Atkins Diet 'Dangerous'

August 13, 2003
Daily Mail (London)
by Jenny Hope

THE hugely-popular Atkins Diet is medically unsound and a major health risk, nutrition experts warned yesterday.

They said the high-protein high-fat diet, followed by stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Geri Halliwell, was a giant experiment which could have disastrous effects for millions.

Dr Susan Jebb of the Government-funded Medical Research Council said it would be ‘negligent’ to recommend it for long-term use and called for research into its safety.

She dismissed the theory behind the diet, that it changes the body’s chemistry to burn off fat, as ‘pseudo-science’. Adverse effects could include kidney damage and bone loss.

The alert comes from one of the country’s leading experts on obesity. Dr Jebb is head of nutrition and health research at the MRC’s Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge.

She was speaking at a special summit held in London to warn of the dangers that crash dieting poses to the nation’s health.

Dr Jebb said the Atkins Diet was the least healthy of a number of trendy ‘faddy diets’ followed by people desperate to lose pounds in a hurry. She said: ‘Fad diets prey on the overweight, offering quick fixes and psychological tricks. I see no medical benefit at all in them, and in particular the Atkins Diet.

‘It is nutritionally incomplete. It works in the short term but so does any diet that reduces the amount of calories eaten.

‘The diet is a massive health risk, it’s medically unsound. We have no idea what will happen in the long term because no one is evaluating the results of the experiment.

‘Obesity is a massive problem in the UK but this is not the way to solve it.’ The warning is the latest in a series from health professionals over ‘gimmicky’ diet regimes, endorsed by celebrities.

A multimillion-pound book industry has grown on the back of claims that extreme eating patterns work.

The Atkins Diet is even challenging Harry Potter for world sales figures books about it are currently in first and third place on the British Hot 100 of online retailer Amazon.

Invented 30 years ago by American Dr Robert Atkins, who died earlier this year, it tells followers to eat vast amounts of meat but severely restrict carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and starchy vegetables.

The theory is that carbohydrates increase the body’s production of the hormone insulin, which encourages cells to store fat. This leads to both hunger and weight gain.

Cutting carbohydrates right down, Dr Atkins asserted, turns the body from a carbohydrate-burning machine to one that burns fat.

But Dr Jebb dismissed the claim as ‘pseudo-science’.

She said following the diet long-term would mean a dramatic change in eating habits for most people, protein accounts for only around 15 per cent of total calorie intake.

Dr Jebb said: ‘It’s a profound change and we simply do not know the long-term health implications.

‘I certainly think we should be adopting a precautionary principle in terms of public health.’ The diet is known to put extra stress on the kidneys, which can lead to kidney stones and more serious damage particularly for those with pre-existing problems they might be unaware of.

There is also a fear of bone problems because the diet encourages the excretion of calcium which would otherwise go to build them.

Although two U.S. studies found the Atkins Diet was safe and effective, Dr Jebb said the dieters involved had been on it for only six months and a year.

She also pointed out that, longer-term, it had proved to be no better at permanent weight loss than a conventional low-fat diet.

Dr Jebb said people had to lose weight sensibly and slowly because ‘there is no way to lose a stone in a few weeks without putting your health at risk’.

Among other experts warning about the Atkins Diet is Amanda Wynne of the British Dietetic Association. She says the process of ketosis it triggers where the body burns up stored fat can result in nausea and tiredness, while drastic reduction in carbohydrates can lead to constipation and digestive problems.

Dr Jebb’s colleague Toni Steer says: ‘If you don’t eat fruit and veg, you are excluding a lot of essential minerals and vitamins.

‘And we know that consuming these foods reduces your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.’ Professor David Barker, a specialist in foetal health at Southampton University, has warned that mothers-to-be who follow such diet regimes are putting their baby’s health at risk.

The diet would deprive an unborn child of essential nutrients and raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and strokes in adulthood.

Dr Jane Ogden, a reader in health psychology at King ‘ s College, London, told yesterday’s meeting the Atkins Diet was popular because weight watchers could follow the instructions to the letter.

She said: ‘What fad diets do is tell people in black and white what they can and can’t do, and they identify with that.’