HDL Cholesterol Levels Improve on Atkins Diet

Eating Lots of Salmon Raises HDL Cholesterol
Salmon and Green Beans Improve HDL Cholesterol Levels

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 a low-carb diet, 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.

For years, the prevailing view among medical authorities has been that the Atkins Diet is flat-out dangerous due to its non-restriction on saturated fats, but just how true are those claims?

Is there any scientific research to support the idea that the Atkins Diet is dangerous?

Is the Atkins Diet 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.

There is no science to back up what they are saying.

They are simply basing their professional opinion on research studies that haven’t used the Atkins Diet strategy. Many of these studies are using moderate-carb diets and expecting Atkins followers to fall for that nonsense. 

In addition, scientific evidence itself is highly unreliable when it comes to individual nutrition because a study 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 are 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?

Blindly accepting blanket statements as true for everyone, and that includes all of the many statements made within the low-carb community. I'm not being partial here. Low-carb experts preach a lot of hogwash, too.

In theory, a low-carb diet is not dangerous.

However, how that low-carb diet is implemented most certainly can be.

I learned that lesson recently when my latest cholesterol tests showed me that moving from a lower-fat, low-carb diet to a low-carb, high-fat diet wasn’t good for me.

While others within the low-carb community have experienced different results, what is true for me might not be true for you. You might do very well on LCHF.

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 diet, that doesn’t mean that result 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 of turning low-carb into a practical lifestyle is to find what works best for you.

Studies Point to Improved Cardiovascular Health from Low-Carb Diets

The accusations against low-carb diets doesn't make any sense to me because studies have always shown that a low-carb diet improves HDL levels. The amount of GOOD cholesterol you have goes up when you restrict the carbs.

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
  • significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels
Due to the rumors and accusations made against low-carb diets, however, these findings greatly surprised the researchers. 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.”

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 was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Weight and Metabolic Outcomes After 2 Years on a Low-Carbohydrate Verses Low-Fat Diet.”

The new results were not what he expected either.

The newest study consisted of 307 obese patients. Half were assigned to an honest Atkins Induction that allowed 20 grams of carbohydrate daily for 3 months. After 3 months, participants received a 5-gram per day increase, per week (exactly as Atkins recommends) until the patient achieved desired weight.

The other half of the participants 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
  • 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 is 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 LDL 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, have 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 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 you keep a close eye on your own cholesterol levels to make sure that what you’re doing is truly healthy for you.

High cholesterol levels do not mean that you have to abandon a low-carb lifestyle, so in my next post, I plan to talk about some of the things you can do if your cholesterol tests are not improving on a low-carb diet.


University of Pennsylvania Health System, May 2003, “One-Year Study of Atkins Diet Shows Surprising Results, Penn Researchers Report.”

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.

Eades, Michael R., MD and Eades, Mary Dann, MD, The Protein Power Lifeplan: A New Comprehensive Blueprint for Optimal Health, Warner Books, 2000.


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