Atkins Diet Works, But for How Long?

Long-term health effects remain unclear, study finds

THURSDAY, Sept. 2, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Shedding more light on the popular but largely untested Atkins diet, a new analysis suggests that replacing carbohydrates with fatty foods is safe -- at least for six months.

After that, according to the researchers, dieters are on their own.

"Although the diet appears, as claimed, to promote weight loss without hunger, at least in the short term, the long-term effects on health and disease prevention are unknown," write researchers at RVA University in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Their conclusions appear in the Sept. 4 issue of The Lancet.

Although an estimated 45 million copies of books about the Atkins diet have been sold, studies into the health effects of the high-fat, low-carbohydrate plan have been limited. The Danish authors looked at three studies that meet the so-called gold standard of research by assigning people randomly to either the Atkins diet or a traditional low-fat, low-calorie diet. Studies that allow participants to make their own choices -- or examine people after they start a diet -- are generally considered less reliable.

According to The Lancet article, the studies, none of which lasted more than a year, suggested that people actually lost more weight on a low-carbohydrate diet during the first three to six months. But by the time the dieters reached the year-point, the Atkins-style dieters hadn't lost any more weight than the traditional dieters, the study found.

"Somewhat surprisingly," the article added, the cholesterol levels of low-carbohydrate dieters improved more than the other dieters, perhaps because of the greater weight loss.

Overall, low-carbohydrate diets, when combined with high-protein intake, may decrease appetite by encouraging a small selection of foods -- "monotony" -- that make people feel full, according to the study authors.

Gary Foster is clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of one of the studies reviewed in The Lancet article. He said he shares concerns about the lack of long-term studies into the Atkins diet.

"The enthusiasm for the use of this diet is outpacing the research," he said. "We know considerably less about low-carbohydrate diets than we do about low-fat, low-calorie diets."

In the long term, it's possible that the Atkins diet may lead to bone and kidney problems, he said. On the other hand, Foster acknowledged the positive findings about cholesterol reduction in the first few months of the diet -- a surprising result, considering all the recommended fat consumption.

Dr. Mary Vernon, a member of the Atkins Physicians Council and a bariatric physician in Lawrence, Kan., said the Atkins diet is both balanced and flexible in terms of variety. While more research would be welcome, her own patients have benefited from the diet, she said.

However, she recommended that people not diet on their own. "Whatever plan you decide [upon], you should be monitored," said Vernon, co-author of the Atkins Diabetes Revolution. "Your doctor should take bloods tests and monitor your blood pressure."

More information

For nutrition tips, see the American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Gary Foster, Ph.D, clinical director, Weight and Eating Disorders Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Mary Vernon, M.D., member, Atkins Physicians Council, and bariatric physician, Lawrence, Kan.; Sept. 4, 2004, The Lancet
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