By now you’ve probably heard that the Atkins folks won the big food fight. The high-fat Atkins diet trumped the low-fat Dean Ornish diet in a year-long face off (JAMA, March 7, 2007). Atkins also beat out the Zone diet and a standard physician-recommended low-fat, reduced-calorie regimen.
Most of the news reports about this well-designed government-funded study have focused on weight loss. While it is true that the Atkins diet helped people lose more pounds than the others, that’s not the most interesting aspect of the study.
The message that has been mostly overlooked is that people on the Atkins diet also benefited in other important ways. The blood fat profile was improved, with higher levels of good HDL cholesterol and lower levels of bad triglycerides among the Atkins dieters than among the others.
Most dietitians would have predicted that Atkins dieters would have had higher cholesterol levels than their low-fat counterparts. After all, these people were eating red meat, butter and other dietetically disapproved foods. There were, however, no significant differences in total cholesterol among the groups.
Atkins dieters also got their blood pressure down better than people in the other groups. This may have been partly a result of more weight lost, but even after making that statistical adjustment, Atkins dieters came out lower.
Such results fly in face of everything we have been told for the last couple of decades. Millions of Americans believe that eating bacon or steak is tantamount to playing Russian roulette. The notion that the bun might be worse than the burger sounds like heresy.
These findings are not as new as they seem. Prior studies have consistently shown that a low-carb diet can lower blood pressure and triglycerides and raise good HDL cholesterol. In addition, blood sugar may be better controlled on such a program.
How is it possible that dietary dogma–red meat is bad and bread is good—could be so wrong? It clearly was based primarily on belief rather than data. When Dr. Robert Atkins proposed his diet, doctors and dietitians recoiled in horror. They assumed that saturated fat would raise cholesterol and increase the risk of heart attacks.
We still do not have really long-term studies to show whether the Atkins diet actually protects against heart attacks. But this one-year trial has demonstrated better than any other research to date that our current dietary guidelines and prohibitions do not produce the expected results.
We have summarized some of the most controversial research about diet, heart disease and diabetes in our new book, Best Choices From The People’s Pharmacy (Rodale). Information is available at www.peoplespharmacy.com or look for it at your local public library.
We are not suggesting that Americans should pig out on bacon, burgers and butter. Nevertheless, it may be time to reexamine our dogma about diet. These research results suggest that pizza and pasta may be more problematical than steak and eggs.