I know you’ve all heard the news about the new low-carb study in the New England Journal of Medicine by now, but I have to chime in. I‘m going to try to offer you a different perspective of the study that you may not have found elsewhere. First of all, this is a Rolls Royce of a study. It was large, well-controlled, and two years long. It was partly funded by the Atkins foundation, but it's a peer-reviewed study in a good journal and if anything the study design is slanted against the low-carbohydrate diet.
The study compared the weights and various health parameters of 322 overweight subjects put on one of three diets: a “low-fat diet”, a Mediterranean diet and a “low-carbohydrate diet”. The first two were calorie-restricted while the low-carb diet was not. First of all, the “low-fat” diet was not particularly low in fat. It was 30% fat by calories, only a few percent short of the US average. What they call low-fat in the study is actually a calorie-restricted version of the American Heart Association diet recommendation, which suggests:
“…30% of calories from fat, 10% calories from saturated fat, and an intake of 300 mg of cholesterol per day. The Participants were counseled to consume low-fat grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes and to limit their consumption of additional fats, sweets and high-fat snacks.”
So henceforth, I’ll refer to it as the AHA diet rather than the low-fat diet.
The “low-carb” diet wasn’t particularly low in carbohydrate either. The low-carb group was only getting 10% fewer calories from carbohydrate than the low-fat or Mediterranean diet groups. Despite these problems, the low-carbohydrate diet was the most effective overall. It caused a weight loss of 5.5 kg (12 lb), compared to 4.6 kg (10 lb) and 3.3 kg (7.4 lb) for the Mediterranean and AHA diets, respectively.
One of the most amazing aspects of the study is that the low-carb diet was the only one that wasn’t calorie-restricted, yet it caused the most weight loss. People in the low-carb group naturally reduced their calorie intake over the course of the study, ending up with an intake similar to the AHA group.
The low-carb diet also came out on top in most of the markers of health they examined. It caused the largest drop in HbA1c, a measure of average blood glucose level. It caused the largest drop in C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation (the Mediterranean diet also did well). And finally, it caused the biggest improvement in the triglyceride:HDL ratio. This ratio is the best blood lipid predictor of heart disease risk I’m aware of in modern Western populations. The lower, the better. They didn't calculate it in the study so I had to do it myself. Here's a graph of the change in trig:HDL ratio for each group over the course of the study:
Other interesting findings: despite the calorie restriction, diabetic participants on the AHA group actually saw a significant increase in fasting blood glucose.
I've speculated before that wheat and sugar may cause hyperphagia, or excessive eating. We can see from these results that reducing carbohydrate (and probably wheat) reduces overall caloric intake quite significantly. This squares with the findings of the recent Chinese study that showed an increase in calorie intake and weight, correlating with the replacement of rice with wheat as the primary carbohydrate. It also squares with diet trends in the US, where wheat consumption has risen alongside calorie intake and weight.
I'd love to know what the results would have looked like if they had gone on a true low-carbohydrate diet, or even simply eliminated grains and sugar.