The Atkins diet is considered the most popular of the low carbohydrate diets. It is based on the restriction of processed and refined carbohydrates, limiting the consumption of sugary foods, breads, pasta, and starchy vegetables.
The core concept of The Atkins Diet is Dr. Atkins’ theory that over-consumption of and hypersensitivity to carbohydrates is the root of our problem with being overweight.
The principle he bases his plan on says that it is the way your body processes the carbohydrates you eat - not how much fat you eat - that causes you to gain weight.
Atkins says that many overweight people may be “insulin resistant,” that is, the cells that convert carbohydrates into glucose (which becomes energy) do not work correctly. While most diet experts say that not everyone who has a weight problem is insulin resistant, Atkins says it is more likely than not.
That’s where Dr. Atkins’ plan comes in: What is the remedy to insulin resistance or over-consumption of carbohydrates? Begin restricting yourself, particularly from eating the “bad” ones like those found in processed, pre-packaged and junk foods (cookies, sodas, etc.) and prepare to follow this high-protein eating plan.
How Does it Work?
By reducing your carbohydrate intake to less than 40 grams a day, you will enter a bodily process called ketosis. Ketosis is a state in which your body burns fat as fuel. Atkins also says that ketosis will affect insulin production which will prevent more fat from being formed. Atkins’ plan suggests that once you enter ketosis and your body begins efficiently using the fat as fuel, your cravings for carbs will subside and you won’t miss the foods you are doing without.
The Phases and the Food
The Atkins Diet consists of the following four stages: induction, ongoing weight loss, pre-maintenance and maintenance. Induction is the first 14 days of the plan, during which Atkins says you can lose up to 15 pounds. This rapid weight loss is due to limiting your carbs to 20 grams a day. The only carbs you can have are low-carb vegetables like lettuce, broccoli and tomatoes. You are limited to three cups per day. Forget about yogurt, fruit and starchy vegetables like potatoes. If you consume alcohol or caffeine, you’re going to have to say “sayonara” to those beverages as well.
During the next stage - ongoing weight loss - you can increase your carb intake by five grams. You will eventually hit a plateau and have to slack off your carb intake once again. During pre-maintenance, weight loss will happen a little more slowly and you will be able to “test” certain foods to see if you can safely add them to your diet without weight gain resulting. Once you reach your goal weight, you enter maintenance and may introduce some more carbs back into your diet- but not the “bad” ones, as they will result in the weight returning. You will be asked to choose healthy carbs instead, whole wheat bread, for example.
The Atkins plan was referred to as “the most severe [diet] of the high-protein/low-carb school” in a March 2000 U.S. News article (Kulman). The article goes on to give examples of the diet’s meals, which include bacons and eggs and cheeseburgers. The bottom line is you’re really going to have to enjoy eating meat to like this plan!
Facts You Should Know
* Although the very popular book Atkins’ plan is presented in is called Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, the diet isn’t new at all. Atkins published his ketogenic diet plan in the early 70’s. According to “The Atkins Diet - Is it for Real?” Atkins was called to testify in front of the senate about his diet in 1973 after the American Medical Association questioned the plan’s safety.
* A plus of The Atkins Diet is that exercise is recommended. Any diet that doesn’t include exercise in its recommendations will probably not be effective and does not encourage health lifestyle change.
* After you have lost weight, you can’t go back to eating carbs with abandon. Dr. Atkins virtually promises that anyone who returns to over-eating high-carb foods like pizza or desserts will gain back all weight they lost on the plan.
* Some nutritionists (Hemmelgarn) and health experts contend that ketosis results in too-rapid, unhealthy levels of weight loss and that the loss consists of lean body mass and water.
* Regardless of which diet you go on, whether it be Atkins or Weight Watchers, diet experts agree that it is calorie reduction (not types of food eaten or not eaten) that results in weight loss.
* People who suffer from gout, kidney conditions, type I diabetes or pregnant women should not go on Atkins (Warrick).
The Bottom Line
Remember, you should never start a diet without first talking to your doctor. This is especially true with a diet like Atkins because it is so stringent and is most likely a very significant change from your normal eating habits. Additionally, some research has indicated that this type of diet may endanger the kidneys, result in dehydration, or lead to other health problems. Ask for an alternate diet if your doctor dissuades you from trying Atkins.
It’s very difficult to lose the “diet mentality” and it’s very easy to hope for and seek out a “quick fix”; since weight loss occurs so rapidly on Atkins, this diet seems like one. However, if you want your results to be long-term you need to ask yourself an important question: Are you committed to limiting your carbs for good? If not, then this plan probably isn’t for you, because even as Atkins himself states, returning to your previous eating habits will bring the weight back.
If you find that Atkins is not for you, you may be averse to the type of foods you are eating. That’s fine - some people simply can’t tolerate eating a certain type of foods, and others feel deprived if their favorites are eliminated. If you don’t feel happy and satisfied with a particular plan, it’s time to find an alternative.
If you prefer to include a fair amount of carbs in your diet, a low-fat diet like the one recommended by The Food Guide Pyramid or the eating plan encouraged by Weight Watchers may be better-suited for your preferences. Keep trying and you will find the way that works for you!
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD