More on the ‘low-carb’ study at the AHA meeting

I have a close friend who was an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal for 13 years, during which time he broke a number of large stories. He left the WSJ to start a company to help businesses deal with the media. He had seen from the inside how businesses had tried to influence him and his colleagues, and he knew the business men were going about it all wrong. For the last 15 years or so he’s helped them get it right.

A couple of times per year my friend puts on seminars for people wanting to learn about how the media work. He invited me to one a few years ago in Las Vegas, and I can tell you, it was an eye-opening experience. The program started with my friend asking the attendees to write a few sentences describing what they thought constituted ‘news.’ Before you read on, stop for a moment and come up with your own definition of news. Have you got it? At this meeting virtually everyone (including yours truly and his lovely wife) came up with something on the order of: ‘News is when something happens of sufficient importance to the readers or viewers of a particular media format in a defined local (could be local – could be national) that it requires reporting.’

My friend gathered the papers and started reading them to the group. One after the other was a variation on the theme above. After he had read a dozen or so, he looked at the crowd and said: “Let me define news for you. News is what the media wants you to know.”

In the previous post I wrote the media wanted you to know that the Atkins diet was dangerous, so that’s how they reported it. A reported went in to an oral poster presentation, a tiny sub-meeting of the larger overall meeting, and reported on non-peer reviewed data in such a way as to make a perfectly safe and sensible way of eating, practiced by literally millions of people over the last 30 years, appear to be a danger to health. That’s news because that reporter and his editors said it was.

I’m stressing this because the American Heart Association (AHA) also reports the news, which, in its case, is what it wants people to know. The AHA has an entire publicity arm that sends reports out to doctors all over the world telling them what the AHA wants them to know. And guess what? In none of these reports is the study on the Atkins diet mentioned.

I got these reports by email for every day of the conference. You can click on them by day – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – to see what the AHA wanted doctors interested in this conference to know. If you burrow down into all the links and follow where they lead, you’ll find that none of them (at least none that I could find) lead to the Atkins diet presentation. Probably because the study wasn’t very important relative to the others, and because any one with a modicum of scientific understanding would see right through it.

But not the public. Members of the public aren’t trained to even find the relevant study much less analyze it critically. So that’s where the reports were sent. To the public. Not to the doctors. I find it interesting to say the least.

One other thing, then we’re through with this travesty of a study. A number of people wrote comments wondering about the inflammatory markers that went up in the folks who went on the pseudo Atkins diet. Here is the full text of a study done by Jeff Volek and his group at the University of Connecticut showing that real low-carb diets bring about a decrease in inflammatory markers. And here is another demonstrating that real low-carb diets bring about improvements in atherogenic lipid profiles in subjects who do not lose weight. So, it’s the diet that does it, not the weight loss that usually accompanies such a diet.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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25 thoughts on “More on the ‘low-carb’ study at the AHA meeting

  1. I live in the UK, and recently the newspapers have been full of the latest advice to avoid cancer, #1 being red meat, all based on one bad study (which you have covered many times). It irritates me so much, I stopped reading mainstream newspapers.

    On a totally different topic, I wanted to draw your attention to something, the bioavailability of curcumin. I am not sure of where you get your curcumin from or how you take it, but this website is really informative.
    http://margaret.healthblogs.org/life-with-myeloma/discovery-of-curcumin/bioavailability-of-curcumin/piperine/

    I have recently started taking curcumin with piperine. I tried lots of other ways, but this really is doing the trick now. Quite a difference.

    However, what could this piperine being doing generally? could some nasties also be getting thru more easily? pollutants etc.

    I wanted to thru this at you since you might want to consider a blog on it one day.

    Hi colin–

    Piperine blocks some of the enzymes that degrade curcumin, giving it a longer life in the system. Because of how it inhibits these enzymes, which also degrade drugs, you have to be careful taking it if you’re taking medicines as well.

    The curcumin I use comes with piperine, which doesn’t concern me because I don’t take any meds.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  2. Dr Mike

    Do you realize how unethical your friend’s definition is? This is why I no longer go to regular American media for my news. I’m lucky in that I can read three languages, so I can go to international sources for what’s really going on. For instance, the British and French reporters who are part of the Washington press corps always have more developed stories coming out of any press conference with the president. It’s amazing how much our media leave out.

    Things really got bad when we started to define ourselves as consumers and not citizens. We pay attention to monied interests, whether they be celebrities or corporatists, instead of what’s going on in our own communities and states, let alone the federal government.

    For an idea of what the media omit from our political and economic discourse visit

    http://projectcensored.org

    Just browse through the archives to see what the media decide we don’t need to know. Our obligations as moral people and citizens of the United States mean nothing to them.

    Hi LC–

    My friend isn’t responsible for how the current situation works – he merely described how the media work. And pretty much all media work that way. Even the organization in running the website you sent the link to operates that way. I roamed through their site, and it’s pretty much all the news that has been ‘censored’ that the far left would like to see publicized. Where is the ‘censored’ news that would appeal to the far right or the libertarians or the religious right or… These people do the same thing – they play to their audience.

    The problem as I see it isn’t with the media – it’s with the audience. If we as a people didn’t pay more attention to the comings and goings of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and the like than we would to serious issues facing the world, the media would respond and report the serious issues instead.

    Best–

    MRE

  3. We all know you are a busy guy but PLEASE get out in the media and spread the good word! I can’t think of anyone else who has the brains and the credentials to get on some news show (hard or soft news) and help the cause. OK, maybe Gary Taubes has it right now, but he isn’t a doctor.
    I am begging you,
    Dave

    Hi Dave–

    You are obviously operating under a misconception of how the news media works. I can’t call them – they’ve got to call me. When they do – and they do from time to time – I oblige them. But they have to make the call. Remember, news is what the news media says it is; if they want the world to know the benefits of low-carb diets, they’ll call me.

    One of the most annoying things people say to me when I tell them what I do and explain why low-carb diets not only aren’t dangerous, but are actually effective and healthful is ‘Why don’t you go on Oprah? DUH! If MD and I went on Oprah all of our books would become instant bestsellers and we would become household names like that twit Mehmet Oz, so why don’t we go on? Because Oprah hasn’t called us. The publishers of every book we’ve ever written have sent copies of the book along with a press kit to Oprah, but she’s not interested. I’ve been told that she receives about 150 books per day from publishers eager to get their authors on her show, so the odds are low. I suppose I could walk down and knock on her door (she lives on the same street that we do in Santa Barbara about a quarter of a mile away), but that would be kind of crass and not really my style. Maybe some day, but who knows. Problem with Oprah is that whatever she needs she calls Harvard or one of the other big name places and gets with someone there, which means she never gets anything but mainstream advice.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  4. I would amend the statement “News is what the media wants you to know” to state “News is what the media wants you to believe”. To the media, for the most part the truth is irrelevant, or at least highly malleable. The truth is whatever people are willing to believe. The science of perceptual management is concerned with making fiction appear plausible, even appealing but most of all, intimately believable.

    In assessing statements made by researchers or the media it helps to assume a variety of perspectives. For example, posit whether any party or organization could or would benefit from the misrepresentation of the facts. A cursory stroll through the isles of any supermarket would find that the majority of foods are either pure carbohydrate or carbohydrate based. Since a need for carbohydrate in human nutrition is yet to be established it is reasonable to assume that the carbohydrate food industry has not arisen out of a need to supply a macro nutrient important to health. The fact that federal food pyramid recommends a large intake of carbohydrate but in doing so provides no disclosure that there is no scientific basis for this recommendation suggests the presence of the influence of a powerful interest.

    The fact that media reporting appears follow a consistent pattern of presenting low carb eating as dangerous and unhealthy also suggests the presence of the influence of a powerful interest.

    Hi David–

    I would agree: News that the media wants you to believe. Regardless of how fair and balanced they claim their reporting to be.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  5. Hi Mike,
    In the same vein, you may be interested in this write up off the Junk Food Science blog: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2007/11/staged-marketing-event-reported-as-real.html

    As always, I appreciate the insight and commentary you bring to the fore. It helps me immensely to combat the misinformation my wife (a Weight Watchers lifetime member) is constantly bombarding me with in an attempt to get me to “eat healthy”.

    Thanks!
    D

    Hi Dusty–

    Thanks for the link. I’ve got to start reading her blog more regularly. Ah, so many good blogs, so little time.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  6. Hi, Dr. Mike,

    When I first heard about this study, my initial response was “it’s flawed”. I figured that, as always seems to be the case, selective data was used, and that this was just another attempt to downplay controlled carb diets.
    But the thing that DID bother me is WHERE I heard it. It was on Paul Harvey’s radio commentary, and he really emebellished it, calling it “the high-fat Atkins Diet”, and twice gave the University of Maryland credit for the findings.
    Mr. Harvey has long been considered a straight shooter, but I knew that what he was reporting wasn’t totally correct. Too bad there are still many out there who’ll take him at his word.
    Thanks for your analysis of this story. I always enjoy your take on things.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Too bad ol’ Paul isn’t more of a critical thinker. Or maybe he just says what his handlers tell him to say.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  7. A good book about the media is “Bias” by Bernard Goldberg

    Hi jay–

    I have Goldberg’s book. It’s in my giant waiting-until-I-get-the-time-to-read-it pile.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  8. Hi Dr Mike,

    I’ve written for newspapers and magazines and understand and agree with your friend that news is what the media wants you to know.

    This is a good post about media reports on nutrition and how people mistakenly take them to be the truth, rather than check sources and the research done etc. It is so bad that people take those reports to be the ‘only’ truth even, and refuse to believe more objective reports like those coming from your blog.

    It’s so frustrating isn’t it?!

    Hi insomniac–

    Unbelievably frustrating.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  9. This is great – I’ll be linking to it. In this day and age, it is vital that people understand the media they are inundated with.

    I also notice that on Dr. Miller’s U of MD Web page, which links to some of his work at the bottom of the page, this study is conspicuously absent:

    http://www.umm.edu/heart/preventive.htm

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure Dr. Miller probably didn’t realize the extent that his ‘study’ would be disseminated by the mainstream media.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  10. An interesting pattern seems to emerge in the media after the publication of books that challenge orthodox views such as ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’. While most would expect a direct attack on Taubes similar to Kolata’s this is not what typically happens. Instead, we see a series of indirect attacks begin to appear in papers and articles that either directly refute the position of the author of the controversial book or suggest that the research cited is outdated because it is superseded by newer research. This process amounts to seeding the media with quasi-scientific papers with the knowledge that at least some of them will be picked up and become hot topics.

    This certainly seems to be happening in the case of Taubes’s book which served to re-ignite the low carbohydrate, low fat diet controversy. In recent days articles have suddenly started to appear in the media claiming that high fat diets lead to night time bingeing and of course, weight gain. These articles are based on research performed with mice at Northwestern University.

    High-fat Diet Disrupts Body Clockhawww.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071106133111.htm

    The authors tell us that the altered diet was high in calories and that 45% of the calories came from fat. But they do not disclose what the ‘normal diet’ consisted of. No studies of this nature were done with humans. Yet the authors go on to state that for humans, a diet with no more than 30 percent of calories from fat is recommended inferring that other aspects of the diet are either unrelated or irrelevant.

    The content of this research, which was partially funded by a pharmaceutical company, seems way too convenient to me to be written off as coincidental. Maybe the study used mice. But I smell a very large rat.

    Hi David–

    I think your olfactory organs are in good working order.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  11. I strongly agree that the media does not give out important information to help people. Also I’ve seen the broadcast and print media get the facts backward with two stories I personally knew the facts of. Most people do not realize just how filtered and wrong many news stories are if my experiences are an indication.

    I believe news these days are highly commercialized and have virtually no reason to report what’s really going on. How many time have we heard from our European friends that a lot of world news never is reported in the States?

    So if I watch the news I hold it at arms length with a lot of skepticism. I know it’s not giving me the whole picture.

    Probably a wise strategy.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  12. Paul Harvey is still alive? He might sound like a straight shooter, but he was spouting off nonsensical health advice years ago and it sounds like he is still at it. Scary, considering how he has managed to establish a high perception of credibility.

    Hi Anna–

    I, too, was surprised to hear he was still alive. I hadn’t heard him or heard of him in ages. I wonder what the demographic of his listeners is?

    Cheers–

    MRE

  13. The problem isn’t that news is what the media wants you to know. Of course each outlet is going to cover what they want to cover. The problem is that the media is so homogenized that we’re getting the same thing from all directions. Since I read Taubes’ book I notice that I read something about “eating less fat” every day. It’s everywhere. It’s like the marketplace of ideas got together and decided to all sell the same brands. Of course the internet is different but you have to go down the twisty side streets to find that market, and most people don’t bother.

    Hi Emma Ann–

    Sad but true.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  14. Totally off subject but I would love some advice on Omega 3 Fish Oil supplements. Im a healthy 38 year old, with great cholesterol, readings, and have begun taking fish oil supplements. Currently I am taking a very pricey brand, Nordic Naturals, based on recommendations.

    I was wondering if I will be losing substantial benefit if I switch to another brand, Puritans Pride, that seems to match up well on sites like:

    http://www.consumerlab.com/results/omega3.asp

    The EPA and DHA levels (which Im told are important indicators) are comparable and its purity is well rated but its significantly less expensive, about 5x cheaper.

    $5 vs over $50 im curerntly paying

    http://www.puritan.com/pages/file.asp?CPID=7918&afid=43&SAFID=fish1200

    Basically Im looking for a practical and reliable Honda instead of a Bentley…

    Any advice very much appreciated!

    Cheers

    Hi James–

    You’ve got to be a little careful with Consumer Lab recommendations. Supplement companies pay them to evaluate their products and them give them these blurbs. It’s much like advertising.

    It’s been my experience with supplements that you get what you pay for. And just as a Bentley is much better made than a Honda, supplements that cost more work better. Not always, but often.

    I don’t know anything about Puritans Pride, but I do know that Nordic Naturals is a great company that produces very good products. Since you’ve been taking Nordic Naturals you have a baseline for comparison. Give the others a try to see how they compare. Smell them and look at them. Bite into a Nordic Naturals capsule, then do the same for the Puritans Pride. You should be able to see, smell and taste the difference if there is one.

    Best–

    MRE

  15. New study just reported on: ‘Hormone Disorder Could Be Caused by Sugar’

    “This groundbreaking study proves that how our liver metabolizes sugar is what affects SHBG, not our insulin level. Researchers said that physicians can now use the SHBG amounts in our blood to monitor how our liver is functioning.”

    http://www.associatedcontent.com/pop_print.shtml?content_type=article&content_type_id=444244

    Hi David–

    This is a great study. (You can get the full text here.)

    For a long time it has been known that insulin reduces the amount of SHBG, this study postulates a mechanisms.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  16. The media exist to sell product (advertizing not “news”). News that induces shock, fear, or scandal are what keeps readers coming back and buying whatever is advertized. “Bad News” sells. Obviously the scientific organizations cannot ban the press but they could respond publicly and accurately describe the limitations of the study.

    They won’t because then they would be turning down free publicity for the next time. How many reporters will show up at AMA, APHA or APA if they know they will be discredited for bias reporting?

    Also, if the perception is that a scientists work is important because it produces headline grabbing media (even if the stories are incorrect or massively overreaching) that will help keep the grant dollars flowing. Nothing kills a research program faster than irrelevancy. It is almost a guarantee that whomever reviews the next research grant from this group will have heard about this article and will give the team more credence because of it.

    Finally, free publicity for this guy is also free publicity for Maryland…People who want better lab space, another post-doc or spare change for pilot studies will be much more likely to get them when their work is seen as helpful for building the University’s reputation as a clinical research power.

    Hi Cecelia–

    All sad but true. Many individual winners while the public at large loses.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  17. Right or left is beside the point. I’m sure that some conservative website has taken the time and trouble to do the same work as the journalism students at Sonoma State University, but the point is that the information is kept from the American public so that we can decide for ourselves, conservative or liberal.

    Hi LC–

    I agree. But, there is the problem of space. As it is I can barely make it through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which I read everyday. If these papers were to print all the news they would each be 500 pages thick daily. So someone has got to make the decision as to what goes in and what gets left out. So, it’s back to what my friend says: the news is what the people that bring you the news think it is. Because they’re the ones deciding what gets published.

    Right wing sites publish right wing stuff, and left wing sites publish left wing stuff. The problem is that right wingers read the right wing sites and left wingers read the left wing sites, so both are only confirming their own biases.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  18. Dr E,
    I hope you can give me an opinion about soy snacks. There’s a product I’ve been enjoying recently, Snyder of Hanover’s Soy Crisps, which according to the nutrition label have 5 net carbs in 20 chips (11 carbs minus 6 gms of fiber).

    There’s a specialty food hall near I shop at in Manhattan that makes sublime fresh salsa out of tomatoes, onion, cilantro and spices — uncooked, very spicy. (For a vegetable-disliker like me, a good way to get some tomatoes into me.) I thought I’d have to give it up when I started low-carbing again because of course I used to eat it with tortilla chips. But I bought these Soy Crisps as a salsa delivery system, and have been careful to count out a serving of 15-20 chips and count the carbs. I also measure my urine daily and am in ketosis. But I have a vague sense that soy products can be problematic, though I’m not sure how or why. Do you have any pointers or opinions to offer about using these snacks?

    Hi herself_nyc–

    Here is a good link to find out more about soy.

    I don’t think, however, that 15-20 of these chips per day are going to cause you any lasting damage.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  19. Andy Rooney said this last night in his commentary at the end of 60 minutes:

    “There have been a lot of articles about Pakistan recently. Most reporters don’t know zilch about Pakistan but if that’s where the action is, reporters have to find out and write something about it. That’s what reporters do — they write about things no one knows anything about — including themselves sometimes.”

    I would venture to say the same applies to health issues, as well.

    Speaking of Mehmet Oz, I caught a teaser for an upcoming Oprah show a few weeks back and the guy was wearing scrubs while sitting on stage talking with Oprah. I don’t know about anyone else, but that just sets my teeth on edge. Unless he just came straight from the OR, wearing scrubs on stage just seems a tad too bit charlatanish in my opinion. What’s wrong with dressing like the professional that he supposingly is?

    Hi Esther–

    The same does indeed apply to health care.

    And, unless there is an operating room right outside of Oprah’s studio, Dr. Oz is a poseur.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  20. I find the whole thing especially frustrating. I am a type 2 diabetic and have been keeping my blood sugar under control with a low carb approach (Dr Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution). My A1C is typically in the 4.2 to 4.8% range. My cholesterol is decent, with the LDL being a touch high at 130. I feel great and have no diabetic complications currently. I even run in races and am in the middle of training to run a marathon in January.

    When I tell people that I’m doing low carb, they all want to rip me apart. I have to explain to them that I am not killing myself. There is plenty of scientific evidence to back me up, but unless I can actually do a sit-down with them, to calmly explain, rather than use sound-bites, this stuff keeps coming back. I’ve finally got my wife convinced, but there are always well-meaning, but completely clueless family members that have to argue with me.

    Hi Tony–

    Welcome to my life of the past 25 years.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  21. Dear Dr. Eades,

    In a previous comment Dusty recommended this blog: http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com
    by Sandy Szwarc BSN, RN, CCP. She wrote on 10/27/07:

    “Similarly, many believe that only carbohydrates in the diet stimulate insulin production and that high-carb diets are responsible for obesity and illness, but this is a “a very undeserved reputation based on false and twisted truths,” explains Kathy Goodwin, R.D. “The truth is that all ingested foods stimulate insulin production.” And even population studies completely contradict such fears, she said. In Japan, for instance, high carb foods like white rice [with a GI higher than pure sucrose] is a daily staple, yet Japan “has one of the lowest rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes in the world.” Again and again, the science supports there being nothing magical in the foods we eat or that there is one perfect diet.”

    Your comments?

    Laurel

    I said that I enjoyed this blog from time to tiem, not that I agreed with everything that appears in it. The quote you sent is typical R.D. swill.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  22. Here’s another great study.
    Low-Carb Diet May Slow Prostate Tumor Growth
    Mouse study could have implications for humans, researchers say
    http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/healthday/071113/low-carb-diet-may-slow-prostate-tumor-growth.htm

    “They compared tumor growth in mice eating either a low-carbohydrate diet; a low-fat but high-carbohydrate diet; or a Western diet high in fat and carbohydrates.

    Mice fed the low-carbohydrate diet had the smallest tumor size and longest survival, the team found.

    “”Low-fat mice had shorter survival and large tumors , while mice on the Western diet had the worst survival and biggest tumors. In addition, though both the low-carb and low-fat mice had lower levels of insulin, only the low-carb mice had lower levels of the form of IGF capable of stimulating tumor growth,” Freedland said.”

    This is a completely reasonable and predictable outcome that is consistent with the diseases associated with the Western diet.

    Hi David–

    Thanks for the link. There are studies that show the same thing in humans.

    BTW, I still haven’t heard back from Dave Dixon. I’ll retry.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  23. You know Dr. Mike,

    It was the AHA that convinced me that the Atkins diet was not only safe, but it was better than their own diet. This was reported a tad over 5 years ago. Shortly after the news report I resolved to begin the Atkins diet. What dissapointed me was how they played down Atkins and said something like ” More studies need to be made so don’t just jump into it”. A few weeks later, Dr A was interviewed by Larry King. He was being congratulated for being right after all these years. Then he dies a few months later from what the media wants us to believe was obesity. I learned then not to trust the media. Recently there was a report on the news about the dangers of the Atkins Diet, I forget what it was about but I wrote the news station that ran the story. I asked them why would they run a study on this diet about how it proved safe and it didn’t contribute to heart disease then a few month’s later say that it was dangerous. They both can’t be true.

    The study I read in Web MD on prostate cancer used the word “no carb”, which I thought the medical world was beyond that terminology. This study really caught my attention since prostate cancer runs in my husband’s family. My husband is consuming fewer carbohydrates then he did 5 years ago but I hope this encourages him to become a little stricter.

    The truth about that glorified poison, carbohydrates, is important information to the public that gets muffled in newsroom techno-babble. I pick and choose my information according to what I already know and grit my teeth through everything else. I am grateful to your blog Dr. Mike.

    Thanks,
    Mary

    Thank you for reading. Mary.

    I’ll try to keep the flow of information going.

    Best–

    MRE

  24. Why do people get all choked up when someone refers to Atkins as a high-fat diet? It IS a high-fat diet. It’s *supposed* to be a high-fat diet. Where the critics mess up is where they say it is a high-*protein* diet. We only ever need enough protein to rebuild body tissues–not just muscle–and should be prioritizing fat as an energy source if we’re eating low-carb. I know there are low-carb “experts” out there who want us to believe otherwise, but as only about ten percent of the fat we eat is ever turned into glucose versus fifty-eight percent of protein when there is no other energy source, and as many of us tend to follow low-carb diets in the first place because our glucose metabolisms are all wacky, I think that ignoring low-fat dogma must be extended to ignoring folks on the low-carb side of the debate who can’t let that dogma die.

    As for Junk Food Science, the blog lives up to the name. Sugar’s harmless, huh?

    Do you feel better now having gotten all that off your chest? Feel free to rant here any time.

    Of course, you are correct.

    Cheers–

    MRE