Is Sat Fat Back? The New Atkins Diet

by Lauren Schindler

With all due respect to the late Dr. Robert Aktins, I assumed that his six-feet-under status would be the end of him. I was wrong. Atkins is back.

Doctors Eric Westman, Stephen Phinney, and Jeff Volek have revamped the Atkins diet yet again in their new book, A New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight Fast and Feeling Great Forever. I argue that the diet isn’t really “new” as the basic diet philosophy is identical: carbs are bad and fat is good.  This time around, the authors emphasize that the diet can be used for life-long weight maintenance – a commonly cited limitation of the former Atkins diet plans.

Nutritionally, the new diet has gentler low-carb tenets and more emphasis on vegetables (suggesting five per day).  But dieters are still given the green light on bacon, butter, and bologna with no limit on fat. “A lot of people think of pork rinds as junk food, but I think of them as a health food,” say co-author Eric Westman.  Although pork rinds are not traditionally included in a healthy diet, the authors attempt justification with over 50 references on the benefits and effectiveness of low-carb diets.

Most critics of the Atkins diet have concerns about the level of saturated fat in the diet (20% of total calories or more).  Recommending unlimited intake of high saturated fat foods is directly at odds with government recommendations.  The 2005 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories.

For the past 50 years, scientific consensus has supported the theory that saturated fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.  However, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a controversial article on saturated fat and the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and cardiovascular disease (CVD) with results that might make Dr. Atkins smile.

In the study, Patty W Siri-Tarino, PhD, and colleagues at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California conducted a meta-analysis of prospective epidemiological studies.  They found “that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.” But wait, don’t rush to your closest 7-Eleven and buy a bag of pork rinds just yet.

The authors acknowledge that there are many factors to consider in CVD, and stress that saturated fat may not be the only one – or it might not be the most important one.  They speculate that CVD risk could relate to the ratio of saturated fat to polyunsaturated fats, rather than just saturated fat alone.  They also emphasize considering the nutrients (refined carbohydrates or unsaturated fats) replacing the saturated fat. Unfortunately, this study did not have enough statistical power to evaluate those affects.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Jeremiah Stamler – a well-known CVD researcher and professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago – points out many holes and unanswered questions in the study.  He questions the study’s ultimate conclusions, “The authors seem to be dissociating themselves from prevailing national and international dietary recommendations…Is that their intent?”

I appreciate studies, like this one, that challenge the scientific community to take a second look at standard dogma.  However, the limitations of this specific study leave me to side with traditional recommendations to limit saturated fat.  I also fear that this study could be misunderstood by the general public – or worse, someone following the Atkins diet – as saying that going to the all-you-can eat butter buffet is perfectly fine for heart health.  This highlights an important role for nutritionists and dietitians: to clarify high-profile but potentially dubious study results to the general public.

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