Was the Atkins Diet On To Something?

A low-carb diet produces the greatest improvement in metabolism, according to a new study by Harvard Med School profs.

atkins dietDiet image via Shutterstock.

The Atkins fad has come and gone. Although the popularity of the controversial diet surged in the early 2000s, the low-carb craze that it created has all but subsided. In the health and fitness world, Dr. Atkins has joined the ranks of once-famous weight loss personalities like Jenny Craig and Jared from Subway. However, Dr. Atkins might have been onto something with his meat-and-cheese mantra, according to a new study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study, conducted by two professors from Harvard Medical School, found that a low-carb diet produced the greatest improvement in metabolism among adults who had recently slimmed down, compared with a low-fat or a low-glycemic index diet.

The study followed 21 adult participants, ages 18 to 40, who had recently lost 10 to 15 percent of their body weight. After their weight stabilized, the participants completed all three diets—low-carb, low-fat, and low-glycemix index—in random order, following each diet for four weeks at a time.

Each of the diets fell within the normal healthy range from 10 to 35 percent of daily calories from protein. The low-carb diet comprised of 10 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates, 60 percent from fat and 30 percent from protein. The low-fat diet reduced dietary fats to 20 percent of daily calorie intake, and emphasized whole grain products and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The low-glycemic index diet was made up of minimally processed grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, with 40 percent of daily calories from carbs, 40 percent from fat, and 20 percent from protein.

The study found that diets that reduced the surge in blood sugar after a meal—either low-carb or low-glycemic index—yielded the greatest metabolic benefits. Participants experienced the greatest improvement in their metabolism while following the low-carb diet. They also experienced a gain while following the low-glycemic index diet.

However, “total calories burned plummeted by 300 calories on the low-fat diet compared to the low-carb diet,” one professor told The Harvard Gazette. That’s equal to “the number of calories typically burned in an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity.”

It looks like Dr. Atkins was right all along when he claimed that his diet produced a metabolic advantage. However, don’t expect medical experts to suddenly start recommending Atkins’s New Diet Revolution anytime soon.

The study found that a low-glycemic index diet produced similar metabolic benefits to a low-carb diet, without the negative effects of stress and inflammation that were seen by participants consuming a low-carb diet. And because it doesn’t restrict entire groups of food, it’s likely easier to follow on a day-to-day basis, another professor told The Gazette.

As far as long-term weight loss is concerned, it seems there are no new secrets. A balanced diet that includes food from all of the main groups is the surest way to shed pounds—and to keep them off, for good.