Author: S. Bledsoe, M.D.
Dr. Christopher Gardner from Stanford has been a vegan for 25 years. He conducted one of the largest, prospective, randomized trials to date comparing four popular diets: Atkins, LEARN, Ornish, and Zone. 311 overweight and obese women were recruited and followed for an astonishing 12 months. The results are discussed in detail in this video. Yes, it is long but well worth the time investment.
This video describes the details of the study and gives some of the “behind the scenes” dialogue that takes place when doing any project. I think it is also instructive to people trying to learn to interpret research. He goes into brutally honest detail about the questions raised by his research and won’t postulate beyond where his research allows. This illustrates the boundaries that smart researchers (such as Dr. Gardner) will place on themselves with their manuscripts. They will go only so far and no further.
There were many things that stuck out to me. The first was the high retention rate. In some studies, a 50% retention is considered great, but Dr. Gardner was able to keep 80% of the subjects in the study. That is nothing short of incredible over the course of a year.
A second thing was the difficultly with strictly adhering to many of the diets. This is especially true about the Atkins and Ornish diets. The patients were not as vigilant towards the end as they were in the beginning. Of course, this is what happens in real life and what gives this particular study a great deal of credibility in my opinion.
A third thing is the relative success of the high protein and low carbohydrate approach of the Atkins diet. As Dr. Gardner points out, the Atkins diet was superior to the other diets on many parameters but NONE of the diets were superior to Atkins on ANY parameter. This is startling data to say the least.
The final point is the increased credibility of this manuscript due to the initial hostility that Dr. Gardner had towards the Atkins diet. He virtually set out to prove the dangers he felt were inherent in the Atkins diet. He states at one point that the writing about the benefits of Atkins was “a bitter pill to swallow.” Hats off to Dr. Gardner for his honesty in spite of the fact it collides with his personal bias.
This is the largest randomized, prospective trial that I am aware of that compares various popular diets. While there are certainly more to come, here would be the take-home message from this article. Most diets will have some degree of success if strictly adhered too, but the hands-down winner in this manuscript is the low-carb, high-protein approach of the Atkins diet. It is not an unsafe diet, as many detractors try to portray, but is a very healthy and helpful approach to weight loss and better health.
A high protein diet is the kind of diet that I place my patients on after a bariatric procedure. I try to get them to put down the simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (breads, grains, starches etc.). If they lived their lives on lean meats and fruits/vegetables, I would be very happy. This is not a true Atkins diet but is closer to the Paleolithic diet that Dr. Gardner alluded to towards the end of the video.
Overall, this research is extremely promising as it relates to the health of high protein diets. Of course, more data is necessary and some will never buy into the idea no matter how much data is available. Maybe one day, the healthiest diet will be proven conclusively. Until then, I continue to advocate for a high protein and low card approach. What do you think about high protein diets?