Recent revelations that diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins died an obese 258 pounds have fueled anew the debate over whether his recommended low carbohydrate diet is healthy or even effective.
Family members were incensed at the unauthorized release of the death records that did not explain Dr. Atkins had been pumped so full of fluids he was hardly recognizable while he was in a coma after a fall on the ice last winter.
While further investigation clearly is needed, new data shows the debate is not yet over about the Atkins diet.
A new study by the U.S. government's Center for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked Americans? carbohydrate consumption for 30 years.
The finding: Americans are consuming dramatically more calories AND carbohydrates.
Between 1971 and 2000, women increased their caloric intake by 22 percent, and men by 7 percent. And nearly half of our calories now come from carbohydrates, such as pasta, potatoes, bread, cookies, soda, and candy.
Yes, portion sizes are larger, but low-carb experts suggest that a diet high in carbohydrates may actually induce higher calorie consumption.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has advocated since the 1980s a diet that is high in carbohydrates, with the famous Food Pyramid recommending 11 servings a day. It also recommended a much lower fat and protein intake — the opposite of the low-carb proponents' advice.
Unfortunately, this led people to believe that fat-free carbohydrates — even gigantic muffins — were okay. The fact that an estimated 64 percent of U.S. adults are either obese or overweight suggests that we may need to rethink the government's advice.
Here's why: Carbohydrates set off a chain reaction of cravings that can result in excess calorie consumption.
Carbohydrates contain sugars in various forms. Sugar is digested into glucose to turn food into fuel, which is quickly released into the bloodstream to be either burned or stored. Glucose in the bloodstream triggers the production of insulin, whose basic job is to store fat.
High-carbohydrate, high-sugar foods trigger a rush of insulin, but once the glucose is burned or stored, the blood-sugar level plummets, and we're suddenly hungry again. Our blood sugar is jumping up and down, leading us to over-eat.
Protein and fat don't trigger this insulin rush. The cravings are dissipated, and we don't need to eat as much.
Low-carb opponents say that if we would simply eat less and exercise more, we would lose weight. Yes, but with excess carbohydrate consumption triggering cravings for more food, we're in a constant battle with our bodies.
"It has been the standard advice for decades that Americans should follow lower-fat, high-carb diets, but now it's backfiring," said Dr. Meir Stampfer, a nutrition professor at Harvard.
It's also important to look behind the scenes to the motivation of the group that released Atkins' death report.
The report was released by a physicians group that promotes a vegetarian diet and is aligned with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the militant activist organization that fights against use of animals in laboratory research. While the latest revelation about Dr. Atkins certainly needs further investigation, the physicians group clearly is motivated by its own social agenda in releasing the death report.
A final note: Whatever diet people choose, balance is most important — whether Atkins, South Beach, the Zone, or any of the other diets.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a not-for-profit research organization that specializes in health policy. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19808, Alexandria, VA, 22320, or firstname.lastname@example.org