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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

Atkins Diet Controversy Continues

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Don’t Overreact

The latest chapter in the never-ending Atkins-diet controversy is a widely reported study suggesting that the high-fat, low-carb Atkins diet may not only work, but actually be heart healthy. The study was performed by Dr. Eric C. Westman and colleagues at Duke University and presented last month at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Association. The Robert C. Atkins Foundation funded the study, after being approached by Westman, an internist at Duke's diet and fitness center.

In the study, 120 over-weight volunteers were randomly assigned to either the Atkins diet (20 or less grams carbs and unlimited fat and cholesterol) or a version of the AHA diet containing 30% fat, 60% carbs, 10% protein and 300 mg or less cholesterol. After six months, the Atkins group lost an average of 31 pounds, compared to 20 pounds for AHA dieters. Cholesterol fell slightly in both groups, but the Atkins group had an 11% increase in good cholesterol (HDL) and a 49% drop in triglycerides, while HDL was unchanged and Tgs were down 22% on the AHA diet.

While the study appears to be a win for Atkins, there are several things to consider before taking action based on the results. The study was one of 3,600 abstracts presented at the meeting and in no way represents the  position of the AHA. Being small and short term, it provides little evidence that the loss can be maintained or of the long-term effects. The study did not follow the participants long enough to alleviate concerns over eating large amounts of saturated fat.

Following the meeting, Heart Association president Robert O. Bonow, M.D., of Northwestern University, cautioned people not to "change their eating patterns based on one very small, short-term study." To emphasize the point, he called attention to a 12-year Harvard study also reported at the meeting. This study, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and involving 24,000 woman, showed that those who consumed more fruits and vegetables were 26% less likely to become obese than woman who ate fewer fruits and vegetables over the same period.

"Bottom line," says Bonow, "people who want to lose weight and keep it off need to make lifestyle changes for the long term – this means regular exercise and a balanced diet."

Nothing in the Atkins-funded study changes the consensus that unrefined carbohydrates and fat from plants and fish are healthier than refined carbs and saturated fat. Plus, says Walter Willett, M.D., of Harvard, "You can’t eat unlimited quantities of fats or you’ll gain weight." 

Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition expert at Tufts University, told The Associated Press she thinks too much is made of the amounts of carbohydrates and fats in the diets of people trying to shed weight. "The bottom line," she said, "is calories, calories, calories." 

"Most everyone agrees that we need to eat more fruit and vegetables, that our grains should be whole grains rather than refined, that our protein should be lean, and that our oils should come from plants or fish," says Barbara Rolls, an obesity expert at Penn State University.

(See also article above "Could Dr. Atkins Be Right After All?")

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