Atkins Diet

Author: Jeremy O’Brien (Dr. to be), BSc. CPT
Losing weight is easy. Or at least that’s what proponents of a high-protein, high fat, and low carbohydrate diet would have you believe. Diets such as that prescribed by Dr. Robert C. Atkins have gained increased popularity in the past several years, and seem to offer a quick and easy weight-loss fix. Today carbohydrates seem to be synonymous with gaining weight, and an increasing number of citizens are avoiding them at all costs. Together with real-life success stories of massive weight loss and buff bodies, the numerous books trumpeting the diet found on bookshelves everywhere suggest that Dr. Atkins’ diet is the way to go. Many members of the medical and nutrition community however, take a different position. In fact, most have serious concerns about the diet. Without sufficient evidence in support of Dr. Atkins, they say, a diet of adequate protein and reduced fat intake, with carbohydrates providing the majority of energy intake, remains the most healthy and effective way to a healthy body.

With so many people on either side of the issue, it’s not hard to get confused. Is it true that a high-protein diet is unhealthy, and that perhaps more-balanced meals would better lead to weight loss? Or is Dr. Atkins right? Does a high-protein diet give you both a hard body and health benefits? In other words, are carbohydrates your enemy? This article aims to clear up some of these issues.

Dr. Atkins diet is based on four nutritional principles: weight loss, weight maintenance, good health, and disease prevention. He believes that when the body must use fat and protein for energy, not only are fewer calories provided, but your body is also forced to preferably burn stored fat as the primary energy source. The result, according to the author, is weight and fat loss. In terms of weight maintenance, Atkins believes that there exists a carbohydrate threshold, above which will result in weight gain, and below which will result in weight loss or maintenance. In other words, as long as a certain level of carbohydrate intake is avoided, these calories will not be converted to fat tissue, and your body will continue to burn stored fat. In addition, because high-fat, high-protein foods are generally lower in calories but leave you feeling full longer, Atkins diet generally leads to less energy intake.

Atkins also believes that his diet will result in better health and that it will prevent diseases. Because followers will consume a variety of foods and can stop the continual avoidance of high-fat or high-calorie foods typically associated with conventional diets, Atkins believes nutrient needs are more likely to be met. The result of this approach would be better health and disease prevention. In fact, Atkins even claims that a controlled, low-carbohydrate intake will by itself prevent diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and some cancers. A quick glance at Atkins book, or at any of the pro-Atkins websites, appears to back up all of these claims with scientific research.

With all the benefits to the high-protein diet, and with scientific research to back it all up, you might wonder – why isn’t everyone on Atkins diet? Well, part of the reason is that there really isn’t much supporting research to be found. No long-term or large-scale studies have ever been conducted on humans, despite what proponents of the diet might have you believe. Atkins and others in favour of a high-protein diet offer evidence that must be interpreted carefully. A significant study from the Duke Medical Center demonstrated weight
t loss and other health benefits after adherence to the Atkins Nutritional Approach for 6-months by obese patients. The patients were also offered nutritional and exercise advice and training however, which most certainly contributed to these positive effects. Another study often quoted took place at the German Institute of Human Nutrition. A high protein diet was not correlated with a rise in oxidative stress, which can be a contributing factor to the development of numerous diseases. When considering these results however, one must recall that research on rodents isn’t always applicable to humans, and that such a diet might be harmful in other ways.

Another reason many doctors and nutritionists disagree with the Atkins diet is that weight loss is probably not a product of consuming less carbohydrates, but consuming less calories. This distinction is an important one, and proponents of traditional diets argue that although carbohydrates in general are used for energy (and thus contain more calories than high-protein foods), avoidance of high-calorie and highly processed carbohydrates is preferable to no carbohydrates at all. Despite Atkins’ stance, detractors say, carbohydrate is the body’s preferred energy source, and avoiding them will indeed rob dieters of precious vitamins and minerals.

The idea of disease prevention through a high-protein diet is also a hot topic. Most doctors believe that any health benefits derived from a low-carbohydrate diet also stem from lowered calories, not lowered carbohydrates. In addition, most foods considered “safe” by the Atkins diet are actually very high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which contribute to numerous health problems and disease states. A high-protein diet may reduce the risks of certain conditions, but only through the effects of weight loss and a lowered caloric intake.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this article – NO, carbohydrates are not your enemy. In fact, no single food or nutrient should be considered bad for you. Any diet that goes to the extreme usually ends up either failing or harming in you in some way. The high-protein diet is no exception. Despite Dr. Atkins’ advice, a balanced diet providing ample carbohydrate in the form of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, along with a active lifestyle that includes exercise, is still the best way to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Adequate protein and fat are required, but considering the average North American consumes twice the amount of protein necessary for growth and maintenance, and even more fat than that recommended, cutting back on high-protein, high-fat foods may be more beneficial than the opposite. Instead of avoiding carbohydrates altogether, try to avoid processed foods that contain excess sugar and are often high in calories. Search for whole grains, legumes, green and leafy vegetables, and fish to provide you with optimal health and nutrition.

As for Dr. Atkins’ diet – much more scientific evidence is required to tell if it is as safe as it is claimed to be. Eating a diet high in protein and fat, and low in carbohydrates, may produce weight loss but usually because of the decrease in total calories. And with likely increases in saturated fat and cholesterol, the Atkins diet can be more harmful than you think! As with everything in life, there are no quick fixes for diet and weight-loss without consequences. Changing your nutrition habits and incorporating a variety of foods, high in carbs or not, will keep you leaner, healthier and happier for years to come!!!