All you need to know about the Atkins Diet

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The Atkins diet is a popular way to lose weight fast, especially among celebs, but could you be damaging your health in the process?

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The Atkins Diet is one of a number of weight-loss programmes built around a very low carbohydrate intake in association with high protein. Although other diets of this kind have been around for a long time, the Atkins Diet has had a lot of media attention, and is reportedly favoured by some high-profile celebs, but is it any better than other diets and, more importantly, is it safe?

Early weight loss

There is no doubt that in the short term, most people who go on low-carbohydrate diets do lose weight, and one of the attractions of these diets is the speed of early weight loss. However, the majority of the early loss is water and muscle rather than fat loss. In the longer term, the weight loss isn't significantly different from that achieved on other diets. Two recent American studies have shown that the average weight loss on very low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets is around 20lbs in the first six months. More importantly, because lean muscle is lost, and muscle is very metabolically active, it is very hard to keep weight under control after stopping this kind of diet.

Health concerns

Nutritional analysis of sample induction menus, weight-loss menus and maintenance menus shows that none of them meets the recommended dietary intakes of various important vitamins and minerals. The menus in all three phases are very high in saturated fat and cholesterol and very low in fibre. While any vitamin deficiencies can be rectified by taking supplements, the issues around the high protein and fat intake are more worrying.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has published a position statement against high-protein diets on the basis that it believes that such diets may be associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, particularly if the protein sources are primarily animal protein. High protein intakes over a long period of time are also associated with an increased risk of colon cancer and kidney damage.

The AHA recommends a total protein intake of 50-100mg daily, and a minimum of 100g of complex carbohydrates daily (as opposed to the Atkins Diet, which only allows a maximum of 60g on the maintenance programme, and a maximum of 20g during the induction phase). The AHA also recommends a total fat content comprising no more than 30% of the total calorie intake, and a daily intake of five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, as these measures have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes. These recommendations are incompatible with the Atkins Diet.

Other health concerns centre around the ketosis that occurs as an integral part of any low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diet. The Atkins Diet instructs users to regulate their carbohydrate intake after the induction phase to maintain a state of ketosis, and this is monitored by measuring urinary ketones using ketostix. Prolonged ketosis can result in 'leaching' of calcium from the bones into the bloodstream, with a resultant increased risk of osteoporosis and kidney stones. Ketosis also leads to muscle breakdown and dehydration, and is responsible for the headaches, lethargy, nausea and bad breath problems that are so commonly suffered by Atkins dieters.

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