Is the Atkins diet healthy/safe? What about other low-carb diets?

In previous articles I have mentioned my distaste for the word “diet” and my feelings have not changed. It seems that there is a new “miracle” weight loss diet each day. Many of which are fad diets that urge people to drastically cut out calories or entire food groups to lose weight. Most of these diets are not nutritionally sound and may lead to nutrient deficiencies and the dreaded “Yo-Yo” diet cycle. Dr. Robert Atkins published a book called “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution” in 1972 and he has since followed it up with several other additions. The basic premise of the Atkins diet (and many other low carbohydrate diets) is to switch the body’s metabolism from metabolizing glucose for energy over to converting stored body fat for energy (ketosis). This diet recommends reducing the amount of carbohydrates that are consumed (bread, pasta, cereals, fruit) and increasing the amount of protein consumed (meat, eggs, cheese). Much research has been done to evaluate the safety and efficacy of this diet. Results are somewhat mixed. Some studies suggest that following this diet may actually help people lose weight and keep it off. Other studies report that the Atkins diet might help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. But, on the flip side, there are various studies that found that people following these types of low carbohydrate diets had increased incidence of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis/kidney stones.

Personally, I do not recommend following these restrictive diets for successful long term weight loss for a number of reasons. I actually did try to follow this diet for a while just to see if I could do it and I found my self weak, irritable, nauseated, and hungry all the time. I found it difficult to concentrate and I was unable to follow this plan for more than a few days. Carbohydrates are a very important part of our diet. They are important for our brain function and for a healthy metabolism. Because the Atkins diet restricts carbohydrates “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 lose some muscle mass” says ADA spokesperson Dr. Chris Rosenbloom. The Atkins diet is low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which contain key phytochemicals to help reduce risk of cancer. Evidence shows that diets with excessive amounts of protein may leach calcium from the bones, leading to osteoporosis.

As I mentioned, fad diets may result in weight loss at first because they are generally low in calories. However, several things can happen as the diet continues. Metabolism may begin to slow down as the body conserves energy, and once the diet ends people may gain weight as their calorie intake increases. In addition, generally these diets do not teach one about the basics of healthy eating. Many people return to their previous eating habits after the diet has ended, resulting in weight gain. And this weight gain (around one’s midsection) is dangerous as it really increases risk for heart disease.

My advice? Steer clear of the Atkins diet and others like it and challenge yourself to follow a healthy meal plan for weight loss. You could start by seeing a registered dietitian. She could help teach you about nutrient dense foods, complex carbohydrates, healthy protein and fat and help you to make necessary changes in your food consumption to lead to weight loss.

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