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The Atkins (Protein) Diet
October 6, 2003

By Louis Wittig - eCureMe Staff Writer
Physician Reviewed - October 3,2003

Greg remembers exactly when it started for him - May 16th, 2003 - just two days before his birthday. Standing 6’2" and weighing almost 350 pounds, the 32 year-old graphic designer from Southern California had stopped in at his local Barnes & Nobles with his wife and kids. As the kids wandered off, Greg noticed Dr.Atkins’ New Diet Revolution on a display table. He picked it up and began flipping. A couple pages in he turned to his wife.

"So···" he asked "you want to do this?"

As he was grabbing the receipt, Greg and his wife joined one of the most popular and controversial diet plans in modern American history. Originally published in 1972, Dr.Atkins’ New Diet Revolution has sold over 15 million copies and together with a follow up, Atkins For Life published just last year, has spent years on bestseller lists. The diet he advocated - low carbohydrates and packed with protein - drew fire from American Medical Association in the 90s as his plan experienced renewed popularity. But few heeded the criticism, and Atkin’s influence has found its way across the country as food companies rush to mass market everything from low-carb ice cream to low-carb beer to catch up with America’s changing tastes.

Burning Fat

The Atkins Diet flies in the face of most traditional weight loss wisdom, which stresses calorie-cutting and avoiding foods high in saturated fat. Instead of calories, Atkins’ attacks nutritionally void processed carbohydrates - such as refined sugar and flour. Once those elements are cut, Atkins proposes, the dieter’s body will cease to burn glucose to obtain the energy it needs, and instead revert to burning fat, eventually burning off the dieter’s stored fat deposits through a metabolic process called ketosis.

To get to that point, Atkins recommends dieters bring down their carbohydrate consumption to about 20 grams a day - from the average of about 200 to 300 a day in the average American diet. Sweets, breads, rice, legumes, whole grains and starches are out. Heavy meats, cheeses, fish and certain vegetables are in - and saturated fat is no object, Atkins dieters can have as much as they’d like.


Atkins critics - among them the Washington D.C. based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) charges the protein heavy diet places those who follow it at risk. "High protein diets may cause permanent loss of kidney function," the group notes, adding that "meat-heavy diets significantly increase one’s risk of colon cancer and osteoporosis." The group also adds to its indictment the reason many physicians have long been wary of the diet’s safety; with no cap on saturated fat consumption, heart disease can become a deadly threat to dieters’ health.

Atkins supporters fire back, arguing that no study has ever proven that the diet has caused Kidney damage. Increased cancer risks associated with high meat consumption, they claim, is a result of the chemicals used to treat most meat; not the meat itself. As for the risk of heart disease, diet supporters assert that once a dieter’s body begins to burn fats instead of sugars, ingested saturated fat will be metabolized. As a result, levels of "bad" cholesterol will actually drop while on the diet.

Extensive tests have yet to be conducted on the diet’s effects on kidney function, cancer and osteoporosis - though some hospitals in England have banned the diet among their inpatients because of the risk. On cholesterol the evidence seems to be on Atkins’ side. A University of Pennsylvania study, released this Spring, compared the cholesterol levels of low-carb dieters to those of low-calorie dieters and found that the low-carb group had "a greater improvement in some risk factors for coronary heart disease."

Staying On

A week into Atkins, Greg wasn’t worried about his cholesterol, he was worried about walking straight. "You really feel like you’re in outer space." He says. Withdrawing from carbohydrates, he experienced headaches, dizziness and for a couple of days, felt lethargic and stunned.

Sticking to it wasn’t easy. Atkins, critics charge, has the potential to create the same yo-yo effect in weight loss common among fad diets; weight comes off rapidly, but comes back once frustrated dieters stray from the path.

After getting through his first week, Greg couldn’t disagree more. "Going through it at points can be grueling. There are some drop-offs." He says, referring to an occasional episode of cheating. "But they’re not cataclysmic." He says Atkins gives him the flexibility to change his carb intake according to what he feels is best for his body. If he occasionally slips and reaches for a cookie, one of his pre-Atkins favorites, the diet gives him the "wiggle room" he needs climb back on. Not that slipping happens often; after a couple months of low-carb, he doesn’t have the cravings he used to. "Once you realize the variety of foods you can eat," he adds, "it’s easy to stay on."

Greg eats less today, he says, acknowledging criticism of the plan that says Atkins is only effective because, sick of their limited options, dieters simply eat less. Breakfast is usually two hardboiled eggs and a cup of decaf (caffeine is off Atkins’ menu; it feeds sugar cravings). Lunch consists of a green leafy salad with a small scoop of tuna. Dinner is typically a T-bone steak with a side of mixed vegetables. "All that’s really missing is the baked potato, and that’s not a big deal."

Before these scaled back meals, Greg used to find himself snacking just an hour or two after dinner. "But eating less, I get full on less."

Weight Loss or Waste of Time?

Whether Atkins is the long awaited miracle diet a chronically overweight America has been waiting for is still up in the air. A 2000 study conducted by Duke University found that Atkins helped a group of 41 people drop an average of 21 pounds in three months. The Duke study, however, was funded by the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine and criticized by many in the field as flawed.

A year long study published last spring in the New England Journal of Medicine followed 63 obese men and women trying to lose weight - half with a low-carb approach, half with a more conventional high-carb, low-fat diet. After six months, those in the low-carb group had lost an average of 10 more pounds than the high-carb group. But by twelve months, the low-carb dieters had regained some of what they had lost and the two groups were nearly even.

But without more conclusive research, anecdotes like Greg’s will likely continue to pull people into the bookstores and butcher shops. After five months of gradual loss, Greg had dropped 65 pounds. His wife, who joined him on the diet but had more slip ups, has dropped 40. His goal is drop another 65 pounds - down to 220. He’s confidant he won’t see the weight again.

He says he’s gotten past the hardest point and that he can do whatever it takes to keep the hundred plus pounds off. For him, Atkins isn’t just a diet. "It’s a re-education as to what’s okay for your body to go through."

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