Have you had a spat with your honey, thinking she’d broken your mutual diet pledge by buying a sandwich at Subway? Then she told you it’s just an “Atkins Friendly Wrap,” and you felt like a fool?

No? Well, maybe you’re not as uptight as the characters in Subway’s ad campaign, or maybe you haven’t tried the Atkins diet, yet. If you haven’t, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

The Atkins diet and its progeny are sweeping the nation. By some estimates, as many as 30 million Americans are giving it a try.

What’s the big deal? Does it work? Is it safe?

The Atkins diet – named for its founder, Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who died last year at age 72 – has been around for more than 30 years. Atkins’ books have sold more than 15 million copies. The diet is getting a boost, now, because two recent studies show, for the first time, that it has no apparent harmful affects.

Originally called a high-fat, high-protein diet, the Atkins diet is now commonly referred to as a low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diet. Dr. Phil’s Ultimate Weight Loss Solution and the South Beach diet are less extreme variants.

Research concluded:

  • Atkins dieter lost twice as much weight over six months as those on standard low-fat diets.
  • However, after one year, Atkins dieters had regained about a third of their loss while standard dieters regained only a fifth; the net loss averaged 9.7 pounds for Atkins and 5.5 pounds for standard.
  • Atkins dieters generally had better levels of “good” cholesterol and triglycerides (fats) in their blood.
  • No difference was found between the two groups in “bad” cholesterol or blood pressure.
  • About 40 percent dropped out of each study, indicating how hard it is to stay on any diet.

Low-carb diets stand in stark contrast to the low-fat, high-carb plans traditionally promoted by the American health and agricultural industries and by weight-loss organizations such as Weight Watchers. These are often represented by the “food pyramid,” updated and republished by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1996.

Indeed, if you have concern about your weight and have looked into diet options, you are probably well aware of the controversy between the two approaches.

For decades, Atkins was ostracized by the medical establishment, and his diet was labeled dangerous. Yet, his plan developed a cult following and increasingly wider acceptance. Last year, for the first time, studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine directly compared the two diet plans (see box).

The publication of these short-term studies will probably encourage other investigations into the long-term health risks of each approach. In the meantime, however, it appears that neither approach has a significant health downside.

The big problem with dieting is that most people, even if they initially lose significant weight, regain it later. Over the last century, as diets drifted steadily toward higher concentrations of fat, sugar and carbohydrates, people also become increasingly sedentary and inactive.

The combination proved deadly for individuals and for the nation’s health care budget. Estimates indicate that the annual health care costs of an obese person run about 40 percent higher than those of someone of healthy weight, and about half of this cost is borne by the federal government.

In any attempt to lose weight, people should address both sides of the equation – diet and exercise. Successful weight loss involves a change in lifestyle, not just diet.

If you want to lose weight, you should investigate diet options, consult with your doctor (especially if you are obese or have serious, known health problems) and figure out how to incorporate a more active fitness regime into your life.

The one big advantage of the Atkins diet is that it has an answer to hunger and the nagging need to eat that many dieters experience. Under the Atkins plan, a dieter can eat as much as she or he wants, provided only that the food is low-carb, high fat or high protein.

Pro-Atkins information is available at www.atkins.com. Anti-Atkins information can be found at www.atkinsdietalert.org and www.thedietchannel.com/atkins.htm.

[Steve Clark]