It’s becoming increasingly obvious that when it comes to nutrition, the United States is missing something. I’ve already written about why the Dietary Guidelines are wrong about cholesterol, but it’s especially interesting to note that Australia, Europe, Canada, India, and Korea do not support upper limits on cholesterol intake in their national dietary recommendations . They still believe that saturated fat should be severely limited, so I’m not sure they quite have the whole picture, but at least they recognize that limiting cholesterol intake does nothing to reduce rates of heart disease. Why is the US missing it?
But here’s one country that isn’t missing it: Sweden. Sweden is going low carb. Now, this is probably really old news to a lot of you, because it happened all the way back in 2008. Between then and now, a lot has happened: The Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show with Jimmy Moore did a show on it, an epidemiological study has been done on it, various headlines have reported on it, and Denise Minger has done a guest post on Mark’s Daily Apple about it. But I just heard about this a couple days ago and thought it was awesome, so I wanted to share! Clearly I need to do a better job keeping up with Swedish news.
Here’s how this national low-carb fever came about: It all started when Swedish doctor Annika Dahlqvist improved her health on a low carb, high fat diet, and decided to start recommending a similar diet to her patients. Looks familiar, eh? She also started a blog detailing her experiences and scientific rationale. In 2005, a couple Swedish dietitians reported Dr. Dahlqvist to the National Swedish Board of Health and Welfare, which is essentially the Swedish version of the USDA or FDA. They wanted the Board to demand that she stop recommending a high fat, low carb diet to her patients, and possibly revoke her right to practice. Why people want to mess with success I’ll never understand, but ironically, their action had the exact opposite effect. When the Board reviewed the case and and the science regarding low-carb diets, they discovered that there was no reason to prohibit Dr. Dahlqvist from recommending a low-carb diet. In January 2008, they stated that:
“A low carbohydrate diet can today be said to be in accordance with science and well-tried experience for reducing obesity and Type 2 diabetes, motivation being that a number of trials have shown effects in the shorter run, and that no evidence for it being harmful has emerged in systematic literature researchers have performed so far.” (Quote taken from podcast here. Couldn’t find the original…it’s probably in Swedish.)
This statement is what turned the low carb, high fat diet of a private practice into a national trend. What’s cool is that apparently, the National Swedish Board of Health and Welfare was the very first governmental organization to issue national dietary recommendations, and they pushed for the ‘heart healthy’ low-fat, high-carb diet. And now they’re giving their approval to a low-carb diet for treatment of obesity and diabetes!
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take researchers long to pin increased cholesterol levels on this new diet trend. A study published in 2012 correlated the increased fat intake of recent years with a rise in cholesterol, but as usual, headlines made it sound as if a causal relationship had been established. As I noted above, Denise Minger did a lovely job dissecting what this study actually tells us in her guest post for MDA (hint: it doesn’t tell us much).
So, are the Swedes still low-carbin’ it? It’s hard to say, due to the lack of Swedish health news I can actually read. However, a blog post published a few days ago did discuss a study that correlated low-carb diets with increased heart disease in Swedish women. This study was published soon after the first study I mentioned above, and it appears to be just as weak. But that didn’t stop Dr. Tom Smith, quoted in The Guardian, from citing it as evidence that eating a low carb diet “may kill you.” Clearly, this Swedish diet trend is still just as controversial now as it was four years ago.
One thing I can say for sure is that not all of Scandinavia is hopping on the low carb bandwagon. In fact, the Danish government only recently repealed a tax on fat, after a year of criticism from the business sector. I, for one, am thankful that tax didn’t last. The last thing we need is a precedent for a tax on butter here in the US!
Now, if only the US would take a lesson from Sweden and actually conduct a thorough, unbiased review of the scientific evidence regarding low carb diets. I think they might be surprised! Sure, a low-carb diet may not be right for everyone (depending on how you define “low carb”), but the important thing is to realize that it might be very right for many people. The fact that the Swedish government has recognized that is a HUGE step in the right direction!
 Fernandez, Maria L. “Rethinking Dietary Cholesterol.” Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 15 (2012): 117–121. Print.