A Dog with a Bone

Really? Low-Carb Fights the Pandemic?

Like a dog with a bone, Nina Teicholz is not ready to let it go. She has a point to make and a book to sell. It’s all about pushing everyone to eat a low-carb diet. No matter what the problem, we find her telling us that low-carb diets, with plenty of saturated fats, are the answer. Right now, everyone is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic. Teicholz has the answer. So in the Wall Street Journal, she recommends (you guessed it) “a low-carb strategy for fighting the pandemic.”

Perhaps she has a very special version of the Magic 8-Ball. Every time you shake it, no matter what the question, “low-carb diet” floats into the answer window.

True Believers Impervious to Facts

Recently, Kevin Hall and his colleagues at NIH released the results of a short term, very tightly controlled study of low-fat and low-carb diets. He found that some common assumptions about low-carb diets didn’t hold up too well in this study. For instance, it was not especially effective for suppressing appetite in comparison to the low-fat diet.

Low-carb fans dismissed it promptly. The study was only two weeks. Not enough time for low-carb magic to kick in.

Other, longer term studies, such as the DIETFITS study, keep showing the same thing. Low-carb diets are not magically superior to other diets over the long term. They might help some people, but one size will never fit all. Results will vary from person to person. Yet low-carb believers won’t hear of it. They have the answer.

Tunnel Vison

Nonetheless, Teicholz persists with her arguments that broader acceptance of low-carb diets could have “flattened the still-rising curves” of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. If only people would listen, “it’s quite possible that our fight against the virus would today look very different.”

“Diet-related problems require diet-related solutions,” says Teicholz. But she glosses over the fact that relying exclusively on diet-related solutions for obesity has been an abysmal failure for decades. In both controlled studies and in real life experience, it’s never been enough to reverse this disease for more than a small portion of the people affected.

In a new commentary on Medscape, Yoni Freedhoff marvels at people telling us that diets could have prevented the pandemic or flattened the cure. Those people, he notes, omit any mention of the other tools, medicines and surgery, that are often necessary to treat obesity:

It’s quite an oversight, because no single diet has ever been shown to durably and reproducibly compete with drugs or surgery to date.

It’s time let go of our tunnel vision. Low-carb diets won’t prevent the next pandemic. They are not magic cures for obesity. They don’t have the power to prevent coronavirus infections. The way we eat and the way we care for people living with obesity is indeed profoundly important. But only if we are open to the facts and curious about learning more.

It’s time to toss that broken Magic 8-Ball and consider a broader range of answers to our health challenges.

Click here for the commentary from Teicholz and here for perspective from Freedhoff.

A Dog with a Bone, photograph © myri_bonnie / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


May 30, 2020

6 Responses to “Really? Low-Carb Fights the Pandemic?”

  1. May 30, 2020 at 8:16 am, Mary-Jo said:

    I don’t know what’s worse — nihilists who are apathetic about the advantages and importance of wholesome diets and optimal nourishment, something everyone is entitled to, or rabid proponents of one particular diet for all as THE answer to everything from individual health for every health problem to planetary salvation. Perhaps it’s time to have these TOS or fact-check statements noted at the end of all articles, even opinion pieces (which are, actually, quite influential to the general public) promulgating equivocal advice from people representing themselves to have THE solution to complex issues re: diet, nutrition, obesity.

  2. May 30, 2020 at 7:04 pm, Rj said:

    Call it tunnel vision if you wish. All I know is it for me and several others that I know.

  3. May 31, 2020 at 10:53 am, Tommy Radek said:

    If you dont think removing complex. Carbs from your diet is a good idea then you dont know what you are talking about

  4. May 31, 2020 at 5:43 pm, Jay C said:

    This article missed a few things.
    1) Millions of people have found success with low-carb dieting. The plural of anecdote is data.
    2) Yoni Freedhoff is hardly a final authority on these matters.
    3) Ms. Teicholz is not wrong in stating that metabolic syndrome compromises immunity.
    4) Kevin Hall’s study did not disqualify keto in any way as a valid diet plan. In fact, it demonstrated the keto diet allowed a higher caloric daily intake while providing the same outcomes.
    5) The article may have had a point in stating that low-carb may not be the first line of defense against Covid but instead lost direction and turned into an attack on all dieting advice.

  5. June 01, 2020 at 4:40 pm, Giorgio Brown said:

    All I know is the Keto diet has helped me lose 90 pounds since October 2019. From time to time I will have some complex carbs to replenish my glycogen muscle stores because I also workout.

  6. June 05, 2020 at 12:29 pm, Rhonda Witwer said:

    It would be insightful to focus on the need that is being addressed by low-carb diets instead of dismissing them entirely. Half of American adults are prediabetic or diabetic already. These individuals benefit from reducing their refined carbohydrate consumption and managing their blood glucose and insulin levels. This need is dramatic, persistent and real.

    There are more options than this diet to help people manage their blood glucose and insulin levels. Resistant starch improves insulin sensitivity within hours and reverses prediabetes without requiring dramatic dietary changes. It works through nutrigenomics by changing the expression of the genes in the gut that control insulin sensitivity. With 19 published human clinical studies and a FDA approved qualified health claim – this is a strong option.

    How about focusing on helping people solve the underlying essential need? It’s not going to magically go away, no matter how many people criticize low carb diets. This is an argument that cannot be won. On the other hand, addressing insulin resistance and its impact on weight and health is winnable and desperately needed.

    For more information, see http://www.ResistantStarchResearch.com.