The Atkins diet, also known as the Atkins nutritional approach, is a commercial weight-loss program devised by Robert Atkins. The Atkins diet is classified as a low-carbohydrate fad diet. The diet is marketed with questionable claims that carbohydrate restriction is critical to weight loss. There is no good evidence of the diet's effectiveness in achieving weight loss.
There is weak evidence that the Atkins diet is more effective than behavioral counseling for weight loss at 6-12 months. One review found that the Atkins diet led to 0.1% to 2.9% more weight loss at one year compared to control groups which received behavioural counselling for weight loss. As with other commercial weight loss programs, the effect size is smaller over longer periods. The diet may increase the risk of heart disease.
There is some evidence that adults with epilepsy may benefit from the effect of seizure reduction deriving from therapeutic ketogenic diets, and that a less strict regimen, such as a modified Atkins diet, is similarly effective.
The Atkins diet is a kind of low-carbohydrate fad diet. It was inspired by a low-carbohydrate approach published by Alfred W. Pennington, based on research Pennington did during World War II at DuPont. The Atkins diet is promoted with questionable claims that carbohydrate restriction is the "key" to weight loss.
In his early books such as Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution, Atkins made the controversial argument that the low-carbohydrate diet produces a metabolic advantage because "burning fat takes more calories so you expend more calories". He cited one study in which he estimated this advantage to be 950 Calories (4.0 MJ) per day. A review study published in Lancet concluded that there was no such metabolic advantage and dieters were simply eating fewer calories. Astrup stated, "The monotony and simplicity of the diet could inhibit appetite and food intake." David L. Katz has characterized Atkins' claim as nonsense.
Net carbohydrates can be calculated from a food source by subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols contain about two calories per gram, although the American Diabetes Association recommends that diabetics not count alcohol as carbohydrates. Fructose (for example, as found in many industrial sweeteners) has four calories per gram but has a very low glycemic index and does not cause insulin production, probably because β cells have low levels of GLUT5. Leptin, an appetite-regulating hormone, is not triggered following consumption of fructose. This may for some create an unsatisfying feeling after consumption which might promote binge behavior that culminates in an increased blood triglyceride level arising from fructose conversion by the liver.
Preferred foods in all categories are whole, unprocessed foods with a low glycemic index, although restrictions for low glycemic carbohydrates (black rice, vegetables, etc.) are the same as those for high glycemic carbohydrates (sugar, white bread). Atkins Nutritionals, the company formed to market foods that work with the diet, recommends that no more than 20% of calories eaten while on the diet come from saturated fat.
The Atkins Nutritional Approach gained widespread popularity in 2003 and 2004. At the height of its popularity one in eleven North American adults claimed to be on a low-carb diet such as Atkins. This large following was blamed for large declines in the sales of carbohydrate-heavy foods like pasta and rice: sales were down 8.2 and 4.6 percent, respectively, in 2003. The diet's success was even blamed for a decline in Krispy Kreme sales. Trying to capitalize on the "low-carb craze," many companies released special product lines that were low in carbohydrates.
In 2003, Atkins died from a fatal head injury due to a fall on ice, and while he had a history of heart disease, Mrs. Atkins was quoted as stating that the circumstances of his death from an epidural hematoma had nothing to do with his diet or history of viral cardiomyopathy.
On July 31, 2005, the Atkins Nutritional company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the percentage of adults on the diet declined to two percent and sales of Atkins brand products fell steeply in the second half of 2004. The company continues to operate and the diet plan remains popular, although it has not regained its former popularity.
An analysis conducted by Forbes magazine found that the sample menu from the Atkins Nutritional Approach is one of the top five in the expense category of ten plans Forbes analyzed. This was due to the inclusion of recipes with some high cost ingredients such as lobster tails which were put in the book to demonstrate the variety of foods which could be consumed on the diet. The analysis showed the median average of the ten diets was approximately 50% higher, and Atkins 80% higher, than the American national average. The Atkins Diet was less expensive than the Jenny Craig diet and more expensive than Weight Watchers.
Low-carbohydrate diets have been the subject of heated debate in medical circles for three decades. They are still controversial and only recently has any serious research supported some aspects of Atkins' claims, especially for short-term weight-loss (6 months or less). In a comparison study by Dansinger and colleagues (2005), the goal was to compare popular diets like Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone for the amount of weight lost and a heart disease risk reduction. In the study there were 160 participants and it lasted for 1 year. All the subjects were overweight at baseline, and had an increased risk for cardiac diseases. One of the diets was assigned to each person.
The Atkins Diet group were to eat 20g of CHO (carbohydrate) a day, with a gradual increase toward 50 g daily, but according to the study increased to well over 130g after the second month and up to 190g by the sixth month. At this point, the Atkins Diet group were eating carbohydrates equivalent to the other three groups. The Zone group ate a 40–30–30 % diet of carbohydrates, fats and proteins respectively. The Weight Watchers group was to keep the "points" of their food in a determined range, based on their weight. The group that was supposed to represent the Ornish diet ate a diet very unlike the Ornish diet that had been shown to reverse heart disease, taking in 30% of calories from fat rather than the suggested 10%, up to 20 grams of saturated fat a day, and only 15 grams of dietary fiber, indicating that the diet was not based on whole plant foods like the typical Ornish diet. The weight, waist size, blood pressure, and a blood sample were taken, at the beginning, after 2 months, 6 months and 12 months. All four diets resulted in modest weight loss and improvement in several cardiac risk factors, with no significant differences between the diets.
Others in the scientific community also raised questions regarding the efficacy and safety of the diet:
- Robert Eckel of the American Heart Association said that high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets put people at risk of heart disease. A long term study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 found that while women on low-carb diets were generally healthier than those on high-carbohydrate diets, women eating more protein and fat from vegetable sources, rather than from animal sources, had a lower risk of heart disease.
- A 2001 review by Freedman et al. published in the journal Obesity Research concluded that low-carb dieters' initial advantage in weight loss was a result of increased water loss, and that after the initial period, low-carbohydrate diets produce similar fat loss to other diets with similar caloric intake.
Misconceptions about the diet
Many people believe that the Atkins Diet promotes eating unlimited amounts of fatty meats and cheeses. This was allowed and promoted in early editions of the book. In the newest revision, not written by the now-deceased Atkins, this is not promoted. The Atkins Diet does not impose caloric restriction, or definite limits on proteins, with Atkins saying in his book that this plan is "not a license to gorge," but rather promotes eating protein until satiated. The director of research and education for Atkins Nutritionals, Collette Heimowitz, has stated that the newer revisions are intended to clarify rather than replace the correct advice in the older books.
"The Atkins Diet was labeled as a high-fat diet," Westman said in an interview with The New York Times. "We've been told over the past 40 years that fat in the diet is bad. Now we know that fat is not bad. What's happened is that there is a paradigm shift in thinking about carbohydrates, fat and protein and health."
Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. (ANI) was founded in 1989 by Atkins to promote the sale of Atkins-branded products. Following his death, waning popularity of the diet and a reduction in demand for Atkins products, Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 31, 2005 citing losses of $340 million. It was subsequently purchased by North Castle Partners in 2007 and switched its emphasis to low-carb snacks. In 2010, the company was acquired by Roark Capital Group.
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Atkins resulted in 0.1% to 2.9% greater weight loss at 12 months than counseling.
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Despite the popularity and apparent success of the Atkins diet, documented scientific evidence in support of its use unfortunately lags behind.
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- Eric C. Westman, M.D., Stephen D. Phinney, M.D., and Jeff S. Volek, Ph.D. (2010). The New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great. 350 pp. Fireside Books (Simon & Schuster). ISBN 978-1-4391-9027-2.
- Robert C. Atkins (2004). Atkins for Life: The Complete Controlled Carb Program for Permanent Weight Loss and Good Health. 370 pp. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-641-67892-4.
- Robert C. Atkins (2001). Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution Book. 560 pp. Avon Books; Revised ed., ISBN 0-06-001203-X. ISBN 0-09-188948-0.
- Robert C. Atkins (2000). Dr. Atkins' Age-Defying Diet Revolution: A Powerful New Dietary Defense Against Aging. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-25189-5.
- Robert C. Atkins (1999). Dr. Atkins' Vita-Nutrient Solution: Nature's Answer to Drugs. 416 pp. Fireside Books (Simon & Schuster). ISBN 0-684-84488-5.
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