INTRODUCTION TO THE ATKINS DIET
The Atkins diet is a low-carb diet that has been proven to help people lose weight. Dr. Atkins determined that overall calories did not matter as much as carbohydrate intake. On this diet, you can eat as protein and fats to satiation, and you do not need to count calories. By limiting the intake of carbs, your body will burn fat instead, leading to weight loss, stable energy levels and other health improvements, all without feeling hungry.
HISTORY OF THE ATKINS DIET
Dr. Robert Atkins was a heart specialist who was concerned about prescribing drugs for his patients for appetite suppression and weight loss. He started studying diet and nutrition in the early 1960s, and discovered that carbohydrate restriction gave better weight loss results than overall calorie restriction, and that it did so without causing the subject to suffer unduly from hunger. Atkins started experimenting on himself and then a group of several dozen subjects, and all of them lost weight. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was published in 1972. Despite being attacked by many mainstream health professionals, it went on to become a best-seller. Since then, over 100 scientific publications have supported the benefits of eating a low-carb diet.
ATKINS DIET MACROS
Most of the calories on Atkins come from fat, followed by protein, with a small amount coming from complex carbohydrates. The amount of calories from carbohydrates you are allowed to have increases slowly as you reach your weight loss goal, but at the beginning, carbs are kept very low.
The first phase of Atkins (Induction) is the strictest regarding carbohydrate consumption. The purpose of Induction is to jumpstart your weight loss. During this phase, a small amount of complex carbohydrates in the form of vegetables are allowed. The limit on carbohydrates during the first 2 weeks is 20 net carbs per day, and they are obtained from vegetables like spinach and broccoli. These carbs are not optional; you are required to eat them. The approximate macros for Phase 1 are 70% fat, 25% protein and 5% carbs.
As you lose weight, the phases progress and you slowly add more carbs, 5 at a time, until you eventually find the right amount to maintain your goal weight.
It is important to note that while you do not need to count calories on Atkins, calories still matter and eating too much will slow or stall weight loss. Fat helps to suppress appetite and consuming healthy fats every day is part of the program, but the recommended daily intake is only 2-4 added tablespoons, meaning from olive oil, butter and the like. (This does not include fats that are part of meat, fish and eggs.)
Protein helps you to feel full and Atkins recommends having 4-6 oz. of protein at each meal. Eating enough protein and fat, along with some leafy, fiber-packed greens or other low-carb vegetables such as broccoli will help you to feel satisfied and not hungry, all day long.
BENEFITS OF THE ATKINS DIET
Research proves that a low-carb diet will help drop the pounds. But whether the pounds stay off depends on the individual’s willingness to make permanent changes to their diet, which usually means cutting back permanently on carbs and sugar.
Carrying excess weight leads to a whole slew of other health issues, including an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Losing extra weight can help rebalance blood sugar and blood lipid levels, reducing those and other health risks.
NO CALORIE COUNTING
You don’t have to count calories or points, weigh or measure your food with Atkins. You are also allowed to eat to rich, satisfying food, a real plus that helps you not feel deprived or hungry.
MAY HALT DIABETES
By removing refined sugars and grains from your diet, you’ll have fewer blood sugar swings and your body won’t have to produce as much insulin. Losing extra weight also helps to keep diabetes at bay. Studies show that health markers such as blood lipids improve with a low-carb diet, and can prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes.
For those who struggle with what and how much to eat, Atkins offers a clear plan. And not having to count calories or portions makes it even easier. There are also plenty of resources to help you along the way, both online and in books.
IMPROVED CHOLESTEROL LEVELS
The Atkins diet was under fire from the beginning for telling people to eat red meat, but the theory that animal fat will cause you to have a heart attack has never been shown to have a strong correlation. In fact, grass-fed beef has been shown to improve HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, and a diet that is low in processed sugars and grains has also been shown to lower triglycerides and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart attacks and heart disease.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) has become the most common endocrine disorder affecting women of child-bearing age. The disorder is associated with obesity and insulin resistance, and is often related to a disruption of hormones due to the effect of insulin on the body. Research is ongoing, but a low-carb diet like Atkins has been shown to offer significant improvement in PCOS symptoms.
REDUCED RISK OF DEMENTIA
Cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s have been shown to improve with a low-carb diet. Scientists believe that insulin resistance has something to do with mental decline, and that a diet that is high in sugar also creates inflammation which affects mood, memory and energy levels, worsening the problem.
YOU WON’T FEEL HUNGRY
Atkins is unlike many other diets where you have to count calories, carefully measure portions, and be willing to go hungry at times. Because of the way the body processes fat and protein, you will likely feel satiated for long periods of time, leading to eating fewer calories over the course of the day, and losing weight.
DOWNSIDES OF THE ATKINS DIET
The first two weeks of Atkins are pretty strict. Americans eat an average of 40 grams of carbs at a single meal, so cutting your total daily intake down to 20 will be a big change and can make it tough to stick with the program. Too many changes at once can backfire and lead to bingeing, which can lead to weight gain. While the initial phase of Atkins can be a great way to jumpstart weight loss, it might be too hard, and a more gradual entry may lead to better success. Atkins now allows some people to start in phase 2, a less restrictive phase.
CARB COUNTING REQUIRED
While you don’t have to count calories or weight or measure portions, you do have to keep track of your net carbs (total carbs minus grams of fiber). If you only eat meat and vegetables, this shouldn’t be too difficult, but once you start to add in fruit and other carb-y foods, you must pay careful attention to keep within your daily limit. There are many hidden sugars in foods you wouldn’t suspect like cheese and bacon, and it can be tricky to count net carbs when you don’t have access to nutrition information, such as when you’re eating out.
LIMITED FRUIT & GRAINS
Fruit lovers will have a tough time on Atkins. While you are allowed to add fruit back into your diet in the later stages of the diet, it is still limited. Getting enough dietary fiber may also a concern. Whole grains are a good source of dietary fiber and if you don’t eat enough vegetables to replace them, you may experience constipation.
SIDE EFFECTS POSSIBLE
For those who have been used to eating a lot of sugar or carbs, the beginning of Atkins can not only be hard but painful. Cutting carbs to near zero can result in ‘keto flu,’ an unpleasant if usually-short lived experience of sluggishness, ‘brain fog’ and just plain old feeling ill, as if you have the flu, while your body adjusts from burning glucose to burning fat. Other possible side effects include constipation, dehydration, irritability, hunger, and bad breath.
Eating is a social activity and while you are in the early phases of Atkins, you might have some hard choices to make. Being successful on a new diet takes work, and you may have to find new activities to do with your friends that don’t revolve around food.
ATKINS DIET DETAILS
The Atkins diet is divided into four phases.
Phase 1: Induction
This is a kick-start to weight loss and is similar to the ketogenic diet. For 2 weeks, you eat fewer than 20 grams of carbohydrates each day, but you can have as much fat, protein, leafy greens and other low-carb veggies as you want during this stage. Some people chose to follow this stage indefinitely, and it’s called the ketogenic diet.
Phase 2: Balance
You slowly add other items in, such as nuts, other low-carb veggies and small quantities of fruit into your diet. Some people choose to skip Stage 1 and start here and still have good results. You stay here until you are within 10 lbs. of your goal weight.
Phase 3: Fine-tune
You gradually add in more carbs until the weight loss slows. You can add the higher-carb veggies, such as winter squash, beets and tomatoes, and more fruit. Once you have reached your goal weight and maintained it for a month, you can move on to phase 4.
Phase 4: Maintain
During the final stage of Atkins, you are allowed to eat as many carbs as you can handle so long as you don’t start to put the weight back on. Most people need to remain at a low- to moderate intake of carb in order to maintain the weight loss.
The first phase of Atkins is designed to push your body into ketosis, or fat-burning. When you have no sugar (glucose) to burn, the body burns fat (called ketones) as an alternative. By burning fat rather than sugar, the pounds come off quickly, but your energy levels should remain stable. Due to the way the body processes fat and protein, most people do not feel as hungry as they used to when they were eating a lot of carbs, and many only eat two meals per day, although three are allowed. Snacks are also okay, so long as they don’t push you over your carb limit.
After the initial phase, you slowly start to add more carbs back in in the form of other low-carb vegetables, such as mushrooms, cucumbers, and zucchini. Nuts are also allowed in moderate quantities, and so are small amounts of lower-carb fruits such as berries.
As you approach your weight loss goal, you can add higher-carb foods like legumes, carrots, squash and more fruit until your weight loss stops. You can also experiment with grains, although sticking to whole, natural grains are preferred. At this point, you have figured out how many carbs you can eat each day and still maintain your weight. This is often in the range of 50-100 net carbs, although some may need to (or choose to) keep it lower.
As with any diet, the changes must be permanent in order to keep the weight off.
The Atkins diet itself has undergone many changes over the years. For example, the original diet only allowed for 5 grams of net carbs during the induction phase. You were expected to eat essentially meat and fat and that was it. Today, the induction phase includes 20 grams of net carbs in the form of low-carb vegetables.
Dr. Atkins also required all of his patients to do the induction phase, whereas today’s Atkins does not require the induction phase at all. If you need to lose more than 30 lbs., then you should do phase 1. But if you need to lose between 15-30 lbs., you can start in phase 2, and if you only need to lose 15 lbs. or less, you can start in phase 3.
While many people drop a lot of (mostly water) weight during the induction phase of Atkins, the goal was never quick weight loss. The goal is to lose weight without feeling hungry. To that end, don’t overdo the artificial sweeteners or guesstimate your net carb count. The more carbs you eat, the hungrier you’ll feel.
Although Atkins was originally attacked because of the high levels of saturated fat in the diet, more recent studies show that saturated fat is not detrimental to health and most people do not see higher levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol from eating it. Also, because Atkins can help you lose weight, it has also been shown to actually improve blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
BEST FOODS TO EAT ON THE ATKINS DIET
Meat, Seafood & Eggs — All forms of animal protein are good for Atkins: beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and fatty fish, although it is best to avoid processed meats that contain nitrates and added sugars.
Low-carb vegetables — Leafy greens such as kale and spinach are good, but so are other low-carb veggies like asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower.
Full-fat dairy — Cream, butter, cheese and full-fat yogurt are all acceptable for Atkins.
Healthy fats — Extra virgin olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, coconut oil and other natural nut oils are a-okay for this diet. Vegetable oils are fine as well, but look for ones that have been minimally processed and labeled ‘cold-pressed’ or ‘expeller-pressed’. Mayo is also okay but pick one without added sugars. It is also recommended that you not heat oils to extreme temperatures. Use olive oil for sautéing, and do not heat walnut or sesame oil.
Herbs & spices — Herbs and spices like parsley, basil, cilantro and cayenne are all carb-free and a great way to make your food more flavorful. If buying dried or packaged, check to make sure there is no added sugar. Note that certain spices do contain carbs, such as garlic and ginger. However, in the amounts usually used to flavor food, they only contain a negligible amount (1 garlic clove contains 0.9 net carbs and a tablespoon of fresh ginger contains 0.8).
Sugar replacements — Things like stevia, Sucralose and saccharine are acceptable in small amounts. Limit yourself to a maximum of 3 packets per day. One packet equals 1 net carb.
Water — Water is the beverage of choice on Atkins and staying hydrated is an important part of this diet. Aim to drink at least 1/2 gallon per day (eight 8-oz. glasses).
Other beverages — Coffee, tea, herbal tea and green tea in particular are also acceptable. Decaffeinated is preferred, but 1-2 cups of caffeinated coffee or tea is okay for those who tolerate it well. Broth is fine, and unsweetened, unflavored soy, almond or coconut milk are acceptable. Diet soda in limited quantities is allowed, but it still contains carbs so be sure to track them.
Alcohol — Alcohol is allowed in small quantities. Choose dry wines and avoid beer which is carb-y.
FOODS TO AVOID ON THE ATKINS DIET
Sugar — This includes all baked goods, soft drinks, juices, desserts, etc.
‘Diet’ or ‘Low-fat’ items — These ‘diet’ foods often contain sugar and other carb-y ingredients and other artificial additives that are not desirable to consume.
Grains — Wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, and all gluten-free grains like quinoa, etc. are out.
Trans fats — While fats are allowed on Atkins, hydrogenated and chemically processed oils are not part of the diet.
High-carb vegetables — During the Phase 1 only, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other high-carb vegetables are to be avoided.
High-carb fruit — Also to be avoided during the first phase are things like apples, oranges and bananas.
Legumes — Beans, peas, lentils and the like should not be eaten during Phase 1. If you are a vegetarian, soy products are allowed as your protein source.
KEYS TO SUCCESS ON THE ATKINS DIET
Dieting will be much easier if you empty tempting foods from your pantry and replace them with Atkins-compatible foods. Take a few minutes each week to plan your meals and write up a grocery list — and then stick to it — so you don’t just grab your old carb-y standbys.
KNOW HOW ATKINS WORKS
Understanding which foods help you to lose weight, and which ones will slow or stall your weight loss, is essential to success on Atkins.
HAVE PROTEIN AT EVERY MEAL
Protein helps you to feel full. If you choose lean cuts such as chicken breast, be sure to add some healthy fat along with it so that you feel satiated.
Eating 3 regular meals plus 2 snacks, or 4-5 smaller meals will help you maintain steady blood sugar and energy so you don’t succumb to carb-y cravings.
COUNT YOUR CARBS
If you don’t know how many carbs you’re eating, there’s a good chance you’ll throw yourself out of ketosis. Write down everything you eat, or use technology, such as the myfitnesspal app, to track your net carbs.
EAT SENSIBLE PORTIONS, BUT DON’T OBSESS
You don’t need to count calories or weigh or measure your food, but don’t go crazy with the bacon double cheeseburgers either. Overeating will slow your weight loss. If you eat 4-6 oz. of protein at each meal, along with some fat and low-carb veggies, you should feel full and satisfied.
WATCH OUT FOR HIDDEN SUGARS
Sugar is everywhere: in salad dressing, in bacon, in cheese. Make it a habit to read labels and be sure to record all your carbs.
EAT YOUR GREENS
Eating vegetables is an essential part of Atkins and you need to have at least 5 servings of vegetables each day. Vegetables contain essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients as well as fiber which will help you feel full, and reduce the risk of constipation.
The signal for hunger and the signal for thirst can easily be confused. Also, it may sound counterintuitive but drinking water helps you to not retain it.
Exercise is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. You can start slowly with walking or water aerobics. Any movement is better than none.
ASK FOR SUPPORT
Tell your family and friends about your goals, and maybe you can even recruit someone to join you on the journey. A friend or family member who is going through the same ups and downs can be a real help when you’re struggling. If you don’t have anyone near you, there are online Atkins communities that can provide support.
CELEBRATE YOUR SUCCESSES
Dropping pounds is great, but don’t forget about other health markers. Consider keeping a food journal and taking measurements of your waist, hips and chest. Recheck them periodically, such as once a week or every other week. You might also have your blood lipid levels tested before you begin and then again at the 3- and 6-month mark. People who journal have been shown to stick to their diet better than those who don’t track their progress.
COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE ATKINS DIET
YOU ONLY LOSE WEIGHT BECAUSE CALORIES ARE RESTRICTED
It is common to eat less on Atkins because you feel less hungry, but Atkins does not place restrictions on calories. Most people can consume about 2,000 calories per day and still lose weight, which is not usually possible with a typical low-fat diet. Eating whole, natural foods provide more nutrition and makes you feel satisfied while eating less. But it is also true that calories are not created equal. Research shows that you can eat more on a low-carbohydrate diet and still lose weight than on a low-fat diet.
YOU’RE JUST LOSING WATER WEIGHT
It is true that the pounds you shed in the first few days or week will mostly be water, but as you continue with the plan, the weight that comes off will mostly be fat, as opposed to muscle.
KETOSIS IS DANGEROUS
This myth is likely due to a confusion of terms. Ketosis is a natural, normal process in which the body burns fat. Ketoacidosis is a dangerous, potentially life-threatening condition diabetics and alcoholics sometimes suffer from when both blood sugar and ketones are out of control. Ketosis has been thoroughly studied and found to be safe.
YOUR CHOLESTEROL WILL GO THROUGH THE ROOF
We have been conditioned to believe that saturated fat is bad for us, but studies show that eating a low-carbohydrate diet can improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
ATKINS DOES NOT OFFER COMPLETE NUTRITION
Many people mistake the first 2 weeks of Atkins for the entire program. Fruit and grains are not permanently stricken from the menu. However, even during the induction phase, the 20 grams of carbohydrates from nutrient-dense vegetables have been shown in studies to meet or exceed the USRDA for most vitamins and minerals. After the initial phase, you can add back in fruits, and most people can also have whole grains, offering a wide variety of choice of how you get your vitamins and minerals.
YOU’LL BE EXHAUSTED
Fatigue is a common side effect in the first few days while the body switches over from burning sugar to burning fat, but once you make the transition, you will likely find that your energy levels soar and your head is clearer. No more carb-induced afternoon slump or brain fog.
IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP THE WEIGHT OFF
If you go back to your old eating habits, this is true, but it is true of any diet. In order to maintain weight loss, permanent changes must take place.
COMMON MISTAKES ON THE ATKINS DIET
NOT DRINKING ENOUGH WATER
The beverage of choice on Atkins is water and there is an expectation of drinking eight 8 oz. glasses per day, but many people need more. Two cups a day can come from coffee, tea, sugar-free soft drinks or broth, but you must also drink water. Not drinking enough water can lead to constipation, and you also might confuse thirst with hunger. Being properly hydrated can also reduce the symptoms of ‘keto flu,’ as well as flush toxins from the body faster.
EXPECTING RAPID WEIGHT LOSS TO CONTINUE
Just as it is common to lose 10 or more pounds in the first few days of the induction phase, it is to be expected that weight loss will slow after you have shed the excess water. Fat loss will be slower but steady so long as you stick with the plan. If you are not losing weight, recheck your carb intake, and cut out any artificial sugars and caffeine and see if that doesn’t get you started again.
We’re conditioned to believe fat is bad, so it might take some time to get over this deeply ingrained idea, but you need fat. Healthy, natural fats are good for you. They curb your appetite, supply steady energy, and help you to not feel deprived.
NOT EATING ENOUGH VEGETABLES
The Atkins diet is not a carnivorous diet. You are meant to eat vegetables. Vegetables contain many nutrients and fiber. Twenty grams of net carbs translates into something like 6 cups of spinach and 2 cups of broccoli, so eat at least 3 cups of leafy greens and a cup of other vegetables every day. Just be sure they are low-carb, and on the approved food list.
Protein helps you to feel satisfied so skimping on it can leave you hungry. Atkins expects you to eat protein at every meal. A small woman might only need 4 ounces but a larger man or active person might need 6-8 oz. That said, don’t go hog wild with the bacon (or other proteins). Protein can be converted by the body into glucose, potentially throwing you out of ketosis and slowing weight loss.
NOT COUNTING ALL YOUR CARBS
Keeping track of your carb intake isn’t always easy, but it is essential if you are going to remain in ketosis. You must track your net carbs, which is calculated by subtracting grams of fiber from the total amount of carbs. Another mistake people make is ignoring carbs in foods like cheese, lemon juice, and salad dressing. Read labels and make sure you know what you’re eating.
While many people feel less hungry on Atkins, it is still important to eat. When you go too long without eating, your blood sugar will drop, potentially creating cravings and putting you at risk of eating things you want to avoid. Also, regularly skipping meals can cause your metabolism to slow, which can make it even harder to lose weight.
The Atkins diet is naturally diuretic so unless your doctor has ordered you to limit sodium (for high blood pressure, etc.), there is no need to cut out salt. Salt can help alleviate some of the unpleasant symptoms of the transition phase including headaches, lightheadedness and cramping as your body switches over from burning glucose to burning fat.
COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ATKINS DIET
CAN YOU BE A VEGETARIAN AND DO ATKINS?
It is possible if not easy to do Atkins while avoiding all animal products and being vegetarian. In this case, your proteins will come from soy products, nuts and seeds. Plant-based fats are easier to find, and olive oil, avocados, and nut oils provide plenty of healthy fat. If you eat eggs and dairy products, your food selection will be a little broader as you can have heavy cream, butter, cheese and yogurt. Of course the vegetable portion will be no problem.
CAN I HAVE SNACKS ON ATKINS?
Yes. In addition to your three meals, two snacks are allowed. A good Atkins snack would be a hard-boiled egg, some beef jerky, a piece of cheese, a few nuts or some full-fat Greek yogurt. That said, most people feel less hungry with Atkins. Be sure to stay hydrated. You may actually be thirsty rather than hungry.
IS EXERCISE REQUIRED WITH ATKINS?
Exercise is encouraged, but not required with the Atkins diet. Exercise offers many health benefits such as improved mood, increased energy, and better sleep. Try to incorporate movement into your day, every day.
CAN I EAT OUT ON ATKINS?
You can eat anywhere so long as you follow the guidelines. In a restaurant, ask to replace potatoes, rice and bread with extra vegetables, and possibly some extra fat, like olive oil or butter to add to your meat and/or vegetables to be sure you feel satisfied.
IS IT HEALTHY TO LOSE WEIGHT SO FAST?
The pounds do tend to come off pretty quickly during the induction phase of Atkins, but this is mostly water weight. Glucose (sugar) binds with water, and when you don’t have any extra glucose in your system, your body rids itself of the excess water. Insulin can also cause your body to retain salt, which also causes you to hang on to extra water. After the first few days and you start to lose fat rather than water, the weight loss will slow down.
ATKINS VS KETO
The first phase of Atkins is essentially the ketogenic diet. Carbs are kept very low, fewer than 20 net carbs each day, for the purpose of switching the body over to burning fat rather than glucose. Weight loss is virtually guaranteed, although at the beginning, it tends to be water weight. Ketosis offers many benefits: steady energy, stable blood sugar and, in many cases, improved blood lipid levels. Some people who do Atkins decide to remain in Phase 1 or the ketogenic diet permanently, while others choose to add more carbs back in.
ATKINS VS CARNIVORE
The carnivore diet is very simple: eat meat, fatty beef in particular and salt. Pork, lamb, fish, chicken and organ meats are also on the list, and eggs and high-fat, low-carb dairy products like butter, heavy cream and cheeses are also okay. Beverages include water and bone broth, and possibly coffee and tea. While the initial phase of Atkins shares some similarities with a carnivorous diet, Atkins expects you to eat vegetables and plant-based fats. As time goes on with Atkins, the menu becomes ever more varied, adding in small amounts of fruit and other carbohydrates as time goes on, while with carnivore, it’s meat and salt at every meal.
ATKINS VS PALEO
Atkins shares several commonalities with Paleo. You are expected to eat protein at every meal, along with a healthy fat and your carbs are meant to come from whole, natural plants such as leafy greens. A small amounts of low-carb fruits are also okay on both. Paleo does not allow anything artificial (such as diet soda) or dairy however, and all your food is expected to be found as close to its natural state as possible. Grass-fed beef and organic vegetables are certainly fine for Atkins, but they are not a requirement. Also, Paleo never reintroduces grains, dairy, or high-carb fruits, but these are all potentially acceptable on Atkins once you reach the maintenance phase. That said, some people who do Atkins may find a grain-free, dairy-free Paleo-like diet works best for their lifestyle maintenance plan.
BEST ATKINS DIET SUPPLEMENTS
Multivitamin — Especially important during the Induction phase, a multivitamin will cover any gaps in your nutrition.
Vitamin C — Probably the most famous antioxidant, vitamin C helps the body neutralize free radicals and reduce inflammation which causes or exacerbates most diseases. Green vegetables like broccoli and cabbage do contain vitamin C, but it doesn’t hurt to supplement.
Vitamin E — Another powerful antioxidant that gives the immune system a boost.
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) — This nutrient is also an antioxidant that helps the liver to remove toxins.
Fish Oil — Omega-3 essential fatty acids reduce inflammation and may offer benefits to your brain and heart. If you’re not a big fan of fish, you may wish to supplement.
ATKINS DIET RECIPES & RESOURCES
ATKINS DIET STUDIES
PROPONENTS OF THE ATKINS DIET
- Sharon Osbourne
- Renee Zellweger
- Dr. Eric Westman