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Heart Association to warn against low-carb diets

Elizabeth Cohen

ORLANDO, Florida (CNN) -- The American Heart Association has drafted an advisory paper warning the public about what it says are the dangers of high-protein diets.

"They put people at risk for heart disease and we're really concerned about that," said Dr. Robert H. Eckel, senior author of the paper. "Long-term, the saturated fat and cholesterol content of the diet will raise the ... bad cholesterol and increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, particularly heart attacks."

Proponents of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkins diet, promote them as a way of helping people lose weight and lower their cholesterol while letting them eat unlimited amounts of red meat and high-fat dairy products.


Critics of high-protein diets acknowledge that people do indeed lose weight, at least temporarily, and as a result, cholesterol does drop -- again, temporarily.

"But what I see after people have lost weight on such a diet, then their weight stabilizes for a period of weeks or months and often the cholesterol, particularly the bad cholesterol, now becomes more elevated," said Eckel, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

He said he has seen patients whose levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol, have risen from 140 mg/dL to 220 mg/dL after they lost weight on a high-protein diet. Any level over 130 mg/dL is considered dangerous.

"That's an exaggerated case, but many people's LDL cholesterol goes up if they remain on the diet after they've successfully lost the weight," Eckel said.

Eckel is chairman of the AHA's Nutrition Committee, which is writing the advisory paper. He said the paper will be submitted to Circulation, the association's journal, to be used as guidance for doctors advising patients.

The committee reviewed five high-protein diets: the Atkins diet, the Zone, Protein Power, Sugar Busters and the Stillman diet.

According to Eckel, Protein Power has the highest fat content, with 54 percent of total calories from fat. Atkins has the next highest, with 53 percent, and Stillman, the Zone and Sugar Busters have 33 percent, 30 percent and 21 percent respectively.

Colette Heimowitz, director of education and research for Atkins Health and Medical Information Services, said if LDL cholesterol increases after weight loss on the Atkins diet, it is because people aren't following the diet correctly.

Heimowitz said some people put too many carbohydrates back into their diets after the two-week induction phase, rather than increase them slowly.

"If someone were to go on the induction phase, which is the first phase of the diet, and go back to the old way of eating, which is a high-carbohydrate diet, yes, they will gain their weight back and their cholesterol may go up," she said.

She also said the Atkins diet doesn't advocate eating only red meat and dairy products -- it also tells people to eat chicken, fish and tofu, too.

At Tuesday's annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in Orlando, Dr. Robert Atkins is scheduled to debate his dietary nemesis, Dr. Dean Ornish, who advocates a low-fat diet.

Sparks have flown before when the two doctors have debated -- once at a forum sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and again at a meeting of the American Dietetic Association -- but their discussion is expected to be particularly acrimonious when the issue is heart disease.

Many nutritionists and cardiologists have become bitter over the popularity of Dr. Atkins's diet.

"You want my response to Atkins' saying that [his diet] can lower your cholesterol and do all sorts of good things for your heart? You know what my response is? Bull----," said Judith Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California at Davis.

Federal diet study: Eat less to lose weight
January 10, 2001
Heart experts' advice: Eat more fish in a balanced diet
October 5, 2000
Battling the bulge: high-protein diet or low-fat?
February 29, 2000
Protein diet vs. low-fat: USDA hosts nutrition debate
February 25, 2000
Research points to 'Mediterranean' diet to help prevent repeat heart attack
February 15, 1999

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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