I’ve recently had a few readers ask me about the potential cardiovascular risks that might be associated with the Atkins Diet. Since that seems to be a common question among those who are new to low carbing or those who haven’t had cholesterol problems before, I thought I’d address some of the issues surrounding High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol that I didn’t talk about in my latest post on LDL Cholesterol and Blood Clots.
If you haven’t read that post, you might want to do so. It discusses the coronary artery disease pathway, how getting your insulin levels under control can slow down the heart disease process, and how a low-carb diet can actually reverse plaque buildup in some individuals. In addition, blood clots and potential strokes have nothing to do with dietary fats, so you might want to check out that information too, especially if you have a family history of stroke or blood clots.
Is the Atkins Diet Dangerous?
For years, the prevailing view among medical authorities has been that the Atkins Diet is flat out dangerous. Kidney failure, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease have all been said to result from following low-carb diets. Most of these reports come from individuals and medical organizations or authorities who have no personal experience with low-carb diets. They are basing their professional opinions on scientific tests that haven’t even used the exact parameters involved in the Atkins Diet.
In addition, scientific evidence itself is highly unreliable when it comes to individual nutrition because it takes a specific group of people, restricts their diet to a particular nutritional regimen, and then projects the results those individuals got onto the rest of us. While scientific testing can be helpful, it is not absolute. Each of us is different. What holds true for a test participant, or even a group of participants, might not hold true for you or me as an individual. Testing can only give us generalizations.
What constitutes danger is blindly accepting blanket statements as true for everyone, and that includes many statements made within the low-carb community.
While a low-carb diet in theory is not dangerous, HOW that low-carb diet is implemented most certainly can be. I learned that lesson for myself recently when my latest cholesterol tests showed that moving from a lower-fat, low-carb diet to a low-carb, high-fat diet wasn’t good for me. However, others within the low-carb community have experienced different results, so what hold true for me might not hold true for you.
So as always, the answer is: It depends on how your body reacts to what you’re doing. Just because my calcium and artery tests came back “excellent” when doing lower-fat, low-carb, that doesn’t mean that standing will remain the same if I up the amount of dietary fats I’m eating. We each have our own sweet spot, and the trick is to find what works best for you.
Studies Point to Improved Cardiovascular Health from Low-Carb Diets
When it comes to HDL cholesterol, studies have always shown that a low-carb diet improves HDL levels. For example, in a fairly recent study published in May of 2010, Frederick Samaha, MD, and Gary Foster, PhD, demonstrated many positive effects from following a low-carbohydrate diet. They found that low-carb diets reduced triglycerides, improved insulin sensitivity, and significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels.
Due to the rumors and accusations made against low-carb diets, however, these findings greatly surprised the researchers. In fact, they even went so far as to say that their “initial findings suggest that such diets may not have the adverse effects that were anticipated.” However, despite the healthy cholesterol levels, Foster questioned whether the effects would continue throughout a maintenance program.
Although Foster’s previous one-year study found the Atkins Diet to have beneficial effects on cholesterol and heart disease, his more recent diet-study results published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Weight and Metabolic Outcomes After 2 Years on a Low-Carbohydrate Verses Low-Fat Diet,” were not what he expected either.
That scientific study consisted of 307 obese patients. Half were assigned to an honest Atkins Induction that allowed 20 grams of carbohydrate daily for 3 months, and then a 5-gram per day increase per week (as Atkins recommends) until the patient achieved desired weight. The other half were placed on a standard low-fat diet plan consisting of 1200 to 1800 calories per day, with no more than 30 percent of those calories coming from fat.
During the first 6 months, the low-carb group had a greater reduction in diastolic blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and very-low-density lipoprotein (LVDL) cholesterol than the low-fat group. They also had larger increases (23 percent) in HDL levels at all “time” points during the study. Bone mineral density and kidney function didn’t change with either group.
These results didn’t change throughout the entire 2-year study. In addition, the slight increase in LDL cholesterol seen in the first few weeks returned to normal or was lower by the end of the study. Foster reported that low-carb diets had favorable changes in cardiovascular health over the long-term, which made them a viable option for weight-loss diets.
Raising HDL Cholesterol Levels Helps Lower LDL Cholesterol
The purpose of focusing on cholesterol levels is to reduce cardiovascular risks and improve health. While most individuals focus on lowering LDL levels, raising HDL can be even more beneficial.
LDL carries cholesterol to the body’s tissues. It’s sometimes referred to as bad cholesterol because if LDL builds up in artery walls, it can lead to narrowed arteries and plaque. HDL is known as good cholesterol because it picks up the LDL cholesterol and carries it back to the liver to be recycled or removed from the body. Since HDL’s job is to rid the body of excess bad cholesterol, the higher your HDL levels, the greater your health benefits.
Long-term Atkins Diet Results in Healthy Cholesterol Levels
The Atkins Diet, as well as other low-carbohydrate diets, has been opposed by medical authorities for many years. Although several scientific studies have found these weight-loss diets to result in healthy cholesterol levels and cardiovascular markers, the Atkins Diet and other low-carb alternatives continue to be perceived as potential health risks.
While that may be true for those of us who are sensitive to dietary fats, for the greater majority of people who embrace the low-carb lifestyle, cholesterol levels and health markers greatly improve when following the Atkins Diet as written. However, with so many within the low-carb community altering the original Atkins Diet to fit their own metabolic issues, it’s essential that we keep a close eye on our own cholesterol levels to make sure that what we’re doing is truly healthy for us.
Annals of Internal Medicine, Foster, G. et al, “Weight and Metabolic Outcomes After 2 Years on a Low-Carbohydrate Verses Low-Fat Diet. A Randomized Trial,” 153:1, 147-157, August 3, 2010.