Tag Archives: carbohydrate restriction

Do Low-Carb Diets Cause Death?

Adult life is a battle against gravity. Eventually we all lose.

Adult life is a battle against gravity. Eventually we all lose.

Japanese researchers say low-carb diets are causing premature death. I’m skeptical.

The potentially healthful side effects linked to low-carb eating include reduced weight, higher HDL cholesterol, and lower triglycerides and blood pressure. The Japanese investigators wondered if the improved cardiovascular risk factors seen with low-carb diets actually translate into less heart disease and death.

How Was the Study At Hand Done?

The best way to test long-term health effects of a low-carb diet (or any diet) is to do a randomized controlled trial. You take 20,000 healthy and very similar people—not rodents—and randomize half of them to follow a specific low-carb diet while the other half all eat a standard or control diet. Teach them how to eat, make damn sure they do it, and monitor their health for five, 10, or 20 years. This has never been, and never will be, done in humans. The Nazis may have done it, but it’s not published. In the old days, we could do this study on inmates of insane asylums or prisons.

What we have instead are observational studies in which people voluntarily choose what they’re eating, and we assume they keep eating that way for five or 10+ years. You also assume that folks who choose low-carb diets are very similar to other people at the outset. You depend on regular people to accurately report what and how much they’re eating. You can then estimate how much of their diet is derived from carbohydrate and other macronutrients (protein and fat), then compare health outcomes of those who were in the top 10% of carb eaters with those in the bottom 10%. (We’ve made a lot of assumptions, perhaps too many.)

Of the observational studies the authors reviewed, the majority of the study participants were from the U.S. or Sweden. So any true conclusions may not apply to you if you’re not in those countries. In looking for articles, they found no randomized controlled trials.

The observational studies estimated carb consumption at the outset, but few ever re-checked to see if participants changed their diets. That alone is a problem. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had significant changes in my diet depending on when I was in college and med school, when I was a bachelor versus married, when my income was higher or lower, and when I had young children versus teenagers. But maybe that’s just me.

The researchers looked at all-cause mortality, deaths from cardiovascular disease, and incidence of cardiovascular disease. They don’t bother to define cardiovascular disease. I assume heart attack, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease. (But aren’t aneurysms, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism vascular diseases, too?) Wouldn’t you think they’d carefully define their end-points? I would. Since they were going to all this trouble, why not look at cancer deaths, too?

What Did the Investigators Conclude?

Very low-carbohydrate dieters had a 30% higher risk of death from any cause (aka all-cause mortality) compared to very high-carb eaters. The risk of cardiovascular disease incidence or death were not linked with low-carb diets. Nor did they find protection against cardiovascular disease.

Finally, “Given the facts that low-carbohydrate diets are likely unsafe and that calorie restriction has been demonstrated to be effective in weight loss regardless of nutritional composition, it would be prudent not to recommend low-carbohydrate diets for the time being.”

If Low-Carb Dieters Die Prematurely, What Are They Dying From?

The top four causes of death in the U.S. in 2011, in order, were:

  1. heart attacks
  2. cancer
  3. chronic lower respiratory tract disease
  4. stroke

You’ll note that two of those are cardiovascular disease: heart attacks and stroke. So if low-carb diets promote premature death, it’s from cancer, chronic lung disease, or myriad other possibilities. Seventy-five percent of Americans die from one of the top 10 causes. Causes five through 10 are:

  • accidents
  • Alzheimer disease
  • diabetes
  • flu and pneumonia
  • kidney disease
  • suicide

Problem is, no one has ever linked low-carb diets to higher risk of death from any specific disease, whether or not in the top ten. Our researchers don’t mention that. That’s one reason I’m very skeptical about their conclusion. If you’re telling me low-carb diets cause premature death, tell me the cause of death.

Another frustration of mine with this report is that they never specify how many carbohydrates are in this lethal low-carb diet. Is it 20 grams, 100, 150? The typical American eats 250-300 grams of carb a day. If you’re going to sound the alarm against low-carb diets, you need to specify the lowest safe daily carb intake.

For most of my career—like most physicians—I’ve been wary of low-carb diets causing cardiovascular disease. That’s because they can be relatively high in total fat and saturated fat. In 2009, however, I did my own review of the scientific literature and found little evidence of fats causing cardiovascular disease.

If you’re looking for a reason to avoid low-carb diets, you can cite this study and its finding of premature death. I’m not convinced. I’ll turn it around on you and note this study found no evidence that low-carb diets cause cardiovascular disease. The risk of cardiovascular disease had been the traditional reason for physicians to recommend against low-carb diets.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Reference: Noto, Hiroshi et al. Low-Carbohydrate diets and all-cause mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. PLoS One, 2013; 8(1): e55050

Low-Carb Research Update

Grapes are an iconic Mediterranean fruit

Grapes are an iconic Mediterranean fruit

As much as possible, I base my nutrition and medical recommendations on science-based research published in the medical literature.

In the early 2000s, a flurry of research reports demonstrated that very-low-carb eating (such as the Atkins diet) was safe and effective for short-term weight management and control of diabetes.  Eighty hours of literature review in 2009 allowed me to embrace low-carbohydrate eating as a logical and viable option for many of my patients. The evidence convinced me that the relatively high fat content of many low-carb diets was nothing to worry about long-term.

By the way, have you noticed some of the celebrities jumping on the low-carb weight-management bandwagon lately?  Sharon Osbourne, Drew Carey, and Alec Baldwin, to name a few.

My primary nutrition interests are low-carb eating, the Mediterranean diet, and the paleo diet.  I’m stay up-to-date with the pertinent scientific research.  I’d like to share with you some of the pertinent research findings of the last few years.

Low-Carb Diets

  • Low-carb diets reduce weight, reduce blood pressure, lower triglyceride levels (a healtlhy move), and raise HDL cholesterol (another good trend).  These improvements should help reduce your risk of heart disease.  (In the journal Obesity Reviews, 2012.)
  • Dietary fat, including saturated fat, is not a cause of vascular disease such as heart attacks and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).  (Multiple research reports.)
  • If you’re overweight and replace two sugary drinks a day with diet soda or water, you’ll lose about four pounds over the next six months.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012.)
  • United States citizens obtain 40% of total calories from grains and added sugars.  Most developed countries are similar.  Dr. Stephan Guyenet notes that U.S. sugar consumption increased steadily “…from 6.3 pounds [2.9 kg] per person per year in 1822 to 107.7 pounds [50 kg] per person in 1999.  Wrap your brain around this: in 1822 we ate the amount of added sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda every five days, while today we eat that much sugar every seven hours.”
  • A very-low-carb diet improves the memory of those with age-related mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment is a precursor to dementia.  (University of Cincinnati, 2012.)
  • High-carbohydrate and sugar-rich diets greatly raise the risk of mild cognitive impairment in the elderly. (Mayo Clinic study published in the Journal of Alzheimers’ Disease, 2012.)
  • Compared to obese low-fat dieters, low-carb dieters lose twice as much fat weight.  (University of Cincinnati, 2011.)
  • Diets low in sugar and refined starches are linked to lower risk of age-related macular degeneration in women.  Macular degeneration is a major cause of blindness.  (University of Wisconsin, 2011.)
  • A ketogenic (very-low-carb) Mediterranean diet cures metabolic syndrome (Journal of Medicinal Food, 2011.)
  • For type 2 diabetics, replacing a daily muffin (high-carb) with two ounces (60 g) of nuts (low-carb) improves blood sugar control and reduces LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). (Diabetes Care, 2011.)
  • For those afflicted with fatty liver, a low-carb diet beats a low-fat diet for management. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011.)
  • For weight loss, the American Diabetes Association has endorsed low-carb (under 130 g/day) and Mediterranean diets, for use up to two years. (Diabetes Care, 2011.)
  • High-carbohydrate eating doubles the risk of heart disease (coronary artery disease) in women.  (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2010.)
  • One criticism of low-carb diets is that they may be high in protein, which in turn may cause bone thinning (osteoporosis).  A 2010 study shows this is not a problem, at least in women.  Men were not studied.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)
  • High-carbohydrate eating increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)
  • Obesity in U.S. children tripled from 1980 to 2000, rising to 17% of all children.  A low-carb, high-protein diet is safe and effective for obese adolescents.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)

Mediterranean Diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet is well established as a healthy way of eating despite being relatively high in carbohydrate: 50 to 60% of total calories.  It’s known to prolong life span while reducing rates of heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes, and dementia.  The Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, olive oil, whole grain bread, fish, and judicious amounts of wine, while incorporating relatively little meat.  It deserves your serious consideration.  Here’s the latest scientific literature on this diet.

  • Olive oil is linked to longer life span and reduced heart disease.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012.)
  • Olive oil is associated with reduced stroke risk.  (Neurology, 2012).
  • The Mediterranean diet reduces risk of sudden cardiac death in women.  (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2011.)
  • The Mediterranean diet is linked to fewer strokes visible by MRI scanning.  (Annals of Neurology, 2011.)
  • It reduces the symptoms of asthma in children.  (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2011.)
  • Compared to low-fat eating, it reduces the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 50% in middle-aged and older folks.  (Diabetes Care, 2010.)
  •  A review of all available well-done studies on the Mediterranean diet confirms that it reduces risk of death, decreases heart disease, and reduces rates of cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and mild cognitive impairment.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)
  • It reduces the risk of breast cancer.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)
  • The Mediterranean diet reduces Alzheimer’s disease.   (New York residents, Archives of Neurology, 2010).
  • It slowes the rate of age-related mental decline.  (Chicago residents, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)
  • In patients already diagnosed with heart disease, the Mediterranean diet prevents future heart-related events and preserves heart function.  (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)

Clearly, low-carb and Mediterranean-style eating have much to recommend them.  Low-carb eating is particularly useful for weight loss and management, and control of diabetes, prediabetes, and metabolic syndrome.  Long-term health effects of low-carb eating are less well established.  That’s where the Mediterranean diet shines.

That’s why I ask many of my patients to combine both approaches: low-carb and Mediterranean.  Note that several components of the Mediterranean diet are inherently low-carb: olive oil, nuts and seeds, fish, some wines, and many fruits and vegetables.  These items easily fit into a low-carb lifestyle and may yield the long-term health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.  I’ve posted on the Internet a Low-Carb Mediterranean Diet that will get you started, if interested.

Is a carbohydrate-restricted Mediterranean diet healthier than the traditional Mediterranean diet?  Nobody knows.

Steve Parker, M.D.