The Atkins diet is a low-carb diet, usually recommended for weight loss.
Proponents of this diet claim that you can lose weight while eating as much protein and fat as you want, as long as you avoid foods high in carbs.
In the past 12 or so years, over 20 studies have shown that low-carb diets without the need for calorie counting are effective for weight loss and can lead to various health improvements.
The Atkins diet was originally promoted by the physician Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who wrote a best-selling book about it in 1972.
Since then, the Atkins diet has been popular all over the world with many more books having been written.
The diet was originally considered unhealthy and demonized by the mainstream health authorities, mostly due to its high saturated fat content. However, new studies suggest that saturated fat is harmless (, ).
Since then, the diet has been studied thoroughly and shown to lead to more weight loss and greater improvements in blood sugar, “good” HDL cholesterol, triglycerides and other health markers than low-fat diets (3, 4).
Despite being high in fat, it does not raise “bad” LDL cholesterol on average, though this does happen in a subset of individuals ().
The main reason why low-carb diets are so effective for weight loss is that a reduction in carbs and increased protein intake lead to reduced appetite, making you eat fewer calories without having to think about it (, ).
You can read more about the health benefits of low-carb diets in this article.
The Atkins diet is split into 4 different phases:
- Phase 1 (induction): Under 20 grams of carbs per day for 2 weeks. Eat high-fat, high-protein, with low-carb vegetables like leafy greens. This kick-starts the weight loss.
- Phase 2 (balancing): Slowly add more nuts, low-carb vegetables and small amounts of fruit back to your diet.
- Phase 3 (fine-tuning): When you’re very close to your goal weight, add more carbs to your diet until weight loss slows down.
- Phase 4 (maintenance): Here you can eat as many healthy carbs as your body can tolerate without regaining weight.
However, these phases are a bit complicated and may not be necessary. You should be able to lose weight and keep it off as long as you stick to the meal plan below.
Some people choose to skip the induction phase altogether and include plenty of vegetables and fruit from the start. This approach can be very effective as well.
Others prefer to just stay in the induction phase indefinitely. This is also known as a very low-carb ketogenic diet (keto).
You should avoid these foods on the Atkins diet:
- Sugar: Soft drinks, fruit juices, cakes, candy, ice cream, etc.
- Grains: Wheat, spelt, rye, barley, rice.
- Vegetable oils: Soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil and a few others.
- Trans fats: Usually found in processed foods with the word "hydrogenated" on the ingredients list.
- "Diet" and "low-fat" foods: These are usually very high in sugar.
- High-carb vegetables: Carrots, turnips, etc (induction only).
- High-carb fruits: Bananas, apples, oranges, pears, grapes (induction only).
- Starches: Potatoes, sweet potatoes (induction only).
- Legumes: Lentils, beans, chickpeas, etc. (induction only).
You should base your diet around these healthy foods.
- Meats: Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, bacon and others.
- Fatty fish and seafood: Salmon, trout, sardines, etc.
- Eggs: The healthiest eggs are omega-3 enriched or pastured.
- Low-carb vegetables: Kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus and others.
- Full-fat dairy: Butter, cheese, cream, full-fat yogurt.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Healthy fats: Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and avocado oil.
As long as you base your meals around a fatty protein source with vegetables or nuts and some healthy fats, you will lose weight. It's that simple.
Here are some drinks that are acceptable on the Atkins diet.
- Water: As always, water should be your go-to beverage.
- Coffee: Many studies show that coffee is high in antioxidants and quite healthy.
- Green tea: A very healthy beverage.
Alcohol is also fine in small amounts. Stick to dry wines with no added sugars and avoid high-carb drinks like beer.
There are many delicious foods you can eat on the Atkins diet.
This includes foods like bacon, heavy cream, cheese and dark chocolate.
Many of these are generally considered fattening because of the high fat and calorie content.
However, when you're on a low-carb diet, your body increases its use of fat as an energy source and suppresses your appetite, reducing the risk of overeating and weight gain.
If you’d like to know more, check out this article on 6 Indulgent Foods That Are Low-Carb Friendly.
Despite what you may have heard, the Atkins diet is quite flexible.
It’s only during the two-week induction phase that you need to minimize your intake of carb sources.
After induction is over, you can slowly add back healthier carbs such as higher-carb vegetables, fruits, berries, potatoes, legumes and healthier grains like oats and rice.
However, chances are that you will need to stay moderately low-carb for life, even if you reach your weight loss goals.
If you start eating the same old foods again in the same amounts as before, you will gain back the weight. This is true of any weight loss diet.
It is possible to do the Atkins diet as a vegetarian (and even vegan), but difficult.
You can use soy-based foods for protein and eat plenty of nuts and seeds. Olive oil and coconut oil are excellent plant-based fat sources.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can also eat eggs, cheese, butter, heavy cream and other high-fat dairy foods.
This is a sample menu for one week on the Atkins diet.
It’s suitable for the induction phase, but you should add more higher-carb vegetables and some fruits as you move on to the other phases.
- Breakfast: Eggs and vegetables, fried in coconut oil.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil, and a handful of nuts.
- Dinner: Steak and veggies.
- Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
- Lunch: Leftover chicken and veggies from the night before.
- Dinner: Bunless cheeseburger, with vegetables and butter.
- Breakfast: Omelet with veggies, fried in butter.
- Lunch: Shrimp salad with some olive oil.
- Dinner: Ground-beef stir fry, with veggies.
- Breakfast: Eggs and veggies, fried in coconut oil.
- Lunch: Leftover stir fry from dinner the night before.
- Dinner: Salmon with butter and vegetables.
- Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil and a handful of nuts.
- Dinner: Meatballs with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Omelet with various vegetables, fried in butter.
- Lunch: Leftover meatballs from the night before.
- Dinner: Pork chops with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
- Lunch: Leftover pork chops from the night before.
- Dinner: Grilled chicken wings, with some salsa and veggies.
Make sure to include a variety of different vegetables in your diet.
For a few examples of healthy and satisfying low-carb meals, check out this article on 7 Healthy Low-Carb Meals in Under 10 Minutes.
Healthy Low-Carb Snacks
Most people feel that their appetite goes down on the Atkins diet.
They tend to feel more than satisfied with 3 meals per day (sometimes only 2).
However, if you feel hungry between meals, here are a few quick healthy snacks:
- A hard-boiled egg or two.
- A piece of cheese.
- A piece of meat.
- A handful of nuts.
- Some Greek yogurt.
- Berries and whipped cream.
- Baby carrots (careful during induction).
- Fruits (after induction).
It’s actually very easy to follow the Atkins diet at most restaurants.
- Get extra vegetables instead of bread, potatoes or rice.
- Order a meal based on fatty meat or fatty fish.
- Get some extra sauce, butter or olive oil with your meal.
It’s a good rule to shop at the perimeter of the store. This is usually where the whole foods are found.
Eating organic is not necessary, but always go for the least processed option that fits your budget.
- Meats: Beef, chicken, lamb, pork, bacon.
- Fatty fish: Salmon, trout, etc.
- Shrimp and shellfish.
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, heavy cream, butter, cheese.
- Vegetables: Spinach, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, etc.
- Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, etc.
- Nuts: Almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.
- Seeds: Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, pears, oranges.
- Coconut oil.
- Extra virgin olive oil.
- Dark chocolate.
- Condiments: Sea salt, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, parsley, etc.
It’s highly recommended to clear your pantry of all unhealthy foods and ingredients. This includes ice cream, sodas, breakfast cereals, breads, juices and baking ingredients like sugar and wheat flour.
If you're serious about the Atkins diet, consider buying or borrowing one of the Atkins books and simply get started as soon as possible.
That being said, the detailed guide in this article should contain everything you need to succeed. To create a printable version, click here.
For recipe ideas, check out this article on 101 Healthy Low-Carb Recipes That Taste Incredible
At the end of the day, the Atkins diet is a healthy and effective way to lose weight. You won't be disappointed.