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The Atkins Diet

What is the Atkins diet?

The Atkins diet promotes itself as a long-term, low-carbohydrate eating plan for weight loss and maintenance. This diet emphasizes eating protein, fat, and low-starch vegetables. Simple carbohydrates, such as flour and sugar, are highly restricted or eliminated altogether.

The Atkins diet is a high-protein, high-fat, and low-carbohydrate diet.

Cardiologist Robert C. Atkins created the Atkins diet in 1972. Dr. Atkins argued that dietary fat isn’t what makes us overweight, suggesting instead that carbohydrates are to blame. By restricting carbs, dieters are told they can drop considerable amounts of weight without giving up foods they enjoy.

How it works

According to Dr. Atkins, carbohydrates cause a spike in blood sugar levels. This spike causes the body to store fat. Dr. Atkins concluded that by greatly reducing your carbohydrate consumption your body would burn stored fat and do a better job of regulating blood sugar levels.

There are four phases of the Atkins diet:

  • Phase 1: Carbohydrates are limited to 20 grams per day. This is where the most dramatic weight loss occurs.
  • Phase 2: Carbohydrate intake is slightly increased. Here, dieters can add certain vegetables, berries, nuts, and seeds back into their diet, slightly increasing carb intake without stopping weight loss. This is the longest stage of the diet. You stay here until you are about 10 pounds from your weight loss goal.
  • Phase 3: Called "pre-maintenance," this stage allows you to add 10 grams of carbohydrates to your diet each week, including starchy vegetables and some whole grains. If weight loss stops, you cut carbs again — just enough to maintain a steady weight loss until you reach your goal.
  • Phase 4: This is a lifetime maintenance stage with a target carb intake of 45 to 100 grams per day.

The promise

The Atkins diet promises to help you lose excess weight and keep it off by consuming fewer carbohydrates. Limiting carb intake is supposed to burn greater amounts of fat and keep blood sugar levels within a healthy range. The diet plan promises to be a lifetime approach to weight loss, not a temporary solution.

Dr. Atkins and supporters say that this diet makes weight loss simple and easy. In the first few phases, the program promises fast and dramatic fat loss without deprivation.

Low-carbohydrate diets are proven to be effective for short-term weight loss. These diet plans call for a reduction in snack foods, sweets, and alcohol, which are often high in simple carbs and calories that lead to weight gain. In the past, the Atkins diet was popular for allowing its followers to consume large amounts of fat and still lose weight. However, large amounts of dietary fat can increase your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Because of this, some proponents of the Atkins diet have since revised their recommendations and now promote lean, or low-fat, protein and a wider variety of high-fiber fruits and vegetables.

While promoting a more balanced diet is a positive move, a low-carbohydrate diet may be difficult to stick to long term. With many foods deemed off limits, the diet plan can quickly get boring.

In some cases, the Atkins diet can also have unpleasant side effects. These include:

  • bad breath
  • insomnia
  • dizziness
  • constipation
  • lethargy

For some, these side effects are tolerable during the initial weight loss. They can become more troublesome as the diet continues and your weight loss slows, especially if they affect your ability to consistently exercise.

According to a 2003 study from the New England Journal of Medicine, Atkins dieters lost more weight in the first four months than low-calorie dieters, but by the end of the first year weight change was similar between the two groups. The Atkins followers did show better improvements in some risk factors for coronary artery disease in the short term.

Recent research emerging from the American Microbiome Institute, which is studying the bacterial flora in the intestines, has found that a diet high in saturated fat negatively impacts gut bacteria and may impact long-term metabolism. So far, most research has been conducted in mouse models, but the data is convincing enough to warrant caution when pursuing an Atkins or ketogenic-style diet.


Over the years, the Atkins diet has proven to be an effective way to lose weight, especially in the short term. What concerns some medical professionals is the lack of balance in this diet. That being said, the Atkins diet’s updated emphasis on lean protein is a positive move. The updated diet also encourages a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, and some whole grains.

Cutting down on carbohydrates in the form of convenience foods, fast foods, and sugars will certainly help you lose weight. However, all phases of the Atkins diet are still too low in carbohydrates to be healthy. The USDA recommends that adults get 45 to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are part of a balanced diet. They are necessary for energy, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Before starting any kind of diet plan, talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you. If you do decide to try the Atkins diet, opt for lean proteins, such as chicken or fish, rather than the all-you-can-eat bunless cheeseburger buffet. Make sure you reach your allowance of daily carbohydrates by including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and starchy vegetables. Also, be aware that abandoning any strict diet can lead to rapid weight gain. When it comes to weight loss and overall health, its best to work on healthy eating habits that are sustainable long term.

Content licensed from:

Written by: JC Jones and Ryan Wallace
Medically reviewed on: Aug 19, 2016: Natalie Butler, RD, LD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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