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Atkins' Death Controversy Stirs Debate About the Safety of Low-Carb Diets

Feb. 11, 2004 -- Much like the controversy surrounding the health of diet guru Robert Atkins, MD, at the time of his death last April, the debate about the safety of the low-carbohydrate diet Atkins became famous for isn't likely to calm down any time soon.

Critics of low-carb approach say the high-fat content of the Atkins diet, which advocates meat, eggs, and cheese and limits bread, pasta, and fruit, raises the risk of heart disease. But low-carb devotees say the diets are safe and effective in promoting weight loss, which in turn lowers the risk of heart disease.

But researchers say the facts boil down to this: There simply isn't enough data on low-carb diets to support either argument.

"There are two extremes, but I think there is no evidence to support either extreme in terms of benefits or harmful effects of this kind of diet," says Frank Hu, MD, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Many Questions, Few Answers

The prevailing view during the last 20 years has been that a low-fat diet is the best way to achieve weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease. But the epidemic of obesity that the U.S. is currently experiencing indicates that low-fat diets may not be the solution.

"The question now is whether the other extreme, a low-carb diet, is the answer," says Hu.

During the "induction" phase of Atkins, in which carbohydrates are most strictly limited, people typically consume as much as 60% of their calories from fat, including "bad" saturated fats from animal sources that raise cholesterol levels and "good" unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil and fish, which have favorable effects on cholesterol profiles.

Although the Atkins diet has never specifically prescribed recommended amounts of fat or protein, an Atkins educator recently told The New York Times that only 20% of a dieter's calories should come from saturated fat.

Hu says getting even 20% of calories from saturated fat is still too high. The American Heart Association and many other health organizations recommend a maximum intake of 10% of total calories from saturated fat in order to reduce the risk of heart disease.

"Based on what we know so far, you can expect that if you eat this kind of diet for many years, there could be harmful effects on heart disease and diabetes," says Hu. "The benefits of weight loss may outweigh the potential harmful effects of saturated fat and cholesterol within the short-term, but in the long-term we don't know."

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