There has been a lot of discussion about the benefits of low-carbohydrate diets in recent years. An abundance of controversy has swarmed weight loss programmes like the Dukan and Atkins diets, which have both been blasted for being harmful to health. While some argue that low-carb eating plans are great for metabolic rate to shed pounds, others suggest they can leave dieters open to nutritional deficiencies and even organ damage.
Headlines have erupted in newspapers in the UK and the US hitting out at low-carb diets as potential causes of heart attacks and stroke. Those defending the diets have suggested there is simply not enough substantiated evidence to describe these eating programmes as poor for health. While there is no definitive answer as to whether or not Dukan and Atkins are bad dietary options, it is worth examining the programmes before ridding the food cupboard of bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.
The Dukan diet is based on a four-phase plan which creator Dr Pierre Dukan argues is reflective of our primitive eating habits. As such, those who follow this programme are restricted to 100 foods, including 72 from the animal kingdom and 28 from the plant world. Perhaps its main redeeming feature is that dieters can eat as much as they like while following the plan.
In the initial ‘attack phase’ of the diet, followers are supposed to fuel up on protein-only foods which can be enhanced with carb and fat-free condiments. In an effort to kickstart the metabolism, this phase runs for about ten days in which oat bran is the only carb allowed, and this is to help alleviate constipation associated with a lack of fibre. Sensibly, a 20-minute walk per day is also advised.
This is followed by the ‘cruise phase’ which allows dieters to alternate between protein-only days and those with vegetables. However, consumption of starchy vegetables and glucose-rich fruits is still against the rules. Participants continue on this phase until they hit their target weight. That could certainly make it the most challenging part, although rapid weight loss is often reported.
The ‘consolidation phase’ is all about maintaining that target weight. After all, one of the aims of the Dukan diet is to reshape eating habits for long-term weight management. At this stage, dieters can eat as much protein and vegetables as they like but their carbs are limited. They can introduce one low-sugar fruit to their day, as well as a portion of cheese and two slices of wholegrain bread. Followers can also add two extra servings of carbs per week, although they should leave a day in between each. This phase lasts for ten days for every 2.2 pounds shed. It also allows for ‘celebration meals’ twice a week where dieters can enjoy any foods they want, although a day devoted solely to protein-only foods is also required during each seven-day period.
In the ‘stablisation phase’, dieters are expected to learn healthy eating rules they should follow for life. These include keeping one day per week for protein-only meals, exercising regularly and eating three tablespoons of oat bran per day. All that may sound pretty easy, but how did it fare in practice?
French research published in the scientific journal Obésité questioned 4,761 Dukan dieters to examine their responses to the plan. It found that 75 per cent of followers regained all the weight they had lost after two years. Two out of three respondents who failed the diet admitted they packed it in at the final ‘stabilisation phase’. Four years after completing the diet, 80 per cent of people admitted regaining their weight.
Commenting on the results, Dr Marie-Josee Leblanc said:
In the short-term, yes, it’s efficient. You will indeed lose weight, but not in the right way.
She explained that as dieters suppress carbohydrates, their body finds other sources of glucose. Glycogens initially satisfy this need, which is behind water loss and, consequently, weight loss. However, the body begins using protein as a source of energy, which alters the metabolism so that people need fewer calories to function. But, as Dr Leblanc pointed out, this is problematic if the dieter returns to their normal eating habits as the body receives more calories than it now needs and stores these as fat.
Like the Dukan diet, the Atkins is split into four phases. The first relies on eating mostly fish, poultry and meat, although followers can also enjoy between 12 and 15 grams of net carbs in vegetables per day too. The aim of the diet is to prevent blood sugar levels from spiking and the over-production of insulin, which is said to convert carbs into fat. In the second phase of the plan, dieters can introduce more foods to their day, such as nuts, seeds and berries. There remains a focus on natural and unprocessed foods.
By the third stage, the follower is supposed to be just ten pounds from their target weight. They can expect slower weight loss as they continue to broaden their diets, which can now include certain legumes, grains, and fruits. In the fourth phase, the dieter is supposed to have reached their goal weight and now looks to maintain their size. As with the Dukan diet, they are encouraged to adopt a new long-term eating strategy to ensure they do not regain the pounds lost. This involves bulking up weekly net carbs by ten.
It is no surprise that these two diets get lumped together as they are both low-carb programmes. However, there are a number of stark differences between the two options, including that the Dukan is generally regarded as more restrictive than Atkins.
The Dukan diet does not involve carb-counting, while the Atkins diet is very specific about net carbs and how and when these should be increased. While the Dukan places a focus on low-fat proteins from a list of 100 foods, Atkins allows for a wider variety of proteins that may be higher in fat. Although the Atkins diet says convenience foods are OK as part of the programme, the Dukan diet is adamant that only natural foods should be consumed.
Eating as much as you like, as previously mentioned, is arguably one of the main bonuses of the Dukan plan. However, with Atkins, the follower must limit their vegetable intake to ensure they do not go over their daily carb allowance. Apart from these issues, the diets appear to be similar in nature and encourage their followers to use them as long-term weight management tools. Of course, that could be a marketing ploy as they want to retain followers.
OK, so Kate Middleton’s mother Carol and pop diva Jennifer Lopez are reportedly Dukan diet success stories, with the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Renee Zellweger having tried Atkins – but how telling is this? In the case of Ms Middleton, she is supposed to have lost weight quickly for the Royal Wedding, and Lopez was trying to shift some post-baby pounds. With busy film schedules for Aniston and Zellweger, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn they were looking for a fast-track solution to slimmer frames. When it comes to these low-carb diets, there is probably little arguing with the fact people do lose weight quickly. The question is one of sustainability.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) has voted the Dukan diet the worst celebrity diet for the second consecutive year. Consultant dietician and spokeswoman for the BDA Sian Porter explained why.
There is no wonder diet you can follow without some nutritional or health risk and most are offering a short-term fix to a long-term problem,
In a nutshell, the solution for most is to eat fewer calories, make better choices and move a bit more!
According to WebMD, the American Dietetic Association is less than convinced by the Atkins Diet. Dr Barbara Rolls from Penn State University argued that the only “magical” element of the plan is its calorie restriction, which will result in weight loss. She said:
You can lose weight on anything that helps you to eat less, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Low-carb diets seem like great methods for rapid weight loss. If we have a major event coming up, then following one of these programmes, alongside medical advice, might prove effective for fitting into that little black dress. Sure, we all want to make an impression at a big scale event, so why not trim down to turn a few heads? The Dukan and Atkins diets might be good solutions here, but we have to take care to listen to our bodies in case the programmes don’t suit them.
If we are looking for long-term weight management strategies, then low-carb diets are probably not ideal. It is not just that they curb how much fruit and vegetables we can eat, which may deprive us of vital nutrients, it is this very restriction that makes them unsustainable. How many of us really feel prepared to spend the rest of our lives counting vegetable consumption or ensuring we never taste a forbidden food? And even though science cannot say for sure that these diets are bad for health, it seems likely that any plan warning off too many fruit and vegetables is unviable. Don’t forget the “five-a-day” recommendation to encourage healthy fruit and vegetable intake.
For anyone considering adopting these plans, or similar diet routines, it is a good idea to seek medical advice to ensure your body is equipped to handle the changes. For long-term weight management, however, the best tactic is to stick to a balanced diet that encompasses the best from all food groups.
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