One of Dr. Atkins’ dreams probably came true–he likely became a billionaire before he died. The Atkins corporation is now estimated to be worth billions of dollars. In Family Practice News, one doctor writes, “Unfortunately, Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who made a lot of money playing on the ignorance of Americans, knew about as much about nutrition as an Arkansas hog knows about astronomy.”
Of course, pigs–in Arkansas and elsewhere–have presumably little use for astronomy. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask, however, that cardiologists like Dr. Atkins know something about nutrition.
The entire theoretical framework of low carb diets, like Atkins and The Zone, hang upon the notion that insulin is the root of all evil and so to limit insulin release one needs to limit carbohydrate intake. Dr. Atkins, for example, has a chapter entitled “Insulin–The Hormone That Makes You Fat,” Protein Power calls it the “monster hormone,” and the author of the Zone Diet calls insulin “the single most significant determinant of your weight.”
What they overlook is that “protein- and fat-rich foods may induce substantial insulin secretion” as well. Research in which study subjects served as their own controls, for example, has shown that under fasting conditions a quarter pound of beef raises insulin levels in diabetics as much as a quarter pound of straight sugar.
Atkins’ featured foods like cheese and beef elevated insulin levels higher than “dreaded” high-carbohydrate foods like pasta. A single burger’s worth of beef, or three slices of cheddar, boosts insulin levels more than almost 2 cups of cooked pasta. In fact a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that meat, compared to the amount of blood sugar it releases, seems to cause the most insulin secretion of any food tested.
Low carb advocates like Atkins seem to completely ignore these facts. Recent medical reviews have called Atkins’ feel-good theories “factually flawed” and “at best half-truths.” “In the scientific world, books like the Zone Diet are generally regarded as fiction,” one reviewer wrote in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. “The scientific literature is in opposition…” In a medical journal article entitled “Food Fads and Fallacies,” the Atkins Diet is referred to as a “‘New wives’ tale” with a “sprinkling of fallacies.”
According to a 2003 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Dr. Atkins and his colleagues selectively recite the literature” to support their claims. When researchers take the time to actually measure insulin levels, for instance, instead of just talking about them like Atkins does, they often find the opposite of what Atkins asserted.
A study done at Tufts, for example, presented at the 2003 American Heart Association convention, compared four popular diets for a year. They compared Weight Watchers, The Zone Diet, the Atkins Diet (almost no carbs), and the Ornish Diet (almost all carbs) for a year. The insulin levels of those instructed to go on the Ornish diet dropped 27%. Out of the four diets that were compared that year, Ornish’s vegetarian diet was the only one to significantly lower the “Monster” “Hormone That Makes You Fat,” even though that’s supposedly what Atkins and The Zone diets were designed to do.
In another study researchers took over a hundred pairs of identical twins and found that the more fat they ate, the higher their resting insulin levels were. Even with the same genes, the study “showed a consistent pattern of higher fasting insulin levels with intake of high-fat, low carbohydrate diets.”
Other studies show that a high (70-85%) carbohydrate diet (combined with walking an average of 15-30 minutes a day) not only can result in significant reductions in body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, but significant drops in baseline insulin levels as well, exactly the opposite of what low carb pushers would predict. In just three weeks on a high (unrefined) carb vegetarian diet and a few minutes of daily walking, diabetics reduced the amount of insulin they needed and most of the pre-diabetics seemed cured of their insulin resistance. In general vegetarians may have half the insulin levels of nonvegetarians even at the same weight.
In an article entitled “Americans Love Hogwash,” Edward H. Rynearson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, singled out Dr. Atkins for dispensing hogwash he defines as “worthless, false or ridiculous speech or writings” and praised the AMA for “condemning this diet for its dangers.” The “evidence” cited by Atkins has been called “nearly all anecdotal and misleading.” “Carbophobia is a form of nutritional misinformation,” a 2003 review in the Journal of the American College of Medicine noted, “infused into the American psyche through… advertising… infomercials… and best-selling diet books.”
“When unproven science becomes a sales pitch,” declared a spokesperson for the American Institute for Cancer Research about low carb diets, “some people get rich and the rest of us get ripped off.”
We know that the Atkins Diet is successful–at making money. What about for weight loss? We know that cutting down on carbs will help people lose variety and nutrition in their diet, and if they buy his supplements, their wallet may get slimmer, but what about their waistline?
Who cares if the American Medical Association calls Atkins’s theory “naive,” “biochemically incorrect,” “inaccurate,” and “without scientific merit?” Who cares if it “doesn’t make physiological sense?” The question is, does it work?