Dr. Atkins was a lone voice in the night. For the last few decades, he had advocated a unique dietary approach to weight loss, that being high fat/protein with low carbohydrates. Like so many other visionaries, his dietary approach to weight loss was for many years dismissed by the medical community as being dangerous and ineffective. When I initially heard about this diet, I was also quite skeptical. Intuitively, it did not make any sense. Dieticians, the American Heart Association, the U.S. Government and many other mainstream institutions were and still promote the consumption of starch/carbohydrates and are against the Atkins Diet. How could a diet filled with saturated fatty foods and high levels of protein be good for you? For years I would not recommend this diet to any of my patients, family or friends. And yet millions of people in this country against the advise of their personal physicians used this diet and for many, with great success.
Vindication for Dr. Atkins
In the last year, there have been several studies reported indicating that the Atkins Diet was not only effective but quite safe. In one study, reported at the American Heart Association annual scientific meeting, researchers from Duke University studied 120 overweight volunteers. Half of the group was placed on the Atkins Diet consuming less than 20 g of carbohydrates per day with 60% of the dietary calories coming from fat.
The other group was placed on the American Heart Association – Step One diet, which is a classic low fat diet recommended by millions of physicians in this country. At the end of the six month study, those individuals on the Atkins Diet lost an average of 31 pounds compared to 20 pound weight loss in the Step One group. Even more importantly, the Atkins Diet volunteers had an 11% increase in their HDL (good cholesterol) with a 49% reduction in their triglycerides. Step One volunteers, on the other hand, had no overall change in their HDL with only a 22% decrease in their trigylcerides.
Another new study, published in the April issue of The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism indicates obese women who are otherwise healthy can lose twice the weight on a low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diet plan as on a traditional low-fat plan. And they can do so without compromising their cardiovascular health, at least in the short term, new research concludes. Study author Bonnie Brehm, an assistant professor in the college of nursing at the University of Cincinnati, says the results surprised her: “We had hypothesized that this [low-carb plan] would harm their cardiovascular health.”
“This was funded by the American Heart Association [as well as other sources]. Our hypothesis was that the low-fat group would lose more weight and body fat for sure.” In fact, after six months, the 22 women on the low-carb plan averaged an 18.7-pound loss, while the 20 women on the low-fat plan averaged an 8.5-pound loss. Both groups also showed improvement in markers of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure, blood lipids and blood cholesterol levels, Brehm says.
The women ranged in age from 29 to 58, but most were in their 40s. Their body mass index (BMI) ranged from 29.5 to more than 37. A BMI of 30 marks the beginning of obesity. The low-carb group, at the three-month mark, was averaging 15 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 28 percent from protein and 57 percent from fat. At the six-month mark, they were eating 30 percent carbs, 23 percent protein and 46 percent fat. The low-fat group was averaging 54 percent of calories from carbohydrates three months into the study, 18 percent from protein and 28 percent from fat. At six months, the totals were 53 percent carbs, 18 percent protein and 29 percent fat.
Average calorie intake was similar for both groups — 1,302 calories per day for the low-carb group after six months and 1,247 calories for the low-fat group. Under current recommended guidelines set by the National Academies of Sciences, Americans are advised to take in 45 percent to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 20 percent to 35 percent from fat, and 10 percent to 35 percent from protein. Brehm isn’t sure why the low-carb group lost more weight. The women agreed they would not change their exercise habits during the study. “I told them, if you are a couch potato today [at the start of the study], you must remain a couch potato for six months,” Brehm says. “If you walk four times a week, continue.” She plans to research the matter further.
This is now the fourth formal study that has been presented in the last year, all confirming the benefits and safety of the Atkins Diet. In the face of decades of medical academia, Atkins had proved them all wrong. Although I am now a big believer in the Atkins Diet like many other medical doctors on the Science Board, I do have some suggestions to further enhance it.
The consumption of saturated animal protein, sodium, nitrates from such products as bacon, hot dogs, etc., may have deleterious long term effects on immune function, potentially increasing the risk of cancer. Whether the standard Atkins Diet does have such deleterious effects may take decades to prove.
There is a way that one can still be on the Atkins Diet and actually do it in a more healthy fashion. Instead of having that prime rib for dinner, substitute it for baked salmon or trout. Fish also provide beneficial omega-3 fatty acids proven to reduce heart disease and cancer rates. Instead of having a side order of bacon, eat a handful of nuts (almonds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts are best) to get some healthy fat, fiber, potassium and protein. Certain green vegetables, such as broccoli actually contain 50% protein and contain powerful antioxidants that prevent cancer and heart disease.
We will continue to strongly advocate the basic concept outlined by Dr. Robert Atkins decades ago. Although I never met Dr. Atkins personally, I always admired him for the stands that he would take against mainstream medicine. Visionaries like him have always made a big difference in the world.
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