The Atkins Diet: Fad or Miracle Worker?

 

The low-carbohydrate diet has been around since the mid-18th century, when it was literally the only treatment available for diabetes (insulin wasn’t discovered until 1922). [1]

It was introduced for weight loss in 1862—the story of William Banting is well worth a glance. [2]

But no plan brought low-carbing so brightly into the spotlight as The Atkins Diet, introduced in the early 1970s. Dr. Robert Atkins’ initial diet book, Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, took the fitness world by storm and changed the way many people thought about dieting.

Atkins ousted the idea that low-fat foods can help you lose weight, encouraging dieters to eat high-fat foods instead (though the idea is really high-healthy-fat foods) and drop the sugar and refined flours. We now know that the entire modern low-fat craze was started in the 1960s by the sugar industry, who paid scientists to taint their research results, which had confirmed the dangers of too much sugar in the diet—“Blame fat instead!” [3]

From an August 2014 report from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, we ate 123 pounds of sugar per year. Today [2014], the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year. This is equal to 3 pounds (or 6 cups) of sugar consumed in one week!

Nutritionists suggest that Americans should get only 10% of their calories from sugar. This equals 13.3 teaspoons of sugar per day (based on 2,000 calories per day). The current average is 42.5 teaspoons of sugar per day. [4]

But back to Atkins. He was one of the first people to really challenge the whole low-fat/high-sugar narrative, opening up the dieting world to new ideas. But the damage has been done, and the concepts surrounding low-carb/high-fat diets feel extreme in a time when America is almost literally drowning in sugar.

The idea that you should cut out carbohydrates altogether seems a lot to ask of someone, and there is debate about the healthy/not-healthy aspects of this lifestyle. But nearly fifty years after Atkins’ first publication, some dieters still use it to help themselves lose weight. The premise is fairly straightforward: eating foods higher in protein and fat allegedly help eliminate cravings for simple sugars and empty carbohydrates that encourage fat storage. And what started as a single book has now morphed into a full-on industry of its own, with apps, food items, and online programs to follow.

So let’s break it down.

How Does The Atkins Diet Work?

Bells and whistles aside, the Atkins Diet boils down to a pretty basic set of rules: drastically reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates—sugars, white flour, processed carbohydrate foods—you eat. Dr. Atkins believed such foods lead to high blood sugar (diabetes), heart problems, and weight gain. But it’s not starvation by any means; simple refined carbohydrates are replaced with copious amounts of vegetables and protein, moderate fat intakes, and small portions of low-sugar fruits and whole, high-fiber grains. No calories to count. No points á la Weight Watchers. [5]

There is one item the Atkins dieter keeps track of: net carbs. Which is easy to figure out:

Net carbs (grams) = Total carbs (g) – Fiber (g).

Fiber doesn’t break down as it’s digested; other carbohydrates break down into sugars which are then absorbed by the body. Fiber just keeps right on going through the digestive tract. But while it’s in the body, it keeps the body feeling full. We need at least 20-30 grams of fiber a day for good health, but most of us barely get 15 grams.

The Phases of The Atkins Diet

The Atkins diet has four phases: Induction, Balancing, Pre-Maintenance, and Lifetime Maintenance.

The Induction phase allows 20 net carbs and 1,500 calories per day. This phase typically lasts around 2 weeks or until you are about 15 pounds away from your goal weight. It’s a strict program; 15 of those 20 net carbs come from super low-sugar vegetables like  broccoli, asparagus, cucumbers, and green beans. According to the website there are two different programs:

With Atkins 20, your starting point (Phase 1, Induction) is 20 grams of net carbs a day. With Atkins 40, your starting point is 40 grams of net carbs a day. Both plans allow you to increase your carbs, but one adds food one at a time and the other adds to your carbohydrate portion size as you approach weight loss goals. [6]

The Balancing Phase allows 12-15 net carbs from vegetables, until you are around 10 pounds away from your goal. The Pre-Maintenance and Lifestyle phases both slowly introduce complex carbohydrates back into your diet, in a way that will not negatively affect your waistline.

What About the Atkins Food Items In the Grocery Store?

Because many of us just don’t want to give up familiar comfort foods, the company created a line of food items all low in net carbs so they can be eaten while on the diet. For example, their Caramel Nut Chew bar only has 2 net carbs and 1 gram of sugar. There are frozen food items as well, such as a pepperoni pizza with 11 net carbs and 23 grams of protein. But just because these foods are program-approved, does that mean they’re healthy?

Is The Atkins Diet Safe?

The diet products that Atkins offers—shakes, bars, and frozen meals—may push your comfort buttons, but they’re not better than eating whole foods. Full of preservatives, sugar alcohols, and a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, “low net carb” doesn’t equal “good for you,” in my opinion.

But processed goodies aside, the Atkins program itself has been around awhile and is relatively safe. Dr. Atkins does not promote any type of exercise in the program for weight loss, though most health professionals do recommend at least some body movement for overall health if not for direct weight loss. The Mayo Clinic offers a typical Atkins-style menu in its review of the program:

Breakfast. Scrambled eggs with sautéed onions and cheddar cheese. Acceptable beverages include coffee, tea, water, diet soda and herbal tea.

Lunch. Chef salad with chicken, bacon and avocado dressing, along with an allowed beverage.

Dinner. Baked salmon steak, asparagus, and arugula salad with cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, along with an allowed beverage.

Snacks. You typically can have two snacks a day. Snacks may include an Atkins Diet product, such as a chocolate shake or granola bar, or a simple snack like celery and cheddar cheese. [7]

Pros And Cons Of The Atkins Diet

Pros:

  • No calorie counting.
  • Healthy carbs in moderation are allowed, so it’s not a complete taboo.
  • Less sugar and unsaturated fats can drop cholesterol levels along with the pounds.
  • The books are updated regularly, with new and emerging options.
  • If you need a comfort food fix—or simply don’t care to cook—the range of pre-made products is wide.
  • Your body does eventually adjust if you stick with it.
  • Compared with many plans out there, it’s relatively affordable to do.

Cons:

  • Getting started when an entire food group is all but eliminated can set up the potential for binges.
  • A cold-turkey approach to simple carbs can leave users lethargic and rather grouchy until the body adjusts.
  • Eating out can be problematic, which can affect your social life (though a lot of restaurants have low-carb options now).
  • Reintroducing carbs, even complex carbs, too quickly can result in regaining the weight, which can be discouraging.
  • You cannot go back to even half the donut-and-white-bread consumption you once had—it’s a lifetime of commitment.

The Bottom Line

With a fifty-year legacy, Atkins isn’t going anywhere—or at least low-carb diets aren’t. It’s a diet that transitions to a lifestyle, and not everyone makes that transition. Done without the extra food items, the program costs little more than the $25-each books the food item costs are within reason in the world of diet products. Followed properly, it’s safe. And it does allow for some carbs, which the body needs to function smoothly, though most of us would probably consider the amount the Atkins diet allows to be a bit of deprivation.

*Please keep in mind that with any diet or weight loss program, individual results will vary.

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*Individual results will vary.

Information on this website is not to replace the advise of the doctor, but rather for general education purposes. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease and should not be considered as medical advice. Aways consult your doctor before starting any diet or taking any dietary supplements.

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