Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

The weekend is almost here so I thought I’d give you something interesting to sit back and watch over the weekend. Today we have a lecture given by Christopher Gardner, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

Professor Gardner is a twenty-five year vegetarian and has recently completed the largest and longest-ever comparison of four popular diets using real-world conditions. The diets in his study are the Ornish diet, the Zone diet, the LEARN diet (this is the diet recommended by academics and therefore the standard diet recommended by the American government i.e. the food pyramid) and the Atkins diet.

The lecture is very interesting because Professor Gardner’s study found that one of those four diets clearly came out on top as the best of the lot. I’ll get to that in just a second.

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What the Stanford Study Discovered
As a twenty-five year vegetarian Professor Gardner had a somewhat bitter pill to swallow in presenting the results of his study. This is because his study clearly shows that not only did the Atkins diet group have the highest retention rate after one year of all the diets in the study but the Atkins group lost by far the most weight and returned hands down the best health indicators of all the diets tested.

The other three diets (Ornish, Zone and LEARN) produced similar results to each other in terms of weight loss. Looking at the health indicators despite the popular perception that on Atkins your cholesterol will somehow go through the roof the study found Atkins produced far more favorable metabolic changes when compared to all other diets in the study. For the Atkins group both systolic and diastolic blood pressure was better, as were triglycerides, HDL-Cholesterol and LDL-Cholesterol, insulin and glucose when compared to all other diets in the study.

This Can’t Be Right!?
I found it both amusing and telling that in response to this information a woman in the crowd at 24:30 in the video asks Professor Gardner whether the information on the presentation slide meant that the Ornish diet did better than Atkins in terms of HDL-Cholesterol. Maybe she simply didn’t understand what he had said but my initial reaction was that her brain had taken the Professor’s very clear statements that Atkins did better than all the other diets and thanks to her preconceptions completely flipped the information around so that it came back out comfortably aligned with what she “knew” to be true, i.e. that the Ornish diet is good for your health. It was like the information was so surprising to her that it just didn’t compute.

This may not have been the actual case but my point is do not let this be you. Don’t let personal prejudices or preconceived notions in regards to what you feel is right and wrong blind you to new information or blind you to what a new experience is telling you. Very shortly I’ll have an interesting article for you on cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias that will go deeper into this issue. Make sure you stay tuned for that one by subscribing.

Important Conclusions
Professor Gardner comes to similar conclusions regarding the need to move from grains to fibrous vegetables as I have recently been writing about here on Balanced Existence:

The best way to quickly demonstrate the failed logic with grains is as follows.

Having cancer all through your body is very bad. Having cancer in one spot is less bad. Therefore: having cancer in one spot is good for you.

Clearly you can see the failure of logic in that sequence of thought. Now stick with me as we apply this to grains.

White flour is bad for your health. Whole grains are less bad for your health. Therefore: plenty of whole grains are good for your health.

See the flawed logic?

I would also like to note that Professor Gardner’s discussion of the removal of grains from diet when talking about the Paleolithic diet is somewhat idiotic and seems more for getting a laugh out of the crowd than anything else. When you watch this part of the lecture remember that the difference in calorie intake (people who eat a Paleolithic diet tend to consume much less calories) when people are on Paleolithic type diets is explained by the highly satiating nature of protein and the higher intake of fiber from fibrous vegetables which is also very filling. Starchy grains are very calorie dense foods while fibrous vegetables are not. I guess as a twenty-five year vegetarian he really couldn’t help himself on this one.

Other Points of Interest
The study also found that a large proportion of people do not actually have a clue about these diets. A number of the study’s participants had actually previously tried the diet they were on for the study and completely failed to lose weight the first time around. After the study they realized that they hadn’t read the book properly and they had not actually understood the diet. There really is no accounting for reading comprehension.

In his talk Professor Gardner refers to another study where the same amount of weight was lost by all participants using different diets to ensure it wasn’t just the higher weight loss that caused the Atkins group to have the best health indicators. This study still found that the risk profile improved the most for the Atkins/low carbohydrate group. Professor Gardner also refers to a series of studies in which high protein was compared to high carbohydrates (holding fat constant) and high protein was compared to high fat (holding carbohydrates constant). In each case protein was better in that appetite was more satiated, more weight was lost, insulin got better and triglycerides got better.

He does raise some concerns regarding the effect of high protein diets on kidney function and bone density; however this is clearly his opinion in response to an audience question and not backed by studies based on healthy members of the population. In fact the whole high protein causing bone loss and kidney problems myth is steadily being debunked. Bones are largely made of protein and other factors such as the amount of load bearing exercise you do (kettlebells and weight lifting) are much more of a determinant of the health of your bones than diet factors such as protein intake (1, 2).

Further Reading
Here is a study done way back in which a small group of men ate only meat and animal fat for a whole year. In all cases the expected negative health effects such as damage to kidney function from eating lots of protein did not occur. Now I recommend you eat plenty of fibrous vegetables with your meat and animal fat. However, very obviously the standard recommendation to eat 8 – 11 servings of grains each and every day is insanity.

I don’t eat any grains and I do just fine. In fact when I eat grains I get sick. You may do ok on grains but I suggest that you’ll get far more nutrition from fibrous vegetables with far less calories and a lower insulin response than you will ever get eating starchy grains. That means you’ll lose weight and feel better while doing it.

This study indicates that most people who suffer a heart attack actually have low cholesterol.

And this study shows that low cholesterol increases the chance of stroke.

Professor Gardner’s Lecture – The Battle of the Diets

If you’re a subscriber to Balanced Existence and you can’t see the video you can watch it here.

1. Bess Dawson-Hughes, Susan S. Harris, Helen Rasmussen, Lingyi Song and Gerard E. Dallal, ‘Effect of Dietary Protein Supplements on Calcium Excretion in Healthy Older Men and Women’, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism Vol. 89, No. 3 1169-1173


2. Lowery LM, Devia L. Dietary protein safety and resistance exercise: what do we really know? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Jan 12;6:3.


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