The Atkins Diet – Does it Work?
Fad diets certainly come and go, but the Atkins Diet is a popular weight loss program that has been around for the past 30+ years. The diet program calls for a heavy restriction of carbohydrates with an increased intake of fat. And while Atkins may be able to help you shed some quick pounds, is your overall body health benefitting from the program?
The diet and weight loss industry is estimated at 50+ billion dollars a year — approximately the same as Kraft Foods’ market cap — and that is the US alone! That means countless Americans have resorted to spending money on diet programs, pills, books, and food to lose weight– and yet 35.7% of Americans remain obese! Unfortunately, the majority of these plans burn out as quickly as they come into the limelight.
The Atkins program, however, has not followed the traditional fad diet trajectory. This diet program was created by Dr. Robert Atkins in 1971 and gained notoriety in 2003/2004. Dr. Atkins based his program off of research that was performed by the Journal of American Medical Association in the 70s, which explored the important role fat plays in our diet.
Unlike some of the other diets we have reviewed (think: Gluten Free, Paleo, or the 5:2 diet), the Atkins Program is a structured diet program. Popular dieting trends often expect you to flip a switch and change your eating habits overnight, without a gradual introduction to the program— which we think is a fairly unreasonable approach to healthy eating.
The Atkins Program utilizes four phases to get your weight goals on track. The diet aims to shock your system by almost completely eliminating all carbohydrates. Not surprisingly, your weight loss is effectively jumpstarted. Eliminating an entire food group that typically accounts for 45-65% of your diet will undoubtedly help you shed some excess weight. In fact, the first stage of the Atkins diet calls for only 10% carb consumption! However, it is a common misconception that the Atkins diet is a high protein diet. While there is a strong emphasis on the importance of protein, the Atkins diet is categorized as a high fat, low carb diet.
The four phases of the Atkins Diet:
Phase 1: Induction. This phase is the strictest of the four phases and lasts for two weeks. It requires you to cut your carbohydrate intake to 20 grams of net carbs per day— equal to about five red peppers. The net carbs are calculated by subtracting fiber from the total carbohydrates. For example, there are six grams of carbohydrates in a medium red pepper and two grams of fiber, so the net carb of the average red pepper is four. It is also recommended that 10-15 of these 20 net carbs come from what Atkins calls “foundation vegetables”. These AtkinsDietPhases-2include broccoli, asparagus, peppers, celery, and cucumber. While you can include some additional veggies into your diet, the majority of your vegetable intake should be “foundation vegetables”. This phase stresses the importance of vegetable and protein intake, and even eliminates fruit, nuts, and grains.
Phase 2: Balancing. During this phase you are able to introduce nuts and berries back into your diet. You are told to continue to eat a mixed variety of the foundation vegetables, getting at least 12-15 grams of net carbohydrates from this source. However, you are unable to eat foods with added sugars—that means no cookies, no cakes, no candy, no sweet tooth. Unlike the induction phase, there is no time limit to the balancing phase. The Atkins Program advises you to remain in the balancing phase until you are ten pounds from your designated goal weight.Inflammation in the short-term is there to get rid of infection, help clean an infected area, and repair your tissue. On average, an acute inflammatory response should only last a few days. Your body knows to trigger acute inflammation in order to get rid of things that may be harmful. The trouble begins when inflammation becomes chronic.
Phase 3: Pre-maintenance: Once you are ten pounds from your goal weight, your pre-maintenance begins. In this phase, you are allowed to add ten grams of carbohydrates per week; however, stay alert, if you start gaining weight you must cut back the carbohydrates once again.
Phase 4: Maintenance: After you have reached your goal weight, the maintenance phase begins. This signifies the start of the “rest of your life”. After the Atkins program, you have shocked your system by eliminating the majority of carbohydrates from your diet and are to continue eating a diet with a decrease in carbohydrate intake.
So, why has this diet program prospered for so long?
Well, although it might not be the healthiest approach to weight loss, it does work. In fact, it is often ranked among the best diets in the U.S. The premise of the program: cut carbohydrates and increase fat intake is a quick way to shock your body and increase fat burn. However, it is important to note that food technology and our understanding of food has changed significantly since this diet was first introduced. We now understand a lot more about the digestibility of different foods and the need for portion control. Unfortunately, this was not considered when the diet was first created.
To the positive, the Atkins program aims to stabilize your body’s blood sugar levels, which is one of the key components to weight loss and healthy weight management. Dr. Atkins actually designed his program to combat the “traditional” American diet, which he believes consists of high-carbohydrates and low-fat intake. Unlike the more traditional (and very popular) diet approaches in the U.S., the Atkins program embraces the intake of fat—and this is certainly something we like to see. As you may recall, we recently explained why “Fat is Our Friend”. Carbohydrates and even protein become glucose in your body, but the presence of fat helps to stabilize the blood sugar spikes and control weight gain.
The growing appreciation for fat intake over the typical “low fat diet” has also been investigated in many science research initiatives. Overall, the majority of research is finding that low-carb diets are more effective than low-fat diets. On average, low carb diets are known to increase HDL Cholesterol (the good cholesterol that puts you at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and helps keep your metabolism strong) AND decrease your triglycerides. When your triglyceride levels are too high, they can increase your risk of a stroke, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
It is important to remember: every body is different. You should not adjust your lifestyle to fit a diet program, you should create a diet program that fits your lifestyle.
Let’s take a look at some foods that are digested differently based on their fiber or fat content…
Raspberries, for example, are high in fiber and will cause your blood sugar levels to spike far less than, say, pineapple (or other tropical fruit for that matter). Do you often order just egg whites? Well, you will find you are hungry again much quicker than if you had kept the yolk! While the egg white is pure protein, the fat content of the yolk makes the egg nutrient dense and takes your body longer to digest. Approximately 50% of the protein you consume becomes glucose when it is digested and enters your bloodstream. Nutrient dense food help slow the conversion into glucose. The ability for different foods to affect your body’s blood sugar levels was explored in our piece on glycemic index versus glycemic load.
While it is good diet advice to increase your protein and healthy fats while decreasing your carbohydrate intake, the Atkins diet expects everyone to fit its mold. It is important to remember: every body is different. You should not adjust your lifestyle to fit a diet program, you should create a diet program that fits your lifestyle. Your protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake will vary depending on your muscle mass, if you are athletic, if you are trying to tone, your height, your genetics, your weight loss goals, etc.!
In order to better understand how to tailor the Atkins Diet to your own lifestyle, we spoke to Dr. Keith Berkowitz, author of The Stubborn Fat Fix and advisor to Dr. Atkins. Dr. Berkowitz explained that while a low carb, high fat diet can help obtain weight loss goals, there is no “hard and fast rule” that applies to everyone for weight loss. In fact, although he utilizes certain aspects of the Atkins diet, Dr. Berkowitz does not recommend the induction phase of the program. Instead he recommends roughly 50-75 grams of carbs per day, although this can change depending on the patient and his/her weight loss goals. He believes you should eat foods that are nutrients dense to help control blood sugar levels. Dr. Berkowitz explained that balanced blood sugar levels and digestibility (aka making sure your body is able to break down and properly process your food) is the key to weight loss and healthy weight management.
One issue we have with the Atkins is the lack of healthy serving size recommendations. The Atkins program only regulates the amount of net carbohydrates you can intake. It allows its devoted followers to eat hot dogs, red meat, and cheese (for example) without any portion control. A hot dog has only 2.2 grams of net carbohydrates per serving, you could literally eat hot dogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Atkins!
While we agree that healthy fat is good in moderation, endlessly eating processed meats every day will not support long term heart health. This is something Dr. Berkowitz also addressed. He does not think the science behind “net carbohydrates” is exact and believes it is difficult to monitor your consumption that way. Additionally, not all protein options are easy to digest. Bacon and some dairy products, for example, are hard for your body to break down, however on the Atkins program you are able to eat as much meat and cheese as you like!
Additionally, in the first phase of the Atkins Diet you are told to eliminate fruit and nuts. However, there certainly are healthy ways to include both these food groups into a diet and still lose weight! Mixed berries, for example, are high in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. This high fiber content keeps berries from significantly spiking your body’s blood sugar levels (unlike tropical fruits). Nuts are also a well rounded food that aren’t worth eliminating. They are packed with Omega-3, fiber, and vitamins as well. Like berries, nuts can help to improve heart health and can help lower your cholesterol.
And lets not forget about the power of whole grains and their importance to overall body health. We mentioned said importance in our “Debunking the Gluten Myth“ post. Eliminating carbohydrates like over processed white bread is obviously going to help your weight loss, but there are healthy, whole grain carbohydrates that can nourish your body. Barley, quinoa, and sprouted breads will provide you with fiber, iron, and enriched nutrients (like Vitamin B).
Losing weight is one thing, but staying healthy is another. The short term effects of the Atkins diet will allow you to lose weight, but there is no science that determines whether this approach to eating will keep you healthy in the long run. According to the National Center of Biotechnology, “skeptics are concerned in part because of the absence of long term studies needed to answer questions raised about the safety of the Atkins diet including whether it will promote osteoporosis, colon cancer, heart disease, kidney damage, and gout, as critics charge.” Overall, the Atkins program may be an acceptable way to lose weight quickly, however it has not proven its ability to maintain overall body health in the long term.
The Bottom Line:
The best takeaway from this diet is: integrate healthy fats into your diet and maintain stable blood sugar levels. Yes, cutting carbohydrates will help you lose weight, but in order to successfully lose and maintain weight loss goals, we recommend a healthy, well-balanced diet that fits your body and your goals.
“Atkins Diet: What’s behind the Claims?” Atkins Diet: What’s behind the Claims? Mayo Clinic, 30 May 2014. Web. 27 June 2016.
Berkowitz, Keith, and Valerie Goldstein-Berkowitz. The Stubborn Fat Fix: Eat Right to Lose Weight and Cure Metabolic Burnout without Hunger or Exercise. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2009. Print.
Fields, Lisa. “Atkins Diet Plan Review: Foods, Benefits, and Risks.” WebMD. WebMD, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
Franz, Marion J., MS, RD, LD, CDE. “Protein Controversies in Diabetes.” Protein Controversies in Diabetes. American Diabetes Association, 2000. Web. 29 June 2016.
Gunnars, Kris. “23 Studies on Low-Carb and Low-Fat Diets – Time to Retire The Fad.” Authority Nutrition. N.p., 2013. Web. 27 June 2016.
Lenzer, Jeanne. “Robert Coleman Atkins.” BMJ : British Medical Journal. BMJ Publishing Group Ltd., 17 May 2003. Web. 27 June 2016.
Vernon, MC, and Et. Al. “Clinical Experience of a Carbohydrate-restricted Diet for the Metabolic Syndrome.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2004. Web. 27 June 2016.