Atkins Study: Mediocre Diets Offer Mediocre Benefits

A recent study, published in the July 17, 2008 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, has generated headlines that may lead the casual reader to believe that a low-carbohydrate (animal-food based) diet is the healthiest and most effective way to lose weight and lower cholesterol. The Atkins Research Foundation funded the study. They also promoted the results to the media and slanted the interpretation to suggest the Atkins diet was vindicated. Most of the media bought this nonsense.

The study compared people who were counseled to follow three mediocre diets with little difference between the three. All the study did show was that all three of these diets failed to generate significant weight loss or cholesterol lowering. After two years of carefully monitored effort, the average weight loss was less than 8 pounds. Two years on the modified Atkins diet, where they instructed the participants to eat more plant sources of protein (such as beans and nuts) and less trans-fat, still did not lower LDL (bad) cholesterol significantly. And, this was from an improved version of the Atkins’ diet which had less than 40 percent of calories from fat. Most Atkins’ menu’s have 60–80 percent of calories from fat. On the other hand, some of Atkins’ recommendations have value; it’s of course true that white flour and sugar and other high glycemic foods (bread, pasta and white rice) are not health foods; people need to avoid that empty-calorie junk. But even with the avoidance of all the junk food and high glycemic, low nutrient foods, the Atkins-styled diet offered only minimal weight loss. The average weight loss after two years was 11 pounds for men and 5 pounds for women, so they are claiming an average of 4 pounds a year as a success. This was after, supplying meals and intensive monitoring and counseling to assure excellent dietary compliance.

In this study the women eating the Mediterranean diet lost an average of 14 pounds, almost three times the amount compared to this improved Atkins plan. Yet for some reason the media comes up with the conclusion that Atkins is vindicated. To me this says, even an improved version of the Atkins diet falls on its face, it is almost as bad as the American Heart Association’s (worthless) dietary advice, which came out even worse in this study. Women are always tougher to get to lose weight and a 5 pound loss in two years after extensive counseling and supplying meals to assure compliance; that says big failure to me.

Compare these results, to the patients that were followed in the USC study on my HND (high micronutrient density) or nutritarian diet where the average weight loss for patients that completed two years of the study was 53 pounds and the Journal of Metabolism study where the average LDL following the HND diet dropped 33 percent. My patients typically drop their cholesterol levels 100 mg/dl, on two years, not 2-3 points, and they come off their medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering because they simply don’t need them anymore.

It is a shame that the most popular diets as well as the American Heart Association recommended diet (which is the worst of the three) are such failures and that most people are so in the dark about nutrition and the ideal diet to follow. What a waste of more than 2 million dollars in research funding. Some vegan diet proponents will undoubtedly be criticizing this study too, complaining that all three diets were not really low in fat, so they merely compared three high fat diets. That still misleads the public in two ways. One it ignores the reality that that high glycemic sugars and high glycemic (low-nutrient) plant starches, such as white potatoes, white rice and bread are not great diet foods. So Atkins’ advice is not all bad. And two, it does not respect the value of beneficial fatty acids and healthy, high fat foods like sunflower seeds and walnuts and the health advantages to including these foods in one’s diet. The fat content of a diet is not the critical factor that determines its quality.

Maybe someday soon, somebody will give me a measly half a million (tax deductable) to fund a larger scale, weight loss study that really shows the public what is possible with nutritional excellence, that addresses and removes food addictions with high nutrient eating. Hopefully, in the future, the public will understand these concepts in nutrition much better, but for now, most of these diet camps have significant room for improvement.
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Comments (8) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Joe - July 18, 2008 9:35 AM

Really nice write up. I just hope we get more mainstream media exposing this diet for the fraud it is.

News Flash:
Bad diets are ineffectual!

Sharon Shaw - July 18, 2008 2:49 PM

Once again, an eloquent write-up on what is really wrong with diets such as Dr. Fatkins...Perhaps misinformation is perpetuated, in part, because these (dangerous)diets do not require the public to venture out of their comfort zone..

Cindy - July 21, 2008 7:19 PM

Thank You Dr. Fuhrman for sharing this. Always enjoyable and informative.

Why don't you have one of your staff members sell the idea to do a study to Warren Buffett. He's loaded and I'm certain he would donate to as great a cause as yours.

I'm serious too!

Kevin Kolosky - July 21, 2008 8:09 PM

I have used the Atkins diet and I was very happy with the results. I used either chicken tenders or salmon for my meat, and romaine lettuce, celery, and green pepper for my salad.

During the 6 week diet I walked every day for a minium of 45 minutes. I also checked to make sure I was in ketosis quite often.

When I started the diet I weighed 236 pounds. After exactly 6 weeks I weighed 206 pounds.

I also took a good multivitamin while on the diet, and drank lots of water.

Andy - July 21, 2008 11:05 PM

Although I agree with this article I felt that the strong tone used will turn the readers off. I do admire Dr. Fuhrman for his cause to educate us about these topics, but please Don't blog angry :)

Gerry Pugliese - July 21, 2008 11:30 PM

Hey Andy-

You got to be stern with the Atkins crowd, they are notorious for not listening and ignoring facts.


diane lassen - July 22, 2008 7:36 AM

What a wonderful commentary! I am a strong proponent of Dr. Fuhrman's nutritarian vision. As a holistic Health Counselor, I encourage my clients to baby-step their way toward a plant-based diet, crowding out not-so-healthy food choices. By crowding out undesirable foods, there is no feeling of denial, but rather an increase in energy and a desire to AVOID the foods they were once drawn to. Many of my clients have bounced around from one diet to the next, with minimal if any positive results. By teaching them the health-giving properties of green foods and showing them how to prepare them tastefully, I find I have much better compliance, and ultimately success!
In health,
Diane Lassen, RN, HHC

Mike - July 22, 2008 11:55 AM

Excellent rebuttal Dr. Fuhrman!

Thank you for standing up to these studies.

My gosh, loose 4 lbs / year and destroy your arteries (my conjecture) on Atkins vs. loosing 10% of my body weight in 9 weeks on your high nutrient, plant-based diet. Plus, I'm never hungry, have discovered tons of wonderful new foods and have found a healthy lifestyle (not a temporary diet).

You are a hero to me and I'm so lucky to have found your books and audio recordings. You are changing lives Mr. Fuhrman and you should be incredibly proud of what you are doing.

Thank you sir,


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