For almost 40 years, the Atkins Diet has been known the world over as an effective way to lose weight—often quickly and relatively effortlessly. But the diet, also known as the Atkins Nutritional Approach, is also a useful tool to enhance health and reduce disease risk. An ever-growing body of research supports the many reasons why Atkins is a diet for life. Although the studies cited below appear under certain categories, many studies showed improvements in, for example, both insulin levels and blood pressure or weight loss and lowered triglycerides.
Reason 1: More Effective than a Low-Fat Diet
Atkins followers have long known that restricting fat wasn’t the only—or the best—way to lose weight. Now, there’s research to back that up. A study published in 2008 in the New England Journal of Medicinecompared three popular weight loss programs followed by 332 moderately obese people over a two-year period (1). The participants followed either the Atkins low-carb diet, a low-fat diet or the Mediterranean diet. The researchers examined each group for overall weight loss effectiveness and effects on blood lipid profiles and other health factors. Participants on the Mediterranean Diet as well as the Atkins Diet experienced better weight loss results than the low-fat group, along with a significant improvement in cholesterol.
Another study conducted by researchers at the Stanford University Medical School and published in theJournal of the American Medical Association in 2007 compared four weight-loss diets representing a spectrum of low- to high-carbohydrate intake (2). Participants assigned to follow the Atkins Diet, which had the lowest carbohydrate intake, lost more than twice the weight and experienced favorable overall metabolic effects at the one-year point than did those assigned to follow the Zone, Ornish or LEARN diets.
Reason 2: Reduce Risk for Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of markers that predispose people to diabetes and heart disease. These markers include thickness around the waist, high blood triglycerides, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels and elevated glucose (blood sugar) and insulin levels. Dietary carbohydrate is a direct source of blood glucose and driver of insulin secretion. Therefore, restriction in dietary carbohydrate leads to fewer fluctuations in blood glucose and more stable insulin levels. Indeed studies, including one published inNutrition & Metabolism, consistently show better glucose and insulin control and increased insulin sensitivity, both in healthy populations and especially in patients with pre-existing metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes (3). A low-carbohydrate diet has been repeatedly shown to reduce weight in the abdominal area and lower blood sugar, insulin and triglyceride levels.
Reason 3: Prevent and Slow the Progression of Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is basically a problem of insulin resistance, triggered by high blood sugar levels. Sugary, starchy foods drive blood sugar higher than foods composed primarily of fat and protein or fibrous foods such as vegetables. So it stands to reason that eating a low-carb diet would help mediate diabetes. In a 2005 inpatient study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 10 obese people with type 2 diabetes were fed their usual diet for seven days, followed by 14 days on 20 grams of carbs a day (4). On both diets, subjects were allowed to choose how much they ate, so the only change after the first week was eliminating most carbs (with the exception of vegetables). Nonetheless, the subjects ate about the same amount of protein and fat as before, meaning that while restricting carbs, they naturally ate fewer calories. In addition to losing weight, the subjects also showed improvements in their blood glucose and insulin levels. Many subjects were able to eliminate their medications, and their insulin sensitivity improved an average of 75 percent.
A recent study in Diabetic Medicine compared a low-carb diet to a portion-controlled, low-fat diet in 79 patients (5). After three months, subjects in the low-carb group were consuming 110 grams of carbs per day (the upper range of the Atkins Lifetime Maintenance phase). Compared to the low-fat group, the low-carb group had improvements in glucose control, as well as in weight, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure. In addition, more people in the low-carb group were able to reduce medications than those in the low-fat group. Another recent outpatient study published in Nutrition & Metabolism compared the Induction phase of Atkins (20 daily grams of carbs) to a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet over six months (6). The researchers found greater improvements in blood sugar levels and greater weight loss in the Atkins group. Subjects who had been taking from 40 to 90 units of insulin before participating in the study were able to eliminate insulin altogether, while also improving glycemic control.
Reason 4: Reduce Triglyceride Levels
Triglycerides are the body's storage form for fat. Most triglycerides are found in adipose (fat) tissue. Some triglycerides circulate in the blood. Since triglycerides are circulating forms of fat, you might think that a high-fat diet would raise triglycerides and a low-fat diet would lower triglycerides. However, carbohydrate intake appears to be the most important dietary predictor of triglycerides. Diets high in carbohydrates, especially sugar, lead to increases in triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides are a key feature of metabolic syndrome and have been shown to be an independent risk factor for heart disease. As a study published in The Journal of Nutrition shows, a low-carb diet consistently decreases triglycerides both in the fasting state and in response to meals (7). Interestingly, two studies published in the same journal demonstrate that this beneficial effect occurs even when weight loss is minimal (8,9).
Reason 5: Raise “Good” Cholesterol Levels
It is well established that higher levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol offer protection against heart disease. Typical lifestyle changes such as exercise and weight loss are often recommended to increase HDL, but their effects are minimal compared to those achieved by following a low-carb diet, which consistently outperforms low-fat diets in raising HDL levels, as yet another study in The Journal of Nutrition reveals (10). The effects are prominent in men and even more so in women (11).
Reason 6: Increase Particle Size of LDL Cholesterol
Simply lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by restricting dietary fat doesn’t reduce the risk of developing heart disease because not all forms of LDL particles have the same risk potential. Smaller, denser LDL particles contribute more to plaque formation in arteries (atherosclerosis) and are associated with a higher risk for heart disease. Numerous studies, including one cited above and another published inArteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology indicate that replacing carbohydrate with fat or protein seems to lead to increases in LDL size and fluffiness (12,13). These are the forms of LDL that are harmless. On the other hand, as one of these studies shows, carbohydrate intake is strongly and directly related to promoting the forms of LDL that contribute to arterial plaque formation (14).
Reason 7: Reduce Inflammation
Ongoing low-grade inflammation contributes to many chronic health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. A single high-carb meal can lead to increased inflammation (15,16), and over time, eating a high-carb diet can lead to increased markers of inflammation (17,18). On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that levels of CRP, a marker for inflammation, have been shown to decrease by approximately one-third on the Atkins Diet (19,20).
Reason 8: Accelerate Fat Burning
From a purely metabolic perspective, the Atkins Diet and exercise are highly complementary. A pair of studies published in Metabolism that looked at elite cyclists who ate a diet similar to the Lifetime Maintenance option provides convincing evidence (21,22). After four weeks, the amount of time it took for the cyclists to reach the point of exhaustion was virtually identical to their previous performance on a high-carb diet. There were, however, dramatic changes in fuel selection. After adapting to the diet, the cyclists used almost exclusively fat during exercise, making very little use of blood sugar, which remained at the normal level, and muscle glycogen (stored glucose).
In another study, overweight men followed a diet comparable to the Ongoing Weight Loss phase of Atkins while participating in an intense resistance training program (23). After 12 weeks, the men had lost an average of 16 pounds of fat, attributable mainly to their low-carb diet, but their lean body mass actually increased by 2 pounds, credited mainly to the resistance training. These and other studies clearly shatter the common misconception that you need a high-carb diet to benefit from exercise.
Reason 9: Control Seizures
In the 1920s, a Minnesota physician demonstrated that a very-low-carb diet could reduce or stop epileptic seizures in a significant number of children with them and that this diet could be effectively followed for years. The development of antiseizure drugs with similar efficacy rates in the 1960s superseded what was called the “ketogenic diet.” In the 1990s, Dr. John Freeman at Johns Hopkins University revived the ketogenic diet and reported that many children whose seizures didn’t respond to drugs did respond to the low-carb diet. With Dr. Eric Kossoff, Dr. Freeman also noted that children experienced fewer side effects from the low-carbohydrate diet than they did from the antiseizure drugs. For example, not surprisingly, their school performance was better when they were off the drugs. These observations have led to a resurgence of interest in low-carbohydrate diets to treat both children and adults suffering from seizures (24). Today, more than 70 clinics in the United States report the use of this dietary treatment for seizures.
Reason 10: Maintain Weight Loss
The vast majority of nutrition experts agree that the real challenge in the war against obesity is not weight loss, but sustained maintenance of a healthy weight and a healthy way of eating. It stands to reason that if a weight-loss diet is unsustainable, it will not lead to permanent weight maintenance. The four-phase nature of the Atkins Diet gradually reintroduces foods, allowing individuals to gradually habituate themselves to a new way of eating.
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