Get Ready: Controversy Likely to Heat Up About Long-Term, High-Protein Diets

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 10, 1999, (Atlanta) -- It's not likely that the debate about high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets will subside anytime soon -- especially after the latest data presented today at the American Heart Association's (AHA) 72nd Scientific Sessions suggesting a link between high protein diets and improved insulin resistance sensitivity, particularly in men.

The hype about eating high-protein, low-carbohydrate meals to lose weight hit the scene in the '60s with the Atkins diet, followed in the '70s by the Stillman diet, and then in the '80s by the Scarsdale diet. The resurgence of the Atkins-type diet in the late '90s has created a following of millions who tout high-protein, low-carb diets as the way to lose weight.

But just how safe are these diets long term, and what are the drawbacks? That question came before a panel of international experts at the AHA meeting. In opening remarks, panel moderator Robert Eckel, MD, chair of the AHA's Nutrition Committee, called the issue "very controversial."

Peter Clifton, MD, PhD, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Adelaide, Australia, presented data from a 12-week study of 49 obese men and women with insulin resistance syndrome, a condition that leaves cells with a decrease response to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that promotes the absorption of glucose, or blood sugar, into the cells. Glucose is the body's way to get energy. Therefore, people with insulin resistance syndrome are often overweight and have decreased energy levels.

The researcher's goal was to determine whether a high-protein weight-loss diet (30% of calories from protein) or a lower protein weight-loss diet (15% of calories from protein) was more effective in reducing insulin resistance syndrome. Clifton's team found, to their surprise, that a high-protein diet improved cells' response to insulin.

Should clinicians encourage their patients who have insulin resistance syndrome to embark on high-protein diets? Clifton says no. "We need to wait for good data to show that's the way we should go," he tells WebMD. "At this point, we aren't sure about the long-term problems with diets like the Atkins. I know that high-protein diets are hard to achieve over the long term, and I also know that it's difficult to [track] people on the diets. So while it's possible our theory might be right, we certainly want to confirm it in a much larger study."

While Eckel agrees that high-protein diets are safe and effective for short-term weight loss, the long-term implications concern him. "I've seen many people who have been on high-protein diets long term, and believe they are at increased risk for heart attack," he tells WebMD. "While that's anecdotal, the point is that [high protein, low carbo diets] need to be systematically studied. Yes, people lose weight on the Atkins diet, but ultimately, are they safer long term to maintain that diet? I have big questions in that regard."

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