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Briffa: High-Carb Diet Making 'Career Dieters' Out Of People

Posted Sep 12 2008 3:42am

Dr. John Briffa says we should return to the "primal" diet of our ancestors

Sometimes it feels like we're all alone in this battle to share with others about healthy living. Sure, there are LOTS of voices out there purporting to be about good nutrition and health principles, but many of these fall well short of the mark by simply regurgitating the same old tired low-fat, low-calorie, portion-controlled diets which have by now been proven to be absolutely, positively useless for both health and weight management.

That's why I enjoy highlighting those diamonds in the rough who actually "get it" when it comes to this subject and today I have a gentleman from UK who fits the bill. His name is Dr. John Briffa and I think you're gonna like what he has to say regarding diet, health, and nutrition in the modern era. He doesn't toe the line of the so-called "experts" and you gotta love that!

Dr. Briffa first caught my eye early on when I first began this blog when he highlighted a study showing a high-protein, low-carb diet is good for bone health. WHOA! Who is this guy? At that time, I just KNEW I wanted to find out more about this Dr. John Briffa and I'm pleased he agreed to be interviewed by me for my blog today.

Read and soak it all in. This is someone you'll want to hear more from.

1. Today we have with us a man who is a highly-respected, award-winning diet and health writer and nutritional expert named Dr. John Briffa and he hails from London, England. For more than 15 years, Dr. Briffa has shared his recipe for healthy living with his patients as well as the entire British population through his thought-provoking articles and columns for more than 70 publications including the Daily Mail and the Observer.

Welcome, Dr. Briffa, and thank you for spending a few moments with me and my readers today. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in this sometimes wild and crazy world of diet and nutrition.


As far as nutrition is concerned, I was a bit of a late developer. As a medical student, for instance, I subsisted on a diet comprised mainly of pizzas, kebabs, canteen food and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Despite a dire diet, my brain function was not so impaired that I could not see that a career in conventional medicine was not for me.

I plotted my escape during my time at college, and despite being what my tutors generally regarded as a ‘poor student’, I graduated (with honors).

While contemplating my future I met an elderly male patient who unwittingly turned me on to nutrition. He was very robust for his age, something he put largely down to his diet. I was struggling with a few health issues of my own (I was overweight, suffered from persistent eczema and often felt like I was drained of energy).

Inspired by this elderly gent, I started reading about nutrition and ended up applying some healthy eating principles in my own life. In quick time I found this ‘cured’ my ills, and I wondered why they didn’t teach this stuff at medical school. Anyway, buoyed by my personal success I became a rapid convert to the area!

2. I love the approach you have taken to help educate others about health at your excellent web site-- DrBriffa.com --as well as through your books, newsletter, blog, and podcast. You use the phrase "A Good Look At Good Health" to describe what you do. What does that motto mean to you and what do you hope people come away with when they encounter your work?

While I think there’s a lot of good information on health around, there’s no denying that there’s a lot of suspect stuff too. A lot of health advice, particularly regarding diet, does seem to be born out of a concern not for public health, but profit. My aim with DrBriffa.com is to give readers the truth, and expose health myths and misinformation where that seems appropriate.

Sometimes this means delving into food and health politics. And sometimes, it means digging a bit deeper and not taking any ‘facts’ for granted. Hence, ‘A good look at good health’. My aim is for individuals to come away from the site feeling they have read something balanced and truthful, and perhaps a little wiser about how to attain or maintain good health.

3. We are living in some rather strange times nowadays with the never ending barrage of good news/bad news about what we should and shouldn't be doing to get healthy. How do you respond to those people who are justifiably frustrated by the seemingly endless array of contradictory dietary research that comes out? Is there any way to discern what the truth really is or does it even matter?

I feel the plight of those confused by often-contradictory messages out there, as I felt just the same when I first became interested in health (as opposed to disease). With such a lot of contradictory information and advice around, it’s sometimes difficult to know who or what to believe.

I do think, however, that for those who are genuinely interested in optimizing their health and wellbeing that it’s important to discern fact from fiction. As a starting point, I tend to encourage individuals to think about diet a fundamental way: the best diet for us is going to be based on the foods that we’ve eaten the longest in terms of our evolution.

After all, these are the foods that we’re best adapted to on a genetic, biochemical, physiological and metabolic perspective. Having this basic principle in mind is one simple way individuals can make healthy food choices and keep themselves out of a lot of trouble!

4. Your life's work is about getting people to turn to natural health remedies to fight their obesity and diseases. Share with us a few of the most basic changes that people can and should be making in order to live a much healthier life.

Firstly, eat a ‘primal’ diet that is mainly made up of natural, unprocessed foods such as meat, fish, seafood, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and water.

Secondly, keep active. Generally, I recommend a mix of aerobic and resistance exercise here, though none of it needs to be particularly time-consuming or arduous.

Thirdly, I recommend getting enough sleep, not just in terms of length but also depth. Getting to bed earlier and getting up earlier is one strategy that seems to work well for most people in this respect.

I also advise that individuals get plenty of sun exposure whenever possible. Sunburn is to be avoided, of course, but that said, there’s mounting evidence linking sunlight exposure with a reduced risk of many conditions including depression, multiple sclerosis and many different forms of cancer including those of the breast, colon and prostate.

Oh, and don’t forget to have fun whenever possible! Being healthy, in my opinion, need not be an austere and joyless experience.

5. Earlier this year you released a brand new book in the UK with many of your dietary concepts called "The True You Diet" which attempt to "make diets history." As someone who was able to lose nearly 200 pounds naturally through simple changes in my diet, I'm all for promoting the concept of lifestyle change to the masses. Is that also your philosophy or is there more to attaining the "true you" than that?

I do think that there are certain nutritional principles that apply to ‘the masses’, so to speak. Eating a low-glycemic index/load diet is one such principle. In addition, though, studies show that the ideal ‘fuel’ for the body varies from individual to individual.

For instance, some people are quite efficient metabolizers of fat, while others are better metabolizers of carbohydrate. In The True You Diet, I explore this concept in depth, and link the presence of different ‘types’ of individuals to our evolutionary past. The book is fully scientifically-referenced, with some 350 studies are specifically cited in the text.

For ease of understanding, in the book I have classified individuals into ‘hunters’ (efficient metabolizers of fat), ‘gatherers’ (efficient metabolizers of carb) and ‘hunter-gatherers’ (somewhere in between). The book contains a comprehensive questionnaire which allows individuals to find out which ‘type’ they are, and also offers advice on foods, meals and recipes that are specific to each type.

6. You are on the cutting edge of nutritional science and have built up quite a reputation with your weekly newsletters and other alternative means of communications like your blog and podcasts . What can people expect to receive from these various new media resources and have you seen a greater response to your message since launching them?

My DrBriffa.com blog is updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and almost always features a topical, recent health or research-related story. I often write about nutrition, but will cover just about anything that I think may be of value or interest to readers including food or health politics, activity and exercise, sleep, yoga and meditation, and sunlight.

On Fridays, I send out a newsletter that summarizes that week’s blogs with live links back to the original posts for those who want to read more. I am planning to start regular podcasting and perhaps videocasting later this year.

I am constantly spurred on by the positive feedback I get from my readers. I honestly do really appreciate this! I love blogging partly because it’s so much more immediate than print media, and it allows a more intimate relationship with readers too. And there’s no editorial control! Needless to say, I’m committed to continuing my online work.

7. The food and drug industries have obviously had a field day promoting the obesity epidemic and some would say they deliberately overemphasize the severity of it simply to turn a huge profit. What are your thoughts about this and do you believe money is at the root of the dietary recommendations and reliance on prescription medications for every health ailment we face today?

There is quite a lot of evidence which suggests that the standard measure of body weight (the body mass index – BMI) is pretty useless as a marker of health. Plus, plenty of evidence links being ‘overweight’ with health outcomes as good if not better than those in the ‘healthy’ category. In short, I do agree that the severity and consequences of ‘excess’ weight have been somewhat overstated.

Sorry if this seems like I’m laboring the point, but my belief is that a lot of health messages and recommendations are driven by commercial concern. This not only creates potential markets for, say, pharmaceutical and food companies, but also allows these companies to sell us solutions in the form of medications, and frankly quite unhealthy (though profitable) foodstuffs such as margarine and artificial sweeteners.

8. Is there anything inherently wrong with a low-fat, low-calorie, high-carb diet for the general population? Also, is there a specific way of eating that can assist those people who are diabetic?

Is this a trick question?! Where do I start?! First of all, a high-carb diet can upset blood sugar and insulin balance that can lead to symptoms such as sweet cravings, fuzzy thinking, fatigue and waking in the night in the short term, and problems such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes and heart disease in the long term.

Plus, high-carb diets often fail to really satisfy the appetite, making them quite unsustainable. It is just this sort of diet than can make ‘career dieters’ out of people. And these diets can be lacking in key nutrients, so that individuals can end up overweight and malnourished, all at the same time. Hardly ideal!

As far as diabetes is concerned, I think a lot of conventional nutritional advice is woefully lacking. Often, diabetics are encouraged to include starchy carbs at each meal. We know that these foods tend to disrupt blood sugar levels, and we know that diabetes is a fundamentally a problem with blood sugar control. So why are diabetics given the advice to eat the very food they have a problem dealing with?!

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to most of your readers that I advise carb-control for diabetics. Actually, this was the very diet used to treat diabetics before the advent of insulin. And it still works to this day! It’s not just common sense that supports this approach, but science too: several studies show that diets lower in carbohydrate can improve measures of glycemic control including blood sugar levels, insulin levels and levels of HbA1C (which is a measure of glycemic control over the preceding 2-3 months).

9. You have spoken out against using medications like statin drugs to artificially lower cholesterol levels by a mere 10 percent because there are no actual benefits experienced by such modest reductions. What would you say to someone who is worried about their "high" cholesterol and being told to take a drug to lower it for heart health? What are some all-natural ways people can ward off heart disease?

My issue with statin drugs is mainly two-fold: their benefits have been overstated, and their hazards have been understated. The great majority of people who take these drugs have no history of ‘cardiovascular’ disease (e.g. heart disease, heart attack or stroke). In such individuals, meta-analyses (where the results of several similar studies are grouped together) have found the statins do not save lives.

Statins do seem to save lives, however, when used to treat individuals with a history of cardiovascular disease. However, it is not assured that is because of cholesterol reduction, because statins also have other effects that could explain this benefit including an anti-inflammatory effect and some ability to ‘thin’ the blood. All-in-all, I think far too much is made of the supposed ‘perils’ of cholesterol. And it is well-recognized that statins can deplete the body of the nutrient coenzyme Q10, which can lead to symptoms such as fatigue and muscle pain.

What I would say to someone with high cholesterol or keen to ward off heart disease is not to focus on the cholesterol, but on health. If they want to make any changes at all, then I suggest on incorporating lifestyle changes that support vibrant health and wellbeing. A good starting point would be those things I outlined in my answer to question 4 of this interview.

10. THANK YOU again for sharing a few moments with us here at the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog today, Dr. Briffa. Your zeal for naturally healthy living is contagious and I can only hope to follow your outstanding example in my own work. Are there any final words of encouragement and hope you would like to share with my readers before you go?

Firstly, and I do mean this very genuinely, I think your site is doing an outstanding job of assisting individuals in educating themselves about important (possibly life-saving) principles. It’s an example of how the Internet has provided a portal for motivated individuals to share information and knowledge. And knowledge is power, after all.

The ability for individuals to self-educate in this way means that industry is less and less able to control what people believe. It’s like the genie is out of the bottle – and now that it is, it’s going to be hard to get it back in!

I believe we live in a time where there is unprecedented opportunity for individuals to discover the truth, and to use that to their advantage. There is a real feeling that growing numbers of individuals are seizing that opportunity with both hands, and I see this as a hugely positive thing for us all. Thank you Jimmy for the opportunity to ‘spread the word’ about healthy living!

THANK YOU, Dr. Briffa! It was a pleasure getting to know you better and I'm glad my readers were able to discover who YOU are today. Sign up for Dr. John Briffa's weekly health newsletter and be sure to drop him an e-mail anytime at john@drbriffa.com.

Labels: diabetes, diet, glycemic index, glycemic load, health, high-carb, interview, John Briffa, low-carb, low-glycemic, UK, weight loss

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