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For The Love of Food

by | Aug 28, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

It was a great week at Summer Tomato! My now famous squash pasta recipe was featured over at Lifehacker, which is a tremendous honor. There has been a flood of positive feedback about the recipe and one reader even claims her 6-year old can make it. I also wrote a guest post on finding time to cook over at Dumb Little Man, another one of my favorite tips and tricks blogs. Bookmarks (especially Stumbles) and comments at either of those posts would be very much appreciated!!

Also this week you may have noticed that my FoodFeed stream that was in the far right sidebar stopped working. I’m not sure what the problem is on their end, so rather than have a stagnant list of my meals from last week I replaced it with links to guest posts I’ve done, as well as some mentions of Summer Tomato around the web. If you are still interested in my eating habits I will continue to post my most interesting dishes on Twitter. Let me know if you’re heartbroken about not knowing my every bite and I’ll find another way to get the info here (I have some ideas).

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there.

I also invite you to submit your own best food and health articles for next week’s For The Love of Food, just drop me an email using the contact form. I am also accepting guest posts at Summer Tomato for any awesome healthstyle tips you’d like to share.

This post is an open thread. Share your thoughts, writing (links welcome!) and delicious meals of the week in the comments below.

For The Love of Food

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Eco-Atkins Diet May Be Healthier Alternative for Weight Loss

by | Jun 10, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

A new study published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that both weight loss and risk factors for heart disease can be improved following a vegan version of the low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet.

The “Eco-Atkins” diet focuses primarily on soy, nuts and wheat proteins (gluten) to increase the amount of vegetarian protein in the diet. Carbohydrates were restricted to 130 g/day, which is on the higher end of most low-carb diets. All starchy foods such as bread, baked goods, potatoes and rice were eliminated. Carbohydrates were provided in the form of whole, intact grains (barley and oats) and low-starch vegetables.

In a small (47 participants), short-term randomized controlled trial, this diet lowered bad LDL cholesterol by 20%, without negatively impacting good HDL cholesterol (statin drugs improve cholesterol levels by 30%). The diet also substantially lowered blood pressure and other markers of cardiovascular disease, such as triglycerides and apolipoprotein B.

The original meat-based Atkins diet has been shown to be effective for temporary weight loss (after 1 year the effects of the Atkins diet are diminished), but cardiovascular risk factors such as LDL cholesterol and blood pressure are not substantially improved under the traditional Atkins regimen.

Interestingly, a traditional Atkins-style diet based on animal protein was not used as a control in this study, so a true comparison of the diets cannot be made using the present data. Instead the researchers chose a control diet representative of a typical high-carb, low-fat vegetarian diet that included eggs and dairy products. Both diets tested in this study represented a 60% decrease in total calories.

Because of the study design, we cannot conclude that this diet is more effective than the Atkins diet for health, though you would predict it would be if future studies made this comparison. On the other hand, it does seem that a plant-based high-protein diet is more effective at improving health than a high-carbohydrate lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, at least in the short-term in a highly controlled environment.

This study took place over the course of 4 weeks, and all the food was provided for the particpants by the researchers. Thus, compliance in the program was very high. It is not clear if the participants would have had the same level of success if they were instructed to provide their own food to comply with the dietary programs.

Despite this, satiety levels were notably improved in the high-protein group and it would be expected that the increase in satiety would encourage greater compliance in a free living situation.

A small four week study, however, tells us very little about the effectiveness of this diet. While it is possible to improve risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure in such a short period of time, disease outcome is the true measure of a successful diet. Also, this study did not test the feasibility of the Eco-Atkins diet in the long-term, and it is likely many dieters would object to a strictly vegan regimen.

Interesting points raised by this preliminary study include:

  • Plant-based, high-protein diets may be more effective at improving cholesterol and other cardiovascular measures than traditional lacto-ovo vegetarian diets.
  • Short-term weight loss is primarily determined by the number of calories consumed, not macronutrient content.
  • Low-carb diets that include intact whole grains and plant-based protein can be effective at improving both weight and cardiovascular risk factors in the short-term.
  • Plant-based high-protein diets can increase satiety compared to high-carb vegetarian diets.

However, many questions must be addressed before this diet can be recommended to individuals trying to improve cardiovascular measures and lose weight.

New questions:

  • Can the Eco-Atkins diet be maintained in the long-term by normal individuals?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet continue to improve cardiovascular risk factors including weight loss after 4 weeks?
  • What would result from this study if beans and lentils were used instead of soy and gluten?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet improve disease outcome?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet extend life?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet affect quality of life?
  • Can these effects be attained through other diets that include some animal protein, more whole grains or more fat?
  • Is the effectiveness of the Eco-Atkins diet affected by an individual’s level of insulin resistance?
  • Can adding fish further improve the results of the Eco-Atkins diet?
  • Can a further reduction in carbohydrates improve the results?
  • Will you get these same results if the study is NOT funded by the soy industry?

In summary, the results of this study are interesting and encouraging, especially for those of us who think both carbohydrates and meat should be limited in a healthy diet. I very much look forward to future studies exploring this idea.

What concerns me most is the lack of marine omega-3 fatty acids (fish) in the Eco-Atkins diet, which could potentially improve cardiovascular measures even further. Fish is also important for cognitive health and may lower cancer risk.

I am also worried that a strictly vegan diet would not be feasible in the long-term for many Americans. Moreover, it is not necessarily the healthiest option available. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a particular concern, but could be addressed with supplements. Generally, however, I do not recommend relying on supplements for optimal nutrition.

Finally, this study was funded by a company that makes soy and gluten products. Personally I would have prefered to see these protein sources used in combination with other things such as beans and lentils. Many people question how much soy can be safely consumed and gluten intolerance is more common than ever, so wouldn’t it be interesting to know if there were safer alternatives? It really annoys me to see science being influenced by industry funding.

What do you think of the Eco-Atkins diet?

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Low-Carb, Low-Fat and High-Protein Diets Equally Useless

by | Feb 27, 2009

A widely publicized study out this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that there is virtually no difference between low-carb, low-fat, high-carb or high-protein diets when it comes to weight loss. I don’t often like to toot my own horn, but if you read my post on Monday about the Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know (see point #10), then this was not news to you.

For several years now data has been accumulating that the relative composition of different macronutrients (fat, carbs, protein) in your diet has little to no effect on long-term weight loss. What makes this study stand out from the pack is how well it was designed.

The Study

This was the largest, longest run study of this kind ever conducted, including nearly 650 over weight individuals of diverse racial, socioeconomic, geographic and education backgrounds. The participants were highly motivated to lose weight and were given detailed instructions on why their assigned diet was considered an effective weight loss strategy (this was to remove bias caused by the media about popular diets).

For you carbophobes out there, the importance of dietary carbohydrates was addressed directly. The amount of carbohydrates in the different diets varied from 35% (very low) to 65% (very high). All participants, including those on the high-carb diet, were instructed to choose foods that had lower glycemic index. Carbohydrate composition had no significant effect on long-term weight loss.

All subjects received substantial behavioral therapy to help them meet their goals, and detailed measurements of health and weight loss were collected from each individual throughout the study. The participants were told to keep food journals and use online support provided, as well as weekly dietary counseling.

Importantly, all the diets resulted in similar calorie deficiencies to promote weight loss. Not surprisingly, after 6 months all the participants had lost a substantial amount of weight, but after 1 year had gained about half of it back. During the final year the subjects had more difficulty sticking to their assigned diets, particularly those assigned the most extreme regimens (very low-fat or high-protein).

Conclusions

Regardless of diet, all participants experienced similar, modest (5% body weight reduction), but clinically relevant weight loss that is mainly attributed to a reduction in calories.

Interestingly, the measure that best correlated with weight loss success was attendance at the dietary counseling sessions.

Since the study is over can we now assume that many of these participants have gone back to their old eating habits? I would bet yes.

What can we take away from this study?

You can lose weight on any diet, but for most people it is very difficult and not sustained. This is because cutting calories is very tough for most people.

This study also suggests that losing weight with standard diets is very difficult and, in most cases, only moderately helpful. It seems future research should focus on how to increase adherence to a lower calorie diet. Gaming the system by manipulating macronutrient composition doesn’t seem to be working.

Why you should focus on whole foods, not nutrients

Another thing we can take from this study is that if weight loss is your goal, calories are what count. (Some of my friends responded to this finding brilliantly: “DUH.”) The nice thing about a diet based primarily on vegetables is that lowering caloric intake is relatively easy. As long as some effort is made to achieve a balanced diet (enough plant protein and fats), satisfaction after a meal can be attained with far fewer calories.

Vegetables are very bulky, highly nutritious and have very few calories. It’s not easy to gain weight when you eat kale, beans and brown rice for dinner.

Like I explained a few weeks ago, since I have focused on health (rather than weight) and a vegetable-based (rather than macronutrient-based) diet, I have lost weight effortlessly. I am also less stressed about food in general, and have completely lost my old cravings for sugar and fat.

Best of all, I do not feel like I have given up anything whatsoever. In fact I would argue I have gained the freedom to eat what I want, whenever I want it. And the food I eat is much more satisfying and delicious. I guarantee you this tagine tasted better than any Atkins bar, rice cake or BigMac.

My life now is much more delicious.

Are you ready to give up diets and focus on health?

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The Latest on Carbs, Fat and Weight Loss

by | Jan 29, 2009

A study published last week in the journal Obesity may make you question whether you really want to rely on the Atkins or South Beach diets to reach your New Year’s Resolution goals.

It is widely believed that low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets support weight loss in most individuals and indeed, there is a good amount of research to back this claim. Despite this, few studies have examined the after effects of a low-carb diet, particularly once normal eating is resumed.

In a new study, scientists had rats consume either a regular high-carb diet or a low-carb, high-fat diet for sixteen days. After this period the diets were switched and rats were maintained on the opposite diet for another sixteen days. Both diets included the same number of calories, so the only difference between the groups was the relative percentage of macronutrients.

As you might expect, while the rats were fed a low-carb, high-fat diet they lost weight compared to rats on a regular diet. Interestingly, however, despite this loss of body weight there was little to no loss of fat, and therefore the rats that lost weight had a relatively higher body fat percentage than the rats fed a normal diet.

The low-carb rats also had lower energy expenditure (exercise and calorie burning) than rats on a normal diet, and the decrease persisted even when the animals were returned to a normal diet. This is consistent with reports of exhaustion in humans undergoing very low-carb diet regimens.

Furthermore, animals that were temporarily put on a low-carb diet regained more weight than animals that were never fed a low-carb diet. This suggests that short term exposure to a low-carb diet increases risk of weight gain compared to no dieting.

Uh oh.

According to this research it is possible that a low-carb diet may actually cause you to gain weight in the long run. How very unfortunate.

But while these results are compelling, do not go stocking up on pasta just yet. First remember that these are rats, not humans. The way scientists change the composition of a rat’s diet is by giving them different pellets of bizarre lab food with various proportions of “nutrients.” This is not the way humans eat (assuming you don’t spend too much time in GNC), nor can it ever reflect a healthy human diet. It would be great if they could put the rats on a diet of seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fatty fish, but that is not the way animal research works. This is something to keep in mind whenever you hear about nutrition studies.

Also, nutrition research using rodents rarely distinguishes between the qualities of different macronutrients. For example, did the “high-fat” diet contain mostly saturated fat, trans fat, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats or all of the above? A similar question can be asked about the quality of carbohydrates, but it is difficult to imagine high-quality carbohydrates coming in pellet form. A huge body of scientific literature suggests that the quality of different macronutrients is far more important to health and weight than relative proportions of refined macronutrients.

Protein is another question mark in this study, which the authors acknowledge. The low-carb diet they used was not high in protein like a typical Atkins style diet. However, their findings were similar to studies that did use higher protein content and their animals were fed sufficient protein to maintain normal body growth, so the effect of protein on their findings is likely to be small. Their goal was to examine the effect of extreme carbohydrate restriction, and this was accomplished.

Regardless of this study’s imperfections, the results shine an interesting light on our current understanding of how relative proportions of dietary macronutrients effect body composition, long-term body weight and metabolism.

Have you experienced weight gain after going off a low-carb diet?

UPDATE: This article is also available at Synapse.

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