What Is the Connection between the Atkins Diet and Cholesterol?

Sandi Johnson
Sandi Johnson
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The Atkins diet centers on a four-phase dietary plan to increase the rate at which the body burns fat. To do this, the diet involves increasing the amount of fats consumed, while decreasing the amount of net carbohydrates consumed. Since the fats consumed typically result in eating more meat and other animal products, increased cholesterol has been a concern of medical and nutritional professionals since the diet's inception. Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the connections, either negative or positive, between the Atkins diet and cholesterol.

Understanding the connection between the Atkins diet and cholesterol requires an understanding of so-called good and bad cholesterol levels. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is considered the good cholesterol needed by the body. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is considered the bad cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends maintaining a ratio of total cholesterol to HDL of 3.5 to 1. European cardiovascular specialists recommend a target HDL of 1.5 millimoles to a liter (mmol/L) of blood, with an LDL of less than 1.8 mmol/L.

High cholesterol is a term most often used to describe high levels of LDL. Eating a diet rich in saturated and trans fats, according to numerous medical professionals and health organizations, contributes to increased LDL cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are derived from animal products, including meat, eggs, milk, and similar dairy products. Trans fats are found in margarine, certain types of vegetable oils, and salad dressings, to name just a few.

In terms of the connection between the Atkins diet and cholesterol, it is the increased consumption of saturated fats that concerns proponents. Supporters argue that while the diet increases fat intake, the decrease in carbohydrates consumed helps shift the body from burning glucose to burning fat. As such, supporters argue, the increased fats consumed in the early phases of the diet are burned off rather than stored in the body, and thus do not increase cholesterol levels.

Several studies were conducted in the early part of the 21st century to ascertain the connection between the Atkins diet and cholesterol level changes. Some studies showed no increase in the LDL cholesterol level of dieters using the Atkins diet plan. Other studies showed slight increases of LDL during the initial phases of the diet. Professionals have long debated the validity of each study, with some claiming participant counts were too low, or the wrong Atkins phases were used for various studies. Rather than taking sides, many health organizations recommend that dieters research the connection between the Atkins diet and cholesterol, learn about keeping cholesterol levels down, and monitor the intake of both saturated and trans fats.

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