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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mr. Wanjek Responds

I recently wrote an email to Chris Wanjek for his article on Live Science titled "The Atkins Paradox?" A few days ago, I received a response to my email. This is a copy/paste, so all typos are his.


Thanks for your message. You make many good points. I don't write the titles. I hate paradox. But I don't think I was promoting the impossible-to-follow Ornish diet. I just recapped what the study said, almost to the word, that long-term weight management on Atkins is questionable.

My (tainted) experience goes back to the early 1990s at Harvard, where as a student my department was among the first to study the Med diet of fish but little other meat. So that's what got me going on this. Back then, Dr. Atkins posed regularly for teh camera in front of bacon, pork chops and, yes, lunchmeat. There was much talk about "eat the kind of foods you love..." We thought is was kind of funny back then and never dreamed his diet would be so popular.

I'm in Japan this week, where the Atkins diet sounds very funny to the folks here. Obesity is lower than 5%, and the diet is largely (white) rice and vegetables with some fish. Heavy people here confess to eating to much pork and beef.

From a public health view, Argentina has the highest beef consumption and the highest rate of colon cancer. Japan has high salt intake and high rates of stomach cancer. The U.S. has a high rate of fat consumption and the highest obesity rates by far in the world. When you step back to see the whole world as one big study, these kinds of things are revealed.

Again, thanks for your message.


I'd like to first make note that he addressed me as Greg, rather than Scott. Also, he didn't really address many of my points and still doesn't back anything up with facts. But I would like to address the few statements he does make. I'm not returning them to him via email because I'm not sure he read the first one.

Dr. Atkins advises avoiding processed meats. If he truly did pose with lunch meats (and I have no reason to doubt that he did), it is a shameful marketing ploy. It's the same marketing ploy used by Nutri-System and their "I can eat chocolate every day." Every diet has to pass itself off as "eat all the foods you love" even though eating all the foods you love is probably why you need Nutri-System/Atkins/Ornish/etc in the first place. It is an unfortunate fact of our dietary world. However, if he attracted just a few people to read his book and see that processed meats are taboo, perhaps it was worth it. So many people think any low-carb diet is Atkins. My low-carb diet would not be described as Atkins. It probably fits within the macronutrient ratios, but many foods that Dr. Atkins would allow are rarities for my hunter-gatherer diet.

I always question those studies that show fat to be responsible for a society's ills. For instance, citing that Americans eat more fat and are more overweight seems very short-sighted. The American diet isn't characterized only by more fat. It's also characterized by more sugar, more processed carbs, fewer fruits and vegetables (and therefore, fewer vitamins and minerals), more highly processed packaged food, and more fast food. These studies never tell whether the meat that was eaten was grass-fed or grain-fed, fresh or in the form of a salami. Did the people eat alot of pepperoni and the authors just classified it all as "meat"? What types of fat were eaten? Trans fats are killers and polyunsaturated fats (which we're told to eat in abundance) are known for their ability to suppress the immune system and their propensity for attack by free radicals.

The heavy people in Japan confess to eating more pork and beef. But what else do they confess to eating? How is the pork and beef cooked? Is it breaded, fried, and thrown into a sugary sauce? Have they adopted a standard Western diet, rife with fast food, fried junk, sugar, and processed carbs? If so, it is irresponsible science to blame pork and beef. And then there are the cultural confounders. Americans move little and sleep little, both of which are known factors in obesity. Can we attribute the low obesity rate in Japan solely to diet? Okinawans live long healthy lives - is that solely attributable to diet? No; it is also attributed to their low stress, family-oriented life. Americans are nomadic. We leave our families and live a fast-paced, stress-filled life, cranking out loads of cortisol in the process. It's not black and white. I see too many studies that have numerous variables, yet they only make a decision about one of them and it's always conveniently the one that supports their hypothesis. Remember that correlation doesn't equal causation.

As for Argentinians and "the highest rate of colon cancer," I'm not sure that's true. According to The Weston A. Price Foundation, the US has a higher rate of colon cancer and lower consumption of red meat. According to colon this site, the "main factors that initiate colorectal cancer are consumption of cooked red meat (due to heterocyclic amines) (Gerhardsson de V et al 1991; Reddy S et al 1987), high intake of refined carbohydrates (Franceschi S et al 2001), poor vitamin and mineral intake, alcohol consumption, smoking, bile acids, fecal mutagens (DNA-damaging agents), fecal pH, and compromised detoxification enzymes (Winawer SJ et al 1992)." S o it's not necessarily red meat, but cooked red meat or, more appropriately, overcooked red meat. Meat should be cooked slowly and not well-done. (Why would you want it well-done anyway? All of the flavor cooks out.) Also note "high intake of refined carbohydrates" and "poor vitamin and mineral intake," two factors which most surely affect the US. A 1975 article in Cancer Research mentions Finland, a country with a high-fat intake and a low colon cancer rate. And then there are the meat-eating Mormons with similar or lower colon cancer rates compared to the vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists. It isn't as cut and dry as so many nutritionists would have us believe. Humans have eaten red meat, and lots of it, for hundreds of millenia, yet they weren't dropping dead from colon cancer until relatively recently. Again, a look to our genetic roots points us in the right direction - sugar and refined carbohydrates are not part of the diet that shaped our genome.

When you step back to see the world as one big study, what is revealed is that there are so many confounding factors across groups to destroy most any hypothesis. That doesn't stop people from arriving at the conclusions that they want to see though. "Oh look at those Americans eating all of that fat and look at how big their waistlines are. Let's disregard the baked potato and bread they had with their steak and focus on the butter and animal fat. And then there's the fat in the cake they ate." So keep that in mind when you read reports that fat (or any other single nutrient) is responsible for all of society's ills.

Eat like a caveman and you won't experience the debillitating diseases of our modern culture. Eat meat, vegetables, nuts, healthful oils (like olive, palm, and coconut), fruits, tubers, and squashes. Earn your carbs by exercising intensely. Avoid processed foods, grains, sugar, polyunsaturated oils, and fast food. It's really rather simple.