For the past 30 years, the Atkins diet has been at the centre of controversy. Based on the theory that it is carbohydrate intake, not fat consumption that makes us fat, Dr Robert C Atkins’ popular books have been the subjects of numerous medical studies. Good Medicine
magazine spoke to Colette Heimowitz, Director of Education and Research for Atkins Health & Medical Information Services in the US, to find out what the Atkins diet is all about. For the full story, see the September issue of Good Medicine
Q. Isn’t the Atkins diet all about eating red meat dripping with fat?
That is a total misconception. The program was never about steak and bacon; it’s just that whenever Atkins is portrayed on TV, you see a steak frying in butter.
Q. So what is it about?
It’s a variety of protein choices, it’s lots of vegetables and it’s good fats such as olive oil and flaxseed oil, as well as some butter. We believe that as long as it’s not processed, and it’s in the form that nature presents to us, it’s not bad if carbohydrate intake is low enough. The reason for that is when carbohydrates are low enough, the body will burn fat for fuel. It burns the fat in your diet, and it burns the fat on your body.
Q. Does Atkins help reduce the risk of diabetes?
Carbohydrates are the only macro-nutrients that raise blood sugar profoundly, so if you control your carbohydrate intake, you control the amount of blood sugar the body produces. Recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, two studies were recorded, and the population in one study was diabetic. Blood sugar and insulin resistance markers for those people improved on Atkins.
Q. What about heart disease?
Twenty-three studies in the past two years have compared Atkins with low-fat diets and, after six months, the Atkins arm of the studies showed a much better risk factor for heart disease and weight loss. After about a year, the risk is about the same as for a low-fat diet because people are incorporating more carbohydrates into their diet. It’s an option - it’s not for everyone - but people need viable options, especially if they’re failing at low-kilojoule, low-fat approaches.
Q. How long can you stay on Atkins?
After about six months to a year, and you’ve obtained your weight-loss goal, you’re eating a balanced diet. You’re taking in a large variety of carbohydrate choices, and you learn to cut back on fats and take in carbohydrates, because you don’t want high fat and high carbohydrate at the same time. The biggest mistake people make is doing the first two weeks of the program and then going back to their old eating habits. People need to learn that if it works for them, it should be a way of life, for the rest of their life. Anyone can take off a few kilos - it’s keeping them off that’s the hard part.
Q. Isn’t it a limited diet?
A lot of people think that’s its extremely limited, but all of the comments that come back from people say, “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be”. People find that it’s easy to eat out anywhere. A restaurant always has protein on the menu and you don’t have to worry about fat. They also always have salads and cooked vegetables.
Q. Is Atkins safe for everybody?
No program is safe for everyone. We tell people to watch how they feel and check with their doctor, as no single program will suit everyone. Low-fat isn’t appropriate for everyone and neither is low-carbohydrate. The majority of people who do this program will do very well, but there is always an exception, who, for whatever reason (be it medical history or metabolism) needs their physician’s help with the program.
Q. Is it safe for women who are breastfeeding?
A breastfeeding mother or pregnant woman has no business losing weight at this time. It’s the time when you’re feeding yourself as well as your baby, and should not be losing weight. But the maintenance stage of the Atkins program is the perfect approach. Growing babies and breastfeeding babies require both healthy fat and protein.
Q. Will the Atkins diet affect people differently depending on their age?
Yes it will. As you age, your metabolism changes. So when a woman is going through menopause she’ll probably discover that her carbohydrate threshold is lower than when she was younger. In one research study adolescents were put on the program and they did much better than any adult - man or woman. And lots of things play a role in how fast you lose weight and how successful you are, such as metabolism, age, gender and the medications you’re taking.
Q. Is it true that Atkins can cause kidney and liver failure?
There has not been one study or research review where the amount of protein in Atkins caused any kidney problems or any indication of liver problem. People misunderstand the amount of protein in this program. About 30 to 35 per cent of total kilojoules come from protein, and nowhere has that amount of protein hurt a healthy kidney. If they are concerned, they should consult their doctor and not try any program on their own.