What is the Atkins diet?
The Atkins program was developed by Dr Robert C. Atkins in the 1970s. The program restricted carbohydrate, promoted ‘optimal’ protein intake, and encouraged fat consumption.
Dieters claim you can lose weight while eating as much protein and fat as you want, as long as you avoid foods high in carbs.
The diet was originally considered unhealthy and criticised by health experts, mostly due to its high saturated fat content. However, over the years the diet has been studied thoroughly and shown to lead to weight loss with greater improvements in blood sugar, “good” HDL cholesterol and triglycerides when compared to popular low-fat diets.
The Atkins Diet is structured into 4 Phases
Phase 1 = Induction
What: This is the kick starter where carbohydrate is under 20 grams per day, protein and fat are high.
Specifics: 20 g carbs/day, 12-15 g of which must come from veg/salad, 115-225 g protein per meal
Phase 2 = Balancing
What: Involves a slow introduction of other carb-containing foods.
Specifics: 30-40 g carbs/day. You can now add nuts, seeds, berries and certain cheeses as well as Atkins food products, such as muesli, bread mix and penne pasta.
Phase 3 = Fine-tuning
What: Again, more carbs are added. This phase is recommended when you are close to your goal weight.
Specifics: Carb intake is up to 100 g/day and you’re now allowed to incorporate pulses, starchy veg, more fruits and grains to your diet.
Phase 4 = Maintenance
What: Eats as many carbs as your body can tolerate without regaining weight.
Specifics: Similar to phase three, with a slight lowering of fat intake and increasing of carbs. But if you regain weight, you need to lower your carb intake to ‘regain control’.
However, these phases aren’t mandatory and can be altered according to each individual’s preferences. For example, some people choose to skip the induction phase and include plenty of vegetables and fruit from the beginning, while others prefer to stay in the induction phase indefinitely, which is also known as the Keto diet.
How does it lead to weight loss?
On a typical western diet, the average person consumes around 350 grams of carbs each day, which is usually ample to fuel the body. However, this means we never really tap into fat stores (which can be used as an efficient source of fuel for the body on low-carb and keto-friendly diets) and any excess is stored as body fat – leading to weight gain.
By following Atkins, your body is stimulated to burn its own fat reserves, instead of using the carbs in your diet as its primary fuel. By reducing your carbs, your fuel source is switched from burning carbs to burning fat by way of ‘ketosis’. This means you’ll lose weight and are less likely to store fat, too.
It’s an easy to follow diet that can lead to real weight loss.
Benefits of the Atkins diet
The Atkins diet mostly encourages avoidance of highly processed foods apart from popular ‘Atkins approved’ packaged foods. Moreover Phase 3 and 4 (maintenance stages) it is much less restrictive and allows most fruit and veg as well as legumes, which many other popular diets do not entail.
Downsides of the Atkins diet
It unnecessarily restricts many fresh whole foods (especially fruit and certain veg in the early phases) and makes carbs out to be the ‘enemy’. Because of this, the Atkins diet is responsible for many people’s unnecessary fear of carbs.
It also lumps all carbs in the same category and doesn’t acknowledge or explain the difference between low and high GI carbs.
It also encourages the use of some questionable artificial sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame-k) in place of sugar and includes processed meat, which we know increases risk for bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes.
It also encourages purchasing Atkins branded, approved packaged foods which are expensive and not entirely healthy.
How it differs from the keto diet
Both Atkins and Keto are low carb and share a large majority of principles and beneficial outcomes, but a few subtle differences exist too.
Despite a sudden growth in popularity, the Ketogenic diet has been around for years with its origins being tracked back to the 1920’s. Many would argue that early humans existed in a state of ketosis due to their reliance on real seasonal food and natural intermittent fasting.
The Ketogenic diet is possibly a simpler option as compared to the phases represented in the Atkins diet. Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, researchers who have been at the forefront of promoting the Ketogenic diet have distinguished it by promoting a ‘well-formulated’ Ketogenic diet, which focuses on nutrient dense, good quality whole foods.
Typically in order to reach a state of ketosis, carbohydrates need to be limited to approximately 20-30 grams per day. There are no ‘phases’ as such in a Ketogenic diet, but individuals will be encouraged to find a level of carbohydrate that they can tolerate and allows them to remain in nutritional ketosis ongoing. A state of nutritional ketosis is most likely reached during the ‘Induction’ phase on the Atkins diet but there is no emphasis on maintaining this state in the long term.
Both diets fit into the category of ‘low carb’ and thus individuals following either approach would benefit from the metabolic switch in one’s energy substrate from carbohydrate to fat. This allows individuals to use their body’s own fat stores as well as dietary fat as an energy source. Added benefits of both approaches include control of hunger and cravings, with further application as a therapeutic treatment for numerous diseases such as Epilepsy, Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
If Atkins or Keto isn’t for you, try the ‘Modified Atkins Diet’
More recently a ‘Modified Atkins Diet’ (MAD) has been put forward. This approach is in essence a mix between the classic Keto and Atkins diet, which is tailored to each individual’s carbohydrate tolerance levels and appears to be less restrictive with better compliance.
The MAD plan approximates a 1:1 ration of fat to carbohydrate and protein, weighing food it not required and total carb intake is generally limited to 10-20 grams. The leniency of the diet is used as an alternative to the strict Keto diet and a transition onto or from the Keto diet.
Foods allowed on the Atkins diet
Your diet should be based around the following foods:
- Meats: Bacon, beef, chicken, lamb, pork and others.
- Fatty fish and seafood: Salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, herring and others.
- Low-carb vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, asparagus, kale, capsicum, mushrooms, avocado, cauliflower and others.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts and others.
- Full-fat dairy: Yoghurt, butter, cheese and cream.
- Healthy fats: Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil.
Foods restricted on the Atkins diet
- Sugar: Found in soft drinks, juices, baked goods, lollies, ice cream and others.
- Grains: Barley, rice, spelt, wheat.
- High-carb vegetables: Potatoes, carrots, turnips (only in the induction phase).
- High-carb fruits: Apples, bananas, grapes, oranges, pears (only in the induction phase).
- Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, lentils and others (only in the induction phase).
- Vegetable oils
- Trans fats
- “Diet” and “low-fat” foods as these are normally high in sugar
Easy diet swaps on the Atkins diet
1. Replace pasta with spiralised vegetables
2. Swap high sugar lattes from your coffee shop with a homemade version using unsweetened soy milk, espresso and a dollop of sugar-free whipped cream.
3. Stick to wine instead of beer, cider and sugary cocktails. Pinot noir is typically lower in carbs compared to other varieties.
4. Try lettuce cups instead of tortillas, wraps and bread,
5. Double up on bacon, eggs and mushrooms instead of adding carb-rich foods,
6. Use cauliflower to make rice and pizza bases.
7. Don’t skip meals – it is recommended to have three main meals with two between snacks to keep your blood sugar levels stabilised.
A sample day on a plate
According to dietitian Susie Burrell, here’s what a day’s meals look like:
Breakfast: 2 eggs with 1/3 avocado and 2 slices of bacon.
Lunch: 100g grilled salmon or chicken with steamed greens.
Dinner: 150g white fish or lean pork, steamed greens/ salad with 1/3 avocado.
Snacks: Hummus and carrots OR berries and 100g plain yoghurt.
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