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The Danger of Meat-Heavy Diets

The Atkins, eat-lots-of-meat diet is about as unhealthy as they come. But you'd never know it from media coverage.
 
 
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You may have seen recent news articles claiming that a study out of Israel found that the Atkins diet is more effective for losing weight and improving cholesterol levels than a low-fat diet. Unfortunately, the headlines completely misrepresented the study. First, the "low-fat" diet that was compared to the high-protein one in this study was a full 30 percent fat, which is not low-fat as the phrase is used by any of the top nutritionists and scientists who are effectively using low-fat diets to help people lose weight, keep it off and improve their health. Second, the study organizers encourage people to eat vegetarian protein sources, not the animal products encouraged by Atkins and South Beach. I don't know about you, but it seems amiss to me for the media to portray this as a pro-Atkins study, since most of us consider Atkins to be meat-based. Shouldn't the media help us to better understand the science? (By the way, the foundation of the guy who originated the Atkins Diet provided most of the funding for the study. That's always a red flag for possibly biased science.)

Best-selling health writer and nutrition guru Dr. Dean Ornish wrote a good explanation for Newsweek on why the reporting on this study was really quite misleading; he does his usual excellent job of explaining what's so, as he did in the foreword to his brilliant best-seller, Eat More, Weigh Less .

I am reminded of the fact that it's been three years since Atkins Nutritionals filed for bankruptcy. And if your local grocery market is like mine, those once-omnipresent packaged foods with the "no-carb" labels are now harder and harder to find -- with good reason, it seems to me.

While the South Beach Diet books and foods haven't gone away, probably because it gets some things right (i.e., it recommends less meat and cutting out simple carbohydrates -- both excellent pieces of advice), its popularity should wane as the scientific consensus grows that if you want to maintain a healthy weight and fight off disease, the best diet is a truly low-fat diet (more like 10 to 15 percent of calories from fat) based almost exclusively on whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. The South Beach diet is certainly a big improvement on the standard American diet (rightly called SAD), but it's a half-measure, as Ornish and others are teaching us. Indeed, if food industry statistics, celebrity interest and the success of books like Skinny Bitch and (OK, here's a little self-promotion!) my own Quantum Wellness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness are any indication, there's a growing shift toward healthy, plant-based diets, especially among people looking to lose weight and keep it off.

All of this is music to the ears of independent, qualified nutrition experts, who object to the "low-carb" diets. I'm not going to overload you with a tome of scientific evidence about why low-carb diets are bad for us. If you are looking for more in-depth information on the topic, I highly recommend checking out http://www.atkinsdietalert.org. Run by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Web site documents the health consequences of diets high in animal flesh, eggs and dairy, and lists the long history of grave concerns raised by medical experts, including an American Dietetic Association spokesperson calling Atkins "a nightmare diet." The experts' concerns are really basic common sense if you ask me, but sometimes common sense gets swept away by a combination of wishful thinking and impressive marketing. Basically, every reputable health agency knows that a mountain of evidence indicates that the saturated fat and cholesterol in animal flesh, eggs and milk clogs your arteries and increases your risk of heart disease, among an array of other problems.

Heart disease is of course just one meat-related health problem; eating animals also raises one's risk of cancer. For example, a massive Harvard study in 2006 found that people who frequently eat skinless chicken (often touted as the "healthy" way to cook chicken) had a whopping 52 percent higher rate of bladder cancer. The evidence that animal protein is carcinogenic is strong, and people who eat lots of it are raising their risk. Diabetes and high blood pressure are also linked to meat-heavy diets, and vegetarian diets are far outpacing those that include meat on an array of health-related issues, as I've discussed previously.
Yet another reason low-carb diets are going through tough times is that people are realizing that these diets do not work over the long run. As with any unhealthy, severely limiting diets, you'll lose weight over the short term (if you eat just grapefruit, you'll also lose weight). But eventually the body objects to any unsound quick fix and the weight creeps back, as Dr. Ornish explains so eloquently.

So what is someone who wants to lose weight supposed to do? The answer is fairly simple: Switch to a diet made up of a diverse selection of foods: vegetables, whole grains (we should skip the refined carbs -- South Beach gets that right), beans, chickpeas, nuts, fruit, lentils, etc. A wide array of evidence shows that vegans are less likely to be overweight or obese than meat-eaters are -- because it's not a diet, it's a lifestyle transition. Because these foods are less calorie-dense and lower in fat than animal products, and because all plant foods contain zero cholesterol, eating that way allows us to shed weight in a sustainable way.

And a well-rounded vegan diet will provide us with a healthy mixture of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats, as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Because most nutrition advice is aimed at meat-eaters, it's worth reading up a bit on how to maximize the health advantages of a vegan diet; I like the Optimal Vegan Nutrition Web page. And of course we shouldn't think that our healthy new diet means giving up tasty food -- Web sites and cookbooks with thousands of delicious vegan recipes abound. Eating should be a celebration -- and we should do it joyfully, like the French and others in the Mediterranean do.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the HuffingtonPost.com.