The Atkins Diet is one of the diet programs that is being hailed by many as one of the most effective ways to lose weight. This particular diet program focuses only on one aspect of the diet process: carbohydrates. Essentially, if you adhere to the Atkins Diet, there’s only one cardinal rule you have to adhere to: always go for low carbohydrates.
A Look at the History of the Atkins Diet
The diet is designed by Dr. Robert C. Atkins, a cardiologist, who decided to put into a book in 1972 his experiences with his patients who were put on a limited sugar and carbohydrate intake and resulted in many of them losing weight and were successfully able to keep it that way. One truly remarkable finding in most of his patients is that many of them were unsuccessful in losing weight using a low calorie diet. The experiences, while not really subjected to rigorous clinical trials, showed that low carbohydrate, not low calorie, diet is the key to successful weight loss.
Now, it should be understood that, the Atkins Diet did met a lot of skepticism especially from those in the medical community. Part of the issues being raised is the high fat content of the food that is being espoused by the diet plan. You see, the Atkins Diet encourages you to eat what you want but you will have to limit your carbohydrate intake. You are encouraged to increase your intake of proteins and fats and this is where most of the medical community have issues with. Foods that have high saturated fat content have been pointed as the main culprit in the development of a variety of lipid dysfunction-related diseases like cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
However, new literature suggest that saturated fat is not really harmful. All factors considered, fats are necessary for cellular integrity particularly those in the brain.
Since then, the Atkins Diet has drawn considerable followers even from the scientific community. Studies now show that the diet can lead to more substantial weight loss compared to low calorie and low fat diets. These same studies also point to the diet’s benefits on the enhancement of blood sugar control, the elevation of high density lipoprotein levels, and the improvement of triglyceride functioning as well as improvements in other health markers. While the Atkins Diet has been shown to increase the levels of low density lipoproteins or our body’s bad cholesterol, this only occurred in a certain subset of individuals which would suggest that those who are highly susceptible to such physiologic changes should steer clear of high saturated fat diets.
How Does the Atkins Diet Work?
Like any other organism that is dependent on energy, the human body primarily obtains its energy from the food that we eat. The macronutrients carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all sources of energy as these provide 4 calories, 4 calories, and 9 calories for each gram of these macronutrient molecules, respectively. However, the human body processes these macromolecules in a variety of ways such that losing weight is more about finding which of these pathways will work best for you.
Typically, the primary energy source molecule of the body are carbohydrates, especially in the short term. However, a much more efficient energy source is fat owing to the fact that each gram of it is equivalent to 9 calories whereas carbohydrates can only provide 4 calories.
Protein can also provide the energy needed by the body. But, protein is an unusually large molecule that usually takes a variety of chemical processes involving enzymatic reactions to break it down into its component parts. Let’s just put it this way, when protein is used by the body to produce energy, it must first use energy to process the protein molecule before it can obtain the energy. And the amount of energy spent in processing proteins into energy molecules is substantially greater than the amount of energy that is produced. That is why a lot of health experts recommend eating a high protein diet to help you lose weight. This is one aspect of the Atkins Diet: eat high protein foods.
- Take Note: Protein can be an excellent energy source. But because of the substantially greater amount of energy needed to convert these into energy molecules, you technically get an energy deficit.
Carbohydrates and fats are a lot easier to convert into energy through the action of a variety of enzymes. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose or other forms of sugars like fructose from fruits and lactose from milk. Fats are converted into fatty acids. Since glucose is primarily the energy source for the body, it is the first to be consumed. If there is excess, it is converted into glycogen and fat. Glycogen is the storable form of glucose and are mobilized to the liver and the skeletal muscles for storage. When the time comes that the body needs energy, then this glycogen stores are released and then converted back into glucose.
- Take Note: Excess carbs get converted into glycogen. If there’s a need for energy, glycogen must first be converted back into glucose before it can be used as energy.
We did say that excess glucose is also converted into fat. This is facilitated by a host of enzymes that facilitate the transformation of glucose into fat where they are then stored in the region around the abdominal cavity and in cushiony pads of tissues just under the skin. Again, when the body requires energy, it mobilizes these stored fat. The good thing is that it does not need to convert these fatty acids into glucose to be used as energy. The body uses the fat itself as an energy molecule. This cuts down the processes involved in supplying the body with energy. This is why, during starvation mode, the body utilizes fat simply because it’s much more efficient this way.
- Take Note: Excess carbs get converted into fats, too. If there’s a sudden need for energy, these fats are readily used by the body. They don’t need to be converted into another energy molecule because fat is already an energy molecule.
So, how does the Atkins Diet work?
Based on our discussion, it is quite easy to understand how and why the Atkins Diet work. Here’s how.
A typical low calorie diet is still high on calories resulting in a cycle of carbohydrate highs and lows. The highs occur because of the substantially high carbohydrate content in the food leading to excesses that are converted into fat and glycogen. The lows occur when the carbohydrate levels fall leading to feelings of fatigue and lack of energy making you feel ravenously hungry. This leads to what experts now call hunger pangs which would make you want to eat more carbs. This makes it quite difficult to lose weight simply because you’re actually fueling your hunger mechanism.
The Atkins Diet is more about maintaining a constant level of blood sugar levels so that you will have a lesser chance of getting any excess that may be converted into fat. Additionally, a steady level of blood sugar helps prevent the highs and lows which can help prevent the occurrence of hunger pangs. More importantly, however, since the Atkins Diet calls for low carbohydrates and high protein, high fat foods, your energy levels remain constant for the entire day. You will also have fewer incidence of cravings and hunger pangs. The end result is weight loss.
- Take Note: The Atkins Diet works by limiting the amounts of carbs that can be converted and stored as fat. It also helps prevent hunger pangs while stimulating the body to use fats as energy instead of carbs.
Now, we know that you do have concerns about the high fat aspect of the Atkins Diet. While it is true that the diet recommends high fat, it did not say any type of fat. Experts recommend, and this has been proven by science as well, that including heart-healthy choices of fats can help even those individuals who may be predisposed to cardiovascular diseases. The point is that, if you’re not sure, you should always ask your doctor.
Phases of the Atkins Diet
The Atkins Diet is generally divided into four phases to help you get all of the benefits. The cardinal rule is to focus on high quality proteins and healthy fats and staying away from sugary and starchy carbohydrates. We’ll give you a rundown of the dos and don’ts later on.
- Phase 1
This phase, also called the induction phase, is dedicated to introducing to your body the idea of using fats as a principal source of energy instead of carbs. In this phase of the Atkins Diet, you cannot eat more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day for the next two weeks. What you can include in your meal are high protein and high fat food items. For your carbohydrates, it is recommended to look for low carbohydrate vegetables such as leafy greens. The Atkins Phase 1 essentially kickstarts the whole process of fat-burning for energy needs instead of carbs-burning. This also kickstart your weight loss journey.
They call this the Atkins 20 because you’re limiting your carbohydrate intake to just 20 grams per day. There’s a new version of the diet called the Atkins 40 which essentially doubles the upper limit of carbs you can consume in one day: 40 grams. The Atkins 40 is designed for those who really find it difficult to steer clear of the foods that should not be eaten on the first 2 weeks of the diet. Additionally, there are no strict guidelines as to the inclusion of meats as well as other proteins. This makes the Atkins 40 quite ideal for individuals as it is a lot easier to adhere to.
- Phase 2
In the second phase of the Atkins Diet, you are going to slowly re-introduce more low carbohydrate choices including additional fruits into your diet. The idea is to achieve a balance in your carbohydrate intake while still maintaining the weight loss. You need to gradually introduce carbs into your diet one at a time to make sure you are able to sustain the weight loss while your body adjusts accordingly. This phase is also known as the balancing phase. So, you can begin eating more nuts and other high calorie, high protein, and low carb foods. You can start eating fruits but do be wary of the carb content.
- Phase 3
In the third phase, you are now going to fine tune your weight loss efforts. This typically commences once you have about 10 pounds left from your weight loss goals. For instance, if you wished to lose 50 pounds, by the time that you have already lost 40 pounds, then you should already initiate the third phase or the fine-tuning phase of the Atkins Diet. Here you are going to keep on reintroducing carbs into your diet paying extra attention to your weight loss goals. Your objective is to add more carbs until such time that your weight loss has slowed down.
- Phase 4
In the last phase of the Atkins Diet, your body has already achieved a new norm and is now more than capable of maintaining your desired body weight even with plenty of carbs in your diet. However, caution is recommended as to the choices of carbs. It is highly recommended that you stick with healthier variants of carbs.
Dos and Don’ts of the Atkins Diet
Since the Atkins Diet involves a long term process of abrupt reduction of carbohydrates from the regular diet before slowly reintroducing healthier carbs over a period of several months, the most critical phase is the induction phase as this can readily spell the success (or failure) of the diet program. As a general rule, the first 2 weeks of the Atkins should have more high protein and high fat content and lesser carbs.
For your proteins and fats, the following are allowed:
- Full fat dairy products like butter, cream, cheese, and full fat yogurt
- Eggs especially those that are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids or those that are pastured
- Meats like beef, pork, chicken, lamb, venison, and others
- Healthy fats and oils like coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and avocadoes
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and sunflower seeds, just to name a few
- Seafood especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, trout, and others
For your carbohydrates, you are only advised to consume vegetables like the following:
- Asparagus – 4 grams of carbs per cup
- Broccoli – 6 grams of carbs per cup
- Cabbage – 5 grams of carbs per cup
- Cauliflower – 5 grams of carbs per cup
- Celery – 3 grams of carbs per cup
- Cucumber – 4 grams of carbs per cup
- Kale – 7 grams of carbs per cup
- Lettuce – 2 grams of carbs per cup
- Mushrooms – 2 grams of carbs per cup
- Radishes – 4 grams of carbs per cup
- Spinach – 1 gram of carbs per cup
- Tomatoes – 6 grams of carbs per cup
- Zucchini – 4 grams of carbs per cup
Additionally, you are supposed to steer clear of the following foods, especially during the first phase of the Atkins Diet.
- Sugary foods like fruit juices, candies, soft drinks, ice creams, cakes, and others.
- Grains such as rice, wheat, rye, barley, and spelt, as well as other grain-based foods.
- Vegetable oils like canola oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, and others.
- Trans fats like those that are hydrogenated or heavily processed foods.
- Low fat or diet foods as these are often filled with sugar.
- High carbohydrate vegetables like turnips and carrots.
- High carbohydrate fruits like bananas, oranges, grapes, apples, and pears.
- Starches like potatoes and sweet potatoes.
- Legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas as well as others.
As for your drinks, the following are allowed in the Atkins Diet:
- Water – It’s your go-to fluid.
- Coffee – Rich in antioxidants.
- Green tea – A really healthy beverage.
Vegetarians and the Atkins Diet
Since the Atkins Diet calls for high protein, high fat, and low carbohydrate diet, one of the issues that many vegetarians face is their protein and fat source. What they can do however, is to substitute meat-based proteins with plant-based proteins like soy, seeds, and nuts. You can also rev up you consumption of coconut oil and olive oil for fats. Lacto-ovo-vegans should not have any problems as they have more choices than strict vegans.
How about Exercise?
Studies show you can still lose weight with the Atkins Diet even if you don’t couple it with exercise. This is good news to folks who despise going to the gym. However, it is a must that you increase your physical activity. It doesn’t have to be exercise. For example, instead of driving your car to the next block, why not just walk it instead? Doing household chores, gardening, and washing your car can increase your physical activity. And this can greatly benefit your weight loss efforts with the Atkins Diet.
The Atkins Diet has been in existence for more than 4 decades and many have already attested to its effectiveness in losing weight. Studies have also supported its use. It’s easy to adhere to as it does not require you to count the calories of every food that you eat. Just steer clear of the no-nos especially in the first 2 weeks and you can be well on your way to healthier you.