The high-fat Atkins diet can cause long-term damage to blood vessels, as well as some of the inflammation linked with heart and artery disease, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.
In contrast, low-fat regimens such as the South Beach and Ornish diets lowered cholesterol and appeared to benefit artery function, they said.
“It really is the Atkins diet that is the worst,” Dr. Michael Miller, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, said in a telephone interview.
“The Atkins diet caused the LDL levels to go up by about 7 percent, whereas in the Ornish and South Beach diets ... they went down 7 to 10 percent.”
Low density lipoprotein or LDL is the “bad” cholesterol that clogs blood vessels.
Various researchers have tested the benefits of the popular diets and reached wildly differing conclusions. Miller designed what he said was a unique approach — to see how people fared once they stopped losing weight on any of the diets.
Studies show that people usually lose weight rapidly on any diet if they follow it properly and the weight loss itself can cause cholesterol to plummet.
“When you lose weight everything looks good but after a while you plateau and you hit a maintenance stage,” said Miller, who presented his findings to a meeting of the American Heart Association in Orlando, Florida.
His team studied 18 people, each of whom completed a full month on each of the three diets. They were carefully monitored to ensure that they did not lose weight.
The Atkins diet was set to deliver 50 percent of calories as fat, the South Beach was 30 percent fat and the Ornish diet, designed by nutritionist Dr. Dean Ornish, was 10 percent fat.
While on each diet the volunteers were tested for levels of blood fats, including cholesterol and markers for inflammation.
The researchers used ultrasound scans to measure the flexibility and dilation of blood vessels and measured proteins in the blood that can indicate inflammation.
“Some markers of inflammation were increased by as much as 30 to 40 percent during the Atkins phase, whereas during the South Beach and Ornish phases, the markers either were stable or went down, some by as much as 15 to 20 percent,” Miller said.
Most studies have shown that diets that stress vegetables, low-fat sources of protein such as beans and legumes, and whole grains provide the best long-term weight loss. Many low-fat diets allow processed carbohydrates such as white flour, which have also been shown to be unhealthy, experts agree.
“We don’t recommend the Atkins diet,” Miller said. “Why not start out with a diet that will be healthier for you in the long run after weight loss?”