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. Now researchers 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.
MYTH: Atkins makes you constipated.
FACT: True. Eating fewer vegetables, no fruit or wholemeal grains in the early stages makes constipation common. Most laxatives contain sugar - so drink more water and try taking psyillium husk capsules (available from healthfood stores) in water.
MYTH: Atkins is nutritionally incomplete.
FACT:In the first phase, fruit and vegetables are severely limited. After that, all types of healthy carbohydrates are gradually increased.
DOC'S PRESCRIPTION FOR CONTROVERSY
DR ROBERT Atkins died in April this year, aged 72, after slipping on ice outside his New York office. His death confounded his critics, who were convinced he'd end up a victim of kidney failure as a result of the controversial diet which bore his name.
At the time of his death, Dr Atkins had made 100million dollars from his famous diet, which has become the most celebrated weight-loss regime in history. Yet respect within the medical profession eluded him.
He had spent 30 years justifying his eating plan and was once even forced to defend it before US Congress. Ironically, he died a month before two US universities published papers backing his ideas.
When his diet was invented, in 1972, nutritionists favoured low-fat eating regimes, believing that consuming fat made you fat. But Atkins turned this thinking on its head. He claimed you could have unlimited amounts of fat as long as you controlled your levels of sugar gained from carbohydrates - something which had previously been classed as healthy.
The New York-based cardiologist wrote his best-selling book, Dr Atkins' Diet Revolution, in 1963 after seeing a photo of himself looking flabby. Discovering to his horror that he'd put on 30lbs since medical school, he tried several weight-loss programmes. But he had no success until, after reading an article in a medical journal, he began controlling his intake of carbs. The rest, as they say, is history.
CELEBS WHO SWEAR BY THE FAT-BUSTING DIET
THE Atkins Diet is the most celebrity-endorsed diet in history. Every star who has ever battled with the bulge seems to have tried it - many with startling success.
Renee Zellweger had to pile on the pounds to play calorie-counting singleton Bridget Jones in the hit movie. She ballooned to a size 12-14, pigging out on pizzas and Guinness, then used Atkins to return to an ultra-slender size six. And all in time for the film's premiere.
Former Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell followed the Atkins diet to reinvent herself after leaving the Spice Girls. She went from a busty size 12 to a skinny size six, but has now regained her curves for a cameo role in Sex And The City.
One of its most famous devotees is Jennifer Aniston, who was told to lose weight when she joined the cast of hit TV show Friends. Following the Atkins diet she shed two stones, dropping to a svelte 7st 12lb. And rumour has it she's even persuaded husband Brad Pitt and her Friends co-star Matthew Perry to give it a go.
Pop king Robbie Williams recently turned to Atkins to get into shape for his current tour. Once known as "the fat one from Take That", the Robster is determined never to go back to his former, 16 stone self.
Other fans include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Minnie Driver, Victoria Beckham, Martine McCutcheon and Sophie Dahl.
BOOK NETS BIG PROFITS
THE Atkins diet has grown from a humble book to a multi-million-dollar industry. Its inventor, Dr Robert Atkins, was worth $100million when he died. The updated version of his weight loss bible, Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution, sold 25 million copies and has been read by an estimated 50 million people.
Atkins is now more than a diet - it's a lifestyle. A quick browse around the virtual shop at the diet website - www.atkins.com - reveals a wealth of products which all look suspiciously like forbidden treats, including breads, crisps and brownie mix.
But a closer look at the 'yummy Atkins-approved snacks' reveals carb content is controlled. Instead of listing calorie and fat content on the packaging, it's carb content that counts. 'Country white bread', for example, has an ingredients list which reads like regular bread - water, wheat protein, enriched wheat flour etc - but contains a total of only three grams of carbs. And, once you've done shopping, you can always chat about your purchases with new friends at the Atkins chat room, www.low-carbdiet.co.uk/Forum
WHAT WE THINK OF THE ATKINS DIET
IT'S THE EASIEST DIET EVER
IT'S been seven weeks since I started the Atkins Diet and I'm feeling very pleased with myself. I've lost 11lbs, dropping from 9st 9lbs to 8st 12lbs - even though I've broken the rules more than once.
I have more energy, I feel great and I haven't felt hungry once. It's been the easiest diet ever because the rules are simple, the food is tasty and the weight loss is almost instant.
I lost almost half a stone during the strict first two weeks when I ate nothing but fish, meat, chicken, cheese and eggs. I was allowed just one medium salad each day and cut out fruit, veg, milk, bread, pasta, cereals, potatoes and rice.
The only thing that spoiled my delight were the scaremongers who told me my kidneys would fail, lethargy would set in, my breath would stink and I'd be constipated. None of them, of course, had even read Dr Atkins' book.
On the second phase I started to reintroduce fruit and veg. The weight loss slowed down but continued nonetheless, even though I had the odd bar of chocolate and white-wine bender.
Far from being dangerous, I believe adopting the Atkins diet means I'm eating more healthily than ever before.
Plenty of people would like to see it fail - bakers, potato farmers and the rest of the diet industry - so it's little wonder that a special summit was organised to investigate crash diets this week.
Of course I don't know the long-term effects of the diet. But nor, it seems, do the experts.
"We've no idea what will happen in the long term because no one is evaluating the results," admitted Dr Susan Jebb of the government-funded Medical Research Council as she damned the diet. Well shut up then. And when you find out, come and tell me.
By Clare Raymond (Women's Editor)
GIVE ME WEIGHTWATCHERS ANY DAY
PEOPLE who try the Atkins Diet must be nuts. All that cheese, butter and mayonnaise clogging up your arteries sounds as appealing as endless Cornish cream teas. Nice at the beginning but enough to put you off the West Country for life if you have too much.
Just over a year ago I starting going to WeightWatchers and lost two-and-a-half stone. The diet had all the ingredients that appealed to me - lots of fresh fruit and unlimited vegetables.
Not so with the Atkins Diet. As someone who loves pasta and who gave up eating red meat seven years ago - as a result of covering a story about veal farming that required a tour of an abattoir in Holland - the options available on the Atkins regime are already limited.
Bread, pasta and rice are banned in the induction phase so there goes all my favourite foods. And alcohol is out, too, so there goes my social life.
At WeightWatchers, the word banned is, well, banned. You can eat anything you want. You just have to limit it to fit in with the number of points you're allowed. I found that my body quickly adjusted to limiting fatty foods.
The idea of a creamy pasta carbonara and garlic bread - once my favourite - now holds little appeal. Instead, I love eating salad and vegetables and can happily tuck into biscuits with my coffee or order a Chinese takeaway without feeling guilty.
But perhaps my strongest objection to Atkins is the fact that it breeds so many diet bores.
Have you ever been to a restaurant with someone on Atkins? After endless discussion about the menu you'll find them dissecting a beautifully-arranged plate to kick out potatoes and vegetables.
Then they'll spend the whole night obsessing about the bread basket. And don't even mention a glass of wine.
Want to be a party-pooper? Then go ahead, get yourself on the Atkins Diet.
By Jane Kerr (Daily Mirror Writer)
I WAS DOING SO WELL BEFORE I LAPSED
I FIRST heard about the diet more than 20 years ago. It was an article in my big sister's Cosmopolitan magazine by an American journalist who was doing it.
She seemed to live on hamburger mince and I recall her saying: "By Day Four, I'd have killed for an orange."
It sounded disgusting. But a year ago, when I finally tried it for myself, I kicked myself for not doing it sooner because the weight dropped off. Not that I was obese - I'm 5ft 4ins and should weigh between 8st 5lb to 9st 3lb - but was 10 stones. When you're only a stone or so over your ideal weight, that's the hardest to lose.
The first couple of days were murder but as time went on it became easier. And after two weeks, when I was allowed more vegetables, it became the easiest diet in the world to stick to.
I lived on tofu and stir-fries, switched to unsweetened soya milk and carried hard-boiled eggs and tuna with me as a snack.
After eight weeks, my weight dipped below nine stone - a miracle. Although I never suffered from Atkins breath (as far as I know), constipation was a problem. Despite this, I got down to 8st 11lb and was aiming for 8st 7lb. But now I was on the pre-maintenance diet, where you're allowed more carbs. It was a slippery, or rather, starchy slope. Although my weight remained stable for four months, I got complacent. And bored. Then hungry. My appetite came back - and all the old high-carb cravings with it. The afternoon I ate nine slices of toast was the point of no return.
The odd glass of wine turned into half a bottle. Vegetables turned into an Indian takeaway. I kept telling myself I could always go back on the Atkins again. But carbohydrate cravings are like alcoholism. You can't just have a little bit of sugar and hope for the best.
Exactly one year on, I'm back at my starting weight of 10 stone with a wardrobe of "thin" clothes that don't fit me. The trouble with Atkins is the same as the trouble with all diets - you have to actually do it. But I still won't hear a word against it.
By Jane Simon (Daily Mirror Feature Writer)
IT NEARLY RUINED MY RELATIONSHIP
AT university, I ate junk food but I was active, so I remained a size 10-12. It was when I started a desk job at 21 that everything changed. My eating habits were still awful and the fact that I worked for a chocolate company didn't help. Within months, I'd put on a stone and was nudging a size 14.
I started to panic. I'd never dieted before but chose Atkins because the celebs do it. I also thought it sounded brilliant because I really like meat.
I was on the diet for two months and it was a disaster. I was constantly tired and sluggish. I got bad mood swings, which created real problems between me and my boyfriend, Aaron.
There was so much preparation involved that it messed up my lifestyle. Aaron and I used to go out for dinner a lot but he stopped taking me because I was so picky. I also used to go to my friends' houses for dinner a lot and it was difficult for them.
Starting the day with a huge breakfast of bacon and sausages seemed like a brilliant idea initially but by the second week I didn't want to see another greasy sausage in my life.
Thankfully, I never got constipation but my breath smelled like nail varnish remover.
By the end of two months, I'd lost just under half a stone but everyone was telling me to give it up and Aaron was barely speaking to me.
When I stopped the diet I felt healthy again. And it was an unbelievable relief to go back to bread and pasta again. To my annoyance, I put all the weight back on within a few weeks.
My sister had done WeightWatchers - it worked and the weight stayed off. Atkins is a short-term fix that just didn't feel healthy. As soon as I stopped it, it reversed. I'd never do the diet again. Anyone who does do it must have a lot of willpower.
Now I do a SlimFast diet and eat a lot of healthy food as well. I feel that I've re-educated myself.
By Nancy Miller (Daily Mirror Reader)
THE PHASES OF THE ATKINS DIET
Phase one: induction
MANY people confuse the Atkins Diet as a whole with the strict induction phase which lasts just two weeks.
This stage severely limits carbohydrates to produce a dramatic change in your body chemistry. Instead of burning carbohydrates off, your body will start burning stored body fat instead.
Eat three regular meals each day, or four or five smaller meals. Don't go more than six waking hours without eating. What you can eat
Any kind of fish, red or white meat, chicken (including the skin), eggs, butter, mayonnaise or oils all in unlimited quantities.
3-4oz daily of full-fat cow, sheep or goats' cheese. This includes cheddar, gouda, mozzarella, roquefort and other blue cheeses and Swiss cheese.
2-3 tablespoons of cream.
No more than 20g of carbs a day. This is approximately 250g of green salad or 140-200g (5-7oz) of low-carb vegetables. Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, chickpeas or any kinds of beans are not allowed.
Decaffeinated tea or coffee (but not grain substitutes such as Barley Cup).
Low-carb brands of clear broth or boullion.
Water and soda water.
A multi-vitamin and mineral tablet is recommended.
Fruit, bread, pasta, any grains, milk, yoghurt, other dairy products except those mentioned before and alcohol. Check labels for the carbohydrate content of any foods you're not sure about. For example, breath mints and cough sweets can be very high in sugar.
How you'll feel Probably weak, cranky and light-headed at first. But by the end of the first week most people find they have more energy.
Cutting carbohydrates will stabilise your blood sugar levels, stop cravings and break addictions to unhealthy foods.
Burning fat will help curb your appetite so you won't feel hungry all the time.
To find out how you're doing you can use Ketostix. Available at most chemists, these are small sticks covered in a reactive paper which measures the amount of ketones you're excreting in your urine. Ketones are chemicals produced when your body is burning fat - a state called ketosis - and they're also the cause of the bad breath associated with the Atkins Diet. The sticks change from beige to light pink through to dark purple depending on how much fat you're burning. They'll tell you whether your efforts are working - and, yes, you do have to wee on them.
Phase two: ongoing weight loss
NOW you'll need to discover for yourself how much carbohydrate you can eat and still lose weight slowly and steadily.
Each week, you'll increase your daily carb intake by 5g a day until you reach the point where you stop losing weight. Then, you reduce your carbs to the previous week's level and stay there. Depending on the amount of physical activity you do and your metabolism, this could be as low as 25g a day or as high as 50g.
Add carbs slowly in the following order...
More salad and other non-starchy vegetables
Seeds and nuts
Wine or spirits
Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and carrots
You'll need to be very vigilant about reading labels and you'll probably want to consult a carbohydrate counter (Use Dr Atkins New Carbohydrate Counter published by Vermillion or visit his website at www.atkins.com).
Once you're eating more than 50g of carbs a day, your Ketostix will stop showing any results, even though you may still be losing weight.
Phase three: pre-maintenance
WHEN you're within 5-10lbs of your target weight, Atkins advises you to slow down so you're losing less than one pound a week. Ideally, you should spend four to 12 weeks losing those last 5-10lbs.
Each week, increase your daily carb intake by 10g. If you gain weight, cut back again by 10g. Add new foods slowly.
Phase four: lifetime maintenance
BY now you should have found the level of carbs you can eat without gaining or losing weight. But it's a fine line.
Never let yourself get more than 5lbs above your goal weight. To lose any pounds you do put back on, go back to the induction phase until you've reached your goal weight again.
IT'S A SHORT-TERM MIRACLE BUT A LONG-TERM DISASTER
Patrick Holford, founder of The Institute For Optimum Nutrition and author of The 30-Day Fat Burner Diet (Piatkus, £6.99), says...
The Atkins Diet is good for some people on a short-term basis but bad news long term. What's good about it is it's based on what I believe is the underlying cause of obesity - many people are losing control of their blood sugar levels. We are eating too many refined carbs, for example sugar, and consuming too many stimulants, such as caffeine.
Atkins goes one step further than I would by pushing a person's metabolism into ketosis. That's a back-up programme for living off your own fat and, yes, it causes weight loss.
However, it's a very bad way to live on a long-term basis as the body is simply not designed to live off its own fat. It's designed to run on carbs, but ideally on slow-burning carbs such as those found in wholewheat pasta, which is not allowed with Atkins.
If you don't cut out carbs but go on a carb-controlled diet, you'll lose weight but it won't push the body into emergency mode, which also places stress on the kidneys.
Atkins advises taking large amounts of vitamins but one of the big problems is that nearly every person I speak to doesn't do that.
It also emphasises that the best meat is organic but, in reality, we tend to eat sausages, bacon and hamburgers which are full of garbage.
The diet also puts a very heavy emphasis on saturated fats whereas I'd recommend eating less meat and more of the healthy omega-3 fats found in fish, for example.
One of the major reasons the diet is bad news in the long term is you're excluding certain fruit and vegetables which means you won't be getting enough antioxidant nutrients so you won't help yourself lower your risk of cancer, heart disease and ageing.
My other worry is that people on Atkins are never going to maintain their appropriate weight that way in the long term. Anyone in the diet industry has a responsibility to put dieters on a programme which works for life.