CHICAGO -- Multitudes swear by the high-fat, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, and now a carefully controlled study backs them up: Low-carb may actually take off more weight than low-fat and may be surprisingly better for cholesterol, too.
For years, the Atkins formula of sparing carbohydrates and loading up on taboo fatty foods has been blasphemy to many in the health establishment, who view it as a formula for cardiovascular ruin.
But now, some of the same researchers who long scoffed at the diet are putting it to the test, and they say the results astonish them. Rather than making cholesterol soar, as they feared, the diet actually appears to improve it, and volunteers take off more weight.
Still, the number of overweight people studied this way is small, and the research does not examine possible long-term ills or advantages, including how long people keep the pounds off.
So for now, the researchers say that much more research is necessary before the Atkins diet can be given an across-the-board endorsement, but at least they believe it is safe enough to take into much larger studies.
At least three formal studies of the Atkins diet have been presented at medical conferences over the past year, and all have reached similar results. The latest, conducted by Dr. Eric Westman of Duke University, was presented Monday at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Association, long a stronghold of support for the low-fat approach.
'Off the scale'
Westman, an internist at Duke's diet and fitness center, said he decided to study the Atkins approach because of concern over so many patients and friends taking it up on their own. He approached the Robert C. Atkins foundation in New York City to finance the research.
Westman studied 120 overweight volunteers, who were randomly assigned to the Atkins diet or the heart association's Step 1 diet, a widely used low-fat approach. On the Atkins diet, people limited their carbs to less than 20 grams a day, and 60 percent of their calories came from fat.
"It was high fat, off the scale," he said.
After six months, the people on the Atkins diet had lost 31 pounds, compared with 20 pounds on the AHA diet, and more people stuck with the Atkins regimen.
Total cholesterol fell slightly in both groups. However, those on the Atkins diet had an 11 percent increase in HDL, the good cholesterol, and a 49 percent drop in triglycerides. On the AHA diet, HDL was unchanged, and triglycerides dropped 22 percent. High triglycerides may raise the risk of heart disease.
No single study is likely to change minds the issue, especially since an initial weight loss is hard to maintain on any diet. Some answers could come from a yearlong study being sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. That experiment will test the Atkins diet on 360 patients.