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Atkins-Like Plan Won't Hurt Cholesterol Levels, but Critics Aren't Impressed

Nov. 11, 2003 -- Is it really possible to lose weight on a no-starch, high-fat diet, similar to Atkins, without hurting cholesterol levels? Apparently so, even for people with heart disease, according to the latest study on the topic.

The new study details the effects of a no-starch, high-fat diet on 23 patients at risk for diabetes. All were overweight, were taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, and had been diagnosed with heart disease. The high-saturated fat and no-starch diet was developed eight years ago by endocrinologist James Hays, MD, in an effort to help his diabetic patients.

On average, those following his low-carb, high-fat diet lost 5% of their body weight after only six weeks. For example, a 200-pound person would have lost 10 pounds.

Importantly, the high-fat diet did not have harmful effects on cholesterol levels. In fact, the participants saw a lowering of the blood fat called triglycerides. "Bad" LDL and "good" HDL cholesterol levels didn't change, but the size of the HDL and LDL molecules increased.

Larger LDL molecules are less likely to form artery-clogging plaques. Larger HDL molecules stay around in the body longer to clean up more plaque.

"We also saw a significant drop in glucose and insulin levels," Hays tells WebMD. Higher blood sugar (glucose) and insulin levels indicate the early signs of diabetes.

Lots of Fat Allowed

Under Hays' plan, half of the daily 1,800 calories come from saturated fats -- mostly red meats and cheese. "We're not talking about protein, egg whites, and turkey and white-meat chicken," he says. "We're talking about fat."

Just days ago, another study at the American Heart Association's annual meeting compared the low-carb, high-fat Atkins diet to three other popular diets -- the very low-fat Ornish plan, the high-protein, moderate-carb Zone diet, and the low-fat, moderate-carb Weight Watchers plan. When devotedly followed, all produced similar weight loss and reductions in heart disease risk.

Hays tells WebMD that he believes the heart-healthy benefits of his Atkins-like eating plan are because of its high intake of saturated fats -- considered by most experts to cause heart disease.

"Cholesterol leaves our body through bile, and high-fat foods cause bile secretion," he says. "Although I would caution that this is genetically determined, I think that most people are able to excrete huge amounts of cholesterol they're consuming with this bile secretion." Still, he advises that anyone starting any type of high-fat diet keep close tabs on their cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

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