The Atkins Diet Under the Spotlight
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, chances are you’ve heard of the Atkins diet – and probably know someone who’s tried it, if you haven’t done so yourself. After all, it’s a diet that sounds too good to be true. To shift those pounds quickly you simply need to start the day with bacon and eggs, snack on chunks of cheese, top coffee with cream and feast on steaks fried in butter.
Not exactly the typical foods you’d find on the shopping lists of most slimmers who’ve grown up with the idea that a low-fat diet is the best way to lose weight. But like all things that sound too good to be true, there’s a catch. And in the case of the Atkin’s diet, it means that filling up on high-fat foods needs to be balanced by giving up most carbs including bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, chocolate, crisps, biscuits, cake – even fruit, milk and some veg in the early stages.
Nevertheless, the Atkin’s diet has captured the hearts – and tastebuds – of everyone from A-list celebs such as Jennifer Aniston and Renee Zellweger to business men, teachers and housewives. In fact, at its peak in late 2003, more than three million Brits were estimated to have tried the diet in an effort to shape up and slim down.
In spite of this, the Atkins Diet has caused the biggest weight loss debate in years, generating almost as many column inches as advocates of the diet have claimed to lose from their waistline. And even today, nutrition experts have still not been won over. Here’s the lowdown…
What’s the theory?
Devised by the late Dr Robert Atkins, this is a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. Dr Atkins' theory is really quite simple: when you cut out carbs, your body is forced into burning its fat stores to provide it with energy; as you burn more calories when your body burns fat compared with carbohydrate, you'll lose weight more quickly; by cutting out carbs, blood sugar levels remain more stable throughout the day, and so prevent overeating.
How does the Atkins Diet work?
There are four phases to the Atkins diet. The first phase is called Induction, which must be followed for at least two weeks, although this phase can be continued for much longer if you can bear it! During Induction, you must severely limit your intake of carbohydrate to a tiny 20g a day (most of us eat around 250g a day). As well as avoiding carb-rich treats such as biscuits, cakes, chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks, croissants and pastry, this also means ditching bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, milk, fruit and most veg from the menu. In contrast, you can eat unlimited amounts of red meat, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, mayo, cream and butter. It’s during the Induction phase that your body switches from burning carbs to burning fat and blood sugar levels stabilise.
The second phase, known as Ongoing Weight Loss, allows you to slightly increase your carb intake – by 5g daily for a week at a time – until you find your Critical Carbohydrate Level for Losing Weight. This is the maximum amount of carbohydrate you can eat each day to lose between 1 and 3lb a week. For some people, this may only be 25g carbohydrate, for others it might be 50g. Nevertheless, it’s still considerably lower than most of us are used to and really only allows for the introduction of a few more veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds. Bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals are still off limits!
It’s time to enter phase three, called Pre-maintenance, once you have just 5-10lb left to lose. During this phase, you increase you carb intake by 10g each day for a week at a time. The idea is to slow down your weight loss to no more than 1lb a week in an effort to prepare your body for the final phase, weight maintenance. By now you can start to include tiny amounts of traditional starchy foods such as porridge, bread and pasta – and we are talking tiny amounts! For example, just 40g cooked brown rice or 30g cooked pasta each provide 10g of carbs!
The fourth and final phase, Lifetime Maintenance, aims to help you maintain your weight. While you can have a slightly more varied carbohydrate intake, most people need to limit carbs to less than 90g a day – that’s still only around a third of what most of us eat a day. The result: you’ll be following a low-carb diet for life.
So how much weight can I expect to lose?
Dr Atkins claims you can expect to lose 6-10lb in the first two weeks of Induction, which should slow to 1-3lb a week once you enter the Ongoing Weight Loss Phase. During Pre-maintenance, you can expect to lose 1lb a week at most.
I keep hearing about ‘net carbs’. What are these?
Not all carbohydrates can be digested by the body. Fibre, for example, passes through the body without affecting blood sugar levels. The Atkins diet focuses on those carbohydrates that can be digested and therefore affect blood sugar levels.
The ‘net’ carbohydrate value of a food, simply refers to the amount of digestible carbohydrate a product contains. In the UK, this is equivalent to the carbohydrate content given in the nutrition information chart on food packaging.
I’ve noticed there are loads of low-carb products available. Should I try them?
The availability of low-carb products has grown tremendously in the past few years and you can now buy everything from low-carb pasta, soups and bread to tomato ketchup, shakes and chocolate. If you decide to follow a low-carb diet such as the Atkins plan, these can add variety to your diet. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that these products can be expensive and many add few other nutrients to your diet. They are also often higher in fat and/or calories than the standard product, making them a less suitable option if you’re trying to lose weight by a more balanced method such as counting calories.
Unpleasant side effects can occur with the Atkins diet. To start with, burning fat results in the production of substances called ketones as your body enters a state called ketosis. This can result in bad breath, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, insomnia and nausea. Constipation may also occur as a consequence of avoiding typically high-fibre foods such as fruit, veg, beans, wholewheat pasta, brown rice, wholegrain breakfast cereals and jacket potatoes.
When it comes to long-term side effects, many health professionals are concerned that the Atkins diet may have serious dangers. While the high intake of fat, particularly saturates, may increase the risk of heart disease, there are also concerns that the unbalanced nature of the Atkins diet may lead to nutritional deficiencies, which cause health problems in later life. For example, poor intakes of bone-building calcium (found in dairy products) may increase the risk of osteoporosis, while poor intakes of antioxidant nutrients (found in fruit and veg) have been linked with a host of health problems ranging from heart disease and cancer to premature ageing and cataracts. Some experts are also worried that high intakes of protein may cause kidney problems or weaken bones.
Are there any other bad points?
Because so many foods are off limits, the diet can get very boring with the result that many people give up after a short while. It’s also almost impossible to follow the Atkin’s plan if you’re a vegetarian as nuts, seeds, beans and many vegetables are banned in the early stages. Most experts also believe the Atkins plan fails to teach people about the basic principles of a balanced, healthy diet, which science irrefutably proves can help keep us healthy and free from disease.
The main positive is that people can lose considerable amounts of weight, really quite quickly and this can be very motivating. The diet also encourages people to cut out most processed carbs and alcohol. Thanks to it allowing plenty of red meat and high-fat butter, cream, cheese and mayo, it’s also the one diet that’s got men talking about the need to lose weight. In many cases, this talk has turned into action, with many men following the Atkins diet in an effort to lose their beer bellies!
What do the experts say?
The scientific jury’s still out on whether low-carb diets really do burn fat and most experts agree more research is needed to identify the long-term health risks and benefits. The Atkins Diet certainly flies in the face of healthy eating guidelines, which recommend less fat and more fruit, veg and high-fibre carbs. Nutrition experts are particularly worried that the diet may increase the risk of heart disease as it’s potentially very high in fat, especially saturates. Not even revised guidelines for fat intakes from Atkins Nutritionals – the company set up by the late Dr Robert Atkins to sell his products and promote the diet – have helped qualm most health professional’s fears. While the company recommended that no more than 20 percent of our calories should come from saturates, this is still twice as much the recommended amount for a healthy heart. Most experts also worry about the dangers of encouraging people to eat less fruit and veg – there’s overwhelming evidence that these foods can protect us from a host of diseases including cancer.
Is the diet still as popular as it once was?
It seems more of us are starting to serve spaghetti with our Bolognese, roast potatoes with our Sunday lunch and rice with our curries. According to new research, the popularity of the Atkins diet has taken a massive dive in America. The latest figures revealed that in January 2004 more than nine percent of people in the US were following the diet, but by November 2004 this had dropped to less than four percent.
Meanwhile, if book sales are anything to go by, it looks like the same is happening in Britain. In December 2004, bookshops reported that sales of Dr Atkins infamous diet book were just one tenth of those a year ago, when hopeful slimmers bought more than 110,000 copies in one week alone.
Numerous health scares reported in the press have appeared to turn many people against the Atkins regime and at last we’re beginning to take notice of the concerns of nutrition experts. Revelations that Dr Atkins was obese and suffering from heart problems at the time of his death have done little to help the low-carb cause, even though it was later claimed that these problems were the result of medical treatment.
Even at the height of its popularity, a Weight Loss Resources poll in October 2003 revealed that nine out of 10 members thought there should be guidance from the Department of Health about any potential problems linked to the Atkins Diet. Now it seems, the diet will lose many of its fans before official guidelines can be developed!
From a practical point of view, while fried eggs and bacon for breakfast every day may initially sound tempting, most people will be left craving a piece of toast and a banana within a few days.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Atkins diet almost certainly offers a reduction in calories – and this will definitely help you lose weight. For example, even though the diet suggests you can eat unlimited amounts of calorie-packed butter, mayo and cream, the foods they are typically served with are banned, which ultimately limits the amount you eat. For example, cream is traditionally served with fruit, mixed into a pasta sauce or served with coffee – but fruit and pasta are banned and coffee is limited. Similarly, butter is traditionally spread on bread or served with potatoes – and again both are off limits, leaving you few choices for eating more butter. Meanwhile, most people find there’s only so much meat or eggs they can eat, before tastebuds become tired with the same flavour. Again, this works to limit the quantity eaten.
Like most nutrition experts, the potential high fat content of the diet concerns me. Even if followers don’t eat huge amounts, I’m not keen on the idea of a diet that suggests it’s OK to eat large amounts.
Meanwhile, having spent years trying to encourage people to eat more fruit and veg, I find the idea of ‘banning’ or ‘limiting’ these foods appalling – this to me is a huge step backwards. After all, even our great, great, great grandparents recognised the importance of eating more of the green stuff!
Ultimately, until more research is done to identify the long-term risks or benefits of the Atkins diet, I would err on the side of caution. If after reading this, you still want to give it a go, I’d suggest only trying it for a couple of weeks at most and then transferring to a longer-term, lower-fat diet that includes a wide range of foods, including carbs!