WASHINGTON — Want to lose weight? Try following the back and forth of the Great Nutrition Debate, a government-sponsored face-off Thursday of America's leading diet gurus. The exercise was guaranteed to leave you exhausted.
At one end was cardiologist Robert Atkins, promoter of the wildly popular high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that lets people eat omelets, bacon and bun-less burgers. "It's easy to follow. You're never hungry," he said.
On the other end was Dean Ornish, an internist whose book promises readers they can "Eat More, Weigh Less" if they follow his ultra-low-fat, virtually vegetarian diet.
In between were people like heart surgeon Morrison Bethea, co-author of "Sugar Busters! Cut Sugar to Trim Fat," who says the secret to losing weight is cutting out not just sugar but also foods like potatoes and carrots that act in similar ways.
Also, biochemist Barry Sears, who believes the answer to obesity is in chemistry--controlling the body's insulin level, and internist John McDougall, who thinks it should be obvious to anyone that an Asian rice-based diet is best. "This is a no-brainer," McDougall said.
Atkins defended his low-carb diet, which has been roundly criticized by Ornish as well as many medical experts who fear it could damage the kidneys or bones.
Atkins said it is the fat and cholesterol produced by the body that is the culprit in obesity, not the fat that's eaten. And not only does his diet work, it's safe, he said.
"Telling people that pork rinds and sausage is healthy sells books, but it's hazardous to your health," said Ornish.
In the sharpest exchange of the debate, Ornish criticized the lack of research done on the effects of Atkins' diet.
"We're not as good a fund-raiser as you are," Atkins snapped.
"With the number of books you sell you could fund your own studies," Ornish fired back.
As for critics who say Ornish's low-fat diet is unappealing, he said that's because they are not cooking the right way.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who organized the debate and had the final word, made no effort to sort out the myriad claims.
"Eat well and eat healthy," Glickman advised. But he suggested that it may be time for government researchers to get involved in evaluating the various diets.
There were some areas of agreement among the weight-loss experts: Americans are too fat. Exercise is good. Added sugars and refined carbohydrates, like white bread, are not.
Beyond that, they couldn't agree on what causes people to become fat, much less how to get rid of it.
"Balance is the key," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Assn. and a panelist for the debate. "We've gone to all the extremes now. Maybe somewhere in between is where we need to go."
Diets can reduce weight, but the question is whether people can keep it off, said Ayoob, a nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Big changes are temporary changes."
One diet is not "appropriate . . . for each and every patient," said another panelist, Denise Bruner, president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, the doctors who treat obesity. "Does a physician treat every stomachache with a pill?"