The high fat, high protein Atkins diet is popular among Americans trying to lose weight, but some doctors worry that it is unhealthy. They fear that its sharp cutback on carbohydrates like rice and potatoes and increase in protein and fat could lead to higher cholesterol and blood pressure. Now a new study comparing the Atkins weight loss plan to three other diets shows that not only was it the most successful, it did not cause those health problems. VOA's David McAlary reports that the findings could cause a reevaluation of the diet as obesity increases around the world.
Like many middle-aged adults, Christine Dillon's weight crept up slowly over the years. The extra five kilograms she was carrying were a persistent concern, for reasons of vanity if nothing else. So she became one of more than 300 women to join a Stanford University study and was assigned to the Atkins diet, a high protein, high fat, very low carbohydrate program introduced by Dr. Robert Atkins 35 years ago.
Dillon lost about five kilograms.
"I was on the Atkins diet for about nine months and lost two dress sizes, which is huge," she said.
Dillon's results were typical for Atkins dieters in the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It compared Atkins with three other diets, one called Zone that reduces carbohydrates less than Atkins, another named LEARN that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat, and a third just high in carbohydrates called the Ornish Diet.
One of the Stanford University researchers, Dr. Christopher Gardner, says the average weight loss for the women in the Atkins group after one year was about 4.5 kilograms. That is twice as much as the combined average for the other three groups.
"I think the one thing that really stands out about that Atkins diet was how simple it was," said Dr. Gardner. "Just drastically limit your carbohydrates, with the emphasis being on refined carbohydrates - white bread, white sugar, soda pop, the high fructose corn syrup."
The study looked at more than just weight loss. It also measured cholesterol and fats in the blood of the study volunteers.
"One of the concerns that health professionals have had about these very low carbohydrate diets is that possibly the high fat content would be bad for people in terms of their cholesterol levels or their blood pressure," he added.
But in this study, blood pressure and cholesterol stayed healthy in women on Atkins.
Gardner says the diet's simplicity may be the key to its success. He says credit might also go to the fact that people on Atkins replaced carbonated soft drinks with lots of water.
"It could have been that the water intake of the Atkins group was one of the factors that contributed over the course of the year, to being able to slowly reduce your calorie intake," he explained.
Gardner's study colleague, Dr. Randall Stafford, specializes in preventing heart disease. He says that in a world where obesity and heart disease are rising, this diet could help, because healthy weight reduces heart disease risk.
"This study will change my practices," he noted. "In the future, I'm going to be more supportive of patients who come in already on an Atkins diet and I'm certainly going to suggest this as a possible, reasonable approach to weight loss."
The doctors emphasize that dieters on the Atkins plan should eat all kinds of healthy proteins, such as chicken and fish, not just those that are high in fat and cholesterol, like red meat.