..the Atkins diet?

Emily Hill

Topics Politics

Emily Hill on why the health police launched a moral crusade against the diet that works.

At last, you can put down that celery stick and start sizzling the bacon: the Atkins diet is back…and scientifically endorsed as good for you by a major American analysis.

Researchers at Stanford University conducted a study of 311 women on four popular diets, focused around carb-fat ratios: the Atkins diet (very low in carbs, high in protein and fat), the LEARN diet (a 40:30:30 ratio of carbs to protein to fat), the Ornish diet (low in fat, high in carbs) and the Zone diet (extremely low in fat, very high in carbs). The study was set up to mimic real-world conditions, with participants attending weekly diet classes for the first eight weeks while also being provided with books outlining how to follow their specific diet.

At the end of the year, the 77 women assigned to Atkins had lost an average of 10.4lbs each (4.7kg). Those in the LEARN group lost an average of 5.7lbs (2.6kg); in the Ornish group they lost 4.8lbs (2.17kg); and in the Zone group they lost 3.5lbs (1.59kg). Not only did the Atkins dieters lose nearly twice as much weight as the next best diet – they also registered the most beneficial effects on their cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Although critics of low-carb diets say they can store up problems for the future, the Stanford team found no evidence of such problems emerging after a year on the Atkins diet. Stanford’s assistant research professor Dr Christopher Gardner said: ‘Many health professionals, including us, have either dismissed the value of very-low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss or been very sceptical of them. But it seems to be a viable alternative for dieters.’

How times have changed. Not so long ago, the Atkins diet was supposed to be a one-way ticket to premature death. There were reports that it could knacker your kidneys, stress out your heart, worsen your cholesterol, plague your gallbladder and give you cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and gout. Some even claimed that a 16-year-old American girl died on day 8 of her Atkins induction.

The Atkins diet boomed in popularity between 2003 and 2004, and attracted many high-profile followers including Hollywood actresses – most notably Bridget Jones star Renee Zellweger. As a diet it seemed almost too good to be true, because it allowed unlimited consumption of foods generally thought ‘bad’ for a dieter (like, for example, bacon and steaks) but restriction of ‘boring’ foods traditionally thought of as ‘good’ for the dieter (such as rice and pasta.) Since 2004, the diet has fallen out of favour, disowned by professional dieting associations and the subject of hundreds of scare stories, including the allegation that Dr Atkins himself died from obesity-related heart failure.

So if Atkins helped dieters lose weight in a seemingly pain-free way, and proved popular among people keen to fit into their old jeans, why was a moral crusade launched against it? Fundamentally, it was because Atkins allowed people concerned about their weight to ditch government diktats about eating five portions of fruit and veg a day (and no hamburgers) and to reach for whatever protein-heavy foodstuff in the fridge that most tempted them – guilt-free. The government and its associated health bodies, as well as many in the media, were aghast because Atkins allowed people to fill their stomachs with steak, fried bacon and cheese to their heart’s content, instead of maintaining a puritan-like programme of kiwis and wholefoods. Not only that, but it was quite clear that Atkins yielded the sort of results which the overbearing tips from the government were just not achieving – that is, quite quick and quite significant weight loss. The health police viewed those who went on Atkins as heretics, people who were putting two fingers up at the food- and health-obsessed authorities and doing things – shock, horror! – their own chosen way.

Ultimately, the Atkins controversy shows up in glorious Technicolor our society’s screwed-up attitude to food. On the one hand we are told there is an obesity epidemic – on the other that it’s dangerous for us to diet. The government lectures us for being fat, deformed and out of shape, and yet is quite happy to give the nod to panics about the dangers of trying to control our weight through what we eat. In such circumstances, is it really so surprising that some people partake in binge-eating and yo-yo dieting? Beaten into believing ourselves to be dying from obesity one month, we are chastised for dieting the next month; one week we’re told that the nation is getting too fat, the next that there’s a rising tide of anorexia and eating disorders.

Whatever you might think of Atkins, you can’t blame a once-popular diet that seems to work for society’s weird and dangerous obsession with food and body shape.

Emily Hill is a staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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