Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. shouldn’t be able to sway federal food policy that influences what Americans eat. But that’s exactly what the multimillion dollar company is trying to do in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Atkins published a letter in the New York Times and Washington Post on July 9 that calls for the Dietary Guidelines to recommend a “controlled carbohydrate eating approach.” In a news release promoting the ad, the company wrongly claims, “The Dietary Guidelines have unfortunately taken America down the path of overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugar, resulting in less healthy citizens.”
But Americans are actually consuming too few carbs in the forms of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Only one in 10 adults eats enough fruits and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, a study in JAMA attributed 52,547 deaths from heart disease, stroke, or type 2 diabetes in 2012 to consuming too few fruits and 53,410 deaths to consuming too few vegetables. Consuming too few whole grains was associated with 11,639 deaths from type 2 diabetes.
The company also makes the reckless recommendation for “the U.S. government to overhaul the U.S. Dietary Guidelines … recognizing a low-carbohydrate eating approach … can improve our nation’s health and reduce medical costs.”
The ad follows Atkins’ nomination earlier this year of a member of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which convenes July 10-11 to gather public input for a scientific report that will help the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services write the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
What does this mean for the health of the country? Americans could be heading toward dietary disaster, unless health care professionals and the general public urge the committee to display some common sense about carbs.
Despite Atkins’ claim that low-carb diets are beneficial for diabetes, low-carb diets high in animal protein and fat have been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Diets that are low in carbs and high in fat can even cause diabetes-like symptoms in healthy people, according to a 2012 study.
Beyond diabetes, low-carb diets are linked to weight gain, atrial fibrillation (which is associated with a five-fold increased risk for stroke and may lead to heart failure) and heart disease. A low-carb diet that is high in fat can also result in massive increases in LDL cholesterol, as seen in a study participant whose LDL rose from 184 to a dangerous 283 mg/dL in three months.
Low-carb diets can also lead to early death. Research presented last year at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2018 that looked at data from 24,825 participants of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that participants with the lowest intake of carbs had a 32 percent higher risk of all-cause death over an average 6.4-year follow-up. The risks of death from coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and cancer were increased by 51 percent, 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively. Studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, The Lance and the Annals of Internal Medicine have also shown low-carb diets increase the risk of early death.
Now, counter the health risks of a low-carb diet with the benefits of carbs. Fiber-rich carbs should provide most of the calories in a healthy diet and are the main fuel for the brain and muscles. About three-quarters of daily calories should come from carbs.
Studies show that a diet rich in healthy carbs from fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes can help prevent and reverse the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. In fact, people who consume more whole grains also live longer, according to a study from Harvard. Whole grains, for this study, were defined as the whole grain (whole wheat, oats, brown rice, etc.) as well as its pulverized flour form (whole-wheat flour, oat flour, brown rice flour, etc.), which may be found in products such as breads and cereals. The benefits were independent of other lifestyle factors, including exercise and other dietary choices.
And when it comes to cutting calories, carbs are the clear choice over fat. Just one gram of fat — from animal products or any other source — has nine calories. One gram of carbs from potatoes, bread, beans and pasta has only four calories per gram.
If the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is serious about helping Americans get healthy, it should ignore Atkins’ call for cutting the carbs in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and continue to urge Americans to increase consumption of carb-rich fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.
Susan Levin M.S. R.D., is director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine, especially better nutrition and higher standards in research.