The high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet that has become the fashionable way to lose weight was criticised as “pseudo-science” by health experts yesterday.
The eating habits encouraged by the diet, which favours consumption of eggs, bacon, meat and cheese and frowns on bread, pasta, fruit and vegetables, might help people shed the pounds in the short-term but poses long-term health problems.
It is popular because it allows consumption of fatty foods and is a favourite of stars including Geri Halliwell, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Minnie Driver.
But Susan Jebb, head of nutrition at the government-funded medical research council, said: “There is nothing to persuade me it is a good way to improve your health. It is not even an experiment.
“Nobody is evaluating what is happening out there to millions of people who are following it.”
There was evidence that carbohydrates and fibre, from foods including pasta, multigrain bread, beans and pulses, helped to guard against heart disease and cancer. There were also concerns that a high-protein diet might damage the kidneys in some people as well as cutting calcium intake, thus leaving people vulnerable to bone damage such as osteoporosis.
The diet posed an unknown risk, although it was not clear how many people adapted it and allowed themselves a little more carbohydrate than the Atkins “rules” allowed.
“It comes down to the idea that somehow we should be recommending to everyone out there who is overweight they should be following a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet,” Dr Jebb said. “That would be negligent.”
The diet represented such a change from the “healthy eating” approach recommended by government agencies at present that “serious long-term trials” would be needed to evaluate its impact.
“I certainly think we should be adopting the precautionary principle in terms of public health,” the nutritionist said.
Dr Robert Atkins developed the diet and published his bestselling recommendations in the 1970s. It has made a comeback after years out of fashion. Atkins believed carbohydrates overstimulated production of insulin, provoking hunger, more eating and therefore leading to weight gain.
But Dr Jebb warned that for most people protein accounted for 15% of calorie intake. Much higher levels would be achieved under the Atkins diet. Yet many of the foods “banned” by Atkins were also not recommended under more conventional approaches – including cakes, pastries and sugars which could lead to surges in blood sugar levels.
She said the diet represent “pseudo-science” and a psychological crutch for people. She also blamed the food industry for undermining government attempts to encourage balanced diets: “We have allowed the food industry to almost prevent any diet messages going out at all.
“If you took vending machines out of schools, for instance, there is no proof that will make children thinner. I accept that, but do we think it is a positively good thing? The government has got to wake up to the need for the nation to change its eating habits to prevent obesity.”
Jane Ogden, a health psychologist of King’s College London, also suggested that the Atkins diet was among those which employed “pseudo-science”, making people believe certain foods were dangerous or unhealthy.
But such diets, which become the basis of bestselling books, were also far more attractive than conventional “boring” dietary advice which set “blurred” boundaries about what to eat.
“They are very, very clear, extremely concrete, black and white and they set nice rules,” Dr Ogden said.
But she cautioned against being too censorious over such diets. They might be scientifically flawed, but it might be that people could not actually follow them long enough to damage their health.
This is is a syndicated post. Read the original at www.theguardian.com