Why Your Doctor May Question a Low Carb Diet

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I am a retired physician who graduated from Emory University School of Medicine in 1986. A vast majority of physicians I’ve encountered during my career have the patient’s best interest in mind and want to improve their health.

So if you learn about the benefits of a low carbohydrate lifestyle from books, articles published in medical journals, or God forbid, the INTERNET, you might wonder why your doctor is either not supportive or even cautions you against it.

The answer is simpler than you might think. It is not that your doctor does not want you to experience the benefits. It is most likely that your doctor was not educated about the effect of diet on disease. To understand this, let me give you some background about medical education.

In order to get into medical school in the first place, you have to be an excellent student. In our current education system, being an excellent student means being able to learn and retain lots of information in a short period of time and accurately recall that information on a test or later in medical training with their patients. It does not require that they be creative thinkers or innovators, or question what they are being taught. Once a student enters medical school, the amount and pace of learning is accelerated further. There is literally no time to question the validity of the material.

Most medical students have heard from their wise professors the phrase, “half of what you just learned is wrong, but we don’t know which half.” However, that is a difficult concept to accept given the time and effort spent learning all that material. In essence, the overwhelming feeling at the end of medical school is, “I know I don’t know everything, but at least I know what matters the most.”

The next piece to this puzzle is to know that nutrition is barely discussed in most (not all) medical schools. At Emory, in 1982, we had about 2 weeks of education in “nutrition.” But what was covered was how the body metabolizes protein, carbohydrate, and fat, nutritional deficiency diseases, and the nutritional requirements to prevent those diseases. The fact that many chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and digestive diseases were rare prior the adoption of the Western diet was not covered. I did not learn this until 2011 when I read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

So by the time a medical student graduates, they think they know most of what they need to know, that some of it may be wrong, and that they will need to continue learning. But how does all that work out in practice? Next comes internship and residency. This is the time when the young doctor learns how to care for sick patients in the hospital and outpatient clinic. The caseload starts low but quickly builds. We are taught about how to diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions from self-limited to life threatening. These treatments usually involve one or more medications. In order to learn new therapies or understand which current therapies are not very effective one must spend extra time and effort reading the medical literature, neither of which are in abundant quantity. What little time remains to read a small subset of the vast medical literature is usually devoted to one’s specialty, leaving topics of nutrition and its influence on chronic disease off the radar.

Some physicians will be familiar with the low carbohydrate diet already and others may be willing to learn about it and support you especially when they see your condition is improving as a result. However, other physicians may immediately recognize it is not part of their armamentarium, therefore it must be either not effective, or possibly dangerous, especially if the word “ketosis” or “ketones” is mentioned. Although doctors should know the difference between “nutritional ketosis” and “ketoacidosis,” the term “nutritional ketosis” is only mentioned in the context of a low carbohydrate ketogenic diet and therefore is not discussed in medical school. So the only context in which most doctors know about “ketosis” is one of the following: starvation ketosis, diabetic ketoacidosis, or alcoholic ketoacidosis, none of which are good.

The final thing you should know about the practice of medicine is that physicians are constantly aware of being sued for malpractice. One of the criteria for malpractice is when a physician does not follow “standard of care.” So if a therapy is safe and effective, but not generally recognized as “standard of care,” the physician could be accused of malpractice should something adverse happen to the patient whether or not it was causally related to the low carb diet.

Overall I would say that despite the mounting evidence of the benefits of a low carbohydrate diet for many medical conditions, it has not yet been accepted as “standard of care” in 2016. I doubt there will ever be a sudden declaration of its benefits and safety. Rather, there will be a gradual move over to its acceptance in small steps. For example, the American Diabetes Association in its Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes-2016  states the following: “As there is no single ideal dietary distribution of calories among carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for people with diabetes, macronutrient distribution should be individualized while keeping total calorie and metabolic goals in mind.” I hope you can appreciate the subtlety of this statement. It is not a specific endorsement of low dietary carbohydrate, but it is acceptance of it. However, physicians who may read that one sentence of the 112 page document might not interpret it in the same way.

I know many physicians who enthusiastically endorse a low carbohydrate diet for many medical conditions. The great majority of them have experienced personal health benefits from actually adopting the diet for themselves and that includes me. Although physicians are taught to ignore anecdotal evidence, it is difficult to do when it applies to oneself.

How to approach your doctor in supporting your low carbohydrate lifestyle

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, it is best to have your physician on board with your low carbohydrate lifestyle. It will affect the need for or lack thereof of many of your medications. There can be side effects that are easily corrected with knowledge of how the diet works.

With the above as a background, I think the best approach to getting your less-than-enthusiastic doctor on board is to gently encourage your physician to read a few selected references about the benefits of a low carbohydrate lifestyle for your specific medical condition(s). PubMed is a good source of articles published in the medical literature. A skeptical physician will be less likely to read a book about low carbohydrate diets although you can give that a try, too. However, every low carbohydrate book I have read has many references to the medical literature that you can find on PubMed and print out for your doctor. There will be some physicians who will not be convinced despite being shown numerous articles. At that point, you might want to seek a second opinion with a physician who has experience with low carbohydrate diets. This is only list I am aware of. The low carbohydrate ketogenic diet may not be right for everyone, but for me, and numerous others with diabetes (and a host of other medical conditions), it has been a life-changer.

 

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John Anthony
Great article. I have seen at least one other short post by a student about to graduate and stating that their education in the field of nutrition was negligible and that she was looking for advice on where to obtain better information. You have hit the proverbial nail on the head. It seems to me that doctors who have completed their formal studies and are not in practice have very little time to study nutrition, so they regurgitate what they have learned and are not at all open to being questioned or challenged. In countries where medical care is socialized… Read more »
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