Whatever Happened to Low-Carb Diets?

ByABC News
November 8, 2006, 4:49 PM

Nov. 8, 2006 — -- Americans have been debating the risks and benefits of different diets, specifically low-fat versus low-carbohydrate diets, even decades before the Atkins Diet and the South Beach Diet swept the nation.

Now, a new study has answers to an old question: Is a low-carbohydrate diet bad for the heart?

No, suggests new research published in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, and it's not any worse than a diet high in carbs.

The study, which involved more than 82,000 women from across the country over 20 years, confirms what previous research has suggested: Low-carbohydrate diets do not increase heart-disease risk.

Even though low-carb dieters might tend to eat more fats and other heart-unhealthy foods, over time their risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) did not exceed that of their counterparts who instead consumed a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.

The study's researchers say the results suggest that low-carb diets are at least on equal footing with other forms of dieting when it comes to heart health.

"This study suggests that neither a low-fat dietary pattern nor a typical low-carbohydrate dietary pattern is ideal with regards to risk of CHD. Both have similar risks," said study researcher Tom Halton, a former doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

"However, if a diet moderately lower in carbohydrates is followed, with a focus on vegetable sources of fat and protein, there may be a benefit for heart disease," Halton said.

Backing the findings are data from three trials published in 2003, which showed that low-carb diets do not increase cardiovascular risk factors.

In those studies, the Atkins Diet, a bellwether regimen on the low-carb scene, was compared to a different diet emphasizing a low intake of fat and cholesterol.

The results? Those on the Atkins Diet actually had greater improvements in insulin sensitivity, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglyceride levels than did the low-fat, low-cal dieters.

The findings, however, come with a caveat common to many of the other studies on high-protein, low-carb diets. In short, don't go crazy on the red meat.