Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Virginia Postrel links to Michael Fumento's piece purporting to debunk the Atkins diet. But while I'm no dietary expert, I'm not at all convinced by Fumento's piece. He begins by saying that believers in the Atkins diet have been sold a bill of goods, because the diet fails in two important ways:
One is the effect of the Atkins diet on weight loss. The other is its effect on cholesterol and triglycerides, a group of fatty compounds that circulate in the bloodstream and are stored in the fat tissue.
As to the effect of Atkins on weight loss, Fumento discusses a couple of studies that do, in fact, show that the Atkins diet helped people lose weight. But, says Fumento, this is "both unsurprising and meaningless" because "Atkins is nothing more than a low-calorie diet in disguise."

Well, so what? In the first place, Atkins himself has said that his diet helps people eat fewer calories because protein and fat are more satiating than carbohydrates. Sounds like the diet works just as promised. Plus, is Fumento implying that even if a diet helps people lose weight, it somehow doesn't "count" if the diet is low-calorie? I just don't follow that reasoning.

Next, Fumento says that too many people on the Atkins diet dropped out of the various studies, and "it's generally accepted that drop-out rates anywhere near this level completely invalidate a study because you don't know how all those drop-outs would have affected the result." This is a more substantive point, although the best Fumento can claim here is that it hasn't yet been conclusively demonstrated that Atkins helps people lose weight.

Moving on, Fumento attempts to debunk the Atkins diet as to its effect on triglyceride and cholesterol levels in the blood, where contrary to what people might expect, various studies have shown that the Atkins diet actually improves those levels. But this is not satisfactory to Fumento:
But what about the blood findings? Wasn't it a real shocker that Atkins dieters consuming heavy amounts of fat saw their HDL ("good cholesterol") levels increase by 11 percent while harmful triglycerides fell 49 percent? (LDL or "bad cholesterol" levels remained the same.)


"Often just losing weight alone will cause improvement in triglyceride and cholesterol levels," the president of the American Heart Association Dr. Robert Bonow told me. Since the Atkins dieters did lose more weight than those on the high-carb diet, it only stands to reason that by comparison their blood levels would also improve more.
I'm beginning to sense a glaring contradiction here. When the subject is the effect of Atkins on weight loss, Fumento urges that the evidence is insufficient because too many people drop out of the studies. But when the subject is cholesterol levels, Fumento turns around and says, "Well of course Atkins improves those levels, because people lose weight on Atkins." So which is it? Do people lose weight or not? If the reason that their blood levels improve is that they lose weight, then at least give the diet credit for helping people lose weight.

I usually like Fumento's work on "junk science," but here it looks like he was straining a bit too hard to debunk Atkins on every possible point.


Blogger Lee said...

You wrote this post ten years ago and now I'm going to comment. Better late than never?

If you google Fumento and low-carb proponent Gary Taubes, you can see that the two have locked horns and it was a bloody fight. I will re-read it at some point, but the impression I got was there is something personal about the debate. Like you, my impression is Fumento, a normally good writer, simply leaves his marbles in his other hat when he writes about the Atkins diet.

I remember an article Fumento did for a conservative magazine around the same time, claiming the Atkins diet was phony-baloney. One of the other writers, Joel Mowbray, later wrote something to the effect that, if it was phony, how had he succeeded in losing a hundred pounds?

I too have lost on the low-carb diet, about forty pounds so far, and what has struck me about this diet is that I seldom feel hungry. This is because, simply, there is no need to feel hungry; if you do, then eat something. Simple as that. Just don't eat sugary or starchy carbs. My typical snack is a piece of bacon.

I had tried diets of all sizes and shapes. If I had listened to Fumento, I'd still weigh in at 240.

1:29 PM  

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