Why Is the Atkins Diet Bad for You?

Medically Reviewed on 10/6/2021

What is the Atkins diet?

Atkins diet is a popular low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss but it may not be good for your heart.
Atkins diet is a popular low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss but it may not be good for your heart.

Many people have successfully lost weight on the Atkins diet, a popular low-carbohydrate diet.

You may have wondered — "How safe is the Atkins diet?" Some dieters have seen improvements in their cholesterol and glucose levels. But, the low-carb way of eating isn't for everyone.

Dr. Robert Atkins popularized the self-titled diet and published his first book on the subject in 1972. Since then, this diet has been modified, but the basic principles remain the same:

  • No calorie counting. Instead of restricting food, the diet aims to change the way the body processes food.
  • Low carbohydrates. In the first stage of the diet, people eat less than 20 grams of carbohydrates a day.
  • Other macronutrients. Dieters eat a lot of protein and generally as much fat as they want.
  • Ketosis. The low intake of carbs leads to ketosis, in which the body burns fat for fuel.

Weight loss on the Atkins diet

Evidence shows that the Atkins diet works for weight loss. But, some experts say that ketosis may not be the primary cause of weight loss. Instead, experts argue that weight loss happens possibly because people eat fewer calories. This could occur because:

  • People become bored with their food choices and eat less
  • Protein is more satisfying than carbs, so people feel less hungry

Still, though the root cause for weight loss is debated, almost all sources agree that low-carb diets lead to weight loss.

In one analysis, the Atkins diet outperformed six other popular diets. It was the best for both short-term weight loss and weight loss that lasted for at least 1 year.

Other data suggest that the Atkins diet may be hard to stick to long term. In some studies, 40% or more of the participants dropped out. One study managed to keep only 16% of its participants after the initial 6-month period. This high dropout rate suggests that low-carb dieting may be hard for most people to sustain.


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Surprising news about cholesterol

Eating a diet high in fat can raise lipids or blood fats. The Atkins diet doesn't raise the level of all types of lipids. It usually results in:

‌Some experts believe that the drop in triglycerides and the rise in good cholesterol offset the rise in bad cholesterol. Others say that high LDL cholesterol is strongly linked to heart disease. These experts say that a diet that raises LDL cholesterol isn't worth the risk.

Is the Atkins diet heart-healthy?

Although the news about cholesterol is a mixed bag, the Atkins diet may not be good for your heart. Diets that are good for the heart usually include lots of fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. You can't eat a lot of these foods and still be on a low-carb diet.

Two studies suggest that eating a low-carb, high-protein diet could harm your heart:

  • A 33% higher risk of heart failure was noted in Finnish men who ate the most protein compared with those who ate the least
  • A plant-based diet led to a 42% lower risk of heart failure

Missing micronutrients and fiber

Those following the Atkins diet may miss out on important micronutrients including vitamins and minerals. You can take supplements, but natural sources may be better. It's harder to replace the healthy antioxidants and fiber supplied by plant-based foods. 

A high intake of fiber is important for good digestion, but it also lowers the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It can also help with weight management.

Low-carb diets and the kidneys

Doctors seldom recommend low-carb diets for those with kidney disease. Such diets can cause permanent loss of kidney function.

One in four Americans has reduced kidney function. These individuals should probably not choose the Atkins diet.

The Atkins diet can cause problems even for those with healthy kidneys. One study on healthy people found that a low-carb diet increased their risk of kidney stones. Also, it has been found that processing extra protein can overload the kidneys.

Low-carb diets and diabetes

Many people with diabetes benefit from weight loss. Their health may improve if they lose weight with the Atkins diet.

Studies also show that a low-carb diet can reduce the need for insulin and diabetes drugs. However, those with diabetes are also susceptible to heart disease. Therefore, for those with diabetes, the potential higher risk of heart problems due to the Atkins diet might outweigh its other advantages.

Weighing the risks

How safe is the Atkins diet? If you’re overweight, a diet that helps you drop pounds can improve your health.

Still, if you have other health issues, a low-carb diet may not be your best bet. Talk to your doctor if you aren't sure that the Atkins diet is safe for you. 

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Medically Reviewed on 10/6/2021

American Heart Association: "When it comes to protein, quality is more important than quantity."

American Journal of Kidney Disease: "Effect of low-carbohydrate high-protein diets on acid-base balance, stone-forming propensity, and calcium metabolism."

Annals of Saudi Medicine: "The Atkin's Diet Controversy."

Diabetes Spectrum: "Low-Carbohydrate and Very-Low-Carbohydrate Diets in Patients With Diabetes."

European Journal of Nutrition: "Overweight and diabetes prevention: is a low-carbohydrate–high-fat diet recommendable?"

The New England Journal of Medicine: "A Randomized Trial of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet for Obesity."

Nutrients: "Effects of Popular Diets without Specific Calorie Targets on Weight Loss Outcomes: Systematic Review of Findings from Clinical Trials."

Nutrition Noteworthy: "The Atkins Diet: An Unresolved Debate."