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Determining Effectiveness of the Atkins Diet



Low-carbohydrate diets have been around a long time. Dr Atkins came out with his diet over 20 years ago. Is there any long term studies on the people who stay with the diet long term? If so, what were the results in terms of overall health, diabetes, and cholesterol?


I am not aware of any recent studies specifically discussing the effects of the Adkins diet (I did find two German articles dated 1977 and 1978 which I will reference for you below), however the effects of high protein/fat and low carbohydrate diets have been studied over the years. Much of the research confirms the fact that those who typically eat a plant-based diet (lower in fat, saturated fat and protein, and higher in complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber) have better blood lipid profiles (ex: cholesterol), lower blood pressure and a lower risk for Type 2 diabetes when compared with people who eat an omnivorous (meat containing, higher protein/fat) diet.

In essence, consider the following before pursuing any of the popular low-carbohydrate, high protein & fat diets:

1. High protein diets cause the body to lose a lot of water (which is temporary weight loss).

2. There is a loss of lean body mass (muscle).

3. Protein is not available to do its real work, because it is needed for energy (since carbohydrates aren`t available in sufficient amounts). Protein should be used primarily for supporting our body`s growth and maintenance, building special compounds (enzymes, hormones, antibodies), maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance, maintaining acid-base balance, carrying nutrients throughout our body (such as glucose, sodium, potassium, calcium, lipoproteins and oxygen) and blood clotting.

4. The liver and kidneys have to work harder to process protein than to process carbohydrates. Damage to these organs can occur with long-term use.

5. Since carbohydrate (glucose) is the main fuel for our brains, following a high protein diet deprives our brain of this fuel. This may result in people getting headaches and make them moody and irritable. In other words, your body goes into ketosis (causing you to lose water, fat, and "brain power".) One study, (Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1995 Nov;19(11):811-6) stated that study subjects tested on higher order mental processing and flexibility, were adversely affected by the ketogenic diet.

6. These diets contradict sound recommendations for reducing the risk for heart disease and cancer, which tells us to limit saturated fats and cholesterol (found in meats and dairy products, allowed freely on these stylish diets).

7. Menu plans are boring over the long term. It is not realistic to eat like this day in and day out. When people give up on this monotonous way of eating, they can become frustrated and depressed feeling that they are failures.

8. Can cause fatigue, dizziness, and apathy leaving you without much energy for exercise.

9. These diets are low in fiber (which comes from carbohydrates) and do not give you a feeling of fullness. Constipation may also occur due to the lack of fiber.

10. Any diet that is low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains deprives you of phytochemicals (the useful chemicals found in plants) and may increase your chance of having a heart attack and certain cancers.

11. Other side effects can include high uric acid production (causing/aggravating kidney stones and gout), nausea, hypotension (low blood pressure), calcium and bone loss.

12. Most of these diets tend to be lower in calories (hence, some of the weight loss), vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamin, iron, and trace minerals. This can lead to deficiencies.

13. There is no change in lifestyle, therefore these diets will not work in the long run. [For example: Atkins wrote his first book on high protein diets in the 1970`s when the rate of obesity in the U.S. was about 24% of the adult population. The current rate of obesity is now 36%!] Results of a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1996 Feb;63(2):174-8) showed that it was energy intake (total calories), not nutrient composition, that determined weight loss over a short time period. Therefore, *Remember that no single nutrient is better for our body than any another. ALL nutrients are important and necessary for good health. Eliminating (or severely limiting) a major food group, such as carbohydrates, invites nutritional trouble. *Before considering any weight-loss diet, keep in mind that the goals of any good weight loss program are to lose body fat, preserve and/or increase muscle tone, and change your poor eating and exercise habits to good ones that you can live with for a LIFETIME. Therefore, you do not go "on a diet" so that you can go off one. *Focus on adopting a new value system and a healthier lifestyle. This will help you avoid the feelings of disappointment, frustration, etc. from lapse and relapses. *AND.PLEASE BE PATIENT with yourself and the weight loss process. Focus on moderation and take things slowly. I hope this has been helpful to you.

Schweiz Med Wochenschr 1977 Jul 23;107(29):1017-25 [Dr. Atkins` dietetic revolution: a critique]. [Article in German] Hirschel B Fortschr Med 1978 Sep 14;96(34):1697-702 [Is the Atkins diet safe in respect to health]? [Article in German] Forster H

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Response by:

Jane   Korsberg, MS, RD, LD Jane Korsberg, MS, RD, LD
Senior Instructor of Nutrition
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University