Last Updated June 13th, 2021
What is the Atkins Diet?
The Atkins diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet for weight loss, which was formulated by Dr. Robert Atkins in 1963. Dr. Atkins and a group of 65 executives reportedly showed significant weight loss after following a low-carb diet. This prompted him to write his first book in 1972, titled Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. This kicked off debates and research that has lasted for decades and continues to this day.
Origins of the Atkins Diet
Traditionally, carbohydrates were never considered unhealthy. At least they were, until the 1960s. In 1963, Dr. Robert Atkins made the startling discovery that carbohydrates and sugars, not fats, are responsible for weight gain. In other words, an increase in carb intake translated to an increase in weight. He also added that carbohydrates also made you feel hungry often.
According to Dr. Atkins, the solution was the Atkins Nutritional Approach, which substituted carbohydrates with fats and proteins. According to the Atkins diet, large cuts of meat and other high-fat foods like milk and yogurt need not be avoided to lose weight. This was a new idea at the time and led to widespread criticism in the nutrition community since a high-fat diet was conventionally associated with weight gain.
How does the Atkins diet help in weight loss?
In a high-fat diet, you eat more fat to burn stored fat. It does sound counterintuitive but science has proven that it works. Our day-to-day diet includes a lot of carbohydrates. We get them from rice, wheat products, breads, & pastas etc. The body breaks down the carbs to glucose, which then reaches our cells and gets stored as fats. This means, a high carb invariably leads to high fat deposition. Not to mention, a carb-rich meals causes a sudden sugar spike in the blood that eventually turns into insulin resistance or diabetes in a vast majority of people.
The point to be noted here is that by having a high carb intake not only are you increasing the fat deposition in your body but also increasing your risk of chronic ailments such as heart diseases and diabetes. The counter-approach would be to lower the carb intake and compensate it with a high fat and protein-intake.
The logical question at this juncture would be – why increase the fat intake to lose weight?
And the answer lies in how fats and proteins are metabolized in the body. For starters, you must understand that fat is not the enemy, contrary to the way it has been demonized by media and scientific communities in the past. Fats are essential to a plethora of critical bodily functions and must be a part of a balanced healthy meal. Fats and proteins do not cause sugar spikes in the blood, they lead to higher satiety, and provide a steady source of energy to the body, unlike carbs (mostly, simple carbs).
When you consume a diet rich in fats and proteins, you end up having fewer hunger pangs. In the absence (or low levels) of stored carbs, your body starts burning fat cells for energy. This is the fundamental explanation of how a high fat diet can actually help you lose weight.
Principles of the Atkins Diet
As per the information furnished on the official website of Atkins Diet, this diet is safe and effective because it takes care of these fundamental principles
Weight loss – A high fat, low carb diet has been scientifically shown to be more effective as a weight loss tool when compared to a low-fat diet.
Weight maintenance – The various phases included in the Atkins diet (as explained later) help not only in losing weight but also maintaining the weight loss in the longer run.
Good health and well-being – Inclusion of healthy fats in the diet has shown to improve cognitive skills, mood, and overall well-being. Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory in nature. On the other hand, a carb-rich diet is known to cause higher inflammation and raises the risk of obesity and weight gain.
Prevention of disease – Carbs or sugar have been identified to be the real culprit for a number of health conditions. Such a diet raises the risk of heart ailments, neurodegeneration, digestive issues, and lower immunity. A high-fat, low-carb diet such as the Atkins diet can reverse this oxidative stress on the body.
What are the phases of the Atkins Diet?
Phase 1- Induction
What is it? This is the first phase of the Atkins diet and is marked by drastic reduction in the overall carbohydrate consumption. By doing so, you are forcing your body to enter that particular state of metabolism in which instead of carbs, you start burning fats for energy. This phase is associated with significant weight loss.
How to follow? You need to consume not more than 20 grams of carbs per day for the 1st two weeks (induction phase = 2 weeks duration). The diet should typically consist of high fat and high protein foods and low carb vegetables such as kale and spinach.
Phase 2- Ongoing weight loss
What is it? Also known as the balancing phase of Atkins diet, this phase is about slowly adding certain food groups in your diet. Carb intake limit for an average adult human is 25-50 grams/day.
How to follow? The idea is to add nuts, more low-carb vegetables, and some amount of fruits in your diet. Make sure that none of these are the processed sugary/salted versions. Add only natural produce. The low carb vegetables must be cooked in a healthy way so as to retain maximum nutrients and fiber content.
Phase 3 – Pre-maintenance
What is it? Pre-maintenance or fine-tuning phase is all about slowly adding carbs to your diet till the point the rate of weight loss slows down and you have almost reached your target weight. You can have 50-80 grams of carbs per day during this phase.
How to follow? This phase is spread along the time when you have consistently maintained the weight loss for almost a month. Waiting a month to ensures that you are able to gauge the right quantity of carb-intake to maintain the weight loss for a longer period of time. You can, as mentioned in the previous step, slowly add few more carbs in your diet provided you are not gaining weight.
Phase 4 – Lifetime Maintenance
What is it? As the name suggests, phase 4 is more of a permanent life-long commitment to the consumption of a healthy level of carbs. You can add a fixed quantity of carbs (healthy carbs, no refined sugar/wheat products) till the extent you are able to maintain the weight loss. The safe range of carb intake is observed to be 80-100 grams per day.
How to follow? You can add healthy carbs and complex carbs (foods with low G.I. values) and keep weighing yourself regularly to ensure that this addition of carb is not leading to weight gain.
What are the foods that you must eat in the Atkins diet?
The Atkins diet is a tad unconventional when it comes to choosing what foods to eat to stay healthy. This is primarily because of its inclusion of meat and oils rich in saturated fats. Some of these foods that you would be eating when you follow the Atkins diet are:
- High-fat dairy products like milk, cheese, etc.
- Fatty fish and seafood
- Meats, both red meats as well as lean meats
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils rich in fats such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil
What are the foods that you must avoid in the Atkins diet?
Dieters must avoid certain foods. Some of these foods are:
- Cereals like wheat, rice etc.
- High-carb fruits such as apples, bananas (only during induction)
- High-carb vegetables such as carrots (only during induction)
- Legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Sugary stuff like soft drinks, candy etc.
- Processed foods containing trans-fats.
Sample meal plan for Atkins diet
Below is a sample menu for an Atkins diet that covers the first two phases of an Atkins 20 diet for weight loss:
Phase 1 – Induction
Breakfast – A double-egg omelette with 50g slices of red pepper and 30g of grated cheese
Lunch –Goat’s cheese with 80g salad leaves, 4 cherry tomatoes, 5 olives, ½ sliced avocado, 50g crumbled goat’s cheese, and 50g cubed cucumber. Sprinkle some extra virgin olive or coconut oil.
Dinner- 115g of baked salmon topped with 1 tsp butter and 1 sprig of parsley. Also, add 100g of diced cauliflower and 80g of kale sautéed in olive oil.
Have healthy snacks in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These include a half slice of avocado, a leg of chicken, a boiled egg etc. You can add them to your diet depending on your hunger levels.
Phase 2 – Ongoing weight loss
Breakfast – 100g Greek yogurt (full fat) with 30g blueberries
Lunch – Bunless chicken burger of 120g served on two romaine leaves, topped with half sliced tomato. Add a mixed green salad and sprinkle a tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
Dinner – 4 ounces of baked cod topped with one tbsp of butter and one sprig of parsley. Serve with 80g of diced cauliflower and 100g of Brussel Sprouts sautéed in olive oil.
Have healthy snacks in between the three meals. These include some green olives, 25g hazelnuts, half a tin of tuna etc. You can add them to your diet depending on your hunger levels.
Phases 3 – Pre maintainence
Add carbohydrates to your meal plan slowly and systematically. Make sure you do not add refined carbohydrates or sugars. Your weight loss will slow down as compared to the previous phases. Ideally, you will be approaching your target weight in this phase. Examples of foods you can add to your diet are carrots, peas, sweet potato, and beets. You must just add enough to make sure you are reaching your target weight and maintaining the weight loss.
You should keep track of the added carbohydrates that you are consuming in Phase 3 and Phase 4. Since each person’s fitness and health goals are different, the exact quantity of carbs that one should be adding is a highly variable quantity. It would be wise to maintain an accurate journal of the food (calories and carbs) you are consuming and a record of your weight loss (per week). These will paint a clearer picture of your targeted weight loss and safe carb-intake threshold.
Phase 4- Lifetime maintenance
Once you have reached the target weight, add more carbohydrates to your diet. See that you don’t consume in excess of 100g of carbohydrates a day. Make use of whole-wheat grains and cereals. Have fruits that have healthy carbs and fiber such as apple. Keep track of how much weight you are gaining, if any, and adjust your carb-intake accordingly. Do not skip meals to keep your weight in check.
Atkins 20, 40, & 100 – Different forms of Atkins diet
The number 20, 40, and 100 is indicative of the permissible quantity of carbs in grams while following the Atkins diet. Different people have different metabolic rates. Not everyone is targeting the same weight loss. Neither is every person’s body capable of handling the same carb-restriction. Thus, Atkins diet formulated 3 separate flexible dieting routines where one could consume the said quantity of carbs respectively while reaping maximum benefits of the diet.
So if a person is following Atkins 40, he/she starts with restricting the carb-intake to 40 grams/day in phase 1, aka, the induction phase. This would also include 6-8 ounces of proteins in the daily meal and 2-4 grams of fat serving as well. The Atkins website claims that people can start losing weight right from the very first day of Atkins 40 diet.
The one tricky thing most people encounter is how one measures the quantity of carbs consumed per day. The solution to this is simple. Your daily carb intake (in grams) can be calculated by taking into account the total carbohydrate consumed minus the fiber and sugar alcohol content (if any).
You need to spread out the daily carb intake evenly across the meals. The ideal way to go about it would be to divide the net carb-intake into 3 meals and 2 snacks (per day). So, for Atkins 40 diet, the carb distribution would be 10 grams of carbs per meal (for 3 meals) and 5 grams of carbs per snack (for 2 snacks).
Who should avoid the Atkins diet?
Avoid the Atkins Diet in the following two cases:
Excess protein in your body can actually be bad for your kidneys. If you already have kidney disease, kidney function may be hampered. Those on dialysis must definitely not go in for the Atkins diet, as this could be harmful. The Atkins Foundation itself advises them against this.
Pregnant or breastfeeding
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding must avoid the Atkins Diet. This is because the risks of a high-fat, low-carb diet have been established in pregnant or breastfeeding women.
What does science say about the Atkins diet?
The scientific community has been at loggerheads, unable to establish whether a low-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet is actually healthy or not. The main point of dissent was that saturated fats are healthy. This is the point of view held by the Atkins diet.
However, a number of studies recently have proven that saturated fats are actually healthy. Examples of products containing high saturated fats are animal products like cream, cheese, butter, and other dairy products containing whole fats. An example of a plant-based product rich in saturated fat is coconut oil.
Several studies have proven that the Atkins diet actually helps with weight loss. In addition, studies have shown that skeletal muscles burn fats with greater efficiency and lesser oxidative effect than it does carbs. This contributes to better overall health.
Some scientists also believe that the human body has evolved over millions of years to use fat as the main source of energy and not carbohydrates. It was only after the dawn of civilization and the discovery of agriculture that carbohydrate-rich foods such as rice and wheat became popular.
They also argue that the body does not need as much glucose as it gets on an average. A high-fat diet will also help to lower the levels of glucose in the blood and the need for excess insulin also. Some studies have proven that this could even reduce the risk of diabetes.
Is the Atkins diet the perfect diet for you?
The Atkins diet is very popular and there are a number of studies that detail its benefits. But is it the perfect diet for you? This would depend on many conditions. You must answer a couple of questions before you decide:
Do you have any health conditions that should make the Atkins diet unsuitable for you?
If yes, then you must not follow the Atkins diet. If no, proceed to the next question. Are you trying to lose weight or maintain your weight? If are trying to lose weight, then the Atkins diet may be the perfect fit for you. If you are trying to maintain your weight, there may be other diets or even the Atkins 100 diet that you may try.
Once you have answered these questions, you still have to prepare yourself for a tough road ahead. Initially, there are chances you will feel hungry a lot more frequently. You would also need to exercise more self-control. You would need to stick to your diet plan and make suitable adjustments to your diet. If you are running short of any nutrients, you would need to take supplements for them and consult a doctor on whether you should really continue with the Atkins diet.
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