Jewish World Review Dec. 29, 2003 / 4 Teves, 5764

Amy Joy Lanou and
Patrick Sullivan

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Consumer Reports

Can cheating on popular diets cause medical emergencies? | What's the one thing easier than making a New Year's resolution? Breaking it the following week, of course. Most of the time, that's no big deal. Maybe you resolve to be nicer to other people, but you end up snapping at a co-worker. The result: You feel guilty, apologize, and move on.

But as 2004 dawns, thousands of people are considering a resolution that can have profound personal consequences - whether it's kept or broken. The vow in question? Committing to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet.

Many people swear by these popular weight-loss plans. And research studies do indicate they can help people shed unwanted pounds - though the weight loss seems to be about the same (or even slightly less) that what is experienced on other popular diets.

But do low-carb diets have a darker side? A growing number of people are reporting serious medical problems that may be associated with these eating plans.

Take Maurice Gleeson, a 42-year-old London man who went on a low-carb diet as an experiment for ``Real Story,'' a reality television show on the BBC. Gleeson's low-carb adventure ended when he was rushed to the hospital with acute constipation and a suspected bowel blockage. He was given morphine to control agonizing stomach pains.

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According to one low-carb proponent, Gleeson's medical problem was his own fault. Why? Because he "cheated." As Gleeson freely admitted in the video diary he kept for the show, he deviated from the low-carb diet on several occasions by drinking alcohol and eating chocolate cookies.

Mixing high fat and high carb can be deadly, claimed Collette Heimowitz, vice president of Atkins Health and Medical Information Services, in a BBC interview. "The only reason why taking in high fat is safe is because you're burning it as a primary source of fuel," Heimowitz told the BBC.

That should make dieters a little nervous. On most diets, you suffer a predictable consequence from eating forbidden foods: you don't lose weight. But on a low-carb plan, cheating can apparently result in hospitalization.

Gleeson is far from the only person to experience serious health problems while on a low-carb diet. Perhaps the most tragic example is Rachel Huskey, a 16-year-old Missouri girl on a low-carb diet who collapsed at school and died of sudden heart failure. A post-mortem examination of Huskey revealed low calcium and potassium levels in her blood.

Those depletions disrupted Huskey's normal cardiac functions and caused her heart to stop, according to a Southern Medical Journal article co-authored by Paul Robinson, M.D., an assistant professor of child health at the University of Missouri. The depletions were most likely caused by Huskey's adherence to a low-carbohydrate diet, Dr. Robinson says.

How strong are the links between such serious conditions and low-carb diets?

The truth is, the medical community doesn't yet know. For years, the American Heart Association has warned that low-carb, high-fat diets could be dangerous over the long term, in part because regular consumption of high-fat foods has been linked to heart disease and some types of cancer. But much less attention has been paid to short-terms risks.

As public health authorities and the medical community begin to examine the Huskey case and others like it, we may get definitive answers.

Meanwhile, one thing is clear: low-carb diets are not the only way to lose weight. For example, Dean Ornish, M.D., has demonstrated convincingly that a low-fat vegetarian diet helps people shed excess pounds in a healthful way. Indeed, in a recent study at Tufts University, the Ornish plan took more weight off participants than did a low-carb plan.

And if you cheat on a low-fat vegetarian diet, you know what happens? You don't lose weight. Now that's a New Year's resolution we can live with.

Amy Joy Lanou is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Patrick Sullivan is a PCRM staff writer. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003,Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine