High Cholesterol and the Atkins Diet

Janet from Oregon asks “I just don’t get it. I have high cholesterol, but my friends tell me I should try the Atkins Diet. If I understand the diet correctly, it says eat less of the grains and low fat foods I’m used to, and eat more meats and cheeses. How can this be?”

I see your confusion, Janet. Maybe I can help.

If you were paying attention during the 80’s and early 90’s, then you understood that eating foods high in fat would naturally lead to high cholesterol.  And what are the consequences of eating fats or foods that cause elevated cholesterol levels?  Heart disease at worst, obesity at best.  Then, we all heard from this crazy doctor named Atkins that we could have a diet that was high in fats (and therefore, according to conventional wisdom, high cholesterol) and still lose weight and lower our cholesterol and chances of heart disease.  So, was Atkins a loon or were all those experts completely mistaken about fat and its affect upon high cholesterol?

Atkins Diet Background

The main theory behind the Atkins Diet is that you lower your carbohydrate intake to 20 grams or less per day but can eat all the fats you like.  Atkins believed that reducing your carb intake would cause the body to burn its fat stores, leading to weight loss and lower cholesterol levels.  Basically, by limiting the amount of ready-to-use energy that we get from carbs, the body is forced into ketosis which simply means that your body is forced to burn stored fat (most notably, triglycerides).  Plus, carbohydrates cause the body to produce more insulin which causes hunger and ultimately weight gain.  So, Atkins believed that fat was not the evil once believed and that carbohydrates were actually the principle cause of obesity, high cholesterol, and ultimately heart disease.  Now, was Atkins a loon or did his theories actually make sense?

Actually, from the data compiled so far, Atkins was absolutely right.  By reducing carbohydrate intake to 20 grams or less per day, people on the Atkins Diet lost more weight, stuck to the diet longer, and did not have the high cholesterol levels of people on a low-fat diet-but how is this possible?  We have been swamped with studies and experts telling us for decades that foods high in fat will lead to high cholesterol, obesity, and quite probably, heart disease.  So how can a diet that lets you eat all the fat you like and consume things that supposedly lead to high cholesterol-how can it work?

Well, there are two types of cholesterol.  The “good cholesterol” is known as HDL and is very necessary for your body.  The “bad cholesterol” is known as LDL and it can lead to clogged arteries and ultimately heart disease.  Oddly, neither the Atkins Diet nor a low-fat regimen has been shown to reduce the bad cholesterol.  What does happen for those using the Atkins Diet is a significant elevation of HDL, or good cholesterol, and a drastic reduction in triglycerides (49% less-and triglycerides are really just fat dressed up in a fancy name!).  Low fat diets have not been shown to significantly increase good cholesterol and they lead to only a 20-25% reduction in triglycerides!

Now before you swear off carbs and start preparing for a diet rich in fat, know this:  Yes, the Atkins Diet has been proven effective in lowering weight and reducing high cholesterol levels.  The only thing that is really not known are the long-term effects of the Atkins diet because no large-scale studies have been conducted.  However, Dr. Atkins did indeed challenge the conventional wisdom of fats being completely evil and a cause of high cholesterol.

If you have had problems losing weight and keeping it off using more traditional “low-fat” diets, maybe it is time to consider the Atkins Diet as an alternative.  Before beginning any diet, however, be sure to consult with your physician because not all diets will have the same effects upon all people. 

One Response to “High Cholesterol and the Atkins Diet”

  1. Greg Obrien says:

    I have lost 108 lbs on the atkins diet

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