Confused? Clarification from Jonny Bowden, MA
I’m Jonny Bowden, author of “Living the Low Carb Life: Choosing the Diet that’s right for you from Atkins to Zone”, and a board certified nutritionist. I am also the “weight loss coach” on both ivillage and ediets. I was reading through the boards and came across some excellent questions and thought perhaps I could help shed a little light on the issues.
Let’s get real: It seems to me a lot of the confusion and conflict boils down to a gut feeling that Atkins Nutritionals, by making so many LC products, has somehow dilluted or diffused the “purist” message of the “original” Atkins program. People seem to feel that there’s been a shift from the company’s message via changes in recommendations on fat intake.
I’d like to share of the perspective I gained when I wrote “The History of Low Carb Diets” in my book.
My father was a trademark lawyer, and a huge part of his business was copyrighting information- books, comic books, trademarks, pictures, logos- for exclusive use. That was before the internet. My father, who retired a decade ago, never heard of Napsta or i-Tunes. The world is different now, and copyright law is virtually unrecognizable as courtroom battles rage over downloading music, royalties on cable and satelite broadcasting, internet site publication, digital music, etc.
There’s a parallel in the world of “low carb”, indeed, in the food industry in general. Sure, “back in the day” we had a very different food supply. Processed food is only a couple of hundred years old, MacDonald’s less than a century, “energy bars” even younger. The point is we are dealing with an entirely different way that people get their food. You can no longer tell people at the gym, hey, if you want to be healthy, you’ve got to bring along a tupperware full of chicken and broccoli like they did in the 80’s. People want and expect the convenience of bars and shakes. This is a fact of life. The question is: can we deal with that new world and still stay true to the ideals of good healthy eating and the principles of low carbohydrate nutrition pioneered by Dr. Atkins, and continued by the Atkins Nutritionals company and others?
I think we can. The thing of it is, junk food is a worldwide problem, not a low carb problem. You’re going to see an absolute flood of low carb junk food everywhere, and it’s not going to be made by people, like Atkins, who care about your health. I think the Atkins bars- which are very well made and really have what they say they have in them- are a perfectly fine addition to the Atkins program and a concession to “reality”: convenience food is a part of life. I think what the Atkins folks have tried to do is to enter into the millieu with foods that do the least damage and actually do some good, are made with integrity, and allow you to stay on the basic program without “blowing it” everytime you want to have a treat.
The whole point here is to choose the products carefully and to use them wisely and responsibly. Sure, in the best of all possible worlds, we’d live stress free lives on organic farms and sit down to three home cooked well balanced (low carb) meals a day and we wouldn’t need vitamin supplements. Nice fantasy. But how do you deal with the reality of trying to maintain a weight loss (and maintenance) program in the face of massive temptations, bad messages from the government and the food industry, zillions of junky convenience foods, and resistance from the medical establishment?
A little historical perspective: remember that less than a decade ago Atkins was completely shunned by the traditional medical community and no one would even listen to those of us who thought conventional food recommendations were going down the wrong path. Now everyone is aware of carbs. Even the moribound American Dietetic Association is getting wise. The government is redoing the food pyramid- (I’m not sure they’ll get it any better this time, but at least they know there’s a major problem). That South Beach guy would never have even heard of insulin and it’s effect on weight if it hadn’t been for Dr. Atkins. Pioneers like Atkins- and good people like the Eades, Dr. Sears and Ann Louise Gittleman- made it possible for this whole thing to reach the public consciousness. So going a little more “mainstream” has really not been such a bad idea from the point of view of the health of the country.
However, with that larger profile has come some very predictable problems. Atkins has the same kind of position in the low-carb world that the United States has in the international community—being the biggest and the acknowledged industry leader it also gets the brunt of the grief from the media every time there is a problem or misinterpretation of “low carb”. Purists feel the “original message” has been diluted or changed. Actually, I don’t really think that’s been the case. I think what’s happened is that the Atkins folks have gotten more precise about clarifying some points that were never communicated correctly in the first place, at least to the mass media.
Now I’m going to say something that’s a bit politically incorrect, but may provide some context.
You see, Dr. Atkins was himself something of a curmudgeon and a bit of a loose canon. Think about it: Here was this very brilliant man, a world class nutritionist, putting forth information he knew to be right, yet completely ostracized by the very medical community that should have been at the very least answering his questions- instead, it ridiculed him mercilessly. Wouldn’t you be mad? Given that, and his inherently gruff personality, Atkins was given to making off the cuff statements often meant to irritate his opponents, cause them to take notice, and, honestly, in my opinion, just force them to answer him! For example, he probably said at one time, in exasperation about how bad sugar was for people, “You know, for goodness sake, you’d be better off eating pork rinds than sugar!”. Statements like this were taken out of context, and Atkins became known as the doc who only recommended pork rinds and bacon cheesburgers.
This may not have been much of a problem when only a few thousand loyal patients were listening to him and understood what he was talking about. But now the company has a serious audience in the millions, and it’s important to them that they clarify the message and give it a little context. You have to also remember the times in which Dr. Atkins was writing- there was such a phobia about fat that people would send eggs back in a restaurant if they even saw a glimpse of the yellow. When he kept railing about fat being good for you (it is), his voice was a counterbalance to this insane fat-phobic mindset. Taken out of context you could easily think that he was telling everyone to eat five sticks of butter a day. He wasn’t. He didn’t then, and the company doesn’t now.
They believe- as I do- that saturated fat is not the enemy, trans-fats are. They believe- as I do- that we need a balance of fats in the diet, especially saturated and omega 3’s and omega 9’s. They believe- as I do- that vegetable oils are far more inflammatory than other fats and that you’re far better off eating butter than margerine and that you’re better off with coconut oil than corn oil.
But this is not really a change in the prescription or recommendations. You can “do” Atkins while eating any combination of fat you want, actually, and, truth be told, you probably could do a lower fat version if that’s your preference, though it’s totally not necessary. All of this was really within the original guidelines, which gave people a lot of leeway to individualize their programs.
CONTINUED IN PART TWO.. Please read on...
From Jonny Bowden Part Two
Also remember that in the beginning, Dr. Atkins’ own practice centered around people who were terribly overweight and had tried absolutely everything to no avail. His strict method worked great for those people. But his practice expanded exponentially over the years, and a great deal of clinical experience was accumulated. We began to see the amazing effects controlled carb eating had on a host of health conditions. (Just today a new study came out linking high carb diets with a higher risk for breast cancer). Nutritionists such as myself who use the basic Atkins type approach found, with hundreds of clients over the years, that there were a lot of variations in how people responded to details (just as in life!). Some people, for example, seemed to be able to tolerate a bit more carbs than others. Some people did fine not being in ketosis. Some people can eat some grains, others have really bad reactions to them. Some folks stayed on induction for six months, some for two weeks. Some people tolerate sugar alcohols, and a few don’t. Some folks get headaches from aspartame, some are unaffected. See the point? Any good practitioner sees this kind of variety in his or her practice; to be stuck with a set of unbending “rules” unwilling to accommodate individual differences is just plain silly. Plus it’s not good science.
As the general principles of low carb have been more widely accepted, it’s been necessary to be flexible in order to bring more people “under the tent” and acknowledge that there are going to be these individual differences. This shouldn’t be seen as a change or dillution of the Atkins Nutritional Approach, but rather an open minded way of incorporating the vast amount of clinical experience that we’ve gotten using low carb with a much wider group of people than just the overweight.
So I think it’s more a question of clarifying this stuff than of changing anything that was originally said, and more a question of undoing some of the misunderstandings that came from a time when it was “Dr. Atkins against the World”.
Now for some specifics: the question- a fair one, I might add- of sugar alcohols and the various LC products made by Atkins and others. In my opinion, the problem here is not with the sugar alcohols, which are very far from the worst thing in the world. The problem is that people sit down and eat the entire box of Atkins cookies (I did it myself- they’re amazing), just like they sat down and ate the whole box of Snackwells in the 80’s and just like people who are not on diets sit down and eat the whole carton of Haagen Daaz! This is not a problem limited to the low-carb world- it has to do with portions, ability to do things responsibly, moderate our appetites and so forth. Nobody- least of all Dr. Atkins- ever said that you could eat unlimited amounts of any food and still expect to lose weight. Sorry. I wish it were different, but it’s not.
And nutritionists have tried to get that message out while still being true to the essence of low carbing, which is to control blood sugar and insulin. I was recently at a natural foods convention in Anaheim where I personally heard Paul Wolfe, the president of Atkins Nutritionals, address the very people who buy the company’s products- distributors, wholesalers, store owners- and plead with them to get the message out that people are not supposed to be living on these products, that the products are supplementary, and that they are meant to make living the low carb way more fun and easy, providing variety and convenience. I was very impressed with hearing this at a closed meeting not open to the public, and I think it speaks highly for the company. I myself have made this point on virtually every talk show I’ve been on, and will continue to make it. Tattoo this under your eyelids: Don’t live on the products.
But the presence of these products- at least the high quality honest ones, which the Atkins products definitely are- offers people a way of staying on the program that didn’t used to be available to them. You have no idea how many people I have seen over the years who got amazing results on Atkins but then “dropped out” because they felt that they could never have any of their favorite comfort foods. And two recent studies actually showed there is more compliance when people have this variety available to them. So from my point of view, that’s a good thing. I personally have eaten the low-carb way for years, and blueberry muffins, for example, are not on my usual menu. But should I feel like having one ocassionally, I’d prefer one that’s higher in protein, has no white sugar or flour, no trans fats, a lower carb content, and still tastes good.
I’ve heard some Atkins nutritionists attacked in the bulletin boards recently for making a distinction between “healthy” and “unhealthy” fats. Why? There have always been healthy and unhealthy fats! Those two categories just don’t happen to be the same as “saturated” vs “unsaturated”! The healthy fats include saturated fats like butter, avocado, eggs, coconut, as well as, of course, the monounsaturated ones like olive and macademia nut oils and all of the omega 3’s. The “unhealthy” fats are trans-fats, overcooked unsaturated frying oils, and most processed vegetable oils. That was always true, and doesn’t represent any change in the original thinking. And people should have a balance of the healthy fats. I see no problem with that recommendation at all.
I think the bottom line here is that instead of a “brand war” among the diet writers we should be looking for what everyone has in common. Dr. Atkins definitely set the bar high and designed the original template which in my opinion hasn’t been improved on. But the Eades added a very useful element to the equation by suggesting that you make sure to get adequate protein at every meal; Ann Louise has some interesting things to say about detoxification; Schwarzbein about moderating cortisol. And Pescatore, who was the medical director of Atkins for years, wrote a terrific book on implementing the Atkins program with children. And if you want to do your Atkins program with macademia nut oil and name it after a glamorous beach resort, fine! Big deal. The point is that the principles Dr Atkins set forth and that his company continues to espouse are still valid: don’t eat sugar, do eat fiber, get a healthy blend of fats, and eat a ton of vegetables with some nuts berries and seeds. And you can use the Atkins products with any one of these programs, if you use them responsibly and judiciously and are mindful and honest about your own personal reactions to them.
I think the bottom line here is everyone’s different. The controlled carbohydrate lifestyle has something of value for everyone, but each person needs to discover her own personal prescription for success. The trick is to honor our individual differences, stop looking for absolutes (that’s a good recommendation for life as well as diet) and understand that there will be variations in how people respond to anything.
To me, that is the essence of empowerment.
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