To Your Health with Dr. David Katz
Why Atkins Was Wrong
Despite the big splash made by a recent Stanford University study suggesting that the Atkins’ diet produces more weight loss at one year than several alternatives, I persist in my long-held view that the diet is just plain silly, and a bad idea. Food is the fuel that runs the human body, and its effects go far beyond anything a bathroom scale can measure.
The study, conducted at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center, and published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, compared the “low-carb” Atkins’ diet to the Zone diet, the Ornish diet, and a behavior change program called LEARN designed to help people achieve the balanced diet recommended by most authorities and the US Government, in a group of roughly 300 overweight and obese women.
At the end of one year, the women assigned to the Atkins’ diet had lost the most weight, about 10 lbs, although this differed significantly only from the weight loss in the Zone diet group. The several heart disease risk factors that were measured, including blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, insulin, and blood glucose were fairly comparable across all four treatment groups overall, suggesting that the Atkins’ diet facilitated weight loss while lowering cardiovascular risk.
But beyond these basic facts, the hype over this study and its real implications part company. For one thing, the question it is answering- what diet produces the most weight loss over 12 months?- is the wrong question. What we really need to know is: what strategies are needed to help more of us adopt, and maintain, the basic dietary pattern already well established to support not just lasting weight control, but overall good health and longevity? This study did not help us out in this area.
A truly vast amount of scientific study suggests that a diet rich in fruits (mostly banned by Atkins), vegetables, whole grains (entirely banned by Atkins), lean protein sources, nuts, seeds, healthful oils from such sources as olives, and restricted in saturated fat (more or less encouraged by Atkins) is optimal for life-long health. All such diets already suggest limiting intake of sugar, white flour, and starches, although Atkins falsely is credited by some with inventing this concept. In has, in fact, been part of mainstream dietary guidance for decades.
The DASH diet, developed at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute shows that such a dietary pattern lowers blood pressure. The Diabetes Prevention Program, developed at the National Institute for Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases shows that it can prevent diabetes. The international Lyon Diet Heart Study shows that it prevents heart attacks. And the National Weight Control Registry shows that it is the best approach, when combined with moderate physical activity, for lasting weight control.
A healthful, balanced diet offers two other distinct advantages over the Atkins approach: it is far more pleasurable in the long term (imagine never eating bread or pasta again!), and it’s suitable for everyone in the family. In an age of epidemic obesity and diabetes in children, a diet for adults that leaves children behind is not just silly, it’s irresponsible.
But what about the fact that the Atkins’ diet did lower weight the most, while also improving cholesterol and blood pressure? Doesn’t that mean it’s “healthy?” If so, then cholera, cancer, and chemotherapy are healthy, because all of these tend to lower weight, blood cholesterol, and blood pressure, too. Cocaine use would likely work far better than the Atkins’ diet for weight loss and cholesterol reduction over a 12-month period; that scarcely makes it a good idea.
An interesting aspect of the new study not addressed in press reports is that the biggest differences seen were between the two diets that were most alike, Atkins and the Zone; both restrict carbohydrate. This is opposite of what one would expect if reducing carbohydrate per se were of genuine merit.
Another noteworthy aspect of this study is the poor performance of all four diets. The Atkins’ group “won” by losing 10 lbs in a year on average. If their weight loss had occurred at a steady pace all year, that would mean a loss of about 3 oz a week! In fact, they lost weight faster at first, and were rapidly gaining it back by year’s end. So this study reaffirms a well-known and regrettable fact: in a modern world that makes weight gain so easy and weight loss so difficult, most of us can’t seem to make any diet work. We clearly need changes in the environment to help make eating well, and being active, more manageable.
Studies such as this compare low and high carbohydrate diets as if all carbohydrates were created equal. But both pinto beans and jelly beans are carbohydrate, and the difference is important! When diets comprised of high-quality carbohydrate foods are compared to other diets, they demonstrate clear advantages across filely every marker of weight and health we know how to measure; a recent study at the University of Sydney, Australia, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, demonstrates this beautifully. And long term trials associate such diets with better health across the lifespan, too.
Atkins was wrong to suggest that better health, or lasting weight control, could be best achieved by discarding a large and diverse nutrient category, home to some of the most nutritious of all foods. And those studying the Atkins diet are wrong if they suggest that the hallmark of a healthful diet is how fast it produces weight loss in the short term.
This latest trial that asked and answered the wrong question does not change my views about how best to feed myself and my family. It should not change yours, either.