The controversial Atkins diet is just as effective and safe as a conventional low-fat diet, a two-year study has found.Researchers found that overweight volunteers shed more pounds on the low carbohydrate regime than they did on an orthodox calorie-controlled diet.A Mediterranean diet with plenty of vegetables, fibre, white meat and fish was equally effective - and just as safe, they found.
The findings come from an experiment involving 322 overweight volunteers carried out by a team of Israeli, America and German scientists.
Lead researcher Dr Iris Shai, from the department of epidemiology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, said: 'Clearly there is not one diet that is ideal for everyone.
'We believe that this study will open clinical medicine to considering low-carb and Mediterranean diets as safe, effective alternatives for patients, based on personal preference and the medical goals set out for such intervention.'
Atkin's was the biggest dieting phenomenon in years.
Devised by US heart doctor Robert Atkins, it involves eating plenty of protein while virtually eliminating carbohydrates like sugar, bread, rice and pasta. Controversially, it was high in fat - attracting the ire of doctors.
The diet involves no calorie counting and at its height was particularly popular with men. However, it fell out of favour after concerns that it could increase the risk of heart disease and kidney problems.
By contrast a Mediterranean diet includes a high intake of vegetables and fruits, fish and unsaturated fats like olive oil.
The volunteers in the study, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, were assigned to one of three diets - a low fat calorie-restricted diet; a Mediterranean calorie-restricted diet high in fibre and low in red meat, and a low-carbohydrate diet where volunteers had no limit on calories.
Those on the conventional low-fat diet lost an average of 6.5 pounds in weight over the two years - compared to 10 pounds for those on the Mediterranean diet and 10.3 pounds on the low carb diet.
Most of the weight was lost in the first six months of the trial.
The low-carb diet was best for reducing levels of bad cholesterol, while all three diets had the same beneficial effect on liver and inflammation function, the researchers said.
In the first year, just five per cent of the volunteers dropped out of the study. By the end of the second year, 85 per cent of the volunteers were still on the diet.
The experiment was carried out at the Nuclear Research Centre in Israel where the staff canteen provided suitable dishes for each of the three diets.
Lunch is typically the main meal of the day in Israel. The researchers also gave advice to the families of the volunteers on how to stick to the diets at home.
The researchers concede that the study has some flaws. Around 85 per cent of the volunteers were men - and the effects could be different for women, they say.