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Paging Dr. Atkins...!

This doctor is in. He's really 'in.' But will his meaty, cheese-heavy diet prove to be full of holes?

The Diet Detective trains her magnifying glass on...the Atkins Diet
 .

Lately you may have wondered why your co-worker -- who used to grab a plain old bagel for a snack like you do -- has started nibbling from little plastic bags filled with what you strongly suspect to be meat scraps.

Should you worry, you ask yourself, just because she likes to sit in her office alone in the early morning hours quietly slicing a salami? Or because she now can devour a mountain of pork rinds in a matter of minutes?

You never knew she liked pork rinds.

When she starts pulling hard-boiled eggs out of her pockets and carrying steak knives into work (to "deal with the cheese" as she puts it) you're completely unsure whether to ask about her due date or insist she get help.

But just then she pulls out a book she's been reading and calmly explains:

"I'm on Atkins."

Oh. She's on Atkins. She's part of that "revolution," the one that started without you. You hadn't read the book, "Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution," so you didn't know, like she does, that meat, eggs and cheese (protein and fats) are now good; carbs (your bagels!) are bad; and pork rinds? Well, with zero carbohydrate grams to a truckload, they're actually pretty darn healthy.

 

If this news manages to astound you and go against everything you thought you knew about nutrition, there's good reason. Dr. Robert C. Atkins' dieters join the "revolution" by abandoning the traditional low-fat, pro-carbohydrate plan we've all believed in and considered balanced for years.

To clear up some of this confusion, the Diet Detective decided to ask the experts.

Fewer Carbs? Not A Bad Idea

This is not the first time Dr. Atkins has occupied the pop-diet spotlight. Here's an excerpt from Newsweek magazine in September 1975 on his first book: "'Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution' became the best selling diet book in history...launching a weight-watching fad (and) medical controversy: The American Medical Association called the Atkins diet 'grossly unbalanced' and potentially dangerous."

Today, the doctor has escaped those kinds of labels.

"Dr. Atkins in his new book has covered himself very well," said Anastasia Asbell, a certified nutritionist with her own private practice. "He urges you to take supplements, drink a lot of water and to do the diet under a doctor's care."

Asbell believes that if a person who was already generally healthly followed the high-protein Atkins diet "to a T," it could be beneficial because, she said, "a lot of people in this country are sedentary, and they really do tend to overeat carbohydrates which can get stored and lead to weight gain."

The best possible outcome from a high-protein diet, according to Asbell, would be people moderately and permanently reducing their carbohydrate intake. She has never seen this happen, however, from the Atkins Diet and doesn't expect to, because dieters seem to take what science might be there and literally convert it into junk. "I actually have people tell me they like Atkins because they just go to McDonald's and remove the buns," she said incredulously.

Claudette Gagne, a certified dietitian and therapist who lectures on nutrition science, agrees. "People should lower carbohydrates somewhat, and they could apply these Atkins principles -- moderately," she said. "But they don't."

Gagne, who works primarily with college students, also doubts whether the Atkins Diet will ever be followed correctly, especially by her clients. "They're looking for a magic solution, but there is none," she said. "The danger with Atkins is, people always think if a little is good, a lot is better."

Many Atkins dieters, she said, begin further cutting their intake of carbs, reaching ridiculously low levels for faster results. Overdoing Atkins in this manner can be very dangerous "especially for college students, who are on top of the list for those at risk for trendy diets," Gagne said.

 

The Milkman's Enemy

The Atkins Diet, while embracing cheese, virtually banishes milk and other dairy foods. That approach draws skepticism from the National Dairy Council. Greg Miller, the dairy council's vice president of nutrition research, argues that, although the Atkins Diet prescribes supplements to replace the deleted foods, the decrease in dairy is unsound.

"Diets low in calcium are low in many other nutrients, so taking a supplement is really a Band-Aid approach to the problem. You are treating the symptom, not the problem," Miller said. Miller said that he would not recommend the diet because "most people would fail to maintain weight loss long term."

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True

Nutrition experts Gagne and Asbell advise people who feel they need to lose weight to exercise and be mindful of what they eat. The professionals favor a diverse diet, paying attention to food and how it's eaten and making lasting changes in health habits. Just what no one wants to hear, because of the time and effort required. But, they point out, there's just nothing quick or magical about all this.

 

So if you missed the revolution this time, you can basically relax and enjoy a bagel now and then. Just don't forget to get up off the couch afterwards and go for a brisk walk.

And with the way food trends come and go, another "diet revolution" might be recruiting in 10 years or so, perhaps led by Dr. Atkins or by someone else. But if we've learned something this time around (to be a little more mindful and a lot more active), things might just start shaping up on their own.

Yes, what if another supposedly "hot" diet book promising "amazing results in 14 days" (like the Atkins Diet) were to appear on the shelves in, say, 2009? But this time around, strangely enough, no one even bothered to buy it. Why? Because no one needed it anymore.

Now, wouldn't that be revolutionary...?

 

--Cynthia Battles is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont.

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