The debate between carbohydrates and fats continues as experts grapple with treating Americans living in the shadow of an obesity epidemic. A gathering of dieticians, doctors, and health journalists attended “The Science of Nutrition and Its Impact on America’s Health,” a round table event in which scientists tried to clear up the confusion between the two. Speaking to Medical Daily, the discussion’s moderator, Lisa Ling, the host of This is Life on CNN, expressed enthusiasm for learning what such an esteemed panel of doctors had to say about the controversial topic.

“I was taught the low-fat diet was the diet to follow because the cardiology community, the American Heart Association, all the standard bearers of truth and of benefit for patients, would tell us what I was supposed to tell my patients,” the study’s lead author Dr. Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, CEO of medical device company SRD Med LLC., told the audience. “But patients didn’t end up doing that well when they followed the low-fat diet.”

For their meta-analysis, researchers analyzed 17 studies involving a total of 1,797 overweight and obese patients who had no risk of heart disease. When placed on a low-carb diet lasting between eight weeks and two years, there was a 99 percent chance of weight loss compared to those who adhered to a low-fat diet. There was also a 98 percent drop in these low-carb participants’ risk for heart disease. For those who followed the low-carb, high-fat diet, at least 30 percent of their calories came from fats.

The study, its authors pointed out, was funded by Atkins Nutritionals, the fat-friendly diet fad from the 70s that was high in meat protein and low in carbs. Nearly 60 years ago, the diet was designed by Dr. Robert Atkins, a cardiologist with a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure. The country’s heart health became a public concern and by 1982, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended the public to “cut down on fatty meats.” Sackner-Bernstein explained that there were unintended health consequences from Americans who began to overconsume carbs in an effort to replace the fat and meat they had cut out of their diets. The results of this new study revive Atkins’ old recommendations in an effort to lower obesity rates across the country.  

"The study showed a higher likelihood that restricting carbohydrates is superior to restricting fat, and it is important to consider low-carbohydrate guidance when making any dietary recommendations," Sackner-Bernstein said in a press release. "With the astonishing number of Americans suffering from obesity, our research findings on the positive implications of a low-carbohydrate diet on health will hopefully be taken into consideration when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture complete their process of developing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines."

Since 1980, national dietary guidelines have played an influential role in how millions of Americans eat, feed their children, and develop habits that are passed down to future generations. The British Medical Journal recently highlighted the failures of the most recent set of guidelines, and put emphasis on the committee’s stance on saturated fats.

According to the BMJ report, the biggest problem was that the committee failed to conduct the required formal scientific-based review and wound up declaring there was a “strong” link between saturated-fat consumption (found in meats and processed foods) and heart disease. The committee also continued to recommend Americans eat fewer carbohydrates because doing so promotes weight loss and lowers the risk of heart disease, which was along the lines of what Sackner-Bernstein’s study found.  

“I think it takes little more than stepping outside this building and looking at the body habitus of people walking around to have a sense of how far away we are from where we need to be for strategies for people who are overweight and obese,” Sackner-Bernstein said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of American adults are obese. Many attempt a wide variety of diets, so it’s understandable why the public may be confused, especially considering that only two months ago another study pinned carbs against fats. That study, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, came to the opposite conclusion: Cutting fat, not carbs, provided the greatest results for weight loss, said lead researcher Kevin Hall, a metabolism scientist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Sackner-Bernstein’s study does not negate the NIH’s findings, but merely adds to the carb-fat diet story. In the end, Dr. Jeff Volek, another doctor on the round table’s panel, who is also a registered dietician, said it comes down to the diet that is best for the individual — every person’s body has its own specific needs. Volek said that the results come with a fear that the public will take the information, begin cutting carbs and replace those calories with fat.

“I can see the headlines tomorrow,” registered dietitian Keri Gans, who attended the event, told Medical Daily. “What does ‘low-carb’ mean to people? Potatoes still provide potassium and fiber, but now people big and small will believe if they cut carbohydrates they’ll lose weight. To what extent should they cut their carbs? People need this to be applicable and I just don’t see it as such yet.”

Source: Sackner-Bernstein J, Kanter D, and Kaul S. Dietary Intervention for Overweight and Obese Adults: Comparison of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets. A Meta-Analysis. PLOS. 2015.