Is Atkins the Healthiest Choice for Weight Loss?

The beleaguered Atkins diet may get a breath of life from a new study that suggests the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet regime leads to more effective weight loss with fewer negative health effects than three other weight loss strategies.

The study, which pits the Atkins diet against the Zone, Ornish and LEARN diets, appears in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

But the findings could be too little too late for the popular diet, which at one time changed the way Americans ate.

Proponents of Atkins say the study is only the latest piece of evidence testifying to the effectiveness of a diet that cuts carbs to a minimum.

"Clearly, this study shows that controlling carbohydrates is as or more effective than the low-fat, low-calorie approaches we've seen in the past," says Dr. Stuart Trager, author of "The All-New Atkins Advantage: 12 Weeks to a New Body, a New You, a New Life."

"The proof is now in the pudding," says Dr. Fred Pescatore, former medical director of the Atkins Center and best-selling author of "The Hamptons Diet," a guide on another low-carb regime.

"These findings are consistent with over a dozen papers in the past five years demonstrating the beneficial effects of carbohydrate restriction," says Dr. Eric Westman, associate professor of medicine and director of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University Medical Center. "I think low-carbohydrate diets should be first-line therapy for weight loss."

But will the new research be enough to save Atkins -- or even restore it to its former lead position in the pack of new diet regimes? Many diet experts say no.

"Health is not measured as the combination of several cardiac risk markers and weight over the course of a year," says Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "If it were, every patient getting chemotherapy would be 'healthy.'"

"Some heart indicators were better, but what about the mountains of evidence about high consumption of fruits and vegetables to promote overall health?" says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's department of pediatrics in Bronx, N.Y.

Safety Questions and Efficacy of Atkins

The JAMA study suggests that women on the Atkins diet not only lose more weight than those on the other diets studied, but that these women also maintain better cholesterol profiles and blood pressure levels.

But Dr. Dean Ornish, creator of the Ornish diet and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco, says the conclusions from these findings are misguided.

"This is simply not true," he says. "If you read the study carefully, you will find that the authors reported that there was no significant difference in weight loss between the Atkins and Ornish or LEARN diets after one year.

"This directly contradicts their primary conclusion."

Other experts say the fact that the study only features results for up to one year makes such conclusions premature at best.

"The weight loss with Atkins maxed out after six months and really started regaining then, and somewhat faster than with the other diets," Ayoob says. "It would be interesting to see if, by 18 months or so, everything evened out."

"The public may not realize that keeping weight off for one year is no indication of permanence," says Carla Wolper of the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City.

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