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The Atkins Diet (officially the Atkins Nutrition Approach) promotes itself as a long-term eating plan for weight loss and maintenance that emphasizes eating lean protein and low-starch vegetables and avoiding simple carbohydrates such as flour and sugar. Changing eating habits and increasing physical activity are the cornerstones of the Atkins Diet. It is a high protein, high fat, and low carbohydrate diet.
There are four phases of the Atkins Diet:
The Atkins Diet promises to help you lose excess weight and keep it off by consuming fewer carbohydrates, which allows your body to burn greater amounts of fat. The Atkins Nutrition Approach involves a reduced glycemic load (carb content), with the goal of keeping blood sugar levels in a healthy range. The diet plan promises to be a lifetime approach to weight loss.
Low-carbohydrate diets have proven to be effective for weight loss for a limited period. These diet plans call for a reduction in snack foods and alcohol, which are often high in simple carbs and sources of "empty" calories that lead to weight gain. In the past, the Atkins Diet was popular for allowing its followers to consume large amounts of fat (burgers, cheese, bacon, eggs, etc.) and still lose weight, as long as the carb count was low. Common sense and research tells us that consuming a large amount of fat is probably not good for your health in the long term. Thus, the diet plan caught a lot of bad press for this and has since repositioned itself—now promoting lean protein and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables.
That sounds much better, but a low-carbohydrate diet may be difficult for people to stick to long term. With so many foods off limits, the diet plan can quickly get boring. And nutritionists worry that this diet plan fails to teach people the basic principles of a balanced healthy diet, which tends to be easier to follow in the long term and also lowers our risk for disease (and has the science to back it up). The Atkins Diet can also create unwanted side effects—including bad breath (due to a condition called ketosis), insomnia, dizziness, and constipation due to increased protein paired with decreased fiber intake.
The Atkins Diet has definitely proven itself as an effective method of weight loss, especially in the short term. And for the average American, it's hard to pass up the opportunity to eat steak and eggs with a side of gruyere and still shed unwanted pounds. What we are concerned about is the potentially high fat content and the lack of balance in the diet. However, we do like Atkins's updated emphasis on lean protein and its shift toward a variety of fruits, vegetables, and some whole grains. It goes without saying; if you can't live without pasta, french fries, or French baguettes; this diet is not for you.
We agree that many Americans eat way too many carbohydrates, but all phases of Atkins diet are still too low in carbohydrates to be healthy. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends a minimum of 150 grams of carbohydrate per day for adults. Carbohydrates containing foods are necessary in the diet for energy, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Before starting any kind of diet plan, it's imperative that you talk to your doctor first to see if it is right for you. If your mind is set on seeing what all the Atkins hype is about, we recommend trying the diet for only a couple of weeks. You will likely lose weight, but beware of the bounce back, so to speak. As with many diets, people often experience accelerated weight gain when they return to their old eating habits. If your doctor clears you to try the Atkins diet, we encourage you to be sensible about it—opt for chicken or fish as opposed to the all-you-can-eat bunless cheeseburger buffet, get your fill of fruits and vegetables, and make sure you reach your allowance of daily carbohydrates by eating fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods.
Written by: JC Jones and Ryan Wallace
Medically reviewed by Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N
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