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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

The Atkins Diet: Worthwhile or Worthless?
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Philip G. Reeves

By now, almost everyone has heard of the Atkins diet (Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, 1998). This is the diet that promotes weight loss through the consumption of foods low in carbohydrates and quite high in fat and protein contents, but not necessarily low in calories. It was the brain-child of Dr. R. C. Atkins who claimed that it would initiate a greater weight loss than a conventional, low calorie diet composed of a "balance" of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. In addition, it was supposed to be friendly to those prone to diabetes because of the low intake of carbohydrate; it might reduce the body's need for insulin. This diet concept is diametrically opposed to that used for years by traditional nutritionists and medical specialists.

Our initial response to this diet was that it might not be safe because years of scientific evidence suggested that high fat intake would surely raise serum cholesterol, thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. What ensued were numerous heated debates in print and on television about the worthiness of this diet. Unfortunately, most of the battle lines were drawn on shaky grounds because they were based on age-old dogma, and lacked serious scientific inquiry. Fortunately, this was about to change. Some results of very important research are now beginning to appear in the scientific literature. Hopefully, this new information will eventually determine unequivocally which side is right.

One of these studies was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. The investigators' aim was to conduct a controlled experiment to determine the differences in weight loss of both obese men and women who consumed either the basic low carbohydrate Atkins diet or a conventional diet of reduced total calories. The study lasted for one year. Besides weight loss, a number of other tests also were conducted, including blood sugar, blood cholesterol, HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), insulin levels, and blood pressure. The results were interesting and different than most traditional nutritionists would have expected. As Dr. Atkins had claimed all along, after 3 months, the volunteers who ate the Atkins diet lost 7-10% of their original body weight while those who ate the conventional low-calorie diet only lost 3-5% of their original weight. After 6 months, the results were similar to those at 3 months; however, after one year, those on the Atkins diet had regained enough weight so that differences in weight loss between the two diets were not significant.

Another interesting result supported the view of the traditional nutritionists in that total serum cholesterol was increased about 3% while those fed the conventional diet had reduced their cholesterol about 5%. However, the "good" cholesterol was increased about 20% in those consuming the Atkins diet but only about 3% in those consuming the conventional diet. Neither diet affected blood sugar, blood pressure, or insulin levels, although the insulin levels of those consuming the Atkins diet tended to be lower than of those consuming the low calorie conventional diet.

The final results of the study suggested that volunteers who consume the Atkins diet may initially lose weight faster than those consuming the conventional diet, but after a long period of consuming the diets, the differences may be lost. The investigators suggested that a longer and larger study be carried out before conclusive assessments are made about the benefits or dangers of consuming low-carbohydrate, high-fat, and high-protein diets.

Another interesting study appeared recently in the journal Perception and Motor Skills. This group studied the effects of the Atkins diet on the response of volunteers to acute physical exercise. Although this study was only 3 weeks long, the results strongly supported the hypothesis that individuals who consume the Atkins-type diet will experience more fatigue, more negative and less positive effects of exercise than those consuming the more conventional low-calorie diet. However, humans are amazingly adaptable, and it would be interesting to see if they would overcome these negative effects after having consumed the diet for a much longer period. However, it's also possible that the effects could become even more detrimental.

Although these types of studies provide important scientific information to help the consumer make decisions about food consumption, the power of myth is strong. Most of us believe what we want to believe, and most of us need a crutch or gimmick to get us through life, whether that gimmick is proven or not. As most non-conventional diets, the Atkins diet started out as a gimmick, and as a result, numerous individuals have tried it, or are currently using it. One estimate is that over 10 million copies of the book have been sold and that four times more people have read about the Atkins diet than any other. We can only hope that further scientific experimentation can tell us whether this type of diet is indeed worthwhile or worthless.


Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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