The Atkins Diet: Fad or Miracle Worker?

Sausage scramble, vanilla shake, Brussels sprouts and Swedish meatballs, caramel chocolate peanut nougat bar: the menu for a wild birthday celebration or meal options of a famous “low-carb” diet? The answer may surprise you. It’s a page out of the Atkins Quick-Start Meal Plan: one the legendary low-carb diets to captivate millions of people trying to lose weight.

For decades, millions of have turned to the Atkins Diet to lose weight. Yet, what kind of effect does the low-carb high-fat diet have on our bodies?

Dr. Robert Atkins, who was a cardiologist and entrepreneur, hatched the idea for the diet in the early 1970s. His book, “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution” promoted the notion that a person can lose weight by eating high-fat foods. He was the first to dispute that theory that a low-calorie diet was the only way to lose weight. “As long as you cut out the carbohydrate the weight loss is automatic,” he wrote. So how exactly is a dinner of chicken and broccoli fettuccini alfredo low-carb?

Portrait of nutritionist Dr. Robert Atkins, guru of low-carb, high protein diets, preparing to plunge knife & fork into enormous roast beef on eve of his 69th birthday

Portrait of nutritionist Dr. Robert Atkins, guru of low-carb, high protein diets, preparing to plunge knife & fork into enormous roast beef on eve of his 69th birthday

The guidelines of the Atkins Diet are vague yet simple. The main principle is not to consume too much sugar, white flour, or refined carbohydrates. According to Dr. Atkins, this is the kind of food that leads to high-blood sugar, weight gain, and heart problems. The Atkins Diet suggests maintaining a balance of carbohydrates and other foods. Figuring out this balance doesn’t require calorie or point counting like Weight Watchers. Instead, it instructs you to keep track of your carb intake through a system called “net carbs” which is calculated by subtracting the fiber content from the total number of carbs. For example, a half a cup of black beans is 14.5 grams of total carbs and has six grams of fiber – that means the net carb value is 8.5 grams.

The Atkins Diet is divided into four phases. In the first phase known as “Induction”, dieters are only allowed to eat 20 grams of net carbs a day, which is approximately 1500 daily calories – a drastic dip from what the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion recommends for healthy adults: between 2,200 and 2,600 calories a day. During Induction, it’s suggested that vegetables – especially asparagus, broccoli, celery, cucumber, and beans – should account for 12 to 15 daily net carbs. According to the Mayo Clinic, during the Induction phase, “Instead of getting 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, as recommended by most nutrition guidelines, you get only about 10 percent.” Induction should last around two weeks, or until you’re “15 pounds away from goal weight.”

In Phase two, or “Balancing”, dieters must stick to reserving 12-15 net carbs for vegetables. Dieters should remain in Balancing until they’re 10 pounds away from their ideal weight. In Phase 3 “Pre-maintenance” and Phase 4 “Lifetime maintenance”, starchy foods and high-carb foods are gradually introduced into meals. During these phases, participants are encouraged to experiment with what quantity of carbohydrates works for them in order to maintain their goal weight.

So how do the bacon and egg and cheese sandwiches and these other heavy meals fit in the net carb limit? Atkins has developed its own line of frozen meals that are low in net cabs. For example, the Day Break Creamy Chocolate Shake only contains three net carbs and 140 calories (to give some perspective, a small chocolate shake from Dairy Queen has 530 calories). Although these frozen meals might be aligned with the diet’s guidelines, they’re do not contain adequate nutrition levels. According to a 2013 study from the Center for Economic Analysis, frozen vegetables have a significantly lower nutrient content than canned vegetables, yet are exponentially more expensive than fresh vegetables. A 2013 University of Georgia study discovered that day-of-purchase frozen and fresh vegetables contain the same nutritional value. However, after five days of sitting in a refrigerator, the vitamin value of the frozen meal significantly diminishes – especially in vitamins A, C, and folic acid.


These are not the only qualms that researchers have found with the Atkins Diet. In 2006, a team of scientists from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine performed a low-carb test on mice and found that entire catalogue of low-carb diets including South Beach and the Zone diet are more likely to provoke obesity than induce weight loss. Researchers realized that despite the meals being low-carb, they’re usually high in fat, thus leading to weight gain. To produce these results, researchers put two groups of mice on either a corn syrup diet or the Atkins Diet. Mice on both diets ate the same number of calories, but the corn syrup group lost more weight than the Atkins group. The scientists concluded that the Atkins Diet elicits a slower metabolism than a simple high carbohydrate diet (eating solely corn syrup, for example.)

Corn syrup aside, how does the conventional diet (plain and simple healthy eating and exercise) compare to the Atkins Diet? In 2003, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine discovered that over the course of a year, those who participated in the Atkins Diet lost more weight in six months than those who chose the conventional diet. However, come 12 months, both groups of dieters had gained weight.

With a national obesity rate of 36.5 percent, millions of Americans are desperately struggling to lose weight. When anxious to shed pounds, forgoing foods with adequate nutritional value may seem like a momentary sacrifice. The Atkins Diet is a proven stepping-stone in the journey to weight loss. Its guidelines provide an excellent rubric for learning healthy eating and gaining an understanding of one’s metabolism. It’s cheap, easy to learn, and despite the valid criticisms, it has helped many, many people lose weight.

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

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*Individual results will vary.