Atkins diet and the war on carbs

The Atkins diet might be the best-known low carbohydrate diet.

Resurgent popularity of the plan in the past few years may be associated with new information from recent studies indicating saturated fat isn’t the demon it’s been made out to be. (1, 2)

The diet was originally condemned for its high saturated fat content, which some nutritional authorities still believe contributes to weight problems and increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease.

Presented by Dr. Robert C. Atkins in 1972 in bestselling book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, this approach to weight control and health management has inspired ongoing controversy over low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets.

Low-carb diets patterned after the Atkins plan have tweaks in the particulars, but stick with the strategy of limiting carbohydrate intake while bumping up consumption of proteins and fats.


Billed as being super-effective, the Atkins diet outperforms low-fat diets for weight reduction; best of all, followers claim the added fat and protein decrease appetite, allowing that magical combination of quick and efficient weight-loss without hunger. (3)

The majority of dieters using this plan also experience positive effects on HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as blood sugar and other markers for health issues. Only a few don’t see changes. (4)

For those who have had the fear of saturated fat driven deeply home, getting past the suspicion that bacon and eggs may be negatively affecting heart health can be a tough call, but may be well worth the leap.

Risk Factors

Over the years many “expert” opinions have been offered about the health risks of low-carb diets, but it appears these may largely be personal bias. Scientific evidence supporting concerns about a lack of essential nutrients, or the body’s preference for burning glucose instead of fat, appears to be buried deeply, if it exists at all.

Instead, it’s been proven that diets restricting carbohydrates help subjects shed more weight than low-fat diets, causing a decreased chance of developing coronary heart disease. (5) Blood triglycerides drop (6), along with other risk factors like blood pressure and insulin resistance. (7, 8)

In a study conducted with more than 300 overweight or obese premenopausal women, results realized by subjects following the Atkins diet were compared with women following the Zone, Ornish and LEARN diets. The Atkins group came out on top in the weight-loss category, as well as experiencing favorable improvements in other areas. (9)

Atkins Diet Basics

The 4-phase plan is rich in fruits and vegetables, which is an established trademark of many popular and successful diets. During the first phase, fruits are usually bypassed in favor of vegetables with lower carb counts, and high-carb vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes are also restricted. (10)

In the initial two-week “induction phase,” your carbohydrate intake is limited to less than 20 grams a day, and these are drawn solely from whole-food sources. Generous amounts protein and fat included in the plan jump-start weight-loss.

The second “balancing phase” allows additional low-carb vegetables, a few more nuts, and small amounts of low-carb fruit.

Phase three is referred to as “fine-tuning,” and you add more whole-food carbs, slowing down shrinkage as goal weight is approached.

The fourth phase is “maintenance,” and the guideline here is easy to grasp: you just keep adding more carbs until weight-loss stops and you start to gain. This change indicates your personal tolerance levels for carb intake have been reached, and then you back off from the carbs until you find your sweet spot.

The amount of time you spend in each phase is based on how your body reacts to the steady rise of carbohydrate levels in the diet. When you get familiar with which foods are high in carbs and which are low, it’s easy to pattern the diet around foods you enjoy.

Here’s a basic list of foods you can include in all phases of the Atkins diet:

  • meats, like beef, poultry, lamb and pork
  • seafood and fatty fish, like trout, salmon and sardines
  • eggs and dairy, like cream, full-fat yogurt, butter and cheese
  • nuts and seeds, like macadamia nuts, walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds
  • fats and oils, like coconut oil, avocados and avocado oil, and extra-virgin olive oil
  • vegetables, like kale, green beans, spinach, broccoli and asparagus

Once you get through the induction phase, you add fruits and vegetables with higher carb counts back into your diet a little at a time. So you can eat an apple here and there, increase your allotment of nuts and seeds, enjoy some legumes, and add small servings of grains like rice or oats if you like.

Keeping the weight off long term means you’re probably not going to be able to indulge much in the following foods ongoing, even after you’ve stabilized and entered the maintenance phase:

  • starches and sugars, like potatoes, cake, candy, ice cream, fruit juice or soft drinks
  • processed foods labeled “diet” or “low-fat” (usually high in sugar)
  • grains, like rye, barley, wheat or spelt
  • vegetable oils, like canola, soybean, corn and cottonseed
  • trans fats, which will be labeled as “hydrogenated”

Vegetarians will find the Atkins diet challenging, though high-protein soy products can make strategies more feasible. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can use eggs and full-fat dairy products, as well as good quality plant oils, like coconut and olive.

By displacing carbohydrates as the main energy source through removing most of them from the diet, the body switches to fat as the fuel of choice, allowing you to burn it instead of storing it. For example, instead of forgoing chocolate due to high sugar and fat content, in the maintenance phase of the Atkins plan you can enjoy bittersweet dark chocolate since the carb count is low. If you’d like real cream in your coffee, that’s another treat allowed on the plan after stabilizing your weight.

In addition to coffee, tea is also an acceptable drink on the Atkins diet. Water is your top choice, and new studies show drinking two full glasses about half an hour before meals may have an accelerating effect on weight loss. (11) Alcoholic drinks are fine in small amounts as long as you stay away from beer and keep wine choices to varieties that are on the dry side.

The consensus shakes down to this: if you decide to try the Atkins diet to reach your health goals, you’ve got nothing to lose except extra weight and risk factors you’ll be glad to get rid of.



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