The Atkins diet, like many other fad diets, is not a new concept at all. Dr. Atkins published his first book ‘Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution; the high calorie way to stay thin forever’ way back in 1972. Since then the Atkins’ diet has had surges and dips in popularity over the years, but is still going strong.
The modern day version of the Atkin’s diet has slightly tweaked the original formula, but the general principle stays the same.
The Atkins plan remains the best-selling diet book of all time. The Atkins’ diet is another weight loss plan, similar to the HCG diet that is surrounded by hype, controversy and a whole heap of confusing and contradictory information.
As usual, Moose and Doc will be unravelling the Atkins’ diet in a balanced and fun way based on sound scientific evidence.
What is the Atkins Diet?
The Atkins diet, in all its various reincarnations, is a very low-carbohydrate diet plan.
The original version of the Atkins diet allowed unlimited amounts of proteins, such as meat, sausages, bacon, fish and eggs and high-fat foods as well including dairy products and cheese whilst severely limiting all carbohydrates.
The latest version of the Atkins diet, sometimes known as the modified Atkins diet, does put limits on the high-protein and high-fat content of the eating plan but still recommends only around 12 to 15 grams of ‘net carbs‘ a day. The Reference Intake RI (previously Guideline Daily amounts GDA) is around 230 grams of carbohydrates per day.
What to eat on the Atkins Diet
As mentioned, the Atkins diet is the mother of low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets. The modern version has 4 phases but you can be fairly fluid with these according to your needs. There are some basic rules throughout all the phases.
Foods to be avoided
- All grains: This includes pasta, bread, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, cookies, ice cream, cakes, donuts etc.
- Trans-fats: These are the ‘unhealthy’ fats that have undergone a hydrogenation process. Trans-fats are found in a LOT of processed foods including cakes, cookies, pastries, chips, tacos and popcorn, fried foods and margarine.
- Sugar: Any products with sugar including soft and fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and chocolate etc.
- Vegetable Oils: Mainly processed oils made from seeds such as sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil and cottonseed oil
- Low-fat and diet products: these are often high in sugar and not suitable for the Atkins eating regimen.
Foods you can Eat
- All Fish
- All Shellfish
- Dairy Products: Full fat butter, yoghurt, cheese (3 – 4 ozs a day) and cream
- Nuts and Seeds
- All Meats
- Healthy Fats: Avocados, Avocado oil, olive oil and coconut oil
The advised amount of protein consumption per meal is between 4 – 6 ounces, depending on your height and gender, on the Atkins diet.
Now, the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), which is the recommended daily amount of protein per day, is 46 grams for the average woman and 56 grams for the average man.
The Atkins diet is suggesting 113 grams per meal for the average woman and a whopping 170 grams of protein per meal for the average man.
Phases of the Atkins Diet
Phase 1 or the Induction Phase (14 Days)
The general principles of all stages of the Atkins diet are set out above. It is mainly the carbohydrate content that differs in each ‘phase’.
In phase 1 the Atkins diet recommends that no more than 20 grams of ‘net carbs’ should be eaten in any one day.
There is a whole list of low-carbohydrate vegetables and salads to choose from in the induction phase. The 20 grams is divided per day into 12 to 15 grams of vegetables, this equates to about one to two cups (depending on the carb content) and six cups of lettuce or salad leaves.
The Induction phase of the Atkins diet is a very-low-carbohydrate diet. The Institute of Medicine and Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45 to 65 % of an adults total caloric intake should be carbohydrates – this is around 130 grams per day.
Phase 2 (Balancing phase)
Those undergoing the Atkins diet can stay on the induction phase for longer than 2 weeks if they want to continue losing weight fast. The Atkins diet suggests that phase 2 of the plan should be started when you are 15 pounds off your goal weight. Phase 2 is described as a transitional stage to a more permanent low-carb eating plan.
You can now add a few more carbohydrates including fruit such as berries and melon, non-starchy vegetables and nuts.
The aim is to find out your personal carbohydrate limits so that you continue to lose weight. The atkins nutritional approach suggests a carbohydrate intake of between 25 and 60 grams of net carbs for phase 2. Keeping track of your weight is essential at this phase to determine which foods cause weight gain.
Phase 3: (Pre-maintenance)
This phase of the diet should be undertaken when you are 10 lbs off your ideal weight. Now more carbohydrates are gradually added whilst slowly losing weight. Fruit, whole grains and starchy vegetables can be eaten in Phase 3.
The Atkins diet suggests that you increase your carbohydrate intake by 10 grams per week in this phase. Once you have achieved your goal weight you need to continue in phase 3 for around a month.
Phase 4: (Maintenance)
The final phase of the Atkins diet plan is maintaining your new weight. The whole aim is to find what is referred to as your ‘carb balance’ or ‘carb tolerance’.
This involves learning how many grams of net carbs that you can consume without gaining weight. The carbohydrates that you can eat in phase 4 are the same as in Phase 3. Once you are in the maintenance phase the Atkins approach suggests that you now decrease your saturated fat intake.
How do low-carbohydrate diets work?
What are the benefits of a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet?
This is one of the many issues that medical experts can not seem to agree upon. On the one hand there are those that have found positive benefits.
One 2004 study examined the long-term effects (although I would not necessarily call 24 weeks ‘long-term’) of a ketogenic diet for weight loss and concluded that these diets:-
- Significantly decrease the Body Mass Index (BMI) and body weight.
- Decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increase (good) HDL cholesterol levels
- Decreased the level of triglycerides.
- Decreased the level of blood glucose
- No significant side effects were reported
Some studies have suggested that low-carb diets, such as the Atkins plan can help with:-
- Metabolic syndrome: This is a group of risk factors for heart disease and includes high blood sugar, abdominal fat, high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
- Insulin resistance
- Type II Diabetes
What are the problems of a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet?
On the other hand, because the ketogenic diet has been used long-term for the treatment of epilepsy, there is some worrying scientific research on the long-term side effects.
One research study examined 129 patients on the ketogenic diet over a six-year period and found the following health issues:-
- Elevated levels of blood triglycerides: High levels of fatty molecules in the blood are associated with atherosclerosis (furred arteries) and heart disease.
- Hyperuricemia: high levels of uric acid in the blood. Elevated levels of uric acid have been linked with gout.
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- More susceptible to infectious diseases
- Kidney stones
I think that there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that low-carbohydrate diets may work for weight loss in the short-term, but we do not know enough to assess long term risks.
I believe that ALL fad diets lead to weight gain in the long-term and we should be moving towards a more sustainable, healthy eating plan that does not exclude any of the major food groups.
The Atkins Diet Controversy
The Atkins diet was initially criticised for the high fat and calorie content of the foods advocated. The whole debate involved the long-held medical view that a high level of saturated fat in the diet carried an increased risk for unhealthy cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease.
There is no doubt that numerous medical studies have shown that weight loss on a low-carbohydrate diet is equal to, or greater than, weight loss on a low-fat diet. However, there has been a long history of studies that suggested that saturated fat intake is actually associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Major health institutes such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Heart Association and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all hold that reducing dietary saturated fats reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, other recent studies are now questioning the validity of these long-held principles. One 2009 meta-analysis that examined 21 studies involving around 350,00 people over a 14 year period concluded that there is no link between heart disease, stroke and the intake of dietary saturated fat.
Final word on the Atkins Diet
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- Astrup A, Meinert Larsen T, Harper A. (2004) Atkins and other low-carbohydrate diets: hoax or an effective tool for weight loss? Lancet. 2004 Sep 4-10;364(9437):897-9. (Retrieved July 4th 2016)
- Bilsborough SA, Crowe TC. (2003) Low-carbohydrate diets: what are the potential short- and long-term health implications? Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2003;12(4):396-404. (Retrieved July 4th 2016)