Can Atkins' Diet Survive His Death?
The low-carb mania has been in part because the cult of his personality, but its long-term effects are still the subject of debate.
By Adam Marcus - HealthScoutNews Reporter
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FRIDAY, April 18 (HealthScoutNews) -- Many authors now espouse the virtues of a low-carbohydrate diet, but Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who died Thursday, was the undisputed champion in the field.
Although the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine's Web site optimistically claims his "legacy and the work continue," whether it can survive the loss of the personality remains to be seen.
Atkins, whose controversial diet has inspired the eating habits of millions of Americans, died from injuries he sustained in a fall last week outside his center.
Most experts agree the Atkins diet and its kin do indeed help people lose weight, at least in the short run. Less clear, however, is how well they work over time.
Moreover, many scientists have expressed concern that the diets can disrupt normal metabolic function and lead to serious health problems, especially for people with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. People who eschew carbohydrates end up consuming a greater share of their energy in the forms of protein and fat.
Atkins' first popular book about his diet plan appeared in 1972. But it wasn't until recently that the public began endorsing his ideas so enthusiastically. The Atkins Diet has appeared on The New York Times bestseller list continuously for more than five years, and has served as the blueprint for scores of similar books about low-carb diets.
Yet for all their popular appeal, researchers know relatively little about the health effects of slashing carbohydrate intake. Stanford University physician Dena Bravata and her colleagues recently analyzed 107 trials of low-carb diets published between 1966 and 2003. Of those, none had subjects with an average age over 53 -- meaning the impact of the diets on the elderly is unknown.
What's more, only five lasted longer than 90 days -- too short to make any statements about the long-term efficacy and risks of the approach. It's therefore not surprising the diets seemed to have no adverse effects on cholesterol, blood sugar or blood pressure. Only longer studies would be likely to pick those up. "We really have no long-term information about these diets," Bravata says.
Participants clearly lost weight, Bravata says, but not because they limited their carbohydrate intake. Instead, they shed pounds because they ate fewer calories.
Dr. Steven Heymsfield, deputy director of the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, calls Atkins a "quack" with a masterful hype machine that turned largely spurious ideas into a mantra. In the absence of another charismatic pitchman, Heymsfield sees the eventual demise of the Atkins diet. But not right away.
Precisely because of Atkins' success as a promoter of his theories, mainstream scientists are studying the diet, and much of that research is pending. Results will trickle out in the coming months and years that will keep the meal plan in the popular mind -- and on the public's plate.
Still, Heymsfield does credit Atkins with drawing attention to the nation's voracious appetite for carbohydrates, including sugar, that bears some of the blame for the run-up in obesity. "Probably what he helped to do in a very spectacular way is to bring to the table the idea that we're eating too much carbohydrate," Heymsfield says.
The rate of obesity among Americans aged 20 to 74 years more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, from 13 percent to 31 percent. More than six in 10 American adults are now considered overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For more on obesity, visit the American Obesity Association. The American Dietetic Association has loads of information on eating right and losing weight.
Learn more about the life of the diet guru at the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine.
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