The Atkins Diet

Written by JC Jones and Ryan Wallace | Published on September 8, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on September 8, 2014

What Is the Atkins Diet?

The Atkins Diet promotes itself as a long-term eating plan for weight loss and maintenance that emphasizes eating lean protein and low-starch vegetables. In this diet plan, simple carbohydrates such as flour and sugar are highly restricted or eliminated altogether. Dramatically changing eating habits is the cornerstone of the Atkins Diet.

The Atkins Diet is a high-protein, high-fat, and low-carbohydrate diet.

According to the Mayo Clinic, this diet plan has been around since 1972, when cardiologist Robert C. Atkins created it. Dr. Atkins said that dietary fat isn’t what makes people overweight, suggesting instead that carbohydrates are to blame. By restricting carbs, dieters are told they can drop considerable amounts of weight without giving up foods they enjoy.

How It Works

According to Dr. Atkins and the Atkins Diet, carbohydrates cause a spike in blood sugar levels. This causes the body to store fat. By significantly reducing carbohydrate consumption, the Atkins Diet reportedly burns stored fat and regulates blood sugar levels.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are four phases of the Atkins Diet:

  • Phase 1: Carbohydrates are limited to 20 grams per day. This is where the most dramatic weight loss occurs.
  • Phase 2: Carbohydrate intake is slightly increased. Here dieters can add back certain vegetables, berries, nuts, and seeds, slightly increasing carb intake without stopping weight loss. This is the longest stage of the diet, and you stay here until you are about 10 pounds from your weight loss goal.
  • Phase 3: Called “pre-maintenance,” this stage allows you to add 10 grams of carbohydrates to your diet each week, including starchy vegetables and some whole grains. If weight loss stops, you cut carbs again, just enough to maintain a steady weight loss until you reach your goal.
  • Phase 4: This is a lifetime maintenance stage with a target carb intake of 45 to 100 grams per day.

The Promise

The Atkins Diet promises to help you lose excess weight and keep it off by consuming fewer carbohydrates, which purportedly burns greater amounts of fat. The Atkins Nutrition Approach involves a reduced glycemic load (carb content), with the goal of keeping blood sugar levels in a healthy range. The diet plan promises to be a lifetime approach to weight loss, not a temporary solution.

Dr. Atkins and supporters say that this diet makes weight loss simple and easy. In the first few phases, the program promises fast and dramatic fat loss without deprivation.

Pros & Cons

Low-carbohydrate diets have proven to be effective for weight loss for a limited period. These diet plans call for a reduction in snack foods and alcohol, which are often high in simple carbs and sources of "empty" calories that lead to weight gain. In the past, the Atkins Diet was popular for allowing its followers to consume large amounts of fat (burgers, cheese, bacon, eggs, etc.) and still lose weight, as long as the carb count was low. Consuming a large amount of animal fat, and therefore cholesterol, is not good for your health. It increases your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Because of this, the Atkins Diet has since repositioned itself and now promotes lean protein and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables.

While reducing their encouragement of high fat foods is good, a low-carbohydrate diet may be difficult for people to stick to on a long-term basis. With so many foods deemed “off limits,” the diet plan can quickly get boring.

In some cases, the Atkins Diet can also create unwanted side effects. These include:

  • bad breath (due to a condition called ketosis)
  • insomnia
  • dizziness
  • constipation (due to lack of fiber)
  • lethargy

For some, these are tolerable during the initial weight loss, but become more troublesome as the diet continues and the weight loss slows.

Summary

Over the years, the Atkins Diet has proven itself as an effective method of weight loss, especially in the short term. For the average American, it's hard to pass up the opportunity to eat steak and eggs with a side of cheddar and still shed unwanted pounds. What concerns some medical professionals are the potentially high-fat content and the lack of balance in the diet. However, the Atkins Diet's updated emphasis on lean protein and its shift toward a variety of fruits, vegetables, and some whole grains is a positive move.

Many Americans eat too many carbohydrates in the form of convenience foods, fast foods, and sugars, and these carb sources should be reduced. However, all phases of Atkins diet are still too low in carbohydrates to be healthy, according to accepted standards. The USDA recommends that adults get 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates are necessary in the diet for energy, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. 

Before starting any kind of diet plan, talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you. If your mind is set on seeing what all the Atkins hype is about, be sensible about it. Opt for chicken or fish as opposed to the all-you-can-eat bunless cheeseburger buffet. Make sure you reach your allowance of daily carbohydrates by eating fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods. Also, beware of the bounce back. Many people experience accelerated weight gain when they eventually abandon any strict diet. 

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