Why the Atkins Diet Doesn't Work and Never Will

Breakfast

I'll bet I'm right about this: You know someone who tried Atkins'. That person lost weight, quit and regained the weight. Perhaps it was even you.

In 1972, when Robert C. Atkins first published Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution: The High Calorie Way to Stay Thin Forever, he captured the nation's heart. The appeal was obvious: A cardiologist says it's okay to eat a juicy, well-marbled steak, followed by an ice cream sundae topped off with nuts and whipped cream for dessert every night of the week - and still lose weight! His book is dedicated to the dedicated, his once and future patients: "All of the diet revolutionaries who are not content merely to follow their own diet, but who are dedicated to carrying the message of the diet revolution to the world which needs it." This message is being carried still, in spite of the fact that in 1972 only about 25 percent of the American public was overweight or obese, and now almost 70 percent is.

Even back in 1972, there was nothing revolutionary about Atkins' diet -- this was a plan that had been circulating around America since at least 1883, when German physician Wilhelm Epstein's low carb diet was translated into English. Epstein believed that only carbohydrates from sugar and starch were converted to fat, and recommended eating nothing except fatty meats, butter and cream, along with three glasses of light wine a day. His plan, which was based on observation of corpulent people and their habits, lost out in popularity that year to a rival observational plan from England that restricted butter and fatty meats along with the bread and potatoes but allowed a lot more booze as long as it wasn't beer.

No carb diets found a true believer in the late 1920s, when arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson convinced the Institute of American Meat Packers to sponsor a study of an all meat diet that was closely monitored by nutritionists and scientists from Cornell, Harvard and the University of Chicago. There were only two subjects -- Stefansson and a fellow explorer -- and they ate nothing but meat and fat for a year, which translated to 2600 calories a day of a very high fat, very high protein and very low carb (one to two percent from glycogen, unavoidable because it is stored in the livers and muscles of animals) diet. The men thrived, and each lost a few pounds. Because they were eating vitamin and mineral rich brains, livers, sweetbreads and hearts of grass fed or wild animals, they suffered no dietary deficiencies.

Stefansson became the muse of scientists exploring ways to lose weight, and the two-man study led to numerous high fat, top of the food chain plans. Eventually, in 1958, Dr. Richard Mackarness published Eat Fat and Grow Slim, a book so suspiciously like Diet Revolution that it is difficult to believe it wasn't Robert Atkins' direct inspiration.

Atkins' Diet initially seems to work, because no carbs means fewer calories, and the elimination of all those incompletely burned fats, or ketones, will cause significant water loss when they are flushed out of the body. But, since few can stand eating this way for long, the pounds quickly return. It's a terrible method that does nothing to teach how to eat for a lifetime of good health. Instead, large amounts of synthetic vitamin and mineral supplements are recommended -- necessary because of the lack of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and all of the corn and soy fed factory farmed beef.

The cholesterol-loving cardiologist died in 2003, either because of a heart attack, stroke or an unfortunate accidental slip on the ice. His widow Veronica, who had the body cremated immediately, claimed the latter. But she also claimed that her husband had not been hospitalized for cardiac arrest in 2002, when, in fact, there was proof to the contrary.

Since 1972, the Atkins' diet had been revised and republished every decade or so, with NEW on the cover, although there was rarely anything new about it. The last version before his death allowed about 20-40 grams of carbs a day after the initial phase of almost none, and, of course, lots of dietary supplements. Note: a medium apple has 21 grams of carbs.

The Atkins' diet lives on, crafted by others. This year's version is a slightly softened revamping of the old, allowing berries, nuts and seeds during the weight loss phase and fruits other than berries, along with starchy vegetables and whole grains, during weight maintenance. But, it is still carbohydrate restrictive in the extreme, ultimately allowing between 25 and 100 grams of carbs for life, depending on how many you can consume and still keep your ketones elevated. (You still must test yourself with regularity, via a urine sample, to be certain you remain in a state of ketosis.) The USDA recommends that carbohydrates from grains, fruits and vegetables make up 50 percent of calories, which means about 250 grams in a 2000-calorie a day diet. The shortfall in nutrients is evident.

This newest Atkins' Diet is more insidious than the old. It is impossible to determine if the original diet was a gimmick or heartfelt, but Robert C. Atkins had passion, and he made no pretense of being a part of the medical establishment. Quixotically fighting conventional wisdom, he told readers repeatedly not to let anyone, including nutritionists, physicians, or loved ones talk them out of eating as much fat as they wanted.

But this new version is nothing but a low carb, low calorie fad diet, masquerading as a healthy way of life. Although it permits a few more fruits, vegetables and whole grains than the original in an attempt to placate the physicians and nutritionists that Robert C. Atkins so vehemently disputed, even if the starch ceiling of 100 grams per day is hit, and it rarely will be, it is not nearly nutritious enough. At any rate, few will stay on it for very long, because most people don't want to eat in a world where bread, rice, pasta and potatoes have to be measured out in coffee spoons. And so, weight will return along with disappointment, until yet another quasi-revision comes along. Why not just give up Atkins' for the rest of your life - go cold turkey and eat some cold turkey, with lots of vegetables and grains on the side?

Ask yourself, have you even met anyone on Atkins' who kept the weight off for five years? I'll bet not.

About the Author:Susan Yager is an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, and has written for a variety of publications on topics of food, sustainability, and sexual health. Her new book The Hundred Year Diet. Americas Voracious Appetite For Weight Loss, (Rodale, 2010) explores how we managed to become both a nation of chronic dieters and just about the fattest country on earth. For more information, visit www.thehundredyeardiet.com.
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