A Dangerous Diet

November 19, 1999
Scripps Howard News Service
by Patrice Green and Allison Lee Solin

Heavy cream, bacon, pork rinds, beef, cheese, and butter - all contributors to long-term obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases - are lately being marketed as “miracle” diet and health foods. It’s a money-making ploy if there ever was one. Unfortunately, Americans seem to be eating it up by the pound.

What we’re talking about is the popular “Atkins Diet” - a plan crafted to appeal to the public’s need for shortcuts and quick fixes. Robert Atkins tells his patients and readers what they want to hear: that carbohydrates (which include fresh fruits and vegetables) are making them fat, and that generous amounts of protein and fat will keep them thin. He insists that “carbs” are responsible for high cholesterol levels, obesity and other health problems, though cholesterol only occurs in animal products, and most high-carb foods are low in fat.

Sales of Atkins’ book have risen, as have U.S. cattle and pig prices. Pork rinds, the only fried snack the diet allows, have climbed in popularity by more than 15 percent in one year. The staggering numbers of those who have jumped on the high-protein, high-fat bandwagon portend disastrous health consequences.

This protein load can damage the kidneys and leach calcium from the bones.

The dearth of fiber disrupts the digestive tract.

George Blackburn, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition and Medicine at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a researcher who studies high-protein diets, points out other annoyingly common side effects: bad breath, constipation, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, irritability and lightheadedness.

Somehow Atkins ignores the many population studies, notably the Framingham Heart Study, showing that diets high in meat and saturated fat increase risks for problems such as heart disease, colon cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, obesity, and a shortened life span.

He also ignores the fact that the planet’s thinnest people live in Asia, where rice, noodles and other high-carbohydrate foods are staples. When Asians abandon those foods in favor of McDonald’s and other Western fare, obesity becomes commonplace.

Research studies show that, on average, people switching to a vegetarian diet lose an average of 10 percent of their body weight. Indeed, without limiting calories at all, a vegan diet (free of all animal products) trims about one pound per week. And that’s even without getting beneficial exercise and without dodging spaghetti, rice, bread or - dare we say - the occasional cookie.

To someone like Atkins, a vegetarian diet apparently is out of the question. But how would he explain the fact that heart attacks are the most common form of death in the United States, and yet the risk of heart attack for a man consuming a non-meat diet is cut dramatically? And what would Atkins say about vegetarians having one-third the incidence of colon cancer as meat-eaters?

It’s no surprise that the American Dietetic Association has called the Atkins Diet “a nightmare,” or that thousands of doctors and dietitians are speaking out against this irresponsible medicine. It turns out, the Atkins Diet only works when dieters also cut calories. The regimen is a throwback to old low-calorie diets of the 1970s. They promised plenty, but delivered only temporary weight loss.

Those who are serious about taking off pounds, keeping them off and improving overall health should know that carbs actually boost overall metabolism. Foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, fruits, vegetables and beans, help the thyroid gland burn calories more efficiently.

Americans don’t need bogus and potentially dangerous diet plans to lose weight and stay healthy. They just need to follow good, old-fashioned common sense: cut fat and cholesterol, add fresh fiber-rich foods, exercise regularly, get to know vegetarian foods, and never fear carbs again.

(Patrice Green, J.D., M.D., an attorney and a board-certified internist practicing medicine in Baltimore, is a member of the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, founded in 1985. Allison Lee Solin is a health writer in Santa Barbara, Calif.)