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The Truth about Atkins-type Diets and Heart Health

separator Just about everybody knows somebody who’s lost weight on the “Atkins” diet, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate way of eating. Other similar types of diets include the Zone, Protein Power and Sugar Busters. It’s tempting to try these diets, because the basic theory behind them says that you’ll lose weight by eating plenty of red meat, butter, cheese and other foods that most nutrition experts tell you to eat in moderation. But the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies to these kinds of diets.

Quite a few professionals and organizations have spoken out about the dangers of high protein diets. The American Heart Association (AHA) makes its opinions about high-protein diets clear. On its Web site, the AHA states that it doesn’t recommend these diets for weight loss. It goes on to say that high-protein diets are high in animal fat, which is high in saturated fat. And saturated fat, the AHA continues, can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some kinds of cancer. Additionally, diets high in protein can put some people at higher risk of kidney and liver failure. Osteoporosis, or gradual bone loss, is another risk. The AHA also points out that people on high-protein diets are missing out on essential nutrients and fiber that come from carbohydrates—fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, on its Web site, claims, “Popular in the 1970s and again today (as U.S. obesity rates reach an all-time high), the Atkins diet and similar programs fail to address critical health implications of diets that emphasize animal products.”

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) also does not recommend a high-protein diet. Instead, the ADA recommends that adults consume:

  •  45 to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates
  • 20 to 35 percent from fat
  • 10 to 35 percent from protein

This way of eating, explains the ADA, ensures that you get a balance of nutrients from all the food groups.

High protein diets can help people lose weight, especially in the short term. When you aren’t eating many carbohydrates, your body loses a lot of fluid, which is one reason for the weight loss. Additionally, when you don’t consume carbohydrates, your body doesn’t have the amount of glycogen that it needs to burn for fuel. So it burns fat instead. But this process, in turn, can lead to a condition called ketosis, which can lead to kidney stones and osteoporosis.

And while it’s true that people on Atkins can lose weight, they generally stop losing the weight after about a year, which is about the same result that people on other diets experience. It’s too difficult to maintain a long-term eating pattern that deprives you of fruits, vegetables and grains, with all of the fiber and nutrients that go along with those foods.

We need balance in our lives. Diet is no exception. The recent swing towards high-protein diets is a backlash against the previous swing toward high carbohydrate diets. But few people can eat healthfully and leave out fruits, vegetables, whole grains or protein. We need it all. Out carbohydrate choices should be healthy ones—not white breads, cakes, candies or mountains of white pasta. Our protein choices should consist of more poultry and fish, and limited amounts of red meat. Nobody yet has come up with a way for us to eat one kind of food in the extreme while leaving out other kinds of food that contain essential nutrients.

American Heart Association; American Dietetic Association; New England Journal of Medicine, 22 May 2003; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
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