Atkins claimed that one could “Reverse heart disease with filet mignon!” Until the year 2000, all people had were changes in cardiac risk factors like cholesterol to evaluate the impact of the Atkins Diet on the heart. But then a landmark study was published which, for the first and only time, actually measured what was happening to peoples’ arteries on this kind of diet. The results were shocking.
Richard Fleming, M.D., an accomplished nuclear cardiologist, enrolled 26 people into a comprehensive study of the effects of diet on cardiac function. Using echocardiograms, he could observe the pumping motion of the heart, and with the latest in nuclear imaging technology–so-called SPECT scans–he was able to actually directly measure the blood flow within the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart muscle and allow it to pump. It is when one of these coronary arteries gets blocked that people have a heart attack.
Fleming then put them all on a low saturated fat, high carbohydrate diet–a whole foods vegetarian diet–the kind that has been proven to not only stop heart disease, but to in some cases actually reverse it, opening up clogged arteries. A year later the echocardiograms and SPECT scans were repeated. By that time, however, 10 of his patients had, unbeknownst to him, jumped on the low carb bandwagon and begun following the Atkins Diet or Atkins-like diets. All of a sudden, Dr. Fleming had an unparalleled research opportunity dropped in his lap. Here he had extensive imaging of 10 people following a low carb diet and 16 following a high carb diet. What would their hearts look like at the end of the year? We can talk about risk factors all we want, but compared to the high carb group, did the coronary heart disease of the patients following the Atkins Diet improve, worsen, or stay the same?
Those sticking to the whole-foods vegetarian diet showed a reversal of their heart disease as expected. Their partially-clogged arteries literally got cleaned out, and blood flow to their hearts through their coronary arteries increased 40%. What happened to those who abandoned the high carb diet and switched over to the Atkins Diet, chowing down on bunless cheeseburgers? Their condition significantly worsened. All that saturated fat and cholesterol in their diet clogged their arteries further–the blood flow to their hearts was cut 40%. Thus, the only study on the Atkins Diet to actually measure arterial blood flow showed widespread acceptance of a high saturated fat diet like Atkins could be heralding a future epidemic of fatal heart attacks. Validation that “If you were trying to damage your heart,” wrote the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “you couldn’t do much better than to eat a cheeseburger.” Maybe filet mignon doesn’t work after all.
The blood flow scans have been posted online so people can see the evidence for themselves. The Atkins Diet, according to the American Dietetic Association, is “a heart attack waiting to happen.”
“We worry about this,” explains Dr. James W. Anderson, Professor of Medicine and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine, “because many of the people who love these diets are men aged 40 to 50, who like their meat. They may be 5 years from their first heart attack. This couldn’t be worse for them. Did you know that for 50% of men who die from heart attacks, the fatal attack is their first symptom? They will never know what this diet is doing to them.”
Emerging evidence also suggests that ketogenic diets may “create metabolic derangement conducive to cardiac conduction abnormalities and/or myocardial dysfunction”–in other words cause other potentially life-threatening heart problems as well. Ketogenic diets may cause a pathological enlargement of the heart called cardiomyopathy, which is reversible, but only if the diet is stopped in time. The Atkins Corporation denies that Dr. Atkins’ own cardiomyopathy-induced heart attack, hypertension, and blocked arteries had anything to do with his diet.