Why the Atkins Diet Works

No doubt you’ve seen the major news out today that the Atkins diet is significantly more effective for weight loss than higher-carb diets promoted by the likes of Dr. Dean Ornish and Barry Sears. As you’d expect, Ornish says the study is flawed. Sears says the study is bad science. That’s fine, boys. The Atkins followers not only lost weight, they were healthier by the end of the year.

Both Sears and Ornish take issue with the fact that compliance in the study was, at best, half-hearted (meaning the ladies who participated didn’t exactly follow the various plans to the letter).

My response to that is: all the more evidence that upping your protein and fat intake is a wise idea. If you can lose weight, lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart disease, and you don’t even have to follow your diet perfectly…where’s the problem?

A year-long study compared four different diets – Atkins, LEARN (Uncle Sam’s feel-good acronym will not leave you feeling good), the Zone, and Ornish’s bread-buffet regimen. At the end of the year, Atkins followers lost about twice the weight of the other participants. This is no big surprise – it’s yet another study that proves what I’ve been saying for years: cut the carbs.

Critics – mainly, Sears and Ornish – are, as I expected, getting lost in the details and ignoring the big, fat elephant in the room. They point out that ten pounds of weight loss instead of five pounds of weight loss is no big deal.

Well, okay, but that depends on your perspective – I’m willing to bet good money that had the results of the study gone in their favor, they’d be singing a different tune. Instead of “10 pounds is no big deal,” we’d hear: “Double the weight loss – this is huge!” Instead of a “flawed” study, we’d hear: “We’re talking about a long-term, year-long, significant study!” And instead of splitting hairs about the lack of 100% compliance, my guess is that Ornish and Co. would say “This is a realistic study that looks at how people actually follow diets, rather than perfect, artificial conditions in a lab.”

So, while the pasta-and-bread fans are crying to Uncle Sam, here’s the question the rest of us are smart enough to ask:

Why are doctors so afraid of fat?

The overwhelming majority of studies – of all shapes, sizes and ulterior motives – supports, again and again, the case for a high-fat, high-protein diet for humans. And if the weight loss isn’t enough, those who enjoy bacon and butter also lower their cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and other heart disease risk factors.

Doesn’t anyone in the carb camp ever stop and think – wait a minute, why are we subscribing to the low-fat, low-cholesterol dietary model to begin with? (People more cynical than me will note that the corn and wheat industries are among the most powerful lobbies, and the most heavily subsidized industries, in the world.)

How much more evidence is it going to take? Is their low-fat, high-grain diet working for them? After 50-odd years of various high-grain versions of the Prudent Diet, has the approach proven efficacious? Or are we worse off than ever? Come on, guys.

A caveat: I am not in favor of living exclusively on processed bacon and copious amounts of butter. And I am absolutely not saying that vegetarians are misguided (well, maybe a little), or that eating processed meats high in sodium, refined fats and nitrites is a good nutrition plan.

But Bob Atkins was certainly on to something, and study after study proves: reducing sugar and increasing fat and protein will not only make you slimmer, it’ll make you healthier.

I don’t think the question, with all we now know, should be “Does Atkins work”? Obviously, it does. The question we ought to be asking is, “Clearly, fat and protein aren’t so bad. Clearly Bob was on to something. How do we do it the right way?”

Reducing carbohydrates produces appreciable results. Blood sugar drops. HDL increases. Blood pressure drops. Weight falls off. The heart benefits. Why?

Dr. Mary Enig, a terrific researcher, has been challenging the Prudent Diet and the famous “lipid hypothesis” (the theory that fat = high cholesterol = heart disease) for years. She’s been ridiculed. Harassed. Ignored. She’s also been right this entire time.

It’s not cholesterol that is causing the problem here. It’s inflammation. Inflammation is a factor in diabetes, heart disease, arthritis – in fact, most of the major health problems Americans face in skyrocketing numbers. Do you know what causes inflammation?

Sugar. (And refined fats – anything that creates oxidation or triggers an inflammatory response.) Make no mistake: sugar is a toxin. The human body will burn only so much glucose – when we get too much, sugar moves to fat cells. It ravages the bloodstream, attacks the pancreas and thyroid and liver, and sets off a chain reaction that inflammation attempts to correct. Sugar, rather than being the base of the American diet (remember, grains – even whole grains – are metabolized, ultimately, as sugar), ought to be at the very top of the pyramid in the section we reserve for “toxins”, right up there with alcohol and cigarettes. Grains – sugar – create a toxic inflammatory environment very similar to what you see with alcoholics. A little inflammation from time to time can be beneficial – it’s the body’s natural healing mechanism.

Trouble is, the inflammatory benefit quickly disappears, because the body keeps getting inundated with sugar. A little inflammation – like the swelling and redness that you get if you stub your toe – is a beneficial thing. But persistent inflammation is a body on fire.

By this point, the human body is literally “freaking out”, as my kids would say. If you’re a typical American, your body has been flooded for years now with a double-whammy oxidative assault of sugar and refined fats (trans fat). The inflammatory response has set you up for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Your body has one last way to attempt to correct this persistent inflammation.

That’s cholesterol. Cholesterol is literally analogous to the scab that forms when you cut yourself. Cholesterol attempts to “scab” over the inflammation going on all over your body. It’s the body’s desperate attempt to extinguish the fire.

Ironically, a low-fat, high-carb diet only worsens the problem.

Imagine that all this is true. If I’m right, what would happen to a body in this state? Why, aside from likely diabetes, obesity and other problems, you’d have higher cholesterol, too. The more inflamed your insides become, the more cholesterol your body produces as it desperately tries to quell the abuse to your system.

Doctors like Ornish and guys like Sears drive me nuts. A basic understanding of the human body (which I know they possess), along with (more important) a willingness to be open-minded and accept the evidence that the lipid hypothesis was probably wrong, would go a long way towards explaining the “perplexing” results of studies like this one. I’d like to pry open their brains and yell: guys, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…it’s probably sugar.

Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing you my suggestions for doing “low carb” the right way – sausage and bacon ain’t it. Later this week, be sure to catch my posts on why variety isn’t necessary, why longevity misses the boat, and more thoughts guaranteed to piss off your HMO, your doctor, and your government.

Most Popular Posts

Sponsor note:

This post was brought to you by the Damage Control Master Formula, independently proven as the most comprehensive high-potency antioxidant multivitamin available anywhere. With the highest antioxidant per dollar value and a complete anti-aging, stress, and cognition profile, the Master Formula is truly the only multivitamin supplement you will ever need. Toss out the drawers full of dozens of different supplements with questionable potency and efficacy and experience the proven Damage Control difference!

[tags]Atkins, Dean Ornish, Barry Sears, lipids, cholesterol, blood pressure, heart disease, sugar[/tags]

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!