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The Dangers of the Atkins Diet
by Dr. David E. Norwood

One of the most popular diets of the late 20th Century has been the Atkins protein diet, named after its founder and guru Dr. Robert C. Atkins. With more than six million copies in print, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution proclaims to be "the amazing no-hunger weight-loss plan that has helped millions lose weight and keep it off" (Atkins). Sounds great, but what is this diet, and is it too good to be true?

The purpose of the Atkins diet is to change your metabolism and lose weight easily by eating foods high in protein and limiting foods high in carbohydrates, which tend to raise blood sugar levels the most. The diet works on the principle of ketosis – a process by which excess, stored body fat can be burned (as well as protein), resulting in weight loss.

Dr. Atkins claims that the eating of foods high in carbohydrates causes the secretion of increased levels of insulin in the blood. The increased levels of insulin cause any excess food intake to be turned into body fat, in the form of triglycerides. Thus, if lower amounts of carbohydrates are consumed, the body naturally produces less insulin and looks to other sources for fuel, namely FAT! For this reason, the Atkins diet restricts processed and refined carbohydrates and limits intake to 15-60 grams per day, encouraging protein and fat consumption.

As compelling as it may sound, the presented information on the widely acclaimed success of the Atkins diet must be examined in terms of who presents this information and what their motivation is for presenting it. The majority of the above claims come from the Atkins' Center web page. Whether presented as a "news" press release or as an article on Dr. Atkins, the entire web page has one underlying motivation – to convince people that the Atkins diet is The Way to lose weight, so people will then go out and buy Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution.

Looking at the other side of the coin, numerous health organizations and medical professionals have sharply criticized the Atkins’ diet, both for what it does to the body and for what it does not do for the body.

According to Dr. Chris Rosenbloom of the ADA (American Dietetic Association), “You might be setting yourself up for (health) problems down the road.”

The Atkins Diet, and others like it, trigger short-term weight loss through a process called ketosis. Ketosis occurs whenever the body lacks a sufficient supply of carbohydrates, a prime source of energy. During ketosis, carbohydrate-depleted metabolisms turn to other sources, including ketones from stored fat or protein, to satisfy daily energy needs. (more of Ketosis later)

”So you do lose weight,” Rosenbloom says. “The first bit of weight loss is water weight, the carbohydrate that’s in your muscles, and then as you progress on the diet you will lose some fat, but you will also lose some muscle mass.” 

Rosenbloom and the ADA believe that this type of diet can have a negative long-term impact on health. “It’s so high in cholesterol and fat and total fat -- the opposite of what all the health organizations, from the American Heart Association to the American Dietetic Association, recommend,” Rosenbloom points out. And she noted that the diet “is also low in fruits and vegetables and whole grains”-- foods with proven health benefits. While some of the vitamins and minerals in these foods can be obtained through supplements, other benefits -- like fiber or phytochemicals -- can only be found at the source.

In recent years the American Dietetic Association has become concerned with the increasing amount of misinformation on food and nutrition circulating in the U.S. The Association released a paper to inform and guide the segment of the population who may be victims of consumer misinformation. Much of this information is blatantly in contrast to the methods of weight loss heralded by Dr. Atkins.

First of all, Atkins claims that it is normal and even desirable that in the Induction phase of the diet the individual loses 5 pounds or more the first week. The American Dietetic Association, however, maintains that in order to avoid potential health hazards one should only lose 1-2 pounds per week. Pounds lost quickly on diets like Atkins are often regained because faulty habits have not been changed. Another area where the American Dietetic Association disagrees with Atkins is with fat intake. Low carbohydrate ketogenic diets (such as the Atkins’ diet) are often high in fat, which may increase cholesterol and lead to many other health risks. 

The American Institute for Cancer Research has also evaluated the Atkins’ diet and their assessment is quite alarming. They say that the high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet tends to promote the loss of water weight, and that if such an imbalanced diet is maintained, the body soon reverts to the fasting state of ketosis, in which the body begins to break down muscle tissue instead of fat over the long term. 

Ketosis is one of the body's last-ditch emergency responses; deliberately inducing ketosis can lead to muscle breakdown, nausea, dehydration, headaches, light-headedness, irritability, bad breath, and kidney problems. In pregnancy, ketosis may cause fetal abnormality or death. It can also be fatal in individuals with diabetes! While supporters of the Atkins diet concentrate so much on the fat burning capability of ketosis they neglect to mention that over the long term protein, and thus muscle, is also burned! 

Over an extended period of time, the Atkins diet can give rise to other health risks, as well. By restricting carbohydrates, all four diets inevitably lead to a lack of fiber, which can cause constipation and other gastrointestinal difficulties. In addition, the high amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat they prescribe increase the risk of heart disease and, possibly, some cancers. There is recent evidence that a diet featuring excessive protein may leach calcium from the bones (giving rise to osteoporosis). 

Finally, nothing about the Atkins diet encourages the dieter to learn some very basic weight management strategies like portion control and serving sizes, let alone develop the skills necessary for a lifetime of balanced nutrition.

I would therefore strongly advise no one to use the Atkins diet. Sure, you’ll lose weight over the short term – but at what expense to your body in the long term! Many people will tell you that this diet has worked for them. But how do they know what permanent damage has been done to their bodies which will only come to light in the future?

So what is a good, safe way to lose fat? Essentially, diets that work involve a reduction in your calorie intake and an increase in your body's energy output WITHOUT being unhealthy or dangerous. Every dietician and/or nutritionist will tell you than a diet program which reduces weight permanently and healthily involves gradual weight loss - an average of 2-3 pounds a week. This diet program must also retrain your eating habits so that you’ll not easily fall back into the behavior that made you overweight in the first place.


For more of Dr. Norwood's wisdom and guidance, please check out the Norwood Weight Loss Program.

to determine how much protein you need each day.

If you don't want to take someone else's views of the Atkins Diet as fact, read the books and form your own opinion:

Get the Dr. Atkins' "New Diet Revolution" book for $3.80 icon 

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