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Another Voice: Beware the government's not-so-low-carb plan

By Dr. Charles Cavo

Americans have long tried to lose weight by avoiding fatty foods like whole milk and red meat. But a large body of new research shows that it’s wrong to demonize fats. In fact, the surest way to stay fit and healthy is to continue to eat fats, while cutting back on carbohydrates.

These substantial findings have motivated nutrition experts – appointed by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services – to discuss the possibility of including a “low-carb” diet pattern in the next edition of the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A change in this influential policy could impact everything from school lunches to food stamps.

Unfortunately, the “low-carb” diet that the government experts are considering would still draw close to half of its calories from carbohydrates. That’s absurd – and dangerous. By mislabeling these diets, the government could put Americans’ health at risk.

For decades, the government has steered Americans away from fats and toward a carb-heavy diet. Consider the 1990 dietary guidelines, which recommended up to 11 servings of grain-based food per day and only a few servings of high-fat foods.

Americans take the government’s guidance seriously. From 1965 to 2011, carb consumption as a percentage of total calories jumped from 39% to 51%, while fat consumption fell from 45% to 34%. Americans today consume less red meat and whole milk than they did in 1970.

Despite Americans’ adherence to these guidelines, however, the obesity rate has more than doubled since 1980. And over 7% of Americans were diagnosed with diabetes in 2015, up from just 2.5% in 1980.

Still, the government promotes diets that emphasize carbs over fats – even as research proves the dangers of this approach.

Consider a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It found that moderately obese people who followed a low-carb diet lost nearly twice as much weight as those who followed a low-fat diet.

A meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition supports this finding. Researchers examined more than a dozen studies comparing very low-carbohydrate diets to low-fat diets. People who followed the low-carb diet lost more weight than those on the low-fat diet.

Reducing carbohydrate intake can drastically improve the lives of people with diabetes. Scientists at Indiana University Health examined the impact of very low-carb diets on close to 300 diabetes patients. After two years, over 90% of these patients reduced or eliminated their need for insulin. Nearly six in 10 saw their glucose levels drop so low they technically reversed their diabetes.

Unfortunately, federal guidelines have not kept pace with this science. For proof, just look at the potential “low-carb” update. A true low-carb diet would draw no more than 25% of its calories from carbs. But the experts crafting the 2020 guidelines might encourage Americans to draw up to 45% of their calories from carbs.

That means a person who consumes 2,000 calories daily could eat around five cups of spaghetti each day and still label their diet as “low-carb.”

That’s a dangerous approach. Americans who adhere to that advice won’t reap the rewards of a true low-carb diet. Their health won’t improve, and they’ll decide that low-carb diets are simply ineffective.

Charles Cavo, MD, is chief medical officer of Pounds Transformation, a diet center in Connecticut.

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