The Atkins Diet - safe, effective?
I looked into the Atkins Diet and here's what I found.
On a personal note, I read Atkins New Diet Revolution book and started the diet. I was on the Diet for 5 days and during that time I lost 5 pounds. Then I learned (from a note on the Atkins Center web site) that the Atkins diet was not for people who have uric acid kidney stones (which I do), so I quit the diet.
If you are going to try the Atkins Diet, I strongly urge you to get the book and read it. There are important warnings for folks embarking on any diet and particularly this one. For example, pregnant women (as well as some others) should not do this diet .
What is the Atkins Diet and how does it work?
There are really 4 Atkins diets. The first, that he calls the Induction Diet, is a very low (under 20 gms) carbohydrate diet. Later stages of the diet allow more carbs. You basically can eat all the meat, cheese and eggs you want, but hardly any carbohydrates. The idea behind the diet is that when carbohydrate intake is that low, the body's metabolism is fooled into thinking that you are starving (although you can eat all the protein and fat you want). In response to the starvation, the body releases body fat in the form of Ketones. These Ketones either get metabolized or excreted. The trick, then, to the diet is that some of those calories don't have to be burned, they just go away in breath and urine. A nice byproduct of this kind of diet is that you aren't hungry.
Does the diet work?
I guess the answer to that question is "yes". The number 20,000,000 has been bandied about as the number of people who have tried the Atkins Diet. You don't have to be in a very large group of people to find some who have tried the diet. I talked to folks and they all said that they had lost weight. A VA hospital study cited in a Reuters article says that among a group of moderately obese adults, they lost an average of 23 pounds over a 4-month period. The Atkins Diet is a way to lose a lot of weight fairly fast.
Some folks in the medical community have said that there is no fat loss on the Atkins diet; what is lost is water. As far as I can tell, no one who says this has any clinical data to back it up.
Is the diet safe?
The VA study and Atkins say yes; the Heart and Diet folks say no.
The medical folks have some basic objections to the diet:
- First they say that it is a known fact that there is a correlation between high-fat, high-cholesterol diets and heart disease. The Atkins Diet is a high-fat, high cholesterol diet; therefore, it must cause one to be at a higher risk for heart disease. The problem is that there is also an correlation between serum cholesterol and triglycerides and heart disease. The Atkins Diet, according to the VA study, actually lowers cholesterol and triglycerides and improves the HDL/LDL ratio. As far as I know, there is no specific study of people on the Atkins Diet that found them at a higher risk for heart disease.
- There is a claim that the body not only metabolizes fat, it also eats away at muscle tissue when on this diet. There seems to be no clinical data to back this up either. The claim seems to be extrapolated from studies of people who were starving.
- There is a claim that the Atkins Diet builds up toxic materials in the bloodstream (Ketones) and that excreting these over a long period of time will damage the Kidneys. The VA study showed no effect on kidney function, but the study was only over 4 months. I think this objection is one of serious concern, and that further studies need to be done (particularly if 20 million people are trying this diet). There is also the point that over the long term, Atkins' "maintenance diet" is not so restrictive on carbs.
There does not seem to be any clinical study that shows the Atkins Diet is harmful to a healthy person. (If there is one, somebody let me know.) But there is some risk until more studies are done.
What are the pitfalls of the diet?
- If you go on the Atkins Diet, you have to stay on it for life. There are a couple reasons for this. First, as with any diet, when you go off the diet, the body has a tendency to recover it's lost weight. So quitting any diet without nutritional and lifestyle changes leads to weight gain. However, the Atkins Diet seems particularly prone to weight gain if you stop because the body thinks it has gone through a famine and will lay in plenty of extra fat to meet the next one. Also there is that tendency to eat all those foods that were missing during the diet (many of them full of sugar). To belie what I just said, when I quit the Atkins Diet, I did not gain the weight back, and indeed lost some more weight by an increased awareness of what was in the foods I ate, and avoiding snacks.
- Contrary to Atkins' book, the diet is really restrictive (unless you are a cooking genius). Just read the book and then go through the supermarket and look at all the things you can't eat (and be sure to read the labels). Just about everything is either flour, sugar or some combination of the two. My 8 oz cup of yogurt had 43 grams of carbohydrates (42 of them from sugar!). You can't eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, a salad with oil and vinegar dressing for lunch, and a big hunk of meat at supper without longing for something else after a while. You really miss the fruits and vegetables and desserts.
- You can have diarrhea and constipation due to a lack of fiber. Your breath may smell funny from the Ketones.
- You can't find anything you can eat in a vending machine except peanuts, pork rinds and diet soda.
I can't think of any good source of information on the Atkins Diet. Atkins seems to know a lot about his diet, but he is also into some pretty flakey stuff on the side (like stopping all your medications and nutritional supplement fads). The Medical establishment seems to be basing all their conclusions on theory rather than any real clinical studies. Anyhow, if you want to do the diet, have a checkup and buy the book. The Atkins Center website is http://www.atkinscenter.com.
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