The Atkins Diet: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks

There are numerous diet programs promising results, all were based on healthy eating coupled with regular exercise. When Dr. Robert C. Atkins launched his revolutionary approach to losing weight, by eating high fat foods combined with no exercise, many doubted its validity. Ten years on, ‘The Atkins Diet’, is the buzzword in the industry and the most popular way to lose weight with his bestseller book still selling strong, having sold over 10 million copies worldwide. In this investigation, I shall look at the Atkins diet and explore its advantages and disadvantages.

About the Atkins Diet

The Atkins Diet is a revolutionary diet which promises fast and effective weight loss whilst eating all your favourite fatty foods. It is a low carbohydrate-high protein + fat diet. The main purpose of the diet is to use your fats and proteins as the body’s preferred energy source instead of carbohydrates, which is the normal energy source for the body. When there are insufficient amounts of carbohydrates in the body, it starts to burn fat as its main energy source, thus reducing body weight. This revolutionary weight losing program has many advantages as well as drawbacks, which I will now discuss.

Advantages

The Atkins diet is considered as the most effective diet in the world by many people and dieticians alike. Although at first the prospect of eating the fatty foods that your doctor said was very unhealthy and bad for your body may seem a risky business, experts have proven repeatedly that it is the best possible way to lose weight in a fast and effective way without causing any proven harm to your body in the long term [1].

So what proven evidence is there that the Atkins diet will help to reduce body weight better, quicker and more effectively than other diets? Well, the low carbohydrate diet means that foods containing sugar, a high carbohydrate product, must be completely cut out. Atkins states that “diets high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates radically increase the body’s production of insulin, and insulin is the best single index of adiposity (fat)” [1]. Insulin is the control hormone for glucose, a basic form of sugar. As you eat more and more carbohydrates, your blood-sugar levels increase. This blood sugar (glucose) needs to be transported to all cells by insulin. As the glucose levels rise, more insulin is released to deliver the glucose to cells.

However, if there is more glucose than is required by cells the liver will convert this glucose into glycogen in the liver and muscles where it is available when required. However, all the remaining glucose which is not needed is then converted in to fat by the liver and this is stored on your thighs, bellies, buttocks and all other places where excess fat is found on the body. Therefore eating excess carbohydrates, such as sugary products, is the single biggest factor which leads to excess body weight. And as the Atkins diet is very low in carbohydrates, this cannot happen, so weight will be lost as the excess fat which is in your body will now be used as the body’s main energy source, which means that it will be readily burned, resulting in weight loss.

Another big difference between the Atkins diet and other diets is that you do not need to worry about the quantity of food eaten (amount of calories, etc) because as Dr. Atkins states in his book it is the quality and not quantity of the food that is important [1]. This means that the dieter can eat unlimited amounts protein-rich and fatty foods (such as meat, fish, mayonnaise, etc.) and still manage to lose weight. In other diets, you always need to worry about the amount of calories or ‘fat’ in a product before you can decide whether or not it is safe to eat as part of a diet, and even then you need to do regular exercise to help lose any weight at all. Even if all this is done, the amount of weight lost in the same period as someone on the Atkins diet will still be far less [1]. The relative ease of the Atkins diet makes it much more appealing to take in comparison to conventional diets, as well as being much more rewarding both physically and mentally.

The cholesterol types in food eaten as part of the Atkins diet contain a higher quantity of ‘good cholesterol’ in comparison to ‘bad cholesterol [2]. In blood, cholesterol is bound to certain proteins called lipo-proteins [3]. There are two main types of lipo-protein; low density lipo-protein (LDL) and high density lipo-protein (HDL). LDL is harmful to the body clogs to arteries and vessels, sticking to them and eventually blocking them, which leads to heart disease. This is ‘bad cholesterol’ and fortunately there is little of this cholesterol in foods in the Atkins diet. Foods in the Atkins diet contain a higher amount of ‘good cholesterol’ (HDL) than expected. HDL helps in the removal of cholesterol from arteries, and therefore reduces the risk of heart disease. This shows that not only is the Atkins diet an excellent weight reducing program, but also helps in preventing heart disease and circulatory problems. There are many benefits of weight loss, such as better self esteem for the dieter, more freedom, and a more comfortable and healthier way of life.

Disadvantages

However, good as the Atkins diet may seem on paper, it has many flaws and problems which, if exposed, can cause major problems to the person’s health and mentality. Although Dr Atkins claims in his book that his diet has no health risks whatsoever in the long term [1], most doctors generally agree that this is not really the case. There have been countless health risks involved with the Atkins diet, most of which are very serious [2, 4&5]

Fruit and Vegetables are essential to the human body and should be eaten regularly in good amounts. It contains many essential vitamins and minerals needed by the human body (Vitamins C, D, etc.). Fruit is proven to lower the risks of heart disease and strokes [2]. However, as fruit and vegetables consist of carbohydrates, it is not encouraged as part of the Atkins diet and only minimal amounts can be taken in order to keep carbohydrate levels low.

A low intake of fruit and vegetables causes “around 31% of ischaemic heart disease and 11% of strokes worldwide.” Also “5-12% of all cancers could have been prevented by greater intake of fruit and vegetables. A low intake of fruit and vegetables is responsible for 2.7million deaths each year and is among the top 10 factors contributing to mortality in the world [2]. You can already see that without having fruit or vegetables, a major source of carbohydrates, in your daily diet (or very little of it) the health risks are already very great.

In addition, contrary to what Dr Atkins and others say, following the Atkins diet can cause many serious problems and conditions to the human body in the long term [5]. High intake of meat, particularly red meat, which the Atkins diet mainly requires the dieter to do, in the long term can cause an increased risk of colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon, rectum, anus, and appendix) [5]. Also, fibre seems to be protective against cancer, which there is usually a lack of in high protein diets. Also high protein diets such as the Atkins diet are very high in saturated fats and cholesterol.

Diets like this cause increased risks of heart disease, including sudden heart attacks following a meal [5]. Saturated fat causes blockages of arteries, which can eventually lead to heart attacks. Large amounts of protein consumption (especially animal protein) over a long period of time has also shown to impair kidney functions and can ultimately lead to kidney failure. Other conditions caused from high protein fats include Osteoporosis (urinary calcium losses) and complications to diabetes to those already suffering from the condition [5]. Research has also linked the Atkins diet to causing prostate and breast cancer [2]. The Atkins diet can also “cause bad breath, nausea headaches (particularly in the initial period)” as the body is not used to a deprivation of its usual energy source of carbohydrates [6].

Although many claim that the Atkins diet reduces body weight quicker and more effectively than any other diet, “the effect of high protein-low carbohydrate diets on body weight is similar to that of other weight reduction diets.” [5]. Studies have shown that the average weight loss with high protein diets during the first six months of use is very similar to any other weight reducing diet programs if followed correctly [5]. Therefore, as you can see, there is nothing special about high-protein diets such as the Atkins diet, and the whole idea of rapid weight loss has been completely blown out of proportion.

In addition to all this, the diet presumes that the individual will eat meat. However, this instantly rules out the vegetarian population

Conclusion

In conclusion, The Atkins diet, a revolutionary high protein-low carbohydrate diet, has changed the way we think of fatty foods. We no longer consider high-fat foods as a deadly fattening machine which we must avoid in order to lose weight. Dr Atkins has shown us that we can lose weight whilst still eating all the high-fat foods most of us love to eat. This caused millions of people to actually try the diet out to see for themselves. It seems that overall, there have been mixed feelings about the diet in terms of effectiveness and the risks involved. Many have seen the wonders that the diet can do to our physical shapes in a short space of time. It has been proven that if you stick to the plan, you can lose weight effectively in a short space of time [1]. However, as for the long term, the risks are both positive and negative. Studies have actually shown that foods part of the Atkins diet have a higher level of ‘good cholesterol’ than expected, which can lead to a reduced risk of heart disease.

In spite of the apparent advantages, The Atkins diet has been linked with many conditions in the long term, including heart disease, cancer and kidney problems. Also, it is almost impossible for vegetarians to follow the diet as it mainly involves eating meats high in protein. Personally, I believe that the only safe way to lose weight is to totally change our eating patterns. If we go on these high protein diets and lose weight, and then go off the diet once we have done so, we will just put the weight back on again. If we eat only what is required per day together with good exercise, the weight will easily be lost in a safe and healthy way.

References

http://www.betterhealthusa.com/public/250.cfm

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