Atkins News and the Technical Interpreter

Two new studies have been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing low-carbohydrate Atkins-type diets vs traditional low fat diets. It's interesting to see the various interpretations placed on the studies by the various media.

A blog-style news site I have encountered for the first time, the Washington Dispatch, gave a positive summary of the findings.

The studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, showed that low-carb dieters lost just as much or more weight as low-fat dieters. Surprising some nutritionists, the Atkins group also showed lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.

An Australian site, The Age, paints a more mixed picture of the findings. Also included is a confusing sentence on the effects of the low-carbohydrate diets on "bad" LDL cholesterol.

But, in what has concerned nutritionists, the studies also concluded that low-carb dieters had lower levels of "bad" cholesterol.

Why would nutritionists be concerned about that?

Lastly, a USA today article puts a negative spin on the study findings, stating that the research could "make some carb counters reach for the cookie jar." It concluded that, "the solution to the problem hasn't changed: eating less and exercising more," even though it also states that low-carbohydrate dieters lost on average 11 pounds vs an average of 8 pounds for the low-fat dieters.

The different slants on the findings illustrate the the mainstream press is the last place to find reliable information on scientific data. It is likely that none of the three authors have read the original article from Annals. The articles themselves are sorely lacking in relevant data. The USA Today article actually gives some numbers, but does not state them in a way that makes them scientifically interpretable. Were the differences in average weight loss statistically significant? Were the two groups given the same amount of overall calories? Did they perform the same amount of exercise? How were they monitored for compliance? How subjectively satisfied were they with the types of food they ate?

All of these questions and more are relevant to the conclusions made by each article, yet it is unlikely that they were sought out, much less considered by the authors. Most people reading the articles will likely accept the findings and spread the news to their acquaintances.

There is a void in the media for the "technical interpreter". Poor science education has made evaluating scientific studies impractical for the common man. The professionals possessing the scientific know-how speak their own language and, in general, do not possess the writing talents to communicate the ideas to the common man. Very few scientifically knowledgable individuals are able to grasp and convey ideas to the mainstream without dressing up the truth in distortions.

Those that come closest to building the bridge are Wired and Scientific American, at least when they are not biased by political spin. The void is not just present in science, but also other subjects not taught well by the education system, including economics. Perhaps blogs can fill this void of articulately presenting specialized knowledge to the common man.

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Even the venerable National

Even the venerable National Geographic is not immune. I did not renew my subscription as the intellectual level and type of article has sunk so low its practically unreadable by anyone with more than a 2 digit iq. they still have nice pictures, its the unbiased analysis that got dropped. mucho junk science articles. it was a worthwhile magazine at one time.

I'm with ya Johnathan, it's

I'm with ya Johnathan, it's sometimes hard to figure out who to believe because of such skimpy fact reporting. I remember a few months ago there were some doctors that held a press conference to present a study about negative health benefits associated with Atkins. What none of the stories mentioned (and I found out later on) was that the doctors associated with this study were all pro-vegetarian and PETA sponsored.

That said, I asked a nutritionist friend about the Atkins diet, and she said most nutritionists oppose the Atkins diet, and that the whole "net carbs" thing is toying around with the numbers to come up with an illusion. However, she said that the diet plan usually involves about 1200 calories and that is why people lose weight on it and the nutritionists encourage sticking with it if it works for a person.

Never rely on the mass media

Never rely on the mass media for scientific analysis. I thought we'd established that a long time ago. As for low-carb dieting, the most enlightening comment I've read on Atkins was in the Washington Post, and quoted a nutritionist who basically said that if you eliminate two aisles at the grocery store from your diet you will probably lose weight, and it doesn't really matter which two aisles you cut. I'd love to see an analysis of the average caloric intake of Atkins dieters - does the old stat that 3500 fewer calories per week = one pound of lost weight apply here too?

The issue isn't whether

The issue isn't whether low-carb dieters lose weight, they do as is well known. The recent studies were longer term, 1 year, and were intended to determine whether the weight stayed off and whether there were adverse health effects.

Low carb dieters lost a little more weight than low calorie dieters, lost it more quickly, and kept it off while lowering the levels of both low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. It is more important that LDL and HDL levels be balanced than low. Lowering both LDL and HDL, as low carb diets do, is necessary for health.

It still isn't known whether low-carb diets are healthful over a lifetime, though there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that this is so.

First a study comparing

First a study comparing low-carb and low-fat diets shows Atkins dieters losing more weight on the *same* number of calories. So it is not just about calories.

Furthermore, one of the advantages of a high-fat diet is that it contributes to satiety, and helps you eat less calories. If a diet makes you want to eat less calories, isn't that a great feature, rather than something to be dismissed with "but they eat less calories so it doesn't really count"?

The Atkins diet does have its flaws - for example, not distinguishing between types of fat. Saturated fat is (a little) bad for you. And while its high-fat nature implicitly encourages eating less, I think it should explicitly do this more. Some people think that low-carb means you can eat as much as you want and you will still lose weight, and its not true. Calorie count still matters.

First a study comparing

First a study comparing low-carb and low-fat diets shows Atkins dieters losing more weight on the same number of calories. So it is not just about calories.


It all seems like a lot of

It all seems like a lot of work just to avoid going for a run every once in a while.

Might I suggest the weekly

Might I suggest the weekly magazine Science News as a worthy (and then some) replacement for SciAm? Worth the time it would take you to check it out.

Shirley Knott