Low-Carbohydrate, High-Protein Diets: Are They Safe?
The safety of consuming low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets to lose weight is under scrutiny following the death of a 16-year-old girl who died from a sudden heart attack while following a diet program she saw advertised on television, according to a case report in the Southern Medical Journal (2002;95:1047–9). While this report does not prove the diet caused the girl's death, it does raise the question of whether this type of diet is appropriate for people trying to lose weight.
A recent report showed that more than 50% of all Americans are overweight, with childhood and adolescent obesity rising at an alarming rate. The social pressures to look thin may lead some people to resort to desperate measures to drop their weight quickly. While low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets have been around since the 1960s, these diets have regained popularity in recent years. Diets such as the Atkins diet, the Zone diet and the Carbohydrate Addict’s diet are attractive to people since they only change the type of food one eats, but do not restrict the amount of food consumed. However, several case reports have been published over the years suggesting that consuming these diets may lead to a heart attack in some individuals without any warning signs.
In this case, a 16-year-old obese girl had started following a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet (consisting of meat, cheese, and salads), based on information from a series of video tapes she saw advertised on television. Her mother had also been following the same diet. Two weeks after starting the diet, the girl collapsed while at school; her heart stopped beating and she also stopped breathing. Resuscitation measures were not effective and the girl subsequently died. When she arrived at the hospital, her blood level of potassium was found to be extremely low, which likely had induced her heart attack.
Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets are known to suppress the appetite and to curb feelings of hunger, which is why many people lose weight on these types of diets. However, consuming these diets can result in the depletion of minerals such as potassium and magnesium, which are needed to maintain a normal heart rhythm. This mineral-losing effect may be compounded when the daily calorie intake is restricted.
Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes and has become a serious problem in the United States. Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets may help some people successfully lose weight. Indeed, many individuals credit such a diet with turning their lives around in a positive way. Moreover, while scientists have been concerned about potential long-term risks (such as osteoporosis and cancer) from consuming such diets, there are few reports of severe adverse effects. Nevertheless, the present case report suggests that this type of diet is not without risk. Individuals wishing to consume such a diet should, therefore, be closely supervised by a doctor.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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