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Protein diet vs. low-fat: USDA hosts nutrition debate


February 25, 2000

(CNN) -- It was a literal food fight Thursday as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held an unprecedented forum to air all the claims and counter-claims about the most trendy diets, particularly the popular protein diet.

"The foods that are emphasized (in the protein diet) are the very foods that the Heart Association has condemned as causing heart disease," said Dr. John McDougall, author of "The McDougall Program for a Healthy Heart."

But Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who is credited with developing the protein diet, countered, "I'm concerned about the American Heart Association recommendations of Froot Loops and Pop-Tarts having their seal of approval."

Americans spend $30 billion a year to battle the bulge. While all diet gurus agree losing weight means cutting calories, which calories to cut is still under debate.

"I can go on a Twinkie diet and if it's restricted enough I will lose weight," said Dr. Denise Bruner of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians.

Some argue it is more important to cut calories from carbohydrates, while other believe cutting those from fatty proteins is the key to success.

Atkins advocates cutting out carbohydrates and eating almost all protein. A typical protein diet breakfast consists of eggs, bacon, and decaffeinated coffee, but no orange juice.

On the other hand, Dr. Dean Ornish's low-fat diet limits fatty proteins and promotes natural whole foods with carbohydrates. A breakfast under his plan would have oatmeal, sliced bananas, grapefruit and decaffeinated coffee or tea.

Low-fat proponents say their balanced diet decreases the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. High-protein advocates say their way reduces the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure by helping people lose weight.

The success stories of protein diets are convincing even some doctors to question conventional wisdom.

Dr. Fred Finelli, a transplant surgeon at Washington Hospital Center, lost 30 pounds in the last 6 months using the Atkins diet. Blood tests show his cholesterol is even better than usual.

"I don't know the biochemistry behind it, I just know that my cholesterol has gone down and my other numbers are really good," said Finelli.

The biggest problem with high-protein diets is there are no long-term studies on their health effects. That is something the USDA is hoping to address.

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