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Low-Carb Diet Disputed

Dietitians say study of Atkins' diet no proof it's healthy

By Neil Sherman
HealthSCOUT Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthSCOUT) -- Results from a short-term study partly sponsored by the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine, not surprisingly, show that the low-carbohydrate diet, which hit the bestseller lists 20 years ago and has had a recent resurgence of popularity, is safe and effective.

But a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association says it's way too early to tell if the diet is safe.

"I wouldn't jump on the bandwagon," says Elizabeth Ward, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, and a registered dietitian and consultant in Boston. "This study is just too short term. It has not been in existence long enough to find out if the diet has an effect on bone and kidney health."

The cornerstone of the diet designed by cardiologist Dr. Robert C. Atkins is the idea that because carbohydrates take longer to process, the body burns fat quicker if there are no carbohydrates to be digested.

In other words, eat all the meat, fish, eggs, cheese and butter you want but keep carbohydrates and high-sugar foods -- fruits, breads, pasta, cereal, and starchy vegetables -- to a bare minimum. How much is minimum? In the first two weeks of the Atkins diet, you're allowed 20 carb grams a day. One banana has 26. The diet adds in multi-vitamins, fish-oil supplements and exercise.

"In our own practice, we are confident that there are no adverse affects, long term, with the Atkins diet," says Colette Heimowitz, the director of nutrition at the Atkins Center. "We wanted to do research that would prove the safety and efficacy of the diet and therefore encourage researchers and governmental agencies to feel obligated to sponsor longer term research."

According to Heimowitz the Atkins Center partially funded research at the Durham, N.C., VA Medical Center to check out the diet's safety and effectiveness. Dr. Eric Westman is the study's principal investigator and an assistant professor of medicine, department of medicine, Duke University.

"Dr. Eric Westman is in the midst of a prospective study of 41 patients who have not been on the diet. Our only involvement has been that we told Westman how the diet should be done and provided him with our supplements," Heimowitz says.

According to Heimowitz, Westman has "found beneficial cholesterol, triglycerides and a significant increase in HDL or 'good' cholesterol levels in the 41 patients after four months on our diet."

Westman reported that the 41 patients, all healthy and slightly obese, lost an average of 21.3 pounds over the four months. "There was significant reduction in serum total cholesterol of 6.1 percent; a reduction in serum triglycerides of 39.9 percent; and a significant increase in "good" cholesterol of 7.2 percent. "This dietary program works for weight loss," stated Westman. It helps these blood fats over four months, he added. "Because of the changes in blood chemistries, further research is needed to resolve the long-term effects of these metabolic changes, especially in people with other medical conditions." Westman reported his results recently at the annual meeting of the Southern Society of General Internal Medicine in New Orleans.

Critics of the diet say that side effects can include nausea, headaches, tiredness and bad breath and can worsen gout (a form of arthritis) and kidney disease and increase your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Heimowitz says that the diet has no adverse effect on the liver or kidney. And Westman found no bad side effects other than some bad breath, headaches and constipation.

The acid body

Nutritionists are not convinced. Ward says that a diet high in animal protein creates an acidic environment within the body. "When that happens, calcium in bone tissue is used to buffer the acidity. What you get is a lot of bone loss from bones when you're on a high protein diet," Ward says.

"It's just not a balanced way to eat," Ward says. "You'll lose weight, no doubt, but the diet bashes food and like any diet, it will ultimately fail.

Low-carb diets fail "because they don't teach you how to change your eating habits for life, and they never really dealt with all the issues underneath being obese," Ward says.

"Anyone can lose weight on a diet," she says. "The hard part, the important part, is maintaining the loss."

What To Do

There's no substitute for self-discipline, and losing weight is no exception to this rule. Eating less and exercising more are the two pillars of weight loss. Talk to your doctor before you start any weight-loss program.

Keep in mind, also, that the people in this study were healthy and hadn't been on any diet program, prescription drugs or diet pills for months before the study began. They also did 20 minutes of exercise three times a week, which may be a factor in both weight loss and helping blood serum chemistry.

Stay tuned: This study is in its seventh month, and the researchers will undoubtedly have more to say soon.

Here's a review of 1992's Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution book done as one of the Good Housekeeping Institute Reports. It details the pluses (none) and minuses (many) of the diet and give the book at "two-thumbs down" rating. On the other side, this ABCNews story tells how such former chubbies as singer Stevie Nicks, real estate mogul Donald Trump and others lost weight on the diet and gives a balanced view of its good and bad points, including a spirited defense by Atkins himself.

For more information on the diet, see The Atkins Center.

If you want to see what the government -- and mainstream nutritionists -- view as the ideal diet, check out the food pyramid and daily nutritional suggestions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

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