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How Safe Is the Atkins Diet?

Dieters swear by the low-carb, high-protein plan. You get to eat all the burgers, steak, bacon, and eggs you want -- and lose weight doing it. It's even been shown to lower cholesterol. But at what cost?
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WebMD Feature

Fad diets come and go, but The Atkins Diet -- a high-protein, low-carbohydrate weight-loss plan --seems never to go away, no matter how many medical professionals denounce it.

"Low-carb diets have been linked to increased frequency of colon cancer, formation of kidney stones, kidney disease, and even osteoporosis," says Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Commission for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. "The weight loss you see in low-carb diets isn't all that much better than what you see in studies of low-fat, vegetarian diets."

Putting it more bluntly is Kiku Collins-Trentylon, a sports trainer in New York City, who says it's "a pretty evil diet. We all want to sit on our couches, eat nonstop, and have perfect, sculpted bodies. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."

Meat is the culprit in low-carb diet danger, says Barnard.

"The reason for the health worries is in large part due to red meat," he says. "People who eat meat every day have three times greater risk of developing colon cancer. And then there is the problem of the kidneys. They aren't designed to work on an oil slick of fat."

Big, Fat Controversy

In the summer of 2002, however, both Time magazine and The Sunday New York Times Magazine have published much-talked-about stories that say Atkins may not be as bad for heart health as previously believed. These stories were sparked in part by a recent study from researchers at Duke University showing most people who ate a high-protein, low-carb diet for six months lost 20 pounds.

That much was expected. What wasn't expected was that the researchers didn't see strong evidence of the diet causing any health problems. In fact, both LDL "bad" cholesterol and HDL "good" cholesterol improved.

The Duke study shows part of why the diet is so popular -- it can produce significant weight loss. What's more, it produces it without a lot of annoying calorie counting and the irritability associated with diets.

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