If being overweight is considered normal for so many Americans, then trying to take some of that weight off by dieting probably qualifies as our national pastime. One article from 2017 suggested that 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, a number that has probably risen with the effects of those pandemic lockdowns that kept us stuck at home, away from the gym and closer to the fridge. The numbers and percentages may vary, but there’s little doubt that America has a weight problem.
And lest you think obesity is an issue for younger people, think again: recent data reveals that about 30 percent of seniors 65 and older fit the definition of obese. That puts them at greater risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease and a host of other health challenges.
With that in mind, we were intrigued by this recent article from the Today Show website. It describes in convincing detail how several weight loss experts are becoming increasingly persuaded that the best and healthiest – and the most sustainable – way to lose pounds and keep them off might just be the reduced-carbohydrate diet. This could be especially good news for those who try to follow the “old-school” advice of eating less and exercising more, but without success. Turns out that you might be eating the wrong foods.
Eat Less and Move More? It’s Unreliable Advice
We’ve all heard it before: shedding excess pounds is a simple matter of eating less and moving more. It’s the standard advice people give and receive when attempting to lose weight. But as the Today article points out, obesity is still skyrocketing in the United States, so how useful is that advice? Is there something we’re missing?
“More than 40 percent of American adults are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the article states. “Now, a group of obesity doctors and scientists argue that calorie restriction could be causing more harm than good.”
According to Dr. David Ludwig, Harvard professor of nutrition, calorie restriction causes people to be hungrier and actually slows down metabolism. “While people can lose weight over the short term,” Ludwig said, “very few people can manage to ignore their hunger and fight through those metabolic problems to maintain their weight loss.” There has to be a better answer.
Control Your Insulin – the “Fat Fertilizer”
Ludwig and his team have a different approach, something they are calling the carbohydrate-insulin model. As the article puts it: “If overeating isn’t fueling obesity, stop counting calories and just cut carbohydrates to control your insulin levels.”
As Ludwig explains, when it comes to insulin, “you can think of (it) as the ultimate fat cell fertilizer. Too much insulin, fat cells get programmed to hoard calories. So there aren’t too many calories in the blood stream. And that’s why we get hungry.”
Thankfully, options for low-carb diets—cutting out refined carbs and sweets—are easier to find than ever before due to their recent popularity. Instead of eating American favorites like bread and rice and sugar, low-carb diets focus on proteins and healthy fats.
The popular ketogenic diet, described in this Today report done last year, is a more extreme form that restricts carbs to between 30 and 50 grams a day, which is a challenge for many Americans considering that’s a single bagel has 48 grams of carbs alone.
What Is Keto? Everyone Wants to Know
In her 2021 article, Today reporter Kristin Kirkpatrick said “the most Googled diet question of the year” was “What is keto?” As she answered, keto is short for the ketogenic diet, a low carb diet plan that also encourages eating high amounts of fat and moderate amounts of protein.
“The keto diet is very high fat and (almost) no carb,” said Today last year. “The ratio of fat to carbs and protein is 4:1. The goal of the ketogenic diet is to burn fat for energy rather than carbohydrates, resulting in weight loss” – to “send your body into ketosis.” That’s when the body starts turning fat into fuel, because you’ve limited the typical fuel source, which is stored sugar, called glycogen.
We lack the space to go into detail here – there’s plenty of keto-related information online, not all of which is accurate. But as a quick summary, keto-approved foods include red meat (fatty and lean), full-fat dairy, eggs, poultry and fish, butter and oils, nuts, seeds and avocados. Foods to avoid: bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, beans and lentils, most fruits and starchy vegetables, and sweets.
It’s essential to note that not all so-called keto diets are created equal, and that physicians disagree as to keto’s benefits, so make sure you get good medical advice before embarking on any dramatic change in your diet. “Very low-carbohydrate diets that lack sufficient vegetables and other important phytonutrients may harm health in the long-term,” says last year’s article, “but a keto plan that includes fiber-rich plants, healthy fats and moderate protein can be beneficial to weight management and reduce and manage chronic disease.”
Low-Carb Diets Take Weight Off, Keep it Off
Unlike some diets, research states that low-carb diets not only take weight off, but are sustainable enough to keep weight off long-term. They represent a lifestyle change, not just a diet.
As an example, the article tells the story of 42-year-old Jennifer Haines, who tried every diet under the sun when her excess weight left her feeling fatigued and depressed. None of the diets worked, because trying to stick with them long-term was not sustainable for her. “Three years ago,” the Today article states, “she joined a study run by researcher Jeff Volek, a professor in the department of human sciences at Ohio State University, who’s been studying low-carb diets for 25 years. After six weeks on his low-carb diet, Haines lost 20 pounds and kept going. She has now lost 88 pounds total since starting the eating plan in 2019.”
Haines admitted that the diet was difficult at first—especially when she had to cut out her favorite foods, like pasta, bread, and potatoes—but that the results themselves were deeply motivating. She plans to stick with keto for life, and long-term health.
The Body Burns its Own Fat
As Jeff Volek, the researcher whose program Haines joined, told Today, “People have a remarkably healthy response to these diets. The body responds in a really elegant way. When you limit carbohydrates, the body gets really good at burning its own body fat because it doesn’t have a lot of sugar to burn for fuel.”
He adds, “When people get the diet right by limiting carbs, eating moderate amounts of protein and embracing fat, they feel full and naturally restrict calories without having to count them.”
Technically speaking, Volek and his colleagues use keto to treat Type 2 diabetes. But the weight loss is a significant side benefit, one that many people are embracing. With low-carb diets, people can lose more than 10 percent of their body weight and—this is key—keep it off.
Low-Carb Approach Reduces Stigma of Obesity
Sadly, half the battle that overweight people have to face is the stigma around obesity, still seen as a behavioral problem (remember “eat less, move more”?). “Doctors often assume people are overweight because they eat too much or have low willpower,” the Today article states. “This approach takes the blame away from the patient and looks at obesity as a biological problem, focusing on regulating the hormone insulin.”
The potential repercussions are encouraging. “Volek and his team at Ohio State are also studying the benefits of low-carb diets on other diseases and conditions, including for some types of cancer, as well as for mental health,” the article adds.
Through all the encouragement, Today’s report concludes with an admonition, which we also echo: “As always, talk to your doctor to make sure an eating plan is right for you and remember: there is no one-size-fits-all diet. The best is the one you can stick with long-term.”
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(originally reported at www.today.com)