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?
Known for Easy Weight Loss
"You're not as hungry as with other diets, and that is a
really good thing," says Jenny Anderson, an Internet consultant from
Mamaroneck, N.Y., who is on the diet. "That makes it easier to stay on it.
So does seeing results fairly quickly. One bad thing is that it forbids
caffeine, and I had a lot of bad headaches from coffee withdrawal."
Another drawback to the low-carb diet is its severely limited
"At first, eggs and bacon in butter for breakfast every day
is fun, but day after day of only meat and fat at every meal can get
tiresome," says Anderson.
So therein lies the controversy. On one hand you have lots of
stories of significant weight loss on a relatively user-friendly diet. On the
other, you have dietitians and nutritionists who maintain that the weight loss
produced is short-term and can threaten a person's overall health, despite the
fact that the weight loss itself may have the beneficial effect of lowering
Who is right? Maybe both sides. It provides weight loss at a
very high cost to overall health, or at least that has been the prevailing
"There have been reports in the medical literature that say
that this low-carb diet may not be as bad as we thought," says Susan Barr,
registered dietitian in New York City. "That makes people interested again
in this diet, but until there is more research on what stresses the diet places
on the body, there is no way to know what it might be doing besides providing
short-term weight loss."
But Is It Safe?
According to the American Dietetic Association,
low-carbohydrate diets trigger short-term weight loss through a process called
ketosis. This process kicks in when your body is in short supply of
carbohydrates, a prime source of energy for the entire body, but especially for
the brain, which operates exclusively on carbohydrates.
During ketosis, your carbohydrate-depleted body grabs other
sources, including ketones from stored fat or protein from muscle, to satisfy
daily energy needs. This can lead to ketoacidosis, a state similar to that of
diabetes. This type of diet can trigger weight loss, but it can have the kinds
of negative long-term effects on health that Barnard mentions.
The other big question is whether low-carb weight loss
James Hill, PhD, is director of the Center for Human Nutrition
at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. He runs the
National Weight Control Registry that includes information on the diets of more
than 2,600 people who maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for a year or
What the registry shows, according to Hill, is that less than
1% had followed a diet similar to the Atkins program. Most followed
high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets.