Dukan Diet -- Is It Healthy for You?
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The Dukan Diet - Is It Healthy for You?

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January 30, 2012, last updated April 3, 2013
By ALISON TURNER, Featured Columnist

"Lose weight naturally."  We've all seen those words glued on bottles of "herbal remedies" and heard them exclaimed in commercials by slender women jumping in slow motion; and while The Dukan Diet advertising campaign may not be so flashy, the Dukan method has joined the ranks of popular ways to lose and control weight through diet and exercise.

Frenchman Pierre Dukan's more than 30 years of research and experience in food and nutrition is gathered into the book originally titled "Je ne sais pas maigrir," which translated means "I'm not losing weight". The book sold 3.5 million copies in French, and has been translated into 14 languages , published under the English title, "The Dukan Diet," which immediately shot to the top of diet books in the U.K. and is a #1 New York Times Bestseller in the United States.  There are rumors that The Dukan Diet is so successful that is has helped to keep celebrities Jennifer Lopez, Penelope Cruz, and even Kate Middleton, fit as slender fiddles.   The Dukan diet is a runaway smash hit. But is it safe? Is the Dukan diet healthy for you?

How does the Dukan Diet work?

The Dukan Diet is broken into four phases, which "occupy the dieter from day one so that they never again feel like abandoning the diet."   The first is an Attack phase, in which the dieter restricts him or herself to only 72 high-protein foods with only fat and carb-free condiments (mustard, salt, herbs, spices) and calorie-free drinks, for one to ten days, depending on how much weight is to be lost. 

A Cruise phase follows, alternating days of pure protein with days combining protein and 28 options of approved vegetables, i.e. those without starch (lettuce, spinach, asparagus and tomato, for example). 

Phase 2 is followed until the target weight is reached, at which point the dieter proceeds to Consolidation phase.  Protein and vegetables continue to lead the diet, but the happy Phase 3 dieter is also allowed the occasional piece of fruit, as well as two slices of whole-grain bread each day. 

Lastly, the Dukan dieter reaches Stabilization phase, requiring "three simple, concrete, easy but non-negotiable measures," one being that for one day every week the dieter eats nothing but protein. Stabilization phase lasts for the rest of the Dukan dieter's life, should he or she choose to accept.
Throughout the four phases, the Dukan dieter is encouraged to religiously consume oat bran, the appraised "cornerstone" ingredient of the Dukan Diet,   as well as to exercise daily.  Dukan suggests a brisk walk of at least 20 minutes, pushing up to one hour depending on the phase of the dieter, as well as toning exercises. 

Is the Dukan Diet this season's flavor du jour fad diet?  With its popular attention and celebrated success stories, one has to wonder if the Dukan Diet will go the way of several of its forebears, that is, out with last year's resolutions. 

Several sources have already banished the diet as problematic for various reasons.   U.S. News Health, for example ranked it almost dead last -- #24 out of the 25 best diets of the year.   

The diet loses points from several sources because of its lengthy lists of dos and don'ts, but specific guidelines actually help some dieters stay on track.  The Dukan diet has not yet undergone clinical trials, so it may be premature to conclude that it's successful. However, one online survey of over 1500 users in 2010 found that Dukan dieters lost an average of more than 15 pounds after the first two phases . 

Is the Dukan Diet safe in the long run?  With the recent influx of low-carb, high-protein diets, such as the Dukan, has come a responding concern that depriving the body of an entire food group may have negative consequences in the long run. 

Below are three recent studies that address this very issue. You might want to consider them before beginning the Dukan Diet.

1.   Long term low-carb diet plans and the kidney: do they get along? 

One of the criticisms against low-carb high protein diets (LCHP) such as the Dukan Diet, is that when we digest protein it creates uric acid, so that when we up our levels of protein our kidneys need to work overtime, potentially exacerbating any existing kidney problems.  This is, for example, one area in which the Dukan Diet lost points in the U.S News Health ranking, above. 

However, a 2009 study conducted by a team representing several departments at the University Medical Center at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, including Dr. Ronald T. Gansevoort, did not find justification for these claims.  

They analyzed data from over 8,000 individuals and found "no association between baseline protein intake and rate of renal function decline." The study concludes that "high protein intake does not promote accelerated decline of renal function."  However, the team did find that high protein diets may lead to a different problem: the increased risk for cardiovascular events.  See below for more research that supports this discovery.

2. Low-Carb High-Protein Diets:  Good for the weight but bad for the heart?

"Carbs" have become a naughty word for many Americans, as people all around us swear they've lost their weight by trading pasta and bread for fish and chicken. 

However, in 2009 a group of researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, including Dr. Shi Yin Foo with the former,  have found some troubling long-term possibilities for the vascular system in those maintaining a low carbohydrate and high protein diet (LCHP). 

The team observed that mice nurtured on a LCHP diet "developed more aortic atherosclerosis and had an impaired ability to generate new vessels," the data of which leads them to conclude that "in animal models LCHP diets have adverse vascular affects."  While the differences between mice and men abound, this study might make us want to take our high protein diets with a slice of bread.


Of course, another critical concern of the low-carb or zero-carb trend is your brain. Your brain only uses carbohydrates as energy. Because of this fact, scientists were concerned that lwo-carb high protein diets might harm your brain function.

But so far, the evidence is exactly the opposite.  In theextreme form of the low carb high fat diet, your body produces compounds called ketones.  Several studies have discovered that ketogenic diets are actually effective in treating a range of brain disorders, such as epilepsy.

For example, a 2012 study from Trinity College, Neuroscience Program, noted  
that "KD [ketogenic therapy], which forces predominantly ketone-based rather than glucose-based metabolism, is now well-established as highly successful in reducing seizures".]

3.  Carbohydrates and energy - are they a necessary partnership? 

While the Dukan Diet's primary focus is on the food consumed, it also requires daily exercise: but what if what we eat changes the energy we have to hit the gym? 

In 2007, Dr. Carol S. Johnston with the Department of Nutrition at Arizona State University led a study assessing how a low-carb diet influences the dieter's desire to exercise.   More specifically, the team compared ketogenic diets, a diet that allows nearly zero carbohydrates so that ketones are used for energy rather than glucose, against low-carb diets ranging from 5% to 40% of calories from carbohydrates. 

They found that the diets with the lowest carbs, including ketogenic diets, "enhanced fatigability and can reduce the desire to exercise."  If you find your energy dropping during the Dukan Diet, you might want to consider adding a few more carbs - even if it's breaks the rules in your current phase.

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