High-fat diet might be heart-healthy

By PEGGY PECK, UPI Science News   |   Nov. 18, 2002 at 7:55 PM
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CHICAGO, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- Obese men and women who were put on a high fat, low-carbohydrate "Atkins diet" for six months lost more weight and experienced more significant increases in "good" cholesterol than those who tried a low-fat diet for six months, an obesity researcher reported Monday.

The finding, which was presented at the American Heart Association's "Scientific Sessions 2002," challenges many orthodox views on dieting and cardiovascular health within the organization.

Dr. Eric Westman said he decided to study the Atkins Diet after treating several patients who were "losing significant weight" using the diet. But Westman, associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., said he did not expect the high fat regimen to do better than "the standard low fat, high carbohydrate diet that we use at the Duke Diet Center."

Westman randomized 120 obese volunteers -- 75 percent of them white women -- to either the Atkins diet, which requires less than 10 percent of calories come from carbohydrates while 60 percent comes from fat, or the low fat diet, in which less than 30 percent of calories come from fat. The Atkins diet also includes the use of fish oil, borage oil and flaxseed oil supplements.

After six months, the subjects on the Atkins diet lost about 14 percent of their starting weight or an average of 30 pounds, compared to a loss of about 9 percent of baseline weight or 20 pounds in the low-fat group. In addition, the Atkins group posted an impressive 11 percent increase in high density lipoprotein, or HDL, the so-called "good cholesterol," compared to only a 1 percent change for people on the low-fat diet. At the same time, triglycerides -- another risk factor for heart disease -- decreased by 49 percent on the Atkins diet.

Eastman said he thinks the Atkins diet works because people stay on it and lose more weight. Weight, he said, appears to be the real key to reducing heart disease risk factors.

Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, a nutritionist at Tufts University in Boston and member of the AHA's nutrition committee, said she still has real doubts about the value of the Atkins diet.

"If this really worked, we have at least a dent in the obesity epidemic. Everyone would be on it," she said, adding a "calorie is a calorie and losing weight is all about calories." Lichtenstein said people who lose weight on the Atkins diet simply take in fewer calories.

In addition, she said, there are no data about the long-term effects of high-fat, high-protein diets.

Lichtenstein noted the high-fat/low-fat battle has heated up since mid-summer when a widely read cover story in the Sunday New York Times magazine touted the value of high-fat regimens such as the Atkins diet. But she said the AHA dropped its support of a low-fat diet a few years ago and now supports a well-balanced diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and at least two servings a week of fish -- fatty fish.

"It isn't just diet," she said. "We promote a healthy lifestyle that means a good well balanced diet, exercise and no smoking."

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