A Trial of the Evidence

In a landmark decision yesterday the Australian Health Practitioner’s Regulation Agency (AHPRA) dropped all charges of wrong-doing against orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gary Fettke for recommending a low carb high fat lifestyle to his patients. This is great news for a physician who had tired of amputating the gangrenous limbs of patients with uncontrolled Diabetes when lifestyle changes could not only spare their limbs, but their lives. It was not only Dr. Fettke that was investigated, but the strength of the scientific evidence behind his recommendation of a low carbohydrate diet was on trial. That is the subject of this article.

It is great news that AHPRA ruled that Dr. Fettke had caused no patient harm by his recommendation of a low carb high fat (LCHF) diet:

“…no significant risks to public safety have been identified that require a regulatory response under the National Law. In the case of each of the three issues considered, there is no evidence of any actual harm and nor does the Board discern any particular risk to public health and safety moving forward. For these reasons, the Board has decided to take no further regulatory action.”

— AHPRA medical board

It is outstanding that AHPRA apologized in writing to Dr. Fettke for the 4½ years of distress caused to him by the investigative process;

“I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for the errors that were made when dealing with this notification. We recognize that these errors are likely to have compounded any distress that you experienced as a result of being the subject of this investigation. We appreciate your cooperation and engagement through the complaint management process, and the reconsideration of the previous decision.”

— AHPRA medical board

This is fantastic news and must come as a tremendous relief both to Dr. Fettke and to his family who have endured untold stress from this long ordeal.

Dr. Fettke’s exoneration comes on the heels of the results of not one, but two trials over a 4-year period against South African Professor Tim Noakes for his response to a tweet on Twitter social media from a breastfeeding mother in February 2014 where he recommended that good first foods for infant weaning are low carbohydrate high fat foods. As noted by Dr. Sarah Hallberg in a letter to the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), low carbohydrate foods such as meat, chicken, fish and leafy green vegetables align closely with South Africa’s pediatric guidelines which advise that;

“From 6 months of age give your baby meat, chicken, fish, or egg every day as often as possible. Give your baby dark green leafy vegetables and orange coloured vegetables and fruit every day.”

—Food-based Dietary Guidelines for South Africa

In April 2017 and again in the appeal  which concluded in June of this year, Noakes was cleared of all charges of professional misconduct by the HPCSA which confirmed that his advice to the breastfeeding woman in his tweet was neither “unconventional” nor “dangerous medical advice“.

In June, Noakes’ lawyer Adam Pike said in a statement that the HPSCA’s ruling;

“preserves the right of scientists and doctors to express scientific opinions and disseminate medical information”

— Adam Pike, Professor Tim Noakes’ lawyer

Phrased another way, Noakes acted as a scientist who tweeted scientifically based information.

While it was Dr. Gary Fettke and Professor Tim Noakes that have been investigated as individuals, what was largely on trial was the scientific evidence behind their recommendation of a low carbohydrate diet. This evidence indicates that low carbohydrate diets are both safe and effective for treating obesity and for managing the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes.

In an article I wrote in January 2018 titled A Preponderance of the Evidence, (and posted on my website dedicated to a low carb dietary approach) I documented that not only is a low carbohydrate diet for the treatment of Diabetes not new, but almost a year ago there were already many research  studies and meta-analyses published in 76 publications which spanned 18 years which involved 6,786 subjects which used a low-carb intervention — which included 32 studies of 6 months or longer and 6 studies of 2 years or longer all of which indicated that a low carbohydrate diet is safe. Not only has it been amply documented that a low carbohydrate diet is safe, but a low carbohydrate diet performed as well, if not better than competing diets in all of the above studies. Dr. Sarah Hallberg who compiled the above list is Medical Director at Indiana University Health Arnett and Virta Health Medical Director. She she pointed out in a letter to the Health Professions Council of South Africa that data available from the US government and reported in a 2015 study indicates that in 1965 (which is just prior to the beginning of the current obesity and Diabetes epidemic) Americans ate 39% of their calories as carbohydrate and 41% of their calories as fat which is considered by many nutrition researchers today to fall within the realm of a “low carbohydrate high fat diet”. Dr. Hallberg is correct. Dietary Guidelines in both the US and Canada currently recommend that the diet be 45-65% of calories as carbohydrates and that up until 2015, the US recommended a upper limit of 35% calories as fat (<30% of calories as fat in Canada). Both countries currently still recommend limiting saturated fat to <10% of calories.

Nutrition researchers today generally consider diets less than 45% of calories as carbohydrate and >35% of calories as fat to be "low carbohydrate high fat diets", so the average American diet that was 39% carbohydrate and 41% fat in 1965 would be considered "low carb high fat" by most nutrition research studies today. 

Given the much lower rates of overweight, obesity and Type 2 Diabetes in 1965 — at a time when the average American ate what is now considered a “low carb high fat diet”, should not such a macro distribution be granted “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) standing?

For the last 40 years, the Dietary Guidelines in both the US and Canada have been counselled people to limit fat, especially saturated fat and to eat 45-65% of their calories as carbohydrate yet even a cursory look at the rates of overweight and obesity in both countries and the steadily increasing rates of Type 2 Diabetes indicates that something is terribly wrong. Clinicians (Physicians, Dietitians, Pharmacists) educated since 1977 which is the vast amount practicing in both countries (and in South Africa and Australia apparently, where Dr. Fettke and Professor Noakes are from) have all been educated within a “low fat paradigm”— where fat is vilified as the cause of cardiovascular disease and increasing carbohydrate intake is promoted as the ‘solution’ to reducing fat intake. Unless clinicians educated in this time period stayed current with the literature they simply keep teaching what they were taught; eat less fat, eat more carbs.

In the past number of years there are increasing numbers of clinicians around the world that have considered the evidence; both epidemiological and clinical studies that indicate that a low carbohydrate high fat diet not only has no adverse impact on individual health but is safe and effective for reducing overweight and obesity, as well as reducing (and in some cases reversing) the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes. Two such clinicians are Australian orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gary Fettke and South African Professor Tim Noakes; both of whom were investigated for having recommended a low carb high fat diet which was viewed as “dangerous” and both of whom, when the scientific evidence was considered, were exonerated. To their credit both Dr. Fettke and Professor Noakes conducted themselves with integrity and transparency through the entire process and all charges of wrong-doing against them were dropped, but let’s not lose sight that it was also because of the amount and strength of the scientific evidence which indicates that a well-designed low carbohydrate high fat diet is both safe and effective for weight loss, as well as for reducing symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes.

Both men have no doubt been through a very distressing and incredibly stressful >4-year ordeal which forever changed them and their families that went through it with them, however this story is not only about them but what they believed about the safety and efficacy of a low carb diet. It was low carb high fat diets that were investigated and put on trial and the conclusion in both cases as that such a diet is neither unconventional nor dangerous.

Yes, there are other dietary options for weight-loss and targeting the reduction of symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes and diets such as the classic Mediterranean Diet or a very low-fat calorie-restricted plant-based diet are effective for those that maintain them long term. The issue is that a well-designed low carbohydrate diet is at least as effective as these and may be easier for some to stick with long term, making them more effective for those individuals. Since the scientific evidence indicates that all three of these diets are safe and to varying degrees effective for weight loss and glycemic control, it is time for clinical guidelines in both the US and Canada to be formulated to enable clinicians in both countries to offer their patients a well-designed low carbohydrate diet as an option.

Perhaps you have questions about whether a low-carbohydrate diet would be appropriate for you or wonder how medical conditions you have or medications you take may factor in? I provide both in-person services in my Coquitlam (British Columbia) office, as well as via Distance Consultation using Skype or phone and I would be happy to answer your questions and help you reach your goals. Please send me a note using the “Contact Me” form on the tab above and will reply as soon as possible.

To your good health,

Joy

 https://twitter.com/lchfRD

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References

  1. Fettke Free at Last, Foodmed.net, Sept 28 2018 (http://foodmed.net/2018/06/noakes-free-hpcsa-licks-wounds-lchf/)
  2. Noakes: Top Doctors Globally call on HPCSA to Stop Prosecuting Him, Foodnet.net, February 14, 2018
  3. Food-based Dietary Guidelines for South Africa, S Afr J Clin Nutr 2013;26(3)(Supplement):S1-S164
  4. Noakes Free at Last, Foodmed.net, June 10 2018 (http://foodmed.net/2018/06/noakes-free-hpcsa-licks-wounds-lchf/)
  5. Cohen E, Cragg M, deFonseka J et al, Statistical review of US macronutrient consumption data, 1965–2011: Americans have been following dietary guidelines, coincident with the rise in obesity, Nutrition (2015), Vol 31 (5), Pg 727-732.

Author:

Joy Y Kiddie MSc., RD - I'm a Registered Dietitian in private practice in British Columbia, Canada that provides services in-person in my Coquitlam office, as well as by Distance Consultation (using Skype / telephone).