulin resistance makes us fat.  So it appears we’re getting back on the scientific-fact train until he begins to define ketosis.  He claims ketones are not great “brain food” and that being ketotic made him fell thick-headed based on a stock-trading game he played with his brother.

Then came a physical performance test involving “needles and long sessions of uphill cycling” and Van Tulleken’s found he could not adequately compete against his brother Chris and that “everything became harder to do”.

Lastly, both brothers did some serum lipid and glucose tests but didn’t provide any detailed information as to the findings other than Van Tulleken’s assumption that some of the energy he was getting from his diet was also coming from the breaking down of his own muscle.

Van Tulleken’s  overall conclusion from his experiment?  “[A]ny diet that eliminates fat or sugar will be unpalatable, hard to sustain and probably be bad for your health, too”.

Seriously?  These guys are doctors?

Van Tulleken states that the insulin hypothesis “sounds scientific” but doesn’t explain what “large, independent research studies over long periods of time have shown: low-carb diets don’t work for everyone or even a majority of people.” – Uh, what studies might those be?  Can we have a reference to even one in the article please?

What about a nod to the fact that 30 days is an insignificant amount of time to assess dietary change against a 30+ year old body that has adapted to eating and metabolizing the common (i.e. carb-rich) British/American diet?  What about acknowledging that while no one can specifically pinpoint a timeframe for correcting your body’s metabolism, we know that the more damaged your metabolism, the longer it will take to repair?

And where are the baselines?  What were the twin’s serum lipids and glucose before the study?  What, if any, metabolic risk factors do they have?

How about Van Tulleken’s explanation for how one can lose muscle mass while consuming the same amount of dietary protein – or did he still consume the same amount of protein as before he went low-carb?  In fact, what were any of the relative percentages of macronutrients before and during his experiment?

 The lack of any semblance of a scientific approach is mind-boggling.  Granted, the article never claimed the experiment was to be a scientific one but I think that medical professionals, in particular, have a certain responsibility to approach highly debated topics in the most uniform and unbiased ways possible.  Throwing out half baked conclusions without providing the relevant data, referencing studies without  citation and drawing unrelated causalities is at best misleading and at worst irresponsible to an under-informed audience already significantly mislead by popular opinions on diet and exercise.

I just pity the Van Tulleken brothers if they ever wind up on a Jimmy Moore podcast!

Update 2/5/2014:  Sam Feltham’s excellent analysis of the Van Tulleken brother’s “docu-tainment” – I strongly recommend it!

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