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Study Supports a Steak and the Heart

Atkins-like diet may lower bad blood fats while dropping pounds

TUESDAY, Nov. 19, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- It sounds like nutritional heresy, but eating a high-protein, whopping-fat diet can lead to more weight loss than heart-healthy meals while possibly improving cholesterol levels.

That's the word from a just-released study that compared the popular Atkins diet with dieting guidelines from the American Heart Association. The Duke University study found that people shed about 50 percent more pounds on the Atkins plan and also saw their HDL (or "good") cholesterol surge while levels of triglycerides -- fats linked to heart disease -- plummeted.

All that, despite the fact that adherents to the Atkins diet ate about 60 percent of their calories from fat, much of which was saturated fat from meat that experts consider perilous to cardiovascular health.

The new findings, presented this week at the American Heart Association's special sessions meeting in Chicago, haven't swayed the American Heart Association itself, however.

Dr. Robert Bonow, president of the association, said today his group is sticking to its recommendations about the importance of eating a low-fat diet.

"People should not change their eating patterns based on one very small, short-term study," Bonow said in a statement issued to clarify the association's position. "Instead, we hope that the public will continue to rely on the guidance of organizations such as the American Heart Association, which look at all the very best evidence before formulating recommendations."

The Atkins diet has been around since the 1970s, but in recent years it has undergone a renaissance in popularity. The regimen restricts carbohydrates and sugars -- like those in grains and fruit -- to less than 20 grams a day. Protein and fat are supposed to make up the rest of the caloric intake.

The new study compared the Atkins diet with a Heart Association-suggested plan in 120 men and women. After six months, those on the popular diet had shed 31 pounds, while those in the other group had lost 20. HDL levels in the Atkins group rose 11 percent, on average, while triglyceride levels dropped 49 percent. Those on the AHA diet saw no change in HDL and a 22 percent decline in triglycerides.

The National Institutes of Health is now funding a five-year trial of the Atkins diet, this one in 360 overweight men and women. Half will go on an Atkins diet and half will be put on a low-fat diet.

Despite the latest news on cholesterol, some doctors insist the Atkins plan causes other serious health problems. One recent study, for example, found that just six weeks on a high-protein, low-carb diet sharply increased the risk of kidney stones. Similar regimens have also been linked to osteoporosis from calcium loss, colon and prostate cancer, and heart disease.

The Atkins diet is "substantially more dangerous" than other diets, said Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which has spoken out in the past against the regimen.

Barnard said people on Atkins don't lose weight faster than those on other weight-loss diets, which the AHA meal plan is not. And the improvement in cholesterol is simply a function of reducing overall body fat, he said.

But Abby Bloch, a nutrition consultant for the Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation, said the evidence of any risk in the diet is "muddy."

Studies that have shown health problems associated with high-protein and high-fat diets haven't separated the adverse effects of high carbohydrate consumption, said Bloch.

Bloch said the diet's ability to force bad blood fats lower, while raising HDL, comes from the fact that when people eat fewer carbohydrates their insulin levels wane. Insulin drives the production of both good and bad fats, she added.

Bonow noted, however, that another study reported at the AHA meeting found that women who ate diets high in fruits and vegetables were 26 percent less likely to become obese over time than those who consumed fewer of those foods.

What To Do

To learn more about the Atkins diet, try the Atkins Foundation. You can also try the American Heart Association's recommended diets.

SOURCES: Abby Bloch, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition consultant, Dr. Robert C. Atkins Foundation, New York; Neal Barnard, M.D., president, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Robert C. Atkins Foundation; Nov. 19, 2002, American Heart Association statement
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