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.
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."
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
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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