The One Thing Atkins and Ornish Have in Common

Dr. Atkins is known for swearing off any food but meat.

Dr. Ornish is known for swearing off any food but plants.

Yet the Atkins and Ornish diets are two of the most widely practiced in the U.S., and have performed better than most other diets in recent studies.

Dr. Dean Ornish

Newsweek’s cover helped make Dr. Ornish famous. Bill Clinton’s and Steve Jobs’ work with him has taken him even further.

How can two diets, both stark opposites of each other, be two of the most effective methods of weight loss?

The answer lies in the one thing both diets have in common: they swear off refined carbohydrates.

Refined carbohydrates include added sugar (sugar in, say, an apple is fine; sugar added to an apple Pop Tart is not), white pasta, white rice and white bread.  Any time you see “sugar,” “cane sugar,” “high-fructose corn syrup” or the like in a food you eat, you’re eating a refined carbohydrate.  Same when you eat something with “enriched flour,” “white flour,” “wheat flour,” “rye flour” or any other flour that isn’t preceded by the word “whole.”  And the same when you eat white rice.

In refined carbohydrates, all the fiber, all the nutrients are stripped away, leaving behind a calorie-dense, nutritionally void remainder that may taste good, or give bread or pasta a nice fluffy consistency, but that may not be so good for your body.

And it’s these carbohydrates that tie Atkins and Ornish together.  Atkins, in the most extreme form of his diet, swears off nearly all carbohydrates.  Ornish prohibits refined carbohydrates despite their plant-based origins.  They both recognized that something was wrong with these “foods.”

Now, which diet is better is a separate question.  Animal products, particularly the way we grow them today, are correlated strongly with heart disease and many forms of cancer.  Plants have a much better record, but it’s not necessarily a slam dunk that we should be eating exclusively plants either.  (Though I do try to do that myself.)   Certainly these two diets seem to work, in the short term at least, for weight loss, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re healthy.  And there may well be other diets that are better for both weight loss and health.

But when people ask me what they should be eating, and complain that all the dietary advice out there is contradictory, I like to point out this similarity between even these polar opposite diets.  It may well be that if there’s one food we should resolutely avoid, it’s the refined carbohydrate.

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