Playing With Percentages

Having successfully run corporate businesses, built brands and gained an expertise in research and insights, I’m no stranger to data and percentages. When building a business case, creating segmentation and assessing the risk/reward profile of an investment or initiative, we are constantly playing with percentages. However, one of the rules that applies to both this practice, and to living life with character in general, is to be honest with those percentages. Don’t manipulate them to fit a false narrative, but use them to apply sound critical thinking skills and make better decisions.

The below article and research is a great example of what not to do when it comes to data, percentages and reporting on the “results” of research. Let’s review why.

Fast & Loose with Data

The premise of the article is a reduced-carb diet may reduce/decrease diabetes (T2D) risk, but some reduced carb diets are better than others. Fair enough, let’s understand more. In the second paragraph, the author immediately substitutes the words “reduced carb” with “low-carb,” and uses low-carb through the rest of the article to describe the diet. There are two immediate issues with this substitution:

  1. Reduced carb does NOT equal low-carb. Someone eating a diet that follows the American Dietary Guidelines, with 55%+ of calories from carbs, could shift to a “reduced carb” diet by reducing their carbs to 50% of calories per day, which would be laughably different compared to a truly “low-carb” diet.
  2. We know medically what is defined as low-carb, but do the researchers and the article writer follow that same definition?

In the next paragraph, we find the results of the study were presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions Conference. Given the history of the American Heart Association’s lack of acknowledgement of the power of a truly low-carb diet to improve metabolic health up until 2022, this is suspect at best given many of the products that proudly wear the AHA Heart-Check approval seal.

As we read through the article, we find the narrative full of inaccuracies, with the writer playing “fast and loose” with the language and regurgitating tired and worn narratives about low-carb diet “risks” that have been proven false. Here are a few examples:

  • Animal-based low-carb diets have a higher risk of T2D vs. plant-based low-carb diets. (there is no evidence of this)
  • Quantity of carbs may not matter as much as the quality of macronutrients. (carb quantity matters tremendously when shifting he body into ketosis)
  • Low-carb diets are popular because they drive rapid weight loss, but it’s unclear why they are so effective at shedding weight. (we know the impact on hormones like insulin & leptin, the reduction in inflammation and the shift to using fat/ketones for energy, not to mention the elimination of seed oils that are inefficient energy sources)
  • Some studies have suggested very low-carb diets can improve blood glucose levels in people with T2D, but these diets raise concerns about cholesterol and heart health. (ketogenic lifestyle practitioners consistently have very healthy metabolic markers, and any increase in LDL is typically tied to a hyper-responder)
  • There is no standard definition of a low-carb diet, and low-carb diets do not meet dietary recommendations (meaning the US Dietary Guidelines) very well. (low-carb diets stay <140g/carbs/day and ketogenic diets stay < 50g/carbs/day, or in percentages, <25% of calories and <10%, respectively)

The A-HA Moment

So, what did the researchers do to uncover this brilliant new perspective?

  1. They did a meta-analysis from a set of questionnaires that included a population of over 200K people, which included people filling out questionnaires on their dietary behavior every 4 years.
  2. They did NOT define a low-carb diet by the amount of carbohydrates eaten. Instead, the researchers decided to create a “total energy score” from their macronutrient intake.
  3. While they categorized foods into groups, there was no control over the types of food eaten.
  4. We have no idea of the quality of foods, how the mix of foods were integrated or whether there was caloric restriction or intermittent fasting applied.
  5. They divided people into five groups. The group with the lowest carbohydrate intake received…are you ready? 40% of their daily energy from carbohydrates.

Applying the 40% Rule

While there’s much to refute in this narrative, let’s focus on one area: 40% of the daily energy from carbohydrates has been consistently described in this article and study as “low-carb.” Does this make rational sense? Consider the following analogies:

  1. Would you consider gasoline prices increasing by 40% a “low-increase?”
  2. Would a 40% chance of cancer be a “low-likelihood?”
  3. How about a 40% loss in your retirement value? Would that be a “low-level” of loss?
  4. If a natural disaster destroyed 40% of an island, would that be considered a “low-level” of damage?
  5. If 40% of the population decided to leave their jobs, would anyone consider that a “low-level” of job resignation?
  6. What if you lost 40% of your bodyweight? Aside from that potentially being fatal, I don’t think there is a person on earth who would consider that a “low-level” of weight loss.

The premise that 40% of daily energy intake from carbs is a low-carb diet is no less absurd than the above analogies. Aside from all the other mis-information in this research and article, what is most disappointing is if the author was actually trying to present information that could showcase the effectiveness of a TRUE low-carb diet, there are literally hundreds of studies and examples she could site. But no evidence was shared, no fact check was made, no research or effort was offered to help educate.

This is an example of a very poor study due to lack of controls, incorrect definitions and a clear lack of referencing proven science. What this study will do is be used to offer further credence to the food manufacturers and end-consumers that the current dietary guidelines are great, eating a ton of carbs is healthy, and the American Heart Association can then sell their certification (you’ve seen it plastered on food products all over the store) as a way to give consumers confidence that this product is healthy. Having worked in the food industry before, and now again, I understand how this works.

Don’t be misled by these types of “studies” (if you can call it that) or articles that are based on poor research and play fast & loose with definitions. If you are truly interested in facts, evidence and the power of a truly low-carb, or even ketogenic lifestyle, as a way to reduce your risk of T2D, and even reverse it, check out my science reference page, and spend a bit of time with the below sites to help you gain a better understanding.