The Atkins Diet

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What the Experts Say About the Atkins Diet

Both in the U.S. and abroad, the Atkins diet remains highly controversial.

An Atkins spokesperson points out that a number of studies since 2002, including those funded by the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the Philadelphia Veterans Administration, demonstrate some benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet -- especially when weight-loss results achieved with a diet like the Atkins plan are compared to weight-loss results on other diet plans.

But many health experts remain wary. "The Atkins diet is a viable option that requires more testing," Gary D. Foster, PhD, clinical director of the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells WebMD. "The Atkins diet works at producing weight loss. If you are looking for weight loss, yes, it works. If you are looking for improvement in triglycerides and HDL cholesterol, yes, it works."

But Foster, like other experts, remains concerned about the long-term safety of the diet.

Robert H. Eckel, MD, director of the general clinical research center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, agrees. He tells WebMD, "Our worries over the Atkins diet go way past the question of whether it is effective for losing weight or even for keeping weight off. We worry that the diet promotes heart disease. ... We have concerns over whether this is a healthy diet for preventing heart disease, stroke, and cancer. There is also potential loss of bone, and the potential for people with liver and kidney problems to have trouble with the high amounts of protein in these diets."

The American Dietetic Association also has concerns about the Atkins diet. Gail Frank, PhD, former spokeswoman for the organization and professor of nutrition at California State University in Long Beach, says, "The body needs a minimum of carbohydrates for efficient and healthy functioning -- about 150 grams daily." Below that, normal metabolic activity is disrupted.

"The brain needs glucose to function efficiently, and it takes a long time to break down fat and protein to get to the brain," says Frank. Carbohydrates, especially in the form of vegetables, grains, and fruits, are more efficiently converted to glucose. And this more efficient use of glucose has developed over a long period of time, according to Frank. "Fruits and berries are much more indicative of early man's eating pattern than eating only protein, and we haven't changed all that much physiologically."

Volumetrics author Barbara Rolls, PhD, who holds the Guthrie Chair in Nutrition at Penn State University, offers this: "No one has shown, in any studies, that anything magical is going on with Atkins other than calorie restriction. The diet is very prescriptive, very restrictive, and limits half of the foods we normally eat," she says. "In the end it's not fat, it's not protein, it's not carbs, it's calories. You can lose weight on anything that helps you to eat less, but that doesn't mean it's good for you."

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