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Low-carb Diet Risks and Benefits?

Low-Carb Diet, Cancer, Heart Disease, Ketogenic Diet

In an unintended testament to the general confusion about weight loss, the low-carb diet is in the news again. This bugger keeps resurfacing, probably because the idea that you can enjoy all the steak, butter, and ice-cream (if artificially sweetened) you like while still losing weight is so attractive to so many people. But the latest study, not surprisingly, reconfirms that low-carb diets, heavy in animal fats, may increase the risk of death from cancer and heart disease.

The study, whose lead author was Teresa T. Fung, an associate professor of nutrition at Simmons College in Boston, followed 85,000 women aged 34 to 59 and 45,000 men aged 40 to 75. It showed that over a period of twenty years, adherents to a low-carb diet were 12 percent more likely to die than those who ate a higher-carb diet. Plus, among the low-carb dieters, those who got their protein and fat from animal sources (red and processed meats) were 14 percent more likely to die of heart disease and 28 percent more likely to die of cancer than those who ate a higher-carb diet. In contrast, low-carb dieters who got their protein and fat from vegetable sources (e.g. beans and nuts) were 20 percent LESS likely to die than those eating a higher-carb diet.

The higher incidence of heart disease and cancer in those eating a low-carb-diet focused on animal proteins shouldn’t be news. I’ve written extensively on the topic before, including a series of newsletters titled Low-carb Craziness. The deal is that when your diet focuses on “institutionally sourced” animal proteins and fats, you increase your intake of all that comes with those foods: antibiotics, growth hormones, a skewed ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats (with corn-fed beef), and other contaminants, all of which have serious health consequences. Of course, you always have the option of using organic, grass-fed meats, cooked at low temperatures (high-temperature grilling not allowed). That might very well produce different results. Not surprisingly, the study didn’t test to see if using grass-fed meats produced any difference.

The latest study once again confirms that among the consequences associated with a predominantly meat-based diet is an increased incidence of cancer, especially colorectal cancer. Several years back, WebMD reported that, according to a European study, people who got little fiber in their diets and who suddenly doubled their fiber intake reduced their risk of colorectal cancer by 40 percent. A meat-based, low-carb diet is notoriously low in fiber.

Still, some researchers see the low-carb diet as a possible “cure” for cancer. Talk about confusing. Proponents of the so-called ketogenic diet theorize that since cancers appear to thrive by fermenting sugars in their cytoplasm (the fluid within the cell membrane), they may be slowed down or stopped by starving them of sugar. The ketogenic diet removes all carbohydrates and sugars. It supplies energy to the body by using high-quality plant oils (hempseed and linseed oils) as well as soy and animal proteins. (It’s probably not insignificant that the low-carb diet used in this program tends to minimize the use animal proteins and fats compared with the “standard” low-carb diet.) Studies to date are suggestive, but inconclusive. A small study in Germany, for example, showed good results for five patients who already had advanced cancers. In comparison to other patients with similarly advanced cancers, the five on the ketogenic diet stayed alive and their cancers slowed, stopped growing, or shrank. But the researchers warn that the results are preliminary. They also admit that “a considerable number” of patients found it impossible to stick to the diet and dropped out of the study.

Again, clinical studies of the efficacy of a low-carb, high-fat diet for cancer patients are limited. Boston College’s Thomas Seyfried has performed successful experiments using a high-fat diet to control cancers in rats and has been pushing for studies with humans. He attributes the lack of interest in conducting such trials to the narrow mindedness of the medical profession when it comes to treating cancers and to resistance from the pharmaceutical industry. (Don’t get me started.)

But the bottom line is that there’s too much evidence of the link between diets high in animal fats and proteins and an increased incidence of cancer. For those of us not afflicted with the disease, it makes more sense to maintain a balanced diet with a limited intake of animal fats and proteins (and only from organic sources, naturally fed and raised). Remember, those on a low-carb diet where the protein came from vegetable sources like beans and nuts had a greatly reduced mortality rate, without the increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

As for those fighting cancer, the evidence is still too thin to recommend a ketogenic diet. And it’s probably also worth remembering that the recent study said that the low-carb diet increased the risk of death from heart disease, which leaves us with a paraphrase of Matthew 16:26.

For what profit is it to a man if he saves himself from cancer, and loses his life to heart disease?


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