M Health: Special Report: Diet to Die for?; This Week Saw a New Health Scare over the Controversial Atkins Diet. Yet Dieters and Now Two Scientific Reports Say You Will Lose Weight. We Look at the Facts and the Fiction

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THE Atkins Diet is world- famous - yet dogged by controversy. Since 1992, Dr Robert Atkins' diet book has sold 25million copies worldwide.

But for every celebrity Atkins dieter - including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Aniston, Geri Halliwell, and Renee Zellweger - there has been a health warning that the diet is dangerous and medically unsound. This week Dr Susan Jebb, head of nutrition and health research at the government-funded Human Nutrition Research Centre in Cambridge, said the diet puts excess strain on the kidneys, which can lead to stones or more serious damage - particularly for those with pre-existing problems.

And Dr Jebb dismissed Atkins' claim that reducing carbohydrates forces the body to burn fat as "pseudo-science". But tell that to the millions of weight- watchers who have conducted their own research using their bathroom scales. New York doctor Robert Atkins died in April this year, aged 72 - not from heart problems as his critics reported gleefully but from slipping on ice and hitting his head. But his diet lives on.

At the heart of the Atkins principle is a diet high in proteins and fats and low in carbohydrates. Sugar - in all its forms - is the enemybecause it causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels that lead to cravings and result in weight gain. The Atkins Diet counts carbohydrates, not calories, and this means cutting down not just on sweets and cakes, but on foods we thought were beneficial, such as rice, potatoes, bread and even fruit and certain vegetables.

When Dr Atkins first published his diet in 1972, his message turned accepted wisdom on its head and he was widely regarded as a quack. In the 60s, the low-fat diet had been promoted by researchers concerned mainly with cholesterol and heart disease. The American Medical Association called the Atkins Diet, which recommends an unlimited intake of saturated fats and cholesterol-rich foods, "a bizarre regimen". So the world largely ignored Dr Atkins and jumped on to the low-fat bandwagon. Food manufacturers were quick to catch on with all those products labelled 95 per cent fat free. But instead of getting slimmer, the world got fatter and is now in the grip of an obesity epidemic. Nowresearchers have started to provide evidence that maybe Atkins was right all along.

In June this year, two separate studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that people lost weight after trying the Atkins Diet for at least six months. And, contrary to the concerns of doctors and dieticians, some risk factors for heart disease actually decreased as a result of eating a high-fat, high-protein diet. The Harvard School of Public Health has conducted the longest-running, most comprehensive diet and health studies ever performed, which includes data on nearly 300,000 people. The findings clearly contradict the theory that low-fat is good for your health. "For a large percentage of the population, perhaps 30 to 40 per cent, low-fat diets are counterproductive," says Eleftheria Maratos- Flier from Harvard. "They have the paradoxical effect of making people gain weight."

MYTH:Atkins causes kidney or liver damage. FACT:There are no studies showing that the Atkins Diet causes kidney or liver problems in healthy individuals. But it warns that people with kidney disease, pregnant women and nursing mothers should not do the diet. And all participants - not just those with pre-existing medical problems - are advised to have their blood chemistry, cholesterol and glucose tolerance tests measured by their GP before starting the diet.

MYTH:Atkins gives you bad breath.

FACT: True. A by-product of burning fat is ketones. These are released in the urine and the breath. On the positive side, ketone breath is a sure sign that your body chemistry has switched to fat-burning mode. As most mints contain sugar, Atkins recommends drinking more water or chewing parsley. …