Atkins Diet 101 – Benefits, Risks, Foods to Eat and Avoid

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Atkins diet is one of the most popular low-carb weight-loss diets. Developed in the 1960s by a cardiologist named Dr. Robert C Atkins, this diet restricts carbohydrate consumption and encourages protein and fats in the menu. Considered the original low-carb diet, the Atkins diet is famous all over the world. Let us learn more about this weight-loss diet and its benefits.

What is the Atkins diet?

The Atkins diet, also known as the Atkins nutritional approach, is a low-carbohydrate diet that encourages the consumption of proteins and natural fats and restricts carbohydrates as the key source of calories in your diet. Dr. Robert C Atkins, an American cardiologist, developed this diet in the 1960s and promoted it in the 1970s.

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Dr. Atkins wrote his bestselling book Dr. Atkin’s Diet Revolution, in 1972. Though it was initially demonized and considered unhealthy by mainstream authorities, subsequent studies showed that it did have several health benefits. There was a big revival in its popularity in 2003- 2004. The modern version of this diet, known as the ketogenic diet, is quite popular these days.

How does it work?

Both fat and carbohydrates provide fuel to our body. Our body turns them into sugar to feed the muscles, nerves, and cells. When you eat a limited amount of carbohydrates, your body looks for alternative sources of fuels like fat and starts burning it for energy. Reducing your carbohydrate consumption forces your body to burn body fat and fat from food sources.  Fat supplies a long-term and steady energy source, which may help reduce food cravings and thus helps in weight loss.

Phases of Atkins diet

Phase 1 – The Introduction phase

The Atkins diet starts with cutting out almost all the carbohydrates from your diet. You are encouraged to eat only 20 grams of carbs a day in the form of vegetables. You get just 10 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, as against 45 to 65 percent as recommended by nutritional guidelines.

The vegetables that you should eat include asparagus, broccoli, celery, cucumber, green beans, and peppers. You should eat protein in the form of fish, shellfish, meat, eggs, and cheese. Avoid most fruits, bread, pasta, grains, nuts, alcohol, and sugary baked goods. Drink eight glasses of water every day. This phase lasts for two weeks.

Phase 2 – The balancing phase

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During this phase, you continue to eat 12 to 15 grams of net carbs in the form of vegetables. You slowly introduce more nutrient-rich carbohydrates like vegetables, berries, nuts, and seeds back into your diet. At this stage, you are allowed between 25 to 45 grams of carbs a day.  The idea behind slowly reintroducing carb into the diet is to avoid weight gain. You continue to avoid eating foods rich in sugar in this phase.

You stay in this phase till you are 10 pounds away from your goal weight.

Phase 3 – The pre-maintenance phase

During this phase, you will continue to add more foods to your diet, including whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits.  You can add 10 grams of carbohydrates to your diet every week. During this phase, you test your tolerance for previously forbidden foods.

This phase aims to lose the last ten pounds of your weight. You will stay in this phase till you maintain your goal weight for at least one month.

Phase 4 – The lifelong phase

You move on to this phase after you have been successful in maintaining your goal weight for at least one month. You can now manage this weight for the rest of your life as now you know how many carbohydrates you can include in your diet without gaining weight.

The food you can eat

You can eat many foods in unlimited amounts during the Atkins diet. These foods are readily available in grocery stores, and you are recommended to prepare them from scratch. These foods include –

  • Meat – Beef, pork, veal, mutton, venison, buffalo, ham, and bacon. Unprocessed and nitrate-free meats are preferred.
  • Poultry – Unprocessed chicken, quail, duck, pheasant, turkey, goose, Cornish game hen, and ostrich.
  • Seafood – Unprocessed salmon, tuna, catfish, sardines, herring, oysters, clams, crabs, shrimp, lobster, calamari, scallops, and mussels
  • Eggs – Omega-3 rich eggs
  • Dairy – Full-fat butter, cheese, cream, and yogurt
  • Healthy fats – Avocados, avocado oil, olive oil, and coconut oil
  • Low-carb vegetables – Kale, spinach, asparagus, broccoli
  • Nuts and seeds – Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts
  • Beverages – Water, coffee, and green tea

Foods to avoid

  • Grains – Wheat, rice, rye, barley, spelt
  • Sugar – Cakes, candy, ice-cream, soft drinks, and juices. Diet and low-fat foods can also be high on sugar
  • High-carb vegetables – Carrots and turnips
  • Vegetable oils – Corn oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil
  • Trans fats – Most processed foods as they contain trans fats
  • Vegetables high in starch – Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • High carb fruits – Bananas, grapes, apples, oranges, pears
  • Legumes – Beans, chickpeas, and lentils

Sample menu for phase one of the Atkins diet

  • Breakfast – Scrambled eggs, with vegetables sautéed in coconut oil and green tea
  • Lunch – Chicken, with a green salad and a handful of nuts
  • Dinner – Salmon with butter and vegetables
  • Snack – Celery and cheddar cheese

Does it work?

People who go on the Atkins diet do lose weight, especially in the first few days. However, the initial weight loss may be just water weight.

The Atkins diet claims to help you lose weight in the second and the third phases of the diet until you reach your goal weight. However, most diets can help in weight loss when you restrict your calorie intake. Since carbohydrates provide more than half of the calories you consume, when you limit your carbs, your overall intake of calories also reduces.

The extra fat and the protein that you eat during this diet also helps to stay full. So your diet choices also help you to reduce your calorie intake.

So, we can say that a person who follows the Atkins diet can lose weight and keep it off. However, studies show that most people do not follow this program after two or three years.

Other benefits

The Atkins diet also claims to prevent and improve metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. According to a 2007 study from Stanford Medical School, as compared to other diets, the people assigned to the Atkins diet showed more significant improvements in weight loss, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels (1). It helps to lose belly fat, which can be dangerous for health (2).

Pros

  • It is easy to follow.
  • You don’t have to count calories or buy expensive food.
  • Can help in the treatment of diabetes, and metabolic syndrome

Cons

  • High fat intake in your diet can lead to heart disease.
  • It may lead to side effects like bad breath, tiredness, insomnia.
  • Insufficient fiber intake can lead to constipation.
  • People with severe kidney disease, pregnant, and breastfeeding women should not follow this diet.

Can vegetarians or vegans follow the Atkins diet?

Yes, vegans and vegetarians can follow the Atkins diet. You may have to skip the first phase of this diet as it limits carbs too much. Vegetarians can get their proteins from the following sources –

  • Legumes
  • Soy
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Cheese
  • quinoa

Vegans can get their proteins from the following sources –

  • soy
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • quinoa

Is exercise essential for the Atkins diet?

Exercise is not essential for following the Atkins diet. However, adding it to your program does offer you several additional benefits. These include –

  • Improves weight loss
  • Helps preserve and build lean body mass
  • Helps reduce depression and improve mood
  • Boosts energy
  • Prevents diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease
  • Improves sleep

Can you eat out in a restaurant while on the Atkins diet?

Yes, it is possible to eat out while following the Atkins diet. Follow these tips while ordering the meal –

  • Start your meal with a salad. Salads contain vegetables that are low in carbs and are packed with fiber.
  • You can substitute potatoes or fries in your meal with healthier alternatives like broccoli or Brussels sprouts.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water instead of soft drinks or fruit-laden juices.

Final thoughts

The Atkins diet is a low-carbohydrate diet that encourages the consumption of proteins and natural fats and restricts carbohydrates as the key source of calories in your diet. This diet follows a four-phase plan that helps in rapid weight loss.

Several studies have shown that this diet helps in weight loss, especially during the first phase. It also helps to reduce triglycerides, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Vegans and vegetarians can also follow the Atkins diet as there are plenty of alternative protein sources that they can eat.

While people on the Atkins diet do tend to lose weight in the initial phase, this is generally water weight. Many people who discontinue the plan after a few months or years tend to gain their weight back. The high fat intake can also lead to heart disease. Some of the other side effects include dizziness, nausea, bad breath, insomnia, and constipation.

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