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High-Protein Diets Get Low Score

Plans don't keep weight off and may be dangerous, says heart association

MONDAY, Oct. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Diets that have you feast on meat, eggs and other proteins while skimping on fruits, vegetables and cereals are not only risky if you stay on them for long, but, to add insult to injury, they won't even keep the pounds off, says the American Heart Association (AHA).

High-protein diets tend to be higher in animal fats, which over time can increase cholesterol levels and raise the risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, says an advisory in the Oct. 9 issue of the AHA journal Circulation. And the lack of fruits, cereals, vegetables or other food groups can lead to deficits in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and other "micronutrients" that fight cancer and maintain bone density, says the advisory.

"There's a lot of concern that people are hopping from one fad diet to another and aren't sticking to one long-term plan and getting the benefits of sustained weight reduction. People are still getting fatter, despite the proliferation of these diets," says Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., and vice chairman of the AHA's Nutrition Committee. The committee worked for two years on the advisory, which criticizes the Atkins diet, along with The Zone, Protein Power, Sugar Busters and Stillman diets.

Atkins diet people take exception to the generalizations in the advisory. The high-protein diet has plenty of fruits, vegetables and cereal, says Colette Heimowitz, director of education and research at the Atkins Health and Medical Information Services in New York City. She says the association is sending the wrong message to a country where one in four Americans is obese.

The AHA advisory says the Protein Power diet gets 54 percent of its calories from fat; Atkins comes in second with 53 percent of calories from fat; Stillman has 33 percent; The Zone has 30 percent, and Sugar Busters has 21 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says no more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat.

Lichtenstein also says the AHA committee "didn't find a lot of evidence" of weight loss. Most of the initial weight loss on these diets is a loss of water caused by the sudden reduction in carbohydrates, "and, in general, quick weight-loss diets don't work for most people," she says.

"What we are more concerned about is that these diets prescribe lots of animal proteins, and those tend to be high in saturated fats, which increases cholesterol and therefore the risk for coronary heart disease and stroke," Lichtenstein says. "And because these diets restrict the intake of fruits and vegetables, that compounds the increases of LDL [bad] cholesterol and lessens the benefits of weight loss on the reduction of blood pressure."

Heimowitz says that's not so. The Atkins diet not only allows fruit and vegetables, it goes beyond the minimum daily nutritional requirements mandated by the Surgeon General, she says.

"There's nothing new here at all. The American Heart Association is using scare tactics and creating headlines on facts that don't support themselves. For instance, they state that there is no long-term study of these diets, but, in fact, there's no long-term study of any diet," says Heimowitz.

Heimowitz says she tried to present studies supporting her company's viewpoint to the AHA nutrition committee, but was rebuffed.

"There's a real misunderstanding here about these diets," Heimowitz says. "We only restrict carbohydrates to 20 grams during the induction phase of the diet, which lasts about two weeks. Even in that phase, you can eat three to four cups of vegetables a day. You also eat plenty of vegetables during the weight-loss phase of the diet and gradually increase fruits and grains on the maintenance phase of the diet."

"The American Heart Association is sending the wrong message here; 61 percent of Americans are overweight and can't seem to comply with the low-fat recommendations. And they can't comply because they are hungry all the time because fat creates a feeling of satisfaction and fullness," Heimowitz says.

Lichtenstein says the only way to lose weight and keep it off is to reduce calories and start exercising.

"Follow a diet that's high in fruit, vegetables and whole grains and consume low-fat dairy, meats and fish," she says. "And maintain exercise so that the two efforts -- diet and exercise -- balance food consumption with energy expenditure."

What To Do: For more information on high-protein diets, see the AHA or the Atkins Center.

The Zone Diet is explained on this site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Alice Lichtenstein, Sci.D., professor of nutrition, Tufts University, Boston, Mass., and Colette Heimowitz, M.S., director of education and research, Atkins Health and Medical Information Services, New York, N.Y.; Oct. 9, 2001, Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association
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