COLUMN: Atkins & South Beach diets: What they don't want you to know
University Wire; 2/9/2004; Andreea Prundeanu
(The Voice) (U-WIRE) ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- What goes on while you sleep? Close your eyes. You are getting drowsy. Carbohydrates are the devil! You can feel your body relax. Eat all the fatty foods you wish! You're casting aside all your worries. Fruits and vegetables are fattening! Your mind is now completely blank. The Atkins and South Beach diets are a safe way to lose weight! O.K. so maybe you're not being hypnotized while you sleep. Maybe there is no one sitting on the edge of your bed telling you that you should deprive your body of all carbohydrates in order to lose weight. But nowadays, who needs hypnosis when thousands of people already believe? If it makes you lose weight, that's all that matters.
Most people resort to diets such as "Atkins for Life" and "South Beach" when they're in crisis. They want to shed those extra pounds so desperately that the immediate result is all that matters. Image conquers all. It isn't until much later that safety comes into perspective. What's the use of a beautiful body when it may have cost you your health? Being informed matters. So if you're in this for looks and health, consider this.
The premise behind many diets today is that carbohydrates are the enemy because they cause the body to secrete more insulin. A surplus of insulin is associated with faster fat storage and therefore, quicker weight gain. Diets such as "Atkins for Life" and "South Beach" claim that the solution for weight loss is eliminating as many carbohydrates from one's diet as possible. Although they differ somewhat in the variety of foods allowed (the South Beach diet allows more fruits and vegetables than the Atkins), both diets follow three main stages or phases." The first and most radical stage aims to eliminate virtually all carbohydrates for two weeks. No fruits, starchy vegetables, pasta, desserts, grains, or cereal are allowed.
The main diet consists of eggs, meat, and some dairy products in limited servings. 8-13 pounds could potentially be lost in this phase. Phase 2 starts when weight loss is no longer in full force. The body resets itself to where only 1 or 2 pounds can be lost per week. It is now safe to add some of the foods that were forbidden in the introductory phase. The portions are still carefully measured and some foods such as bread, carrots, potatoes, bananas and other sweet fruits are to be avoided. Once again, the main menu consists of high protein foods such as meat (fish, poultry, beef), eggs, and dairy products. This phase is recommended until the desired weight is reached. The last phase is called the "maintenance phase". The goal here is to maintain the desired weight for life.
While these two diet plans seem like the long-awaited answer to the dreaded obesity problem in the United States, a few details have been overlooked. The National Academy of Science says, "The function of carbs is to provide energy to cells in the body, particularly the brain which is a carbohydrate dependent organ." Carbohydrates fuel the body's everyday functions. Without carbohydrates, we would all be dead.
Diet books have emphasized the difference between "good"and "bad" carbohydrates countless times. The "bad" carbohydrates usually come from highly-processed produce that have been stripped of their nutritional value and pumped full of sugar and preservatives. These are the forbidden foods: chips, fast food, candy, pop, pastry, and other such guilty pleasures. The "good carbohydrates can be found in fruits, vegetables, pasta, bread, nuts, and cereal. So why is it that the Atkins and South Beach diets have declared even the "good" carbohydrates the enemy? For faster weight loss of course. Good idea?
Not at all! According to Cathy Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian at the University of Michigan Health System, simple carbs such as "a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans" are a good source of "vitamins, minerals, and fiber [which are] important in maintaining a strong immune system." A radical and long-term deprivation of an entire food group has made experts and health care professionals skeptical about low-carbohydrate, high protein-diets such as Atkins and South Beach. The body loses a considerable amount of weight because it is being deprived of key nutrients necessary for its functions to run smoothly.
In addition, experts say that any weight loss that surpasses 1 or 2 pounds per week is not recommended. Not only is it not healthy for the body, but the risk of regaining the weight back should not be dismissed. "I don't recommend any diet just because it's something people go on and off," Fitzgerald says "When you go off, there is a very good chance that the weight will be regained. Lifestyle changes make much more sense." However, if you do choose to go on a diet, which should you pick? What is the safest and most effective way to lose weight? In the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans", the USDA recommends you "choose a diet with plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits" and "a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol" (which excludes unlimited amounts of eggs or meat). What does that say for the Atkins or South Beach diets? In an April 2003 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, a review of research studies concerning low carb diets associated weight loss with a reduced calorie intake rather than carbohydrate limitation.
Consequently, the solution might be more obvious than it appears.
"Controlling calories, calories from carbs, fats or proteins, or a combination of all three sets an individual up to lose weight," Fitzgerald says.
Regulating the amount of calories we consume daily does not deprive the body of essential nutrients like carbohydrate deprivation does. You still get the same vitamins and minerals, but within the necessary amount. No surpluses are left over that could get stored as fat. With that in mind, let's take a look at the Atkins and South Beach diets one more time. As a dietician, Fitzgerald advises that the no fruit and restricted veggies approach is not the best idea.
"It does not make sense to cut out a low-calorie, beneficial food," she says, "Why not cut out the least healthy carbs?"
So if low carbohydrate diets such as Atkins and South Beach diets are not a safe way to lose weight, why are they so popular?
"Low carb diets appear successful in the first couple of weeks when carbohydrates are almost eliminated," Fitzgerald explains. "During this time the body turns to stored carbohydrate in the body and uses it to power all the functions of our body and brain. Water is eliminated as the stored carbs are used up, creating a dramatic weight loss. Is it a healthy weight loss? No, since the body is being deprived of adequate amounts of carbohydrates, our body's main energy source."
So, next time you think about going on a low-carb, high-protein diet, think about this. A beautiful body in a short amount of time may have cost you your health. Be smart!