The Atkins' Diet: Friend or Foe?
The Atkins' Diet: Friend or Foe?
In a society that is continually obsessed with being thin and dieting,
the following quote might seem like an intriguing promise:
FORGET THE FIGHT AGAINST FAT! BREAK THE SUGAR-STARCH HABIT TODAY AND ENJOY STEAK, EGGS, CHEESE, EVEN WINE AS YOU GET HEALTHY AND LOSE WEIGHT WITH SUGAR BUSTERS! (1).
Sounds good doesn't it? All the dieter must do is eliminate carbohydrates and he or she will loose weight, right? If this sounds too good to be true, you are not alone in your hesitation. An increasing number of nutritionists and doctors are warning that diets that eliminate carbohydrates in favor of protein and fat are not effective and may be dangerous to one's health. As Sheila Kelly, a clinical dietician, says, "It's a seductive concept. Watch the pounds melt away while you eat all of the high-fat foods you want. Even better, don't bother watching your caloric intake or worrying about regaining your weight. All you have to do is avoid 'poison' carbohydrates" (2). The Atkins' Diet, one of the best known of the low carbohydrate diet programs, promotes the idea that carbohydrates are an overweight person's barrier to loosing weight (3). This essay will examine specifically what the Atkins' Diet calls for and the mounting body of evidence against low carbohydrate diets.
In 1972 Dr. Robert Atkins published Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution and in 1992 published Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, an updated version of his first book. Atkins' books promote a controlled carbohydrate diet and provide the dieter with a four-step program to loosing weight (3). The first step is a 2-week "induction" period, during which one attempts to reduce his or her carbohydrate intake to less than 20 grams a day. During the remaining three steps the dieter incrementally raises his or her carbohydrate level, but never surpasses one's "critical carbohydrate level." Noncarbohyrate foods are permitted whenever the dieter is hungry and Atkins also recommends large amounts of nutritional supplements (4). By following these four steps, the dieter will induce ketosis, a process Atkins describes as equivalent to fat burning. When a person's body does not receive enough carbohydrates to burn for energy it turns to fat for its energy. He says, "There is nothing harmful, abnormal or dangerous about ketosis" and that is it a natural process within the body. The dieter will only have to wait about two days for ketosis to begin, which, according to Atkins, explains why a dieter following the Atkins' dieter sees results so quickly. For whom is this diet safe? Atkins suggests that overweight people over the age of 12 can benefit from his diet (3).
Why does Atkins claim that carbohydrates are responsible for weight gain and play a role in the failure of many diets? A basic understanding of what carbohydrates are is necessary for one to answer this question. Carbohydrates are nutrient-rich starch and sugars that effect blood sugar, called glucose. Muscle and liver glycogen stores are fueled by carbohydrates, as is the brain (5). For this reason, the intake of carbohydrates in children is particularly important because they affect learning ability (6). Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of fuel and if a person is attempting to lose fat but is simultaneously eating carbohydrates, he or she will use those carbohydrates as energy and the excess fat will remain, according to Atkins. He says that a person must eliminate carbohydrates in order to induce the fat burning process of ketosis, as outlined above (3).
The importance of carbohydrates in the diet is reflected by the government's "Food Pyramid." The foods at the base of the pyramid are considered the staple of a healthy diet: refined carbohydrates such as bread, rice, and pasta. At the top of the pyramid, foods that should be avoided or limited, are fats and oils (7). The American Heart Institute and the National Institutes of Health recommend that a balanced diet include 250 to 300 grams of carbohydrates a day, about 15 times the amount recommended by Atkins (2). Ross Feldman, an exercise physiologist, says, "there is no evidence that eating a diet rich in carbohydrates is associated with obesity" (5). Why does such a large discrepancy exist? Many sources do agree on one thing; the Atkins' Diet may temporarily help with weight loss but it may also pose significant health risks.
The primary health risk of the Atkins' Diet is dehydration. After carbohydrates are significantly reduced, ketosis begins and the dieter initially looses liver glycogen. This storage of carbohydrates is lost because the body does not have enough glucose to maintain blood sugar so it turns to the liver glycogen. Glycogen consists of a large number of water molecules and when the body converts glycogen to glucose, the water is lost from the body. This explains much of the initial weight loss on the Atkins' Diet, rather than Atkins' claim that the initial weight loss is fat (1). The large amount of water loss poses the risk of dehydration, but is not the most potentially severe consequence of the Atkins' Diet. The high fat content may put the dieter at risk for coronary heart disease, hyperlipidemia (high blood fat), and hypercholesterolemia (high blood cholesterol). The high protein content may put extra strain the kidneys, which can lead to electrolyte imbalance, decrease the kidneys' ability to absorb calcium, which could lead to the early stages of osteoporosis (5). The results of a study conducted by the University of Kentucky after a computer analysis of a week's worth of sample Atkins' menus report that a dieter is at risk of cancer, among other serious risks (4).
One might wonder why the Atkins' Diet has been successful even though studies have exposed these serious risks. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the rapid weight loss provides the dieter with rapid reinforcement for his or her weight- loss effort. The dieter might assume that the weight-loss is fat reduction, as Atkins would have us believe, while ignoring possible heath risks. But how will the dieter enjoy the weight loss? Actually, no one knows. There have been no long-term studies on the effectiveness of the Atkins' Diet, even by Atkins. Atkins cites vague reasons that his diet has long-term worth by claiming that the permitted, low- carbohydrate food is so delicious that dieters would have little difficulty following his diet for an extended period of time. The longest amount of time that Atkins cites for successful weight loss maintenance is six to twelve months. In fact, one study estimated the weight regain from the Atkins' Diet to be 96%. At any rate, the need for a long-term study on the effectiveness of the Atkins' Diet is clearly needed, as supported by many sources (1), (3), (4), (7).
Without results from a long- term study one can not safely assume that low- carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins', are effective. The dieter is ultimately responsible for his or her own decision to ignore health risks in favor of shedding a extra weight. As Keith Anderson, spokesperson for the American Dietic Association, says, "We need to know much more before people start making claims...Shouldn't diet doctors prove safety first, rather than write books and then say 'OK, prove harm?'" (7). Instead of opting for an extreme dieting method, such as Atkins, one might better benefit from using common sense. There is no magical weight loss program and routine of exercise and a healthy, realistic, balanced diet is a dieter's best bet.
1)Cornell Cooperative Extension: Food and Nutrition, article entitled Low-Carbohydrate Diets: Heresy or Hype
2)HealthAtoZ.com, article entitled Low-Carb Diets Unhealthy Trend
3)Atkins Nutritionals: Home, the Atkins Homepage
4)Quackwatch Home Page, a critical article about low-carbohydrate diets
5)DiscoverFitness.com, a article about fad diets
6)CNN.com, an article entitled 'Extreme eating' may equal extreme problems
7)ABCNEWS.com, an article entitled The Low Fat Legend
11/06/2005, from a Reader on the Web
My only reply to this article and articles like these is...I lost 30 lbs in six weeks and impoved my blood levels. I felt better than I have felt in years. I see all of these warnings and cautions and they keep my friends from really digging in and losing the weight they could because they've heard this or that. I tell them a six week run on Atkin's will not kill you..just do it and see.. That should be the message. If it makes you unhealthy or feel bad or not work..then simply stop. No one can dispute my results.. I watched it happen and was completely amazed.. I noticed it most in the mornings.. It started snow balling.. Once it really started it litterally fell off. But with ney saying like this, people are turned off or confused from the get-go.. It's so tipical...you get something that REALLY works and there is always somebody that's going to knock it down..unfortunate.
Additional comments made prior to 2007
think maybe the article is a little harsh on the Atkins diet, but the
writer is correct in stating the importance of carbohydrates in a
healthy diet. I've lost 20 pounds by simply eating the foods I'm
supposed to be eating (which includes plenty of carbs!) and by
exercising two to three times a week. For long term weight loss and
overall good health, a well-balanced diet and regular exercise is the
best way to go! ... Alyssa, 13 February 2006
I lost 21 pounds on Atkins in one year, you'd think that was a GREAT THING but here's the problem! My chloresterol went up to 270 and my doctor freaked out telling me I had to get off the diet immediately! I did, but still watched carbs, starting to eat an occasional banana, a bit of low sugar oatmeal, a tiny bit of pasta and immediately I gained 5 pounds! I NEED HELP! I cannot do Atkins due to the chloresterol I can't eat eggs and cheese and I NEED TO GET BACK TO THE 140 MARK! I am in a wedding in 2 months and if this keeps up I will gain it all back! I DO NOT EAT SWEETS, little fruit, no potato, no rice, no muffins , no crap! AND I NEED FRUIT! What do I do? Oh, and I drink a ton of water daily and I walk! ... Debra Johnson, 5 April 2006
Just because one has weight loss does not mean it is healthy. I did this diet when I was young and it worked. I would never do it again. If one is eating large amounts of fat and the liver is in ketosis, then where is the fat going that you are ingesting? Not natural. There is something wrong with a diet where one can eat twenty hot dogs wrapped in bacon and cheese and still lose weight. It doesn't take a scientist to figure that out ... Jeff Baldori, 14 June 2006
I agree with the last reply. So what if it is water weight? If you are carrying around pounds and pounds of excess weight because of water retention then it is good to get rid of it. Right? Some/many people are sensative to sugar/carbs because of genetics but more probably from just plain overeating. They become huge and misshapen, totally unattractive(not thier fault)and wonder why. Well here is a proven answer. It's an intolerance once corrected which will put them at their normal weight. So if they are lucky enough to figure it out, the Atkin's diet or low carb way of eating will help them get rid of the weight the vexes and plagues them to distraction. It is amazing the infinite discussion on wether this diet is safe. Oh my gosh we must save the fat people from doing something that might hurt them. That is insulting. What is more safe, over eating and over drinking and stressing out the heart carrying around an enormous body? You know I can't even remember anyone in my high school who would have even been considered fat. Today there are fat miserable kids everywhere. It is sad but a commentary on the overabundance of sugarladen foods available to kids. Could it possibly be that they get fat from that stuff? I think so. Wouldn't it make sense to limit (dare I say it CARBS) to only occasional treats? ... Sharon, 22 August 2006
The low carb diets work, they work really fast, they just work period! But I would always allow myself one serving of carbs once a week and still lost about the same as the other author (30 lbs in six weeks). The only down fall is once you stop the diet, you can gain all the weight back instantaneously unless you really watch what you eat. I did this diet twice and the second time I learned my lesson and kept it off. I would not recommend doing the diet for too long, but it can give you an initial burst of weight loss and then you could do something like weight watchers, etc. ... Laurie, 26 August 2006
I found the Atkins diet really works also. My blood levels are excellent. Watching my carbs has kept me consistenly 20 lbs. below what I was before. My brother is on it and never has any stomach problems anymore. Another friend of mine went on it. His doctor was doing a study on the Atkins diet. Both his and my doctor said the diet has excellent health benefits if done properly! I know if my Dad had known about this diet and followed it, he probably would be alive today ... Dave, 7 January 2007
i am no expert on diets, however am ytrying atkins and itseems to be working, if a high meat or fish diet is detrimental to health, why dont dogs/cats/birds/fish suffer from this ?
also these animals are not generally overweight, the animals that ARE overweight and have a lot of fat in their systems are sheep, cows etc that are vegetarian ... Gary, 7 February 2007
I find this article to be an okay attempt to alert the reader of the cautions of a low carbohydrate, high protein/high fat diet however I feel there is a horrible slant of bias on the whole thing...from both the writer's opinions as well as each of the references used. The writer clearly neglected to check any research that has been completed on the diets of traditional hunting cultures. The best example I can give would be of the Inuit culture- who have been thriving on a ketogenic high fat diet for millenia. Also, I can recall a ketogenic diet still being used from the past century to treat brain disorders such as epilepsy when medication has failed. The writer also failed to research the creation of the American food pyramid, and instead appeared to take it as gospel truth. I am not entirely for following a ketogenic diet, but it can easily be proven that when followed properly, Humans can adapt and thrive to such a metabolic state and actually have improvement in their body (triglyceride levels, cholesterol and blood pressure actually go down with a reduction in carbohydrates). The same can be said for a high carbohydrate, low fat vegetarian diet as well. The human body is extremely adaptable, that's part of how we've made it to be so prolific today. Again, this essay was a good attempt- but as a writer, especially in the realm of science- it is important to research a well rounded collection of opinions to form your own point of view. In other words, try reading the studies and literature that doesn't support what you're setting out to prove and pay close attention to those that do ... Pamela Hayward, 22 October 2007