Compared with the South Beach and Ornish plans, Atkins alone boosts risk of cardiovascular disease

Popular diet has a caveat: It can be hard on hearts

December 27, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

The low-carb Atkins diet that raged last decade may not be the weight-loss juggernaut it once was, but it still has adherents and even a new book.

And the controversial diet that promotes high-fat meats and cheeses over breads and pastas is still generating questions from the medical community. In a recently released study, a group of researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center says it might help people drop pounds but also might hurt the heart.

The group compared three popular eating regimens -- Atkins, the low-carb and low-fat South Beach Diet and the vegetarian Ornish diet. Researchers concluded that Atkins alone puts people at higher risk of heart disease and did it after only one month.

The lead researcher said in a statement that he was surprised by how fast there were impacts on cardiovascular health.

As a result, "we don't recommend the Atkins diet," said Michael Miller, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Why not start out with a diet that will be healthier for you in the long run after weight loss?"

The Atkins diet was created by Dr. Robert C. Atkins in 1972 and popularized 20 years later with the book Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution. Atkins argued that people consumed too many carbohydrates, the fuel the body turns into energy. With more proteins and fewer carbs, he said, the body would burn stored fat.

No one at Atkins could be reached for comment yesterday. On its Web site, Atkins Nutritionals Inc., the company that promotes the diet, cited its own studies that show dieters lost weight, increased their so-called good HDL cholesterol and lowered their triglycerides, the most common type of fat in the body and a risk factor for heart disease.

Further, the Atkins book released this year, The All-New Atkins Advantage, emphasizes eating good mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil and fish, and even some saturated fats found in red meat, but not trans fats found in processed foods.

The Maryland researchers didn't let study participants actually lose weight for the study on diet's impact on heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, because they said benefits of weight loss might initially mask other risk factors.

For the study, 18 healthy adults followed each of the low-carb diets for a month with a month on their normal diets in between. The Atkins diet, where 50 percent of calories come from fat, increased levels of bad LDL cholesterol. It had a negative impact on blood vessel dilation, which can cause increased blood pressure. It also produced an increase in markers for inflammation, which is a gauge of a potential heart attack.

While on the South Beach Diet, where about 30 percent of calories come from fat, and the Ornish Diet, where about 10 percent of calories come from fat, participants lowered their bad cholesterol, and the condition of their arteries improved.

The findings were presented last month at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Fla., and the study was supported by a Veterans Affairs Merit Award and a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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