I thought everyone on earth was finally off the Atkins diet. Then I visited my stepmother.
For eight days, I was forced to survive as a pregnant woman with a healthy prejudice against animal proteins in a household where rice, potatoes and bread are banned substances and meat, eggs and cheese are piled high on the plate in celebration of their status as the keys to good health.
I had to admire my stepmother for sticking with her diet. It’s been 10 years and she’s as loyal to Atkins as ever.
Somehow she has managed to dismiss oodles of scientific evidence and a general public acceptance that low-carbohydrate diets don’t work — and ignore the logic of the scale, which continues, under the feet of Atkins loyalists everywhere, to enjoy a nonstop rollercoaster ride: up and down, up and down.
She is not alone. Although the diet has fallen from grace since its peak in 2003, carbs will not quickly recover from Atkins’ vilification.
Atkins Nutritionals, the company founded by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, went bankrupt in 2005, which pretty much solidified Atkins’ status as a fad.
But something about Atkins has allowed it to thrive on a smaller scale…
It enjoyed a longer life than most. For nearly a decade, potatoes, pasta and bread sales suffered as millions of North Americans accepted the Atkins philosophy, which is that fat calories are preferable to carbs because the body could metabolize them better.
During that time, media coverage was largely positive—and this was powerful.
How many times did we find ourselves arguing the virtues or flaws of Atkins? For or against, we all took a side.
But in the scientific world, the evidence was clear.
In April 2001, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) said low-carbohydrate diets were ineffective.
JADA looked at 200 studies and concluded this: those who ate the least fat carried the least fat.
A year later, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) caused a media storm when it published the results of two controlled studies. In both, half the subjects were instructed to reduce caloric intake while the other half were told to keep carbohydrates low as dictated by the Atkins diet.
The first, a six-month study, found that Atkins dieters lost weight at about twice the rate as the higher-carb group, but only for two months.
After that, neither group lost much weight.
By six months, the Atkins group had still managed to keep off about twice as much as the higher-carb group. However, the average weight loss was a mere 13 pounds.
In the second 12-month study, the Atkins group lost considerably more weight in the first half-year, but packed on the pounds after that, and much quicker than the higher-carb group.
In the end, there was no significant effect in either group.
The chief researcher in the 12-month study, Gary Foster of the University of Pennsylvania, explained that Atkins gives dieters a framework for cutting calories since most of our choices in this culture are rich in carbohydrates.
In other words, it’s a low-calorie diet in disguise.
Both studies were plagued by high dropout rates. The Atkins dieters became starved for carbs and either ended up cheating or quitting the plan altogether.
The skinny on Atkins is that cutting back on carbohydrates works in the short term. You’ll see a quick drop in body fat and body water, no question.
But just like all ‘diets,’ you won’t keep it off.
And the reported side-effects are many.
They include increased risk of coronary disease (due to consuming higher amounts of animal fat), hikes in cholesterol levels, clogged arteries, heart attacks, strokes, muscle weakness, cramping, diarrhea, fatigue, rashes and headaches, which are the most common.
Despite all the science working to discredit Atkins, the diet thrived mainly because the media ignored the red flags and continued to put a positive spin even on negative study results until after Dr. Atkins died in 2003.
Dr. Atkins, according to varied media reports, suffered from heart disease, hypertension and obesity at the time of his death.
My mother also has high blood pressure, but she insists the Atkins diet keeps it lower than it would be otherwise.
There had been evidence that Atkins dieters enjoy reduced levels of triglycerides, the fatty compounds in the blood that have been mildly linked to heart disease—although science now suggests triglycerides may only be markers of heart disease and not causal.
Today, the “new Atkins” is acting misunderstood and dismissing the idea it had ever advocated zero carbs.
Its website now lambasts “bad carbs” or refined carbohydrates such as white flour and white sugar.
Any nutritionist or health conscious individual knows that these are bad for you because they are empty calories cleansed of all nutritional value.
If only to ensure product sales, including its own food line, Atkins has been forced to join another bandwagon — that of common sense.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.