Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Hooray for Atkins? Nope.

In a recent head-to-head test of four fad diets, apparently the Atkins diet resulted in the participants losing the most weight. The Atkins diet relies on the elimination of carbs in your diet, and encourages intake of protein and fats instead. However, there’s more to the story:

Women on the low-carb Atkins diet lost more weight than those on three other popular plans, but the dieters on all four programs dropped only modest amounts of weight and regained some of it within a year, a new study shows.
Women ages 20 to 50 lost an average of 10.4 pounds on Atkins during a year-long period, according to a comparison of the diets in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Those on the LEARN plan – a low-fat, high-carb diet based on national guidelines – lost an average of 5.7 pounds. Women who followed Dean Ornish’s high-carb diet lost an average of 4.8 pounds, and those on the low-carb Zone diet lost 3.5 pounds over 12 months.

And none of the diets were ideal, as they did not result in a pound of weight loss a week.

“It was a very poor weight loss. Ten pounds in a year is pathetic,” said Wolper, of the St. Luke’s New York Obesity Research Center.

A figure from the original JAMA paper (released today) is below, which charts the weight-loss on the different diets.

i-6557ff13c368d13a0343211bc4346363-atkins.bmp

Comments

  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    March 7, 2007

    Skeptic magazine reviewed studies with similar results about 2 years ago.

  2. #2 Johnny Vector
    March 7, 2007

    I’ve always been suspicious that any success of a low-carb diet results primarily from the fact that most snacks are primarily carbohydrates. No cookies or crackers between meals? Boom, fewer calories! Are you aware of any evidence to support or refute that hypothesis?

  3. #3 Boosterz
    March 7, 2007

    All of these fad diets and weight loss gimmicks are complete waste of time(and money). The same can be said for weight loss “supplements”. All weight loss/gain really boils down to is calories in versus calories out. I’ve lost 130 pounds and it was all done by just eating sensibly and exercising.

  4. #4 natural cynic
    March 7, 2007

    Much of the difference between diets is water weight. With a low carb diet, less glycogen is stored, and with it even more water [~2.7 times as much, by weight].

    What people should be concerned with is the change in body composition – how much fat is lost vs. how much lean body mass.

  5. #5 Shane
    March 7, 2007

    There’s loads of evidence that low carb diets amount to a lot more than reducing the calories from snacking. In fact, low carb diets do wonders for a whole host of assorted problems, most notably inflammatory issues, and diabetes. It’s both funny and sad that in the United States diabetes is essentially an optional disease – you can choose not to get it, if you want, by maintaining a low carb diet. Of course, you might be able to delay it eating the “sensible” normal diet that somebody already mentioned using to lose 130 pounds.

    The mechanism for all of these wonders is managing insulin secretion, especially the dramatic and unnatural (from an evolutionary perspective) patterns of insulin secretion that result from the modern American diet. With that said I agree that the “fad diets” are a waste of time and money, but propose that low carb diets in general are not fad diets: eat lots of leafy vegetables, moderate amounts of non-starchy and non-grain vegetables, nuts, fruit, meat. Avoid processed foods and sugar. Doesn’t seem that radical to me.

    10 lbs. a year *is* pathetic, but blaming that on the diet is laughable. Starvation is the best possible diet in terms of simple weight loss per unit time, but remarkably ineffectual in practice. The truth is that eating is one of the most difficult lifestyle changes to make. If you can manage to make the changes required by any reasonably sane diet the results will probably be good. If you can’t, they won’t.

  6. #6 Shelley Batts
    March 7, 2007

    I think really just eating sensibly and excersizing is the key, as Boosterz says. True, blaming the diet per se isn’t helpful. What might be helpful is determining the reasons why people can’t stick to diets (or just healthy eating, period) even when they are in a structured plan like a fad diet. Cause isn’t that what people are paying for when they pay for a fad diet?

    Everyone knows that weight loss is eat less, be more active, so do we need a diet to tell us that? Yes, apparently, or it wouldn’t be such a big business….we’d just listen to our doctors instead. In theory, commercial diets could be helpful because they are motivational and sometimes offer support (online, etc). However, as shown in this study, the gains are low and likely to backslide. At the very least, the study suggests that we should take a better look at how americans are losing weight (or aren’t) and how commercial diets could be changed to improve results.

  7. #7 Malthus
    March 7, 2007

    Johnny, this is purely anecdotal, but:

    My father (60 years old) went on a low-carb diet about 2 years ago upon being diagnosed with a borderline case of diabetes. He dropped ~30 pounds within the year, kept it off, and has not required insulin injections (he is very careful about monitoring his blood sugar). He snacks constantly, and generally has a few low-carb protein bars in his jacket pocket at any given time.

  8. #8 Boosterz
    March 7, 2007

    First off, starvation isn’t a diet. That’s called anorexia. 😉

    Second, it sounds like you are trying to pitch the atkins diet as the cure for diabetes. Most people who develop diabetes due to their weight can correct it by LOSING the weight that caused them to become insulin resistant in the first place. If they “cured” their diabetes by going on the atkins diet, it’s not likely a result of the diet, it’s the result of the weight loss.

    Changing your diet isn’t as hard as you think. If you try going on some bizarre fad diet where you completely change your eating patterns, then yes, it’s going to be VERY hard to maintain. If you do like I did and just change one little thing at a time, it’s MUCH easier to maintain. As a matter of fact, it becomes routine and you don’t even have to think about it.

    Not to mention, diet is only part of it. Exercise is important as well. You can control the amount of “calories in” with your diet, and you can increase the amount of “calories out” with exercise. Once you have more calories going out then coming in, presto, weight loss. Not to mention the exercise is going to increase your overall health in addition to any weight loss

  9. #9 Shane
    March 7, 2007

    < <<< First off, starvation isn't a diet. That's called anorexia. >>>>

    The point is to give a baseline; you can’t argue with the effects of calories == 0.

    < <<< Second, it sounds like you are trying to pitch the atkins diet as the cure for diabetes. >>>>

    I didn’t say anything about the Atkins diet. I’m talking about low carb diets, insulin response and diabetes. To wit:

    < <<< Most people who develop diabetes due to their weight can correct it by LOSING the weight that caused them to become insulin resistant in the first place. >>>>

    First, weight gain doesn’t cause insulin resistance. Unnatural diets with high glycemic loads that cause insulin spikes cause insulin resistance. If you “cure” diabetes it’s through this mechanism. Weight loss is a byproduct.

    < <<< Changing your diet isn't as hard as you think. >>>>

    Most people in the world would disagree with you. Or at least, they would disagree that PURPOSEFULLY changing their diets to something healthier is difficult. I supposing changing your diet to the All Pizza Diet wouldn’t be that hard.

    < <<< If you try going on some bizarre fad diet where you completely change your eating patterns, then yes, it's going to be VERY hard to maintain. >>>>

    True. But it will also be very hard to maintain any diet whatsoever that isn’t reflected in your habits, environment, and culture.

  10. #10 Boosterz
    March 7, 2007

    The effects of zero calories are going to be a lot more pronounced then just fat loss. You’re metabolism will go into panic mode and lock down. Then if it continues, you’re body will begin to cannibalize itself for the energy/nutrients/vitamins it needs to keep functioning. Attempting to loose weight this way is crazy. As such, I wouldn’t consider it a very good “baseline”.

    A better baseline would be your body weight times 13(varies depending on your age/health etc). In other words, I weigh 185 pounds so my body will “burn” about 2405 calories a day just maintaining it’s present size. This is a better “baseline” as it shows you what you already have to work with. It takes 3500 calories to burn a pound of fat, so if I ran a 400 point calorie deficit(2000 a day instead of 2400) for a solid month I should loose about 3 and a half pounds. 🙂

    Atkins diet = low carb diet. Just drastically low carb.

    I also think you may be mistaken about your “unnatural diets” leading to diabetes claim. Fat intake and obesity have been linked to insulin resistance. If you are on a low carb diet, you are going to be consuming more fats then average. Changing your diet to a low glycemic diet probaly isn’t going to hurt you, but the best thing you can do(and what every doctor you ask is going to tell you) is to start exercising and lose weight. Like I said, sensible diet and exercise for the win. 🙂

  11. #11 Brian
    March 8, 2007

    One problem may be that the word “diet” has, over time, assumed a much more temporary meaning. That is, people don’t think of changing their diet in the long-term in order to move toward a more healthful lifestyle, but rather a diet is something that can be briefly adopted in order to lose a buncha weight.

    Thus, many people develop unsustainable eating habits in the name of quick fix weight loss.

  12. #12 Boosterz
    March 8, 2007

    You got that exactly right Brian. Most people hear the word “diet” and that is exactly what they think. They think a “diet” is just something they do for a few months to lose weight. And what do they do after their “diet” is over? They go right back to the behavior that caused them to be overweight in the first place.

    If you want to lose weight, you don’t go on a diet, you CHANGE your diet.

    This is one reason why I don’t like this new fad of people getting stomach bypasses. I think it’s ABSURD to use surgery to control what is in 90%+ of cases a behavioral problem. Having your stomach altered via surgery to control your overeating is like having your front teeth taken out so you won’t bite your nails anymore. It’s just nuts.

  13. #13 Ian H
    March 8, 2007

    Atkins works. This is the fundamentally important datum. It causes more significant and more sustained weight loss than any alternative. And despite stringent testing, none of the expected risk factors in such a diet actually occur. Indeed in terms of heart risk factors the diet seems actively helpful.

    These facts are in exact and direct contradiction to what theories of nutrition have been telling us should happen. According to such theories (and the advice of most nutritionists and doctors), a high fat – low carb diet is supposed to be very unhealthy and cause massive weight gain. That the exact reverse happens is a signal that our theories of nutrition are not adequate.

    Atkins is the unexpected result that causes scientific paradigm shift. Paradigm shift is a painful process that involves much public controversy and dispute. There is a strong temptation to try to dismiss or ignore data which does not fit the current paradigm rather than go through the pain of change. For science and our understanding to progress this must not be allowed to happen. It is the unexpected datum that is the most important.

    The way that the results of this study are reported are most interesting. The data clearly shows Atkins to be in every respect the best of the tested diets. Despite this, extraordinary efforts are made to find some perspective through which Atkins can be viewed unfavorably. However the authors fail find any plausible way of interpreting the data which is unfavorable to Atkins. The conclusion that Atkins is the best of all alternatives tested would seem inescapable. However this conclusion is so unpalatable to the authors that they cannot bring themselves to utter it. Instead they attempt to dismiss all alternatives as uneffective.

    This misses the point. Regardless of how effective all the diets were in absolute terms, Atkins clearly was much `less ineffective’ than all the others, and this directly contradicts the current paradigm of nutrition. However inconvenient it might be, this is reality and it needs to be explained.

    We still have a long way to go before coming to terms with Atkins. The old paradigm is fighting back through intimidation. Here we see the authors apparently so afraid of being labelled `nutritionally incorrect’ by their colleagues that they attempt to repudiate their own data.

  14. #14 Alon Levy
    March 9, 2007

    Ian, if you’re trying to make proponents of Atkins sound like cranks, you’re succeeding.

  15. #15 Jimmy Moore
    March 9, 2007

    Hey Shelley,

    THANK YOU for highlighting the Stanford study in JAMA this week because it is more significant than some people are giving it credit for. All I can do is share my own experience on the Atkins diet over the past 3+ years.

    I once weighed 410 pounds, had a 62-inch waist, wore 5XL shirts, took prescription medications for blood pressure, cholesterol, and breathing, and was overall in miserable shape both physically and mentally.

    But then along came my dietary miracle in 2004 that turned my life around forever. In just one year, I lost 180 pounds, dropped down to a 38-inch waist, XL shirts, NO MORE MEDS, and felt better than I had in my entire life!

    Here it is 2007 and I am happy and healthy as ever because I’m livin’ la vida low-carb, baby! I wrote book about my weight loss success called “Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb: My Journey From Flabby Fat To Sensationally Skinny In One Year” (available from Amazon), run a very successful weight loss blog at LivinLaVidaLowCarb.com, and have an engaging, encouraging, and entertaining podcast show on iTunes and at TheLivinLowCarbShow.com.

    So, does the Atkins diet help people lose weight? Unquestionable! But even better than that is the fact it helps them KEEP the weight off over the long term while vastly improving their health. My life is a living example of this truth.

    THANKS for the opportunity to share my positive story.

  16. #16 Bob Schmitz
    March 9, 2007

    I am 62 years old and have fought the weight battle since my mid fourties. I have tried fad diets and pills. through experimentation I have found that a healthy diet and excersize are the best. I talked with a dieatition and learned what is healthy and what is bad. Read labels for fat and calorie contents. Get a good work out routine. Muscle eats fat so once you start gaining muscle it is much easier to maintain weight. Learn how to cook healthy foods that taste good. The key is to change our eating habits and like it. After a short time excersing it can almost become addictive. Excersize gives me energy and relieves depression and also makes you look more attractive. A shot of self confidence.

  17. #17 atkins diet
    May 7, 2007

    Atkins "Nightmare" Diet

    When Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution was first published, the President of the American College of Nutrition said, "Of all the bizarre diets that have been proposed in the last 50 years, this is the most dangerous to the public if followed for any length of time."[1]

    When the chief health officer for the State of Maryland,[2] was asked "What’s wrong with the Atkins Diet?" He replied "What’s wrong with… taking an overdose of sleeping pills? You are placing your body in jeopardy." He continued "Although you can lose weight on these nutritionally unsound diets, you do so at the risk of your health and even your life."[3]

    The Chair of Harvard’s nutrition department went on record before a 1973 U.S. Senate Select Committee investigating fad diets: "The Atkins Diet is nonsense… Any book that recommends unlimited amounts of meat, butter, and eggs, as this one does, in my opinion is dangerous. The author who makes the suggestion is guilty of malpractice."[4]

    The Chair of the American Medical Association’s Council on Food and Nutrition testified before the Senate Subcommittee as to why the AMA felt they had to formally publish an official condemnation of the Atkins Diet: "A careful scientific appraisal was carried out by several council and staff members, aided by outside consultants. It became apparent that the [Atkins] diet as recommended poses a serious threat to health."[5]

    The warnings from medical authorities continue to this day. "People need to wake up to the reality," former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop writes, that the Atkins Diet is "unhealthy and can be dangerous."[6]

  18. #18 Carl
    September 15, 2007

    “Having your stomach altered via surgery to control your overeating is like ….”

    Just a notification of being cited as quotable metaphors/analogies in “Archive of Metaphor and Analogy”.
    Thank you.
    http://gistout.com

New comments have been disabled.