March 17, 2006
Atkins Diet Not Safe for Everyone
Researchers report case of obese dieter who developed dangerous condition
The Atkins diet, which stresses low-carbohydrate, high-protein foods as a way to lose weight, might not be safe for everyone, new research suggests.
In a case report, Dr. Klaus-Dieter Lessnau, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, and his colleagues describe a life-threatening complication of the Atkins diet that occurred in 2004 to a 40-year-old obese woman.
The report appears in the March 18 issue of The Lancet.
The patient had followed the Atkins diet, including Atkins supplements. She went to the hospital with difficulty breathing and was diagnosed with a condition called ketoacidosis.
Ketoacidosis results when dangerously high levels of acids called ketones build up in the blood. Ketones are produced in the liver during starvation. A low-carbohydrate diet such as Atkins can lead to ketone production, Lessnau's team notes.
"She had to be admitted to the intensive care unit," Lessnau said. "The diet actually caused her acidosis."
Lessnau is surprised that this problem with the Atkins diet has not been reported before. "This is something that is not well-diagnosed or may be underreported," he said.
"The Atkins diet is not a safe diet in everybody," Lessnau said. "It can cause potentially life-threatening problems."
One expert suspects the diet itself may not have caused the woman's problem.
"This shows that people who are obese and lose a lot of weight quickly should be doing so under medical supervision," said Gary D. Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University. "Losing weight quickly brings its own set of problems."
Foster doesn't blame the diet itself. "It's a bit of a red herring to blame the diet," Foster said. "It's not clear from one case. We have known for a long time that losing weight quickly is a bad idea medically."
Another expert thinks that choosing a healthy diet is important when one wants to lose weight.
"One should be sensible when they want to lose weight," said Lyn Steffen, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and author of an accompanying commentary. "They should choose a diet that's healthy for them, as well as be physically active."
"My recommendation is to develop healthy eating habits for life," Steffen said. "The low-carbohydrate diet is not a diet for life."
Another expert said he's been against the Atkins diet from the time it was introduced in the 1970s.
"The Atkins diet is at odds with a strong foundation of knowledge about the fundamentals of healthful eating and sustainable weight loss," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, and author of The Flavor Point Diet.
One case report does not prove that it is a harmful diet, Katz said. "But the burden of proof has always been the other way around: diets at odds with conventional dietary wisdom must prove themselves healthful. In my opinion, the Atkins diet never did, and never will, meet this test."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture can tell you more about a healthy diet.