What it is

Steak with Bearnaise sauce, eggs, and bacon; cheddar cheese omelets — don’t hold the yolks; Blue cheese dressing and silky smooth avocado cream soup made with real cream? These rich foods are allowed as part of the controversial diet described in Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, a phenomenal best seller, and several follow-up books.

The Atkins diet promises that not only will you lose weight — and not be hungry — with a low-carbohydrate diet, but you’ll also be on the road to better heart health and memory function, as well as other wellness benefits.

The diet is based on the theory that overweight people eat too many carbohydrates. Our bodies burn both fat and carbohydrates for energy, but carbs are used first. By drastically reducing carbs and eating more protein and fat, our bodies naturally lose weight by burning stored body fat more efficiently.

Although it’s undoubtedly the weight-loss claims — and noted success stories — that are selling the books, the Center for Complementary Medicine in New York (which Atkins founded) claims that most people follow the Atkins diet for weight maintenance, good health, and disease prevention.

HOW IT’S DONE

The rules of new Atkins are simple: three meals a day each containing 4-6oz of protein, salads (up to three bowls a day) and vegetables (starting at 2oz a day).

The protein foods are there to keep you feeling pleasantly full protein is fundamentally self-limiting in a way that chocolate chip cookies are not) and you are warned not to skimp on fat, which works to keep your appetite and cravings under control.

There’s no calorie counting, but you have to be very exact about the carbohydrates you consume, working out each portion in terms of its ‘net carb’ value (calculated as its total carb value minus its fibre content).

If you start with the highly effective initial weight loss stage of the diet, you will be encouraged to keep net carbs at 0.7oz per day (0.5oz of which should come from vegetables).

However, once the weight is off, or if you don’t have much to lose, you can raise your net carb restriction day-by-day by experimenting with different foods, until you find your own happy equilibrium.

Everyone is different. Your personal tolerance for carbohydrates may be as low as 1oz or as much as 3.5oz a day (you should be fine eating pasta, bread and even the odd baked potato).

New Atkins bans sugar (in its many forms) and any foods made from it; fruit juice, energy drinks and smoothies. The same goes for foods with white flour or other refined grains  –  white bread, rice and pasta.

They have a higher fibre content, and therefore a lower net carb value, so wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice can be quite safely eaten at this maintenance stage, but in moderation and, in some cases, not at all.

Many people find there are some foods they simply cannot handle or must eat very carefully in order not to gain weight and stimulate cravings.

A strong desire for a certain food, particularly one high in carbs, may be a clear sign that it could be trouble for you.

Even if you have an admirably high carb tolerance, you are not likely to be able to maintain your weight for long if you chose heavy carbs with every meal.

If your carb limit is 1.7oz a day, it’s up to you how you use it, but a typical new Atkins menu plan would make allowances for, say, porridge for breakfast one day, wholemeal pasta for lunch the next, and a slice of wholemeal bread for supper on the third day  –  not all three on one day

Exercise, never a crucial part of old Atkins, is gently encouraged under the new regime. Studies show that people who are physically active have a better chance of maintaining their weight loss than people who are sedentary.

Regular exercise is known to help increase fat burning, and will certainly boost your daily energy use, enabling you to increase your repertoire of carbs.

If all goes to plan, under new Atkins you should get to the point where you are conscious of your weight but not obsessed with it, and, if you keep track of the carbs you eat, you should be able to comfortably stay there for ever.

What you can eat

By restricting carbohydrates drastically to a mere fraction of that found in the typical diet, the body goes into a state of “ketosis”, which means it burns its own fat for fuel. A person in ketosis is getting energy from ketones, little carbon fragments that are the fuel created by the breakdown of fat stores. When the body is in ketosis, you tend to feel less hungry, and thus you’re likely to eat less than you might otherwise. However, ketosis can also cause a variety of unpleasant effects (such as bad breath and constipation) in a small number of people.

As a result, your body changes from a carbohydrate-burning engine into a fat-burning engine. So instead of relying on the carbohydrate-rich items you might typically consume for energy, and leaving your fat stores just where they were before (the hips, abdomen and  thighs), your fat stores become a primary energy source. The purported result: weight loss.

In slightly more detail, consider what happens when you eat a high-carbohydrate meal. Sugar from the carbohydrate quickly enters the bloodstream. To keep the blood sugar from rising too high, the body secretes insulin. Insulin allows the extra sugar to be stored in the liver and muscle as glycogen, but these stores are rapidly filled to capacity. The insulin then converts any extra sugar to fat – that which we’re trying so hard to get rid of.

According to the Atkins theory, if the body keeps on making “too much” insulin — as it tries to deal with the “excess” sugar — it may become less responsive to insulin and eventually may develop the metabolic disorder, diabetes. The Atkins theory states that this should properly be called “unstable blood sugar” since the blood sugar level rises and then drops quickly.

What you can eat continued…

This “first step in an unhealthy metabolic path” leads to “the early stages of diabetes.” However, a body in ketosis burns up excess fat, and in time — according to the Atkins theory — returns to normal metabolic function. Though all the fat in this diet may temporarily spike someone’s cholesterol level, this is usually short lived and soon rights itself with a lower cholesterol and triglyceride level as weight loss occurs — at least, that’s the theory.

For most people, the carb consumption must be no more than 40 grams a day for this biochemical mechanism to occur. Although exercise isn’t stressed, the Atkins theory holds that some people will need to add physical activity for ketosis to kick in. People are urged to supplement with vitamins, since they won’t be getting them from sources such as fruit and vegetables.

The plan allows you to eat foods that many dieters have only dreamed about. The diet is said to work even if other diets have left you feeling depressed and deprived. The Atkins diet at a glance:

  • Sets few limits on the amount of food you eat but instead severely restricts the kinds of food allowed on your plate: no refined sugar, milk, white rice, or white flour
  • Allows you to eat foods traditionally regarded as “rich”: meat, eggs, cheese, and more
  • Claims to reduce your appetite in the process
  • On the Atkins diet, you’re eating almost pure protein and fat. You can consume red meat, fish (including shellfish), chicken, and regular cheese (not “diet” cheese, cheese spreads, or whey cheeses). You can cook with butter, have mayonnaise with your tuna, and put olive oil on your salads.

On the other hand, carbs are restricted (about 20 grams of net carbs per day, meaning total carbs minus fibre) in the first two weeks, which translates to about 120 grams of salad or about 130 grams of cooked low-carb vegetables (e.g. broccoli, courgettes, green beans) each day.

There are no exceptions to these rules during the first two weeks because low-carb consumption (no fruit and only a few leafy green vegetables) is supposed to jump-start the weight-loss biochemical activity of the diet. You’re not countingcalories (in fact, you may be eating more calories than you were before).

Later, the carb allowance is increased in the form of fibre-rich foods, but you do not return to eating refined sugar (by the teaspoonful or in desserts), milk, white rice, white bread, white potatoes or pasta made with the dreaded white flour. Those remain on a lifelong list of forbidden pleasures.

The diet does allow for adding fruit, vegetables, and wholegrain foods after the two-week induction period.

Then, over time, the transition from weight loss to weight maintenance is made by gradually increasing carbs as long as gradual weight loss is maintained.

Exercise in all phases as part of a healthy lifestyle is now emphasized more than when the diet was first introduced.

Both in the UK and abroad, the Atkins diet remains highly controversial.

An Atkins spokesperson points out that a number of studies since 2002, demonstrate some benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet — especially when weight-loss results achieved with a diet like the Atkins plan are compared to weight-loss results on other diet plans.

However many health experts remain wary about the long-term safety of the diet.

Dr Robert Eckel, at the general clinical research centre at the University of Colorado in the US says, “Our worries over the Atkins diet go far past the question of whether it is effective for losing weight or even for keeping weight off. We worry that the diet promotes heart disease. … We have concerns over whether this is a healthy diet for preventing heart disease, stroke, and cancer. There is also potential loss of bone, and the potential for people with liver and kidney problems to have trouble with the high amounts of protein in these diets.”

Barbara Roll at Penn State University in the US says:  “No-one has shown, in any studies, that anything magical is going on with Atkins other than calorie restriction. The diet is very prescriptive, very restrictive, and limits half of the foods we normally eat. In the end it’s not fat, it’s not protein, it’s not carbs, it’s calories. You can lose weight on anything that helps you to eat less, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

EAT UP AND STAY SLIM

These two daily menu suggestions are based on 95g of net carbs a day.

MENU ONE:

BREAKFAST: 2 scrambled eggs with 2oz of sauteed onions, 2oz grated cheese and 1/2 a grapefruit

SNACK: low carb bar and 4oz of blackberries

LUNCH: grilled chicken on 16oz of green salad with 4oz sweetcorn, 4oz chopped red pepper, 4oz black beans and dressing

SNACK: 1 medium carrot and 2oz walnuts

DINNER: Steak with flourless gravy, 4oz mashed potato, 16oz green salad plus 1oz goats cheese, 4oz mangetout, 4oz beetroot and vinaigrette

MENU TWO: 
BREAKFAST: 4oz cooked rolled oats with 2oz whole milk, 2oz blueberries and 1oz almonds

SNACK: 1oz walnuts and 4oz tomato juice

LUNCH: sliced turkey on 1 slice wholemeal bread with 32oz green salad, 2oz roasted red peppers and 2oz cooked lentils with raspberry vinaigrette

SNACK: 2 slices cheese and 1/2 apple

DINNER: Fajitas of sliced steak with 2oz onions, 2oz sauteed green peppers, 2oz refried beans, 2oz no-sugar salsa, 16oz green salad, 1/2 an avocado with dressing.

Food for thought

The Atkins theories remain unproven, and most experts are concerned that a high-protein, high-fat diet can cause a host of problems, particularly for the large segment of the population that is at risk of heart disease. What’s more, the plan doesn’t permit a high intake of fruit and vegetables, recommended by most nutrition experts because of the numerous documented health benefits from these foods.

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