The Atkins Diet is one of the most popular and also one of the most controversial ways to lose weight. Back when fats were demonised, the Atkins diet was considered unhealthy, but with newer understandings that it is sugar – a carbohydrate – that is most harmful, low carbohydrate diets have resurged in popularity.
The reason the Atkins diet works so well is because cutting back on carbohydrates reduces the release of insulin in the body, and insulin is your main fat-storing hormone. By cutting back on carbs, you reduce insulin production, stop the signal that tells fat cells to store fat, and switch on the signal to burn fat as a fuel instead. A lower carb diet also reduces blood glucose swings so you experience less hunger and food cravings.
The Atkins diet also has a psychological advantage as you are allowed to eat the foods that are normally not allowed on a traditional low-fat, high fibre diet, such as cream, steak, cheese – even avocadoes and full-fat mayonnaise. You don’t feel like you’re going without!
What is the Atkins Diet?
The Atkins diet is a four phase diet in which you start off eating very low levels of carbohydrates, and slowly increase. If you want to lose more than 30 pounds, you start with Phase 1, if you only want to lose between 15 and 30 pounds you can enter at phase two, and for a desired weight loss of less than 15 pounds, you can start at phase 3.
Atkins Phase 1
During the first two week induction period you avoid high carb foods such as flour, bread, pasta, rice, grains, starchy vegetables (eg potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnip) or foods that combine protein and carbohydrates such as chickpeas, kidney beans, nuts or seeds. Fruit intake is restricted to olives, avocado and tomatoes, and no fruit juice except lemon and lime juice.
Dairy products (butter, cheese, heavy cream, full-fat yogurt) are allowed, but milk is restricted as it contains up to 40% sugar in the form of lactose. You should also avoid alcohol.
What you can eat is seafood (especially oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, herring), meat (eg beef, pork, lamb, chicken, bacon, venison) and eggs (especially omega-3 enriched eggs), as well as lots of salad stuff – lettuce, cucumber, celery, tomatoes, and non-root vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, globe artichoke, French beans, kale, tatsoi, pak choy, cabbage and spinach to name just a few. These veggies are important to maintain a healthy intake of fibre – don’t just eat bacon, eggs and steak, which is where many people go wrong.
Phase 1 Atkins is designed to provide around 20g of carbohydrate per day which is equivalent to around 250g (9oz) salad or 170g (6oz) salad plus 80g (3oz) non-root vegetables. Phase 1 is followed for 2 weeks, or sometimes longer if you have a lot of weight to lose.
For cooking and salad dressings, select healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, walnut and other nut oils. Base each meal around a fatty protein source, with vegetables or nuts and you will find you lose weight easily. It is important to drink at least eight glasses of water each day to flush out the by-products of burning additional fat. Other drinks that are allowed are herbal teas.
Atkins Phase 2
The so-called balancing phase allows you to increase your carb intake by introducing more fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, pears, grapes and melon. You can also start eating beans (eg lentils, chickpeas, edamame), and sweet potatoes. You can even introduce healthy grains such as oats and brown rice, but don’t add them in too quickly or your weight loss will slow. Dark chocolate and the occasional glass of dry wine fits in nicely too, but avoid high-carb drinks such as beer.
Atkins Phase 3
Atkins Phase 3 is the fine-tuning phase for when you only have a few more pounds to lose. Here, you slowly add in more carbs until your weight loss slows or even stops. Then, you cut back to the previous intake that allows your weight loss to proceed as you cruise towards your weight loss goal.
Atkins Phase 4
The finla phase of the Atkins Diet, Phase 4, is the maintenance phase for when you have reached your goal weight. During this phase, you increase your intake of healthy carbs to a level that you can tolerate without starting to regain your lost weight. If you start to gain weight, then cut back on carbs again to find your equilibrium intake. Most people need to eat fewer carbs than they did before they went on the Atkins Diet.
How effective is the Atkins diet?
If you follow the Atkins diet properly, according to the Book, you will lose weight. It’s as simple as that. The Atkins diet has been subjected to lots of research comparing it to other weight loss regimens, and this shows that weight loss with a low carb diet such as Atkins is particularly rapid at the beginning, which is great for maintaining motivation and helping you to keep going.
The effects of low-carbohydrate Atkins diet were compared with a traditional low-fat diet in 11 studies, involving 1,369 people, which lasted for at least 6 months. Those following the Atkins diet lost, on average, 2·17 kg more weight than those following the low fat diet. Their triglyceride and ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol levels improved, but their LDL-cholesterol levels did increase slightly (by 0.16mmol/l).
Another analysis of 48 clinical trials, involving 7,286 people, compared the Atkins diet with the low-carb Zone Diet and low fat diet. After 6 months, the largest weight loss was seen with low-carbohydrate diets (8.73 kg versus 7.99 kg). After 12 months, weight loss was similar however (7.25 kg versus 7.27 kg). Overall, the Atkins diet resulted in a 1.71 kg greater weight loss than the Zone diet after 6 months.
An Atkins diet menu
One of our clients followed the Atkin’s diet for six weeks, and recorded what she ate. Her food diary for a typical week was as follows.
2 litres Badoit water every day
|1||Smoked salmon wrapped round herb/garlic cream cheese balls, sprinkled with black pepper, on a bed of mixed lettuce leaves.
Coffee with cream
|Large lobster salad with half an avocado, full-fat mayonnaise.
|T-bone steak; horseradish butter, grilled tomato, large rocket salad with parmesan flakes, drilled with an olive oil, balsamic and garlic dressing.|
|2||2 egg omelette with cheese and freshly chopped herbs. Coffee with cream||Ham and cheese salad with half an avocado; full-fat mayonnaise. Herbal tea.||Garlic and lemon butter roasted chicken, broccoli, spinach, home-made no-carb gravy. Cheese for desert.|
|3||Ham and smoked cheese platter with olives. Full fat plain yogurt sweetened with Stevia. Coffee with cream||Avocado and bacon salad, Caesar salad dressing. Herbal tea.||Lamb steak with rosemary butter, spinach, green beans.|
|4||Fried smoked bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, scrambled eggs. Coffee with cream||Prawn and avocado salad, mayonnaise. Herbal tea.||Tenderloin of pork, home-made chestnut mushroom & cream sauce, asparagus spears.|
|5||Smoked salmon with capers, chopped boiled egg and chopped red onion. Coffee with cream||Chicken Caesar salad. Herbal tea.||Pan-fried salmon steak, paprika butter, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower.|
|6||Smoked mackerel encrusted with black peppercorns, sliced tomato and rocket. Coffee with cream||Tuna nicoise salad with green beans. Herbal tea.||Fillet steak with garlic butter, large mixed salad, grilled baby tomatoes, asparagus spears. Cheese for desert.|
|7||Grilled bacon, tomato and mushrooms. Coffee with cream.||Buffalo mozzarella salad, with tomatoes. Caesar salad dressing. Herbal tea.||Salmon trout, lemon & tarragon butter, green beans, spring greens.|
Atkins diet weight loss results
Our client lost 6lb over the first two weeks; 5lb over the next two weeks; 7 lb over the final two weeks to achieve a total weight loss of 18lb over six weeks.
Tips for doing the Atkins diet successfully
Buy or borrow the New Atkins Diet book, read it and follow it accurately – don’t rely on what other people tell you to do.
Have your blood cholesterol levels checked before starting, and again after 4 weeks to ensure the regime is suiting you.
Take gentle exercise but pace yourself – especially during Phase 1.
Drink plenty of water – at least 2 to 3 litres per day.
Take a multivitamin and mineral supplement every day.
Take an essential fatty acid supplement each day (eg omega-3 fish oil or krill oil)
Take a probiotic supplement each day (helps to keep bowels healthy and avoid constipation).
Only weigh yourself once a week or even once a fortnight.
Measure your bust, waist, hips and thighs in centimetres weekly – often you lose centimetres before you lose pounds due to fluid retention.
If you have a health condition or are taking any prescribed medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you need any adjustments to your treatment before starting the diet. This is especially important if you have type 2 diabetes.
Possible side effects of the Atkins diet
Many people are put off following the Atkins diet because of stories relating to side effects in peopel who do not follow the plan correctly. If you eat nothing but eggs, bacon and steaks, you will get constipation! But that isn’t the Atkins diet – the Atkins diet plan involves eating lots of vegetables and salad stuff and slowly introduces fruit, too.
Most people do not experience bad breath when following the Atkins diet correctly. Drinking 2 to 3 litres of water per day will help to avoid this. If you do experience bad breath, use a mouth freshener spray, chew gum sweetened with xylitol (not sugar!) or drink mint tea.
Sugar withdrawal symptoms
Some people get withdrawal symptoms when cutting back on sugar, wheat and other carbohydrate-rich foods. This can lead to fatigue, faintness or headache. These symptoms usually disappear within 3 days. Drink plenty of fluids (2 to 3 litres per day) as dehydration can cause headache.
As Atkins is a low-residue diet it can lead to constipation as bacteria in the large bowel need fibre to help bulk up motions. Eat your full allowance of vegetables and salad stuff. Take a fibre-supplement if necessary, and drink plenty of water. A probiotic supplement containing friendly digestive bacteria will also help. Avoid probiotic drinks which contain sugar, however – opt for capsules instead.
Leg cramps can occur due to loss of minerals as you lose fluid when the weight starts coming off. If this happens, take supplements containing potassium, magnesium and calcium in addition to the recommended multivitamin.
Are there any long-term risks?
It is often said that a high fat diet will clog the arteries and lead to heart disease.
However, a large analysis of 21 studies, involving 347,747 people found no association between intakes of saturated fat and any increase in the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Another analysis involving 76 studies, and over 642,000 people, confirmed there is no current evidence to clearly support encouragements to lower consumption of total saturated fats.
What about ketones?
Many people worry that burning fat increases the level of ketones, because they get these mixed up with ketoacidosis – an entirely different condition that occurs in people with poorly controlled type 1 diabetes. This condition is due to an inability to make insulin – if you do not have diabetes, this will not happen. When you have a healthy metabolism, ketone levels are tightly regulated in the body and are no higher after 3 months of following the Atkins diet than after three days.
If you have type 2 diabetes, you can still follow the Atkins diet, but only do so under medical supervision. A review of 20 clinical trials involving 3,075 people with type 2 diabetes showed that low-carbohydrate diets, low-GI diets, the Mediterranean diet and high-protein diets all led to a greater improvement in glucose control and weight loss, and concluded that they were all effective in improving heart disease risk factors in people with type 2 diabetes.
If you are worried about the health effects of Atkins diet, seek advice from a healthcare professional who is knowledgable about low-carb diets – not one who dismisses them out of hand without havig researched their clinical effects.
Atkins Diet Food list
Here’s a useful list of example foods that you can eat on the Atkins Diet plan (Phase 2 onwards). What’s not to like?
Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries
Fruit: Apples, pears, oranges, tomatoes, avocado, olives.
Meat: Beef, buffalo, venison, lamb, pork, bacon, chicken, turkey, duck, goose, ostrich
Oily fish: Salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, sardines, pilchards and any white fish (no batter or breadcrumbs)
Shellfish: Shrimp, prawns, lobster, oysters, mussels, clams, crab
Eggs: Hens’ eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs
Dairy: Unsweetened Greek yogurt, heavy/double cream, butter, cheeses
Vegetables: Asparagus, aubergine/eggplant, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, collard greens, courgette/zucchini, globe artichoke, kale, lettuce, onions, pak choy, spinach
Nuts: Almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts etc
Seeds: Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds etc.
Oils: coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed oil, walnut oil, hazelnut oil, avocado oil, pumpkin seed oil
Condiments: Sea salt, freshly ground pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme etc.
Dark chocolate – ideally at least 75% cocoa solids.