What's the Best Diet—Low Fat or Atkins? (Carb your enthusiasm)

Have you heard the verdict?

In the exhaustive debate over which diet is best-Low Carb or Low Fat-we now have a government-funded, peer reviewed, degree-pumped conclusion.

(Drum roll, please. Snares, congas, tom-toms, louder.) And the final answer is...


In one of the longest trials ever to let the diets duke it out, 307 adults lost the same amount of weight-on average, 15 pounds-after two years, whether they followed Atkins or a low-fat eating plan. The Atkins, group focused on limiting carbs; those in other group kept to 1200 to 1500 calories a day (for women), 30 percent or less from fat-both plans leading to the same calorie deficiency. Everyone also received intensive behavioral counseling.

What amazes me about the study, published August 3rd in the Annals of Internal Medicine, isn't the amount of food eaten or the weight lost, but how much money we've spent on this question (and by "we," I mean you and I, as in "taxpayer dollars.") Okay, so the study also showed that the Atkins group had a slightly higher boost in HDL, the so-called "good" cholesterol, but even the authors say that's no guarantee of a heart benefit. In fact, both diets improved several cardiac risk factors.

"I recommend a low-carb diet not because you'll lose more weight, and not because it's more heart healthy," says Michael Anchors, MD, PhD, an obesity expert in Gaithersburg, Maryland, not involved with the study. "But because people have an easier, more pleasant time keeping the weight off. After all, most of the flavor in food is located in the fat. Plain protein is tasteless."

Personally, I'd rather ditch the fat and keep my carbs (and in the study, more people actually dropped out of the Atkins group.) The point is, a calorie is a calorie. Dip it in olive oil, roll it in bread crumbs, flavor with salt, or douse it in cayenne pepper: The only way it will make a difference is if you don't eat it.
Along those lines, here are some questions that may be more helpful than what macronutrient composition you should fork up.

Would you be friends with someone who's totally fake? Probably not. Yet, we fill ourselves with food that comes straight out of a lab-some of it, amped up in a way that research suggests makes it mighty hard to resist (the endearment "junk" came from somewhere.) Like surrounding yourself with genuine, authentic people, getting back to real food-the kind that either grows from the earth or roams on it- is inevitably more nourishing, and in turn, less likely to be stuffed down.

Have you outgrown this relationship? I am struck by the way one of Dr. Anchors' patients, Juliet Pearrell, describes her relationship with food. "My mom was killed in car accident when I was 12," she says. "My sister was six-months-old at the time, my dad was under a lot of pressure, and I wound up in 15 different foster care homes, some which, withheld food from me. I think psychologically what happened is, whenever I could get food, I would just eat. It was kind of a hoarding thing." Now at 37, Juliet has gone from carrying more than 200 pounds on her 5-foot-5 frame to a healthy 165 pounds. She has a good job as a medical billing manager, a stable marriage, a 2 year old, and a house with a literal white-picket fence. And though she still struggles some with her weight, she understands that the chocolates will be there tomorrow-she can pass them up.

Why can't you let go? We hang on to a food habit we know is bad for our body the same way we stay with guys who are bad for our souls. In both cases, we need to ask the question: What is this relationship doing for me? Because it's likely doing something positive-filling your loneliness, offering comfort, taking the edge off of anxiety-and we need to acknowledge that good thing before moving on. Once you say, Yeah, Chunky Monkey, you're my hot date tonight, you can start to think of other ways to address that need that are better for you.

What's your experience on low-carb versus low-fat diets? Do you think it makes a difference?

For more diet news to chew on....

Here's a new one: The Eco-Atkins Diet
Fat Myth-Busted
5 (more) Myths About Foods You Can't Resist

6 Great Ideas from Stars' Crazy Diet Kicks

[Photo Credit: Thinkstock/Hemera]