Sunday, November 19, 2006

Runner Roy Pirrung Cites Phony Study Favoring Low-Fat Over The Atkins Diet

Marathoner Roy Pirrung quotes anonymous study against low-carb

Have you heard of the great American marathon runner Roy Pirrung? At the age of 32 (that's the same age I was when I began livin' la vida low-carb), he was tired of being overweight and was ready to quit smoking. So what did he do? He started running like Forrest Gump. Run, Roy, run and he hasn't stopped running since. He is now a renowned world athlete having competed in races both at home and abroad. He is an American record-holder and a member of the USA Track and Field Masters Hall of Fame. All of these accomplishments are worthy of sincere accolades for a job well done. CONGRATULATIONS, Roy!

Unfortunately, Pirrung recently wrote a guest column about diet and health that was published in The Sheboygan Press where he had some decidedly poor interpretations of what the Atkins diet is all about. This all-American athlete had little good to say about this way of eating that has helped me lose almost 200 pounds and keep it off for the past couple of years. We'll be sure to set the record straight for good ole Roy today!

In his column entitled "Fewer calories, not carbs, important to weight loss," Pirrung said he blames Dr. Robert C. Atkins and Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. for fooling people into believing that removing carbohydrates from their diet will result in weight loss. He believes the Atkins diet is only good "for a time."

"Most diet plans that are promoted through books, TV ads and the like are usually effective for a short period."

While that is true because the hype behind most of those highly-promoted diet plans are based on faulty science, the Atkins diet is built on very sound scientific research that proves it is quite effective as a permanent lifestyle change that people can do for the rest of their lives for the sake of their weight and health. Even Pirrung admits the Atkins diet is good for "dramatic weight loss," but he contends that it doesn't last.

"What is wrong now, is that some people still follow this plan, or at the very least, believe carbohydrates are to be avoided."

Consider me among those who "still follow this plan" and substantially reduce my intake of such junk carbs as sugar, white flour, starchy vegetables, and processed foods. Your body just doesn't need these kind of carbohydrates and you are better off without them, Mr. Pirrung. Guess what? My weight loss has stayed off by eating this way, so it can be a healthy long-term way of eating for people who wish to maintain their weight and live healthier than they ever have.

Then Pirrung does something in his op-ed piece that I've never heard of anyone doing before: he quotes a study, but doesn't say who conducted the study, which university or organization funded the study, when it took place, how long the study lasted, what scientific journal or conference that published it, NOTHING OF THE SORT! What's up with that, Mr. Pirrung? If you want to present a study providing evidence that favors the low-fat diet over low-carb, then at least be forthcoming about the source of your information. Doing otherwise is being intellectually dishonest, my friend.

Here's the so-called study Pirrung cites in a nutshell:

A study of about 50,000 women with an average age in their lower 60s were placed on a low-fat/high-carb diet to see what impact the addition of carbohydrates in place of fats would have on weight stability and general health. The study participants were fed foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains in place of the fats in their diet. The low-fat diet participants ate 53 percent of their total caloric intake as carbohydrates while the control group averaged 45 percent carbs. The low-fat dieters ate 120 fewer calories than the control group. After a year had elapsed in the study, the low-fat dieters had not experienced a significant weight loss or gain and the researchers concluded that a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet was not a contributing factor in weight gain and eventual obesity.

Pirrung said this study proves the veracity of low-fat/high-carb diets as a healthy way to eat while low-carb makes you eat too much fat and calories. But wait a minute. This so-called study didn't even look at what most of us would consider a low-carb diet since the control group ate 45 percent of their calories from carbs. Try dropping the carb counts to around single digits, Mr. Pirrung, and you'll see the power of livin' la vida low-carb for yourself. In other words, you got a false result if you think 45 percent carb intake is "low-carb" because it is not.

He contends this study (again, where did it come from?) proved that "the weight loss [on low-carb] was short-term and not an effective plan for long-term weight loss."

How does it prove that, Mr. Pirrung? It does no such thing and you know it. Even if I do believe this study you cite in your column without any references to back it up, it just doesn't add up. Put a 54 percent carb diet against a 10-20 percent carb diet head-to-head any day of the week and even drop the calories of the low-fat/high-carb diet to 500 calories below the low-carb/high-fat diet and you will see something remarkable--incredible sustained weight loss that continues on as long as the low-carb diet is followed. It's only short-term if the person stops eating that way.

Describing the Atkins diet as "contradictory," Pirrung said the "high-fat intake" is why it is so unhealthy compared with low-fat/high-carb diets which are allegedly "beneficial in reducing breast cancer, colon cancer and heart disease." Sigh. Fat-phobia pops up yet again in this discussion of low-carb diets. Get over it people, fat is NOT unhealthy for you. I do believe we could discuss this until we are all blue in the face presenting the evidence for everyone to see and people will STILL believe fat is bad for them. This is a serious public relations problem that the low-carb lifestyle must overcome if we are ever going to move forward with providing better health education in this country.

Pirrung still contends weight management is about watching your calories along with regular exercise, not carb-counting.

"The authors of these studies have stressed the importance of a diet plan that includes cutting back on calories, not necessarily one of the food groups, and exercising on a consistent basis. They also were adamant that the study has proven, to people who still swear by the Atkins plan, that they have nothing to fear by eating foods containing carbohydrates, only more calories."

But what about the quality of those calories, Mr. Pirrung? Do you want them to be filled with horrendous low-fat/high-carb junk foods that are destructive to your body or with much healthier sugar-free/low-carb/high-fat (and might I add delicious!) foods that science is proving leads to better weight loss and health management with each passing day? For me, I'm livin' la vida low-carb until the day the good Lord decides to take me home. And that won't be for a very long, long time.

You can e-mail Roy Pirrung about his views on the Atkins diet at

11-20-06 UPDATE: One of my readers decided to take Roy Pirrung to task today with his thoughts about why he is a big believer in the low-carb lifestyle.

Hello Roy,

Let me first say that I respect your decision to live a healthy lifestyle. I also think it's awesome that you stopped smoking and got in shape. Awesome job on both fronts. Let me share my story with you.

I'm 38 years young, have clocked almost 3000 miles on my road bike this summer, usually 1.5 to 2 hr rides (25 to 30 miles) 3/4 times week. I aggressively lift freeweights the other 3/4 days/week and do occasional yoga/plyometrics. I almost always followed a Low-fat, higher protein diet (20f/40p/40c). Eating plenty of complex fibrous carbs and some starchy carbs, like Sweet potatoes, Beans/Lentils, etc... I do not smoke or drink alcohol, ever. I did smoke in my early twenties for about 2 years. I never eat junk food, I spend about $200 monthly on a good multivitamin, quality whey protein, glutamine, Udo's oil blend and some awesome ultimate greens powders. Basically I followed the "Burn the fat, feed the muscle" plan "almost to a T". Tom Venuto is an awesome coach and has an incredible amount of knowledge on bodybuilding and fitness.

However, I am a sugar burner. Plain and simple. I had a V02 test done a few weeks back and my RQ (Respiratory Quotient) was 1.04, and that was while pedaling a stationery bike with a heart rate of 115bpm. I normally ride at 135-140bpm for miles at a time. And I like, no I love going up hills where the HR goes to 165-170bpm. We re-tested with a new unit, same results. We tested someone else, they were at .76. As I researched more, It started to add up. My friends "rode less and ate more and more of what they wanted and still lost weight." Hey, I sound like one of the Infomercials. Hey, where's my ab blaster? Me I'm just pedaling to burn my last meal and the bananas and Clif bars I used to keep from bonking 20 miles away from home. I tried riding early AM fasted, late evening on a trainer to burn off dinner, etc... I've tried HIIT (High-intensity intervals), LISS (Low-intensity steady state). 2x daily cardio routines, Eating 2000 calories, eating 5000 calories. Don't get me wrong if I kept a fairly aggressive calorie deficit (15-20%), I'd lose weight. But the problem was that my appetite was always out of control. Carbs make sugar burners hungrier--like ready to eat the fridge AND the power cord hungry. And how much was muscle vs. fat? In the end that's what's important. Pounds and yen are currency that don't do much here in the U.S., but health, vitality and a good physique, now we're getting somewhere.

Okay sorry for the length of those two paragraphs, but I wanted to give you a little background on myself.

My issue is that I think so many people in the low-Fat camp are so entrench by dogmatic view and are missing the fact that some people's bodies burn sugar and hold on to fat. I contend that 30-45 percent carbs is not even close to "low-carb". I also believe the "short-term" straw-man argument that the low-fat camp uses is because the vast majority of people don't stick to truly low-carb long enough. It's not easy, but it is simple. But people want instant gratification. The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.

Bad carbs are everywhere--sugar in salad dressing, sugar in catsup, sugar in healthy bread, partially-hydrogenated oil and sugar and salt in peanut butter. Where's has the sanity gone? What can we poor average Joe's do? The media, food companies, government and drug companies love it. We buy plenty of Grilled Chicken sandwiches, Diet Coke, Fitness monthly, VYTORIN, get soaked by 17% yearly increases in health-care premiums and pay lots of sales taxes on all the ab blasters, if we get them locally, of course. And still we're the ones getting nowhere and carrying the load. Pun intended.

Let's be open and honest. Dogma is getting us nowhere.

Please do some more honest research before slamming low carb. It works! And, people who plan the work and work the plan are succeeding--LONG TERM. How is 2+ years not long-term? Not to mention it's much easier and tastier to go to a steakhouse, order salmon and salad (WITH the cheese and dressing, please), leave the potato, or substitute it for some grilled mushrooms and lose weight rather than being paranoid that the calorie and fat bogeymen are going to clobber us and devour our children.

In all seriousness, I do welcome any feedback, insight and constructive criticism. We can only learn we we're willing to challenge and be challenged by our peers.

Well stated! If I hear back from Mr. Pirrung or if you do, please let me know so we can share his response here.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger Science4u1959 said...

All that running made his brain bounce around too much in his skull, apparantly. He might be a great runner but he sure doesn't understand one iota of nutritional science.

And I'm very interested in that "study" he's quoting! If it indeed exists, it would be the FIRST and ONLY study showing ANY benefit of the low-fat mantra over low-carb.

If it exists (and it most likely doesn't exist) then it's some epidemiological misinterpretation from Ornish or similar fanatic anti-fat groups using their beloved pseudo-science.

That article is not worth the paper it is printed on.

11/20/2006 4:31 AM  
Blogger Calianna said...

Yes, it would be very interesting to see the original study, because there's simply not enough information here to tell what was really going on.

What little information we're given though shows that there was so little difference in the two diets (45% carbs, vs. 53% carbs and 120 calories?!) that a couple of miscalculations daily in the size of servings would have completly negated even that small difference.

For instance, the difference between a large apple (29 g carbs, 110 calories) and a medium apple (19 g carbs, 72 calories) is that the large apple is 1/2" larger in diameter. Who can spot that difference without using a ruler? And yet it can result in a 38 calorie and 10 g carb difference.

For bananas, a large one is 8" to 8-7/8" long, but the medium one can be as little as 7" or as much as 7-7/8" long. Even though they're listed as having a difference between the two sizes of 20 calories, it's obvious that if you have a 7-7/8" banana, it's going to be a lot closer to the calorie count of the large one than the medium one.

As far as fat calories are concerned, it seems the low carb group would have consumed 20 grams more fat than the low fat group did - again, small miscalculations in serving sizes throughout the day would negate any difference between the two groups, since a tablespoon of fat is 14 grams, so several 1 g(1/5 tsp) miscalculations of fat consumption in the course of a day could result in significantly more or less fat grams in the diet, whether they were in the low fat group, or the so-called low carb group.

I know we don't pay any real attention to calories as low carbers, but it only takes a few teensy little 20 calorie miscalculations of serving size like these to more than make up for what is assumed to be a 120 calorie deficit in the low fat group.

No wonder they didn't see any significant difference between the two groups, between the fact that they didn't set them up to have any real difference in carb and fat intake to begin with, and the miniscule total difference in calorie intake.

Besides, if the low fat group really did consume 120 calories less per day than the (so called) low carb group did, why didn't they lose a lot more weight? Hmm? Over the course of a year, a daily 120 calorie deficit should have resulted in a weight loss of 12-1/2 pounds over the course of the year. So what I see here is that calorie counting doesn't work, since from what little we're told in this article, they didn't lose that much.

Basically, the study was pointless if that was the infintesimally small difference they used to determine the difference between low fat and low carb.

But the article wasn't without a point in mind, oh no. First he says:

It was not designed to promote weight loss, but to discover the health benefits of eating low-fat foods.

So the agenda is clear right up front. Then later he says:

Initial studies showed indications that a low-fat diet could cause significant weight loss, but this study did not prove that.

Well, yeah. A real low carb diet would have showed considerable difference though.

But back to their agenda of proving a low fat diet is better for you:

Researchers will now focus on the health benefits associated with reducing fats in the diet.

It is hoped that new studies will bear out the claims that low-fat diet plans can be beneficial in reducing breast cancer, colon cancer and heart disease.

The authors of these studies have stressed the importance of a diet plan that includes cutting back on calories...

So, the authors of the study apparently went into it thinking that they'd automatically be vindicated in their claims that you'd have the health benefit of losing a lot more weight on a low fat diet, which the study didn't bear out. Since that didn't work out for them as planned, now they're trying another attack, this time trying to prove that a low fat diet prevents certain cancers and heart disease.

Well, good luck with that, I don't think they have a chance of proving that one either.

11/20/2006 9:43 AM  
Blogger Science4u1959 said...

Here's my email to Roy:

'Low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets [15% protein, 60% carbohydrate, 25% fat] increase the risk of heart disease'
J Jeppeson, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1997; 65: 1027-33.


11/21/2006 2:16 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

The study Roy Pirrung quotes is the Women's Health Initiative

(from the abstract)

Randomized controlled trial of 48 835 postmenopausal women aged 50 to 79 years, of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, who participated in the Women's Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial.

Conclusions Over a mean of 8.1 years, a dietary intervention that reduced total fat intake and increased intakes of vegetables, fruits, and grains did not significantly reduce the risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD in postmenopausal women.

To the horror of its creators, this massively expensive trial (a $415-million, 8 year study) did not actually prove anything, so to make the glass appear half full rather than half empty, they concluded it did not cause weight gain. Actually it did cause a minimal weight loss of 2 lbs over 8 yrs! in this group of overweight women, but it was accompanied by an increase in the Waist to Hip Ratio considered to be a more useful measure of obesity and health risks).

Note the differences from Roy Pirrung's version; a comparison of a lower fat diet vs. the Standard American Diet (SAD), it is actually 6 months old, not a recently released study and probably most importantly, it had absolutely nothing to do with the Atkins diet or any other low carb diet.

While I would like to know if total mortality was increased in either group, my suspicion is that again there were no statistically significant difference and, going out on a limb, that there were a lower number of deaths in the SAD control group. If the opposite had occurred, "there would have been a statistically non significant trend toward lower mortality" (my quotes).

It seems that Mr. Pirrung should stick to writing on his expertise, marathons, or at least research his columns more carefully and give references to be intellectually honest and allow the reader to more completely understand the subject . Thanks for the time and space to comment.

P.S. I'm sending this comment to Mr. Pirrung.

11/21/2006 11:16 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

Hey Mark,

I knew that was the study Pirrung was attempting to cite, but why omit it in your column? If he truly believed it proved his point, then wouldn't he want to tell people ALL about it? The man had an ulterior motive to trash Atkins plain and simple.


11/21/2006 12:16 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home