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People have been trying to lose weight ever since they found being heavy was often unhealthy and being slender made them look good naked. A lot of exercise programs and funny-looking tools were invented, many fitness coaches became instant celebrities, and gyms pretty much built an industry. Other than the exercise boom, there was also a lot of research put into knowing what to eat to not only keep you healthy, but also prevent you from gaining too much weight.
Scientists experimented with plenty of different types of diets and most of them agreed that in order to lose weight, you have to reduce the number of calories you eat per day. This was (and still is) a good rule to follow. However, one doctor decided to take it upon himself to do more research and found the link between low-carb consumption and weight loss.
The doctor’s name was Robert Atkins. He challenged the science of eating less to reduce weight by advocating the idea that you can lose weight if you just eat right. This gave birth to what we now refer to as the Atkins Diet.
The Atkins Diet is a type of low-carb diet many now use for weight loss. Some say this diet closely mimics that of the popular ketogenic diet, wherein you are restricted to a certain amount of carbs per day, but you have the freedom to choose how much fat or protein you eat as long as you don’t go over the calorie limit. Many say the Atkins diet pioneered the low-carb trend as well as opened the world to the inherent health benefits of a low-carb diet (1).
It all started when Dr. Robert C. Atkins, a popular cardiologist, wrote a best-selling book about the diet in 1972. Far from how it’s viewed today, the diet received criticism and was considered unhealthy by mainstream health authorities. Despite the many forms of criticism the diet initially received, it was soon proven one of the most effective means to lose weight (2)
It may sound like you would end up starving, but it’s far from the truth if you do it right. Yes, it is low in carbs, but you get to eat all the fats and proteins you think your body deserves. While it does closely resemble the ketogenic diet in terms of the food you can and can’t eat and the carb restriction, that’s where the similarities end.
What makes this diet different, and perhaps easier to transition into, is how it’s composed of four phases: Induction, Balancing, Fine Tuning, and Maintenance.
To summarize the four phases:
The theory behind the Atkins diet is much like how the ketogenic diet works in that the body, realizing it doesn’t have glucose for energy, switches to fat stores as fuel. Dr. Atkins said there are crucial unrecognized factors in our eating habits which make us fat. Among those is our consumption of refined carbs, especially sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and flour.
When on the Atkins Diet, your metabolism switches from burning glucose as fuel to burning its own stored body fat - or basically the whole process of ketosis. When our glucose levels are low, our insulin levels are also low. It is when both glucose and insulin are low can ketosis only start (3).
Due to the low amount of carbs, the menu of someone doing the Atkins diet is high in fat and protein. Initial concerns surrounding the Atkins diet revolve on how its menu consists of high-fat recipes.
The designed recipes were found to be high in saturated fat and critics were concerned on how they might increase the risk of acquiring cardiovascular diseases. Fortunately, recent studies have shown that there is no direct correlation between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular diseases (4).
In this regard, the Atkins diet is also structured to make sure your calories come from quality sources. This way, the body is getting the right amount of energy it needs despite the low-carb staple.
Just like typical low-carb diets and the ketogenic diet, the Atkins Diet possesses health benefits backed by science.
The Atkins Diet promotes a lot of fat and protein, two nutrients known to fill you up fast and prevent you from becoming hungry for long periods of time. Some even mix the Atkins Diet with intermittent fasting, where some would eat only once or twice and fast for more than 16 hours.
It’s no secret when you eat too much, the body stores excess glucose as fat. This fat is stored often in our abdomen as it’s nearest the stomach. Since the diet practically removes carbs from the diet, the body will then not be able to store as much fat as it normally does plus it also gets to remove previously stored fat to burn it for energy.
The problem with excess carbohydrates is it negatively affects the body’s chemistry when it becomes chronic. We’re talking about elevated levels of LDL, triglycerides, and blood glucose among others. These are all markers for increased risk of heart disease.
When you remove large portions of carbs from your diet, you are in effect reducing the chances of your body storing fat. When the body doesn’t store as much fat, your markers won’t be elevated and instead be managed better.
Hypertension or having high blood pressure is considered a symptom of obesity and cardiovascular disease. Remarkably, studies show a link between low-carb diets and low blood pressure.
Food has been linked to mental disorders for a few years now, with studies showing depressed patients often consumed high amounts of sugar and unhealthy processed fats on a regular basis. They’re also found to gravitate toward carb-heavy foods. Likewise, studies also show people on a low-carb diet have a more optimistic outlook on life as well as better cognitive function (5).
The Atkins Diet is perfect for people who just love the idea of eating anything fried on a sunny day. Bacon, sausage, eggs. Fry them, bake, or even put them on a grill. It doesn’t matter; they’re all allowed.
Then we also have dairy in the form of cheese, butter, and cream. You might first worry about how they’re high in saturated fat, but we all know saturated fats have little to do with heart disease. However, there are still a few things you have to be aware of when it comes to the Atkins Diet.
The Atkins diet relies on select food sources that are mainly chosen for their lack of carbohydrates or low-calorie content. As such, the phases in this diet will enforce a sort of system on the person that at times may feel restrictive or depriving.
Going on a low-carb diet may cause you to initially have bouts of headaches. This is due to carb withdrawal which causes a drop in blood sugar. Fixing this involves increasing meal frequency.
If you’re fond of vegetables or dependent on them for your nutritional needs, you will find this protein and fat-heavy diet to be more of a pain than a relief.
Below is a food guide on what you can eat on an Atkins Diet.
We’re talking about herring, salmon, sardines, tuna for fish; chicken, pheasant, quail, turkey for fowl; beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison for meat; crabmeat, clams, shrimp, lobster, squid for shellfish; omelets, boiled, other types of eggs. You are also welcome to indulge in butter, olive oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, and other healthy fats.
Any diet won’t be complete without a bit of plant fat in the mix. Not to mention you don’t need to have a lot of plant fat in your diet to reap the benefits. For animal fats, you really want to get the most out of fish fat especially for its omega-3. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid and studies show adequate amounts lead to improved overall health.
Water is always good to drink. In fact, you can just drink water all the time. However, water can get pretty boring, so it’s good to have regular black coffee and pure tea on the side. Club soda is also fine as well as flavored seltzer - the zero-calorie kind.
Then there are also beverages with sweeteners. We usually insist on avoiding them, but you can also have some so long as they use zero-calorie sweeteners.
When it comes to vegetables, you want to focus on eating the ones with the least carbs for the amount of nutrients they provide. Some examples are alfalfa, chicory, olives, lettuce, spinach, tomato, garlic, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, cabbage, yellow squash, and bok choy. To make things taste better, use salad dressings like red wine vinegar, lemon and lime juice, ranch, and Balsamic vinegar.
For fruits, you are welcome to eat mango, figs, cherries, raisins, guava, apples, dates, papaya, and even bananas so long as you are careful about the carb content per serving or bite.
As with any weight loss diet, your body will initially try to resist losing too much fat, storing them for “emergency purposes”, as it sees this new diet as a threat. The body then shifts the fat to another area rather than release it as energy and it does this regardless of your effort to exercise and maintain a healthy diet. This is what we call homeostasis or the body’s attempt to maintain what you currently have regardless of whether it’s healthy or not.
To avoid/solve homeostasis, make sure you do the following:
Pair the Atkins diet with regular full body workouts to ensure you burn the fat no matter where your body stored it. A few sample workouts include barbell training, plyometrics, kettlebell training, and different types of cardio such as running, rowing, and rope skipping.
There’s a lot of good to be said when it comes to gradual changes and the Atkins diet is no exception to this rule. If you surprise your system with Atkins, or any other diet for that matter, it will then store fat as if it’s running out. This is why we recommend a slow, but steady transition before you go all out with the diet.
A program can only be as successful as the person’s determination and discipline. The Atkins Diet is more than just what to eat and what not eat but a personal challenge to you as an individual seeking not just a desired weight but more importantly, a lifetime goal.
(1) Czyzewska-majchrzak L, Grzelak T, Kramkowska M, Czyzewska K, Witmanowski H. The use of low-carbohydrate diet in type 2 diabetes - benefits and risks. Ann Agric Environ Med. 2014;21(2):320-6.
(2) Atallah R, Filion KB, Wakil SM, et al. Long-term effects of 4 popular diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2014;7(6):815-27.
(3) Dashti HM, Mathew TC, Hussein T, et al. Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients. Exp Clin Cardiol. 2004;9(3):200-5.
(4) Nettleton JA, Brouwer IA, Geleijnse JM, Hornstra G. Saturated Fat Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Ischemic Stroke: A Science Update. Ann Nutr Metab. 2017;70(1):26-33.
(5) Brietzke E, Mansur RB, Subramaniapillai M, et al. Ketogenic diet as a metabolic therapy for mood disorders: Evidence and developments. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2018;94:11-16.