Gallup Survey Shows Americans On High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Fad Diets Are Cutting Out Healthy Foods

October, 1999

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by Charles H. Booras, MD

 

Fad diets and bad nutritional advice are spurring Americans to cut healthy foods such as rice, pasta, bread and cereals from their daily consumption, according to a new Gallup Organization survey.

The survey of 1,000 U.S. households found that 32 percent of dieters completely eliminated entire food groups when trying to lose weight, an action not typically encouraged by physicians or nutritionists. And of those respondents, more people mistakenly perceived grain-based foods as a contributor to weight gain than fatty or salty foods, meats and dairy products. Grains typically are low in calories and fat.

Today’s high-protein diet has been modified to include 40% of total calories from carbohydrates, with fat and protein each providing 30% of total calories.

Keep in mind that all of the major professional health organizations, including the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, and the American Cancer Society, endorse a diet that is composed of 10% to 15% protein, 55% to 60% carbohydrates, and 25% to 30% fat.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents eliminated all grains when dieting as opposed to 24 percent who eliminated fatty foods, 15 percent who cut out salty snacks, 15 percent who eradicated meat and 13 percent who nixed dairy products. Only sweets were considered a greater threat to the waistline than grains, the survey said.

Of those people who didn't eliminate entire food groups but reduced food intake when dieting, grain products were curtailed more than salty snacks, meats and dairy products.

The results, said nutrition specialist Liz Applegate of the University of California at Davis, suggest that Americans are succumbing to get-thin-quick diets that tax the body and provide little healthful benefit. The biggest perpetrator, she said, are fad diets that advocate dramatically curtailing carbohydrates, which are found in grain products and provide energy for the body, while consuming significant amounts of protein, usually found in meats, poultry, fish and dairy.

"You're setting yourself up for failure and potential heart trouble when you cut out grain foods before fats to lose weight," said Applegate, a professor of nutrition at UC-Davis.

"Unfortunately, in the search for quick weight loss, consumers become confused on how to achieve a healthy and balanced lifestyle," she told a news conference where the survey results were released. Applegate was an unpaid consultant on the survey.

The resurgence of high-protein diets is based primarily on the misconception that carbohydrates alone induce weight gain. Some of the more popular high-protein diets espoused in best-selling books are "The Zone," by Barry Sears, "Protein Power" by Michael Eades, and "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution," By Robert Atkins. All of these best-selling high-protein diet books insist that carbohydrates and insulin are the true villains in the battle of the bulge. These programs claim that eating carbohydrates triggers the secretion of insulin, which causes carbohydrates to be taken to the cells and stored as fat instead of being used for energy.

Reader Beware! These claims rely on unpublished research or studies that have not been peer reviewed or controlled, meaning they have little respect in the scientific community. The truth is, all calories from food are converted into glucose to be stored for energy.

Glucose is stored as fat only when you have consumed excess calories.

So, it’s your overall calorie intake and not carbohydrates that cause fat to be stored. And besides, foods that are high in protein, such as meats and cheeses, are also high in saturated fat, which we now know will increase blood cholesterol levels if eaten in excess.

The Gallup survey found that, after an initial weight loss on a high-protein / low carbohydrate diet, people tended to gain the weight back. Many doctors and nutritionists cite healthy eating habits coupled with regular exercise as the best method for reducing weight.

Federal dietary guidelines, known as the Food Guide Pyramid, place a strong emphasis on grains. The guidelines call for six to 11 servings of grain products each day; three to five daily servings of vegetables; two to four fruit servings; two to three dairy servings; and two to three servings of meat, fish, poultry or eggs. Americans are urged to consume fats, oils and sweets sparingly.

According to the survey results, people are confused when it comes to understanding certain basic nutrition issues. For example, the survey found that 82 percent of those surveyed agreed that the Food Guide Pyramid is the basis for healthy diet. But 59 percent believed the high-protein, low carbohydrate fad diets are founded on sound nutrition principles.

One possible reason for confusion is that consumers rely on friends, relatives and the news media for nutrition advice. The survey found that only 23 percent of those polled sought the dieting advice of a doctor or nutritionist.

If you look at populations where people have good health and a long lifespan, you’ll find that their eating habits support the wisdom of a high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein diet that is also low in fat. The Japanese eat a diet abundant in rice and vegetables with only small  amounts of protein and have a very low incidence of heart disease. Seventh Day Adventists are strict vegetarians who consume mainly grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables and also have a lower incidence of heart disease compared to the general population.

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