Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Half-hearted Atkins diet and cardiovascular disease

I would like to comment on a recent article comparing the Atkins, Ornish and South Beach diets (Miller et al., 2009; full reference at the end of this posting), which has been causing quite a lot of commotion among bloggers recently. Especially low carb. bloggers.

An excellent post by Michael Eades clarifies a number of issues with the study, including what one could argue is the study's main flaw. Apparently the study compared a half-hearted Atkins diet, with probably equally half-hearted Ornish and South Beach diets.

I refer to the study's Atkins diet as half-hearted because it seems to rely on a daily consumption of between 120 and 180 grams of carbohydrates. This is unlikely to lead to ketosis, the cornerstone of the Atkins diet, where the body uses ketone bodies (made from dietary as well as body fat) as a source of energy.

As I see it, the main findings of the study were that the participants in the half-hearted Atkins diet, after a period of 4 weeks on the diet, and when compared with the participants in the other diets, had: (a) greater levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, with only a small improvement in their HDL cholesterol and triglycerides levels; and (b) greater levels of markers for inflammation (e.g., C-reactive protein).

The participants were young and healthy. Their average age was 30.6 years, and their average body mass index was 22.6. On average, their total cholesterol was 184.9 mg/dL, triglycerides were 78.1 mg/dL, LDL cholesterol was 107.2 mg/dL, and HDL cholesterol was 62.2 mg/dL. These are arguably fairly healthy numbers; although quite a few doctors might want to put most of these folks preventively on statins because of their LDL being greater than 100.

What I find interesting about this study, and consistent with both my own experience and also a theory that I have, is that it suggests that a low carb. diet has to really be low carb. in order to bring about the benefits that one normally sees as a result of a diet that induces ketosis. A diet with, say, > 150 g of refined grains per day, is not really a low carb. diet.

Again, in my experience, and that of many other people, a truly low carb. diet (very low in, if not devoid of, refined carbs and sugars), will lead to an impressive increase in HDL cholesterol (especially for those who have low HDL to start with), an equally impressive decrease in triglycerides, increased insulin sensitivity, and possibly a decrease in LDL.

However, a half-hearted Atkins diet may actually lead to elevated LDL (of the small-dense type), and more inflammation, just like this study suggests it does, without the benefits regarding HDL and trigs. The reason is that the still relatively high level of carbohydrate intake, especially if it comes in the form of refined carbs. and sugars, will lead to higher levels of insulin being secreted into the bloodstream. This will promote increased body fat deposition. The extra saturated fat being consumed will be turned into body fat, and not used as energy, starving the cells and leading to increased hunger.

A diet rich in saturated fat may indeed be bad when it is also a diet even moderately rich in insulin-boosting, easily digestible carbs. This may be one of the main reasons why there have been so many studies in the past showing a correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease; studies that typically did not control for carbohydrate consumption.

In a recent interview on the Livin' La Vida Low-Carb Blog, Dr. John Salerno goes into more detail regarding this issue, recommending a much more rigid adoption of the Atkins diet than many think is okay. (In fact, I often talk to people who think that if they cut a very high carb. intake in half - e.g., from 400 to 200 grams per day - replacing the carbs with fat, they will be halfway into a full blown Atkins diet.) Dr. Salerno has worked in the past with Dr. Atkins. He calls his diet the Silver Cloud Diet. I am not sure I agree with all that Dr. Salerno had to say, but his argument in favor of a diet very low in carbs. does make sense to me.

Finally, I think that it is dangerous to extrapolate the results of any study, no matter how comprehensive, to the population in general. Each individual is unique in terms of his or her genetic makeup and life history; the latter also influences metabolic patterns. (Even identical twins raised together may display different metabolic patterns, because of their different life histories.)  So, while a low carb. diet may work well for a lot of people, it may have very negative effects on a few. Increases in inflammation markers and adverse effects on LDL cholesterol (especially when LDL is measured directly, accounting for particle numbers and sizes) are warning signs that any low carb. dieter should pay attention to.


Miller, M. et al. (2009). Comparative effects of three popular diets on lipids, endothelial function, and c-reactive protein during weight maintenance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109, 713-717.