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Atkins Diet: The Pros and Cons Behind This Low-Carb Diet

Butter, bacon and beef. You don’t often see these three items together on a weight loss plan, but they are A-OK (in moderation, of course!) on the low-carb, high-fat Atkins diet. To all those meat lovers out there, the Atkins diet could be a dream. But for those who love bread and other high-carb foods, this could be tough.

The Atkins diet has some benefits and can be easier to follow than other diets that require more planning and calorie counting, such as the keto diet, which is stricter and harder to maintain. However, the Atkins diet doesn’t mean you can slather that bacon-wrapped steak with a stick of butter either.

Bailey Shupe, a Banner Health registered dietitian educator, cracked open the Atkins diet and shared the advantages and disadvantages of this popular diet plan.

What is the Atkins diet?

The Atkins plan was created in the 1960s by cardiologist Dr. Robert C. Atkins who believed that carbohydrates, and not fats, were responsible for health problems and weight gain.

“The Atkins diet focuses on balancing carbs, fat and protein in order to get away from the typical highly refined carb diets we see in a lot of in the U.S.,” Shupe said. “Because of the lower amount of carbs, it is believed that the body will begin to burn stored fat for fuel rather than carbs.”

This diet focuses on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods rather than high-carb, processed foods. Instead of calculating calories you will have to carefully track your carbs. This means you can eat the same amount of food as usual, but instead in the form of protein and fat.

“The Atkins diet restricts carbs, especially in its early stages,” Shupe said. “It uses a tracking method known as net carbs, which is the total number of carbs minus its fiber content in grams which has people focusing on the healthier, high fiber carbohydrate foods like fruits and whole grains rather than the empty, refined carbs like pasta and bread that take over a lot of plates today.”

When you don’t eat as many empty carbs, your body will start to turn stored body fat into energy. This process is known as ketosis. The breakdown of fatty acids produces ketones, which are the chemicals made in your liver that are typically triggered when your body doesn’t get enough glucose or sugar/carbohydrates.

Phases of the Atkins diet

The Atkins diet has four phases, starting with very few carbs and gradually eating more until you get to your desired weight.

Phase One (Strict Phase/Induction Phase):

You eat low carb (10% or 20% of net carbs), with the main foundation being non-starchy veggies and lean proteins such as fish and chicken for two weeks. You avoid most fruits, sugary beverages, refined baked goods, breads, pastas, grains and alcohol.

This is the phase where weight loss begins. It’s recommended you have low-carb veggies with every meal—roughly 12 to 15 grams of your daily net carbs.

Phase Two (Balancing Phase):

You keep eating a minimum of 12 to 15 grams of low-carb veggies but start to slowly include higher carbohydrate vegetables and berries, along with nuts and seeds as you keep losing weight. You remain in this phase until you are 10 pounds from your goal weight.

Phase Three (Pre-maintenance Phase):

Once you are near your target weight, the third phase starts. In this phase, you gradually add small amounts of starchy vegetables, fruits and grains, adding about 10 grams of carbs to your diet each week and continue until you reach your target weight.

Phase Four (Maintenance Phase):

You reach this phase when you reach your goal weight. “This phase is in hopes that what you have learned in the other phases will become a lifelong lifestyle change and that you will continue with good eating behaviors from then on,” Shupe said.

A typical day’s menu on the Atkins diet

Here’s a look at what you might eat in phase one of the Atkins diet:

  • Breakfast - Two eggs, turkey bacon and a half-cup of low-carb vegetables. 
  • Lunch - Chicken or turkey meatballs on spaghetti squash with low sugar tomato sauce.
  • Dinner - Grilled fish with a salad loaded with low carb veggies dressed in oil and vinegar or lemon.
  • Snacks - Cucumber slices with cream cheese or celery with peanut butter. You should have only two snacks in a day.

What are the benefits of the Atkins diet?

While going low carb may be difficult for some, there are some advantages of going on the Atkins diet. Here are some of the potential benefits.

Your clothes may fit better

Like with many other diet plans, your body will shed pounds within the first few days on the Atkins diet. However, much of this weight will be excess water weight. After this, you can expect the remaining weight loss to come from body fat.

“If you’re restricting carbs and also being aware of the type of carbs you consume, you will likely remove a good chunk of calories daily and lose some weight,” Shupe said.

You’ll feel fuller and less hangry

Protein and fat generally take longer than carbs to digest, which means you may feel fuller (satiated) longer and won’t reach for that bag of chips hanging out in the pantry.

Atkins may help prevent or improve health conditions

This eating plan, along with other weight loss diets, may help you shed excess weight, which can reduce or even reverse risk factors for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

“One study showed that people who followed the Atkins diet had improved triglycerides, blood sugar, and HDL or good cholesterol, as well as lowered LDL or bad cholesterol,” Shupe said. “However, there haven’t been studies that show whether these benefits are long-term.”

What are the risks of the Atkins diet?

Here are some of the potential disadvantages of the Atkins diet.

You may experience side effects

Eating a low-carb diet can cause side effects like headaches, dizziness, weakness and fatigue.

“If you begin to feel flu-like symptoms, your body may be trying to adapt to the change in your fuel source,” Shupe said. “This is known as the ‘keto flu’ and can cause you to feel tired, nauseous and foggy headed.”

Some people have reported bad breath, thinning hair or hair loss, particularly in the first phase of the diet.

You may find Atkins too restrictive

Cutting out a portion of food groups and focusing on balancing your day with healthier foods could cause problems in your personal life, including eating out at restaurants or attending social events.  Being in these situations can potentially lead to overeating unhealthy foods.

Long-term benefits are not known

There have been no major studies to show whether health benefits associated with low-carb diets like Atkins hold up long term or increase how long you live. Some experts even state that eating a diet heavy in fat and protein from animal sources can increase your risk for heart disease or some cancers.

“Luckily, the Atkins diet has morphed over the years to take those health risks into account and add more nutritious foods such as non-starchy veggies, fruit and lean cuts of meat that are better for you instead of the high saturated fats like processed cheeses, bacon and high fat red meat,” Shupe said.

Talk to your health care provider

The Atkins diet isn’t right for everyone. Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian to see if this plan is right for you.

Takeaway

The Atkins diet focuses on balancing carbs, protein and fat and creating long-lasting lifestyle changes. While it can have short-term results, such as rapid weight loss, long-term results aren’t well known.

If you’re considering the Atkins diet or another low-carb diet, talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian. To find a doctor at Banner Health, visit www.bannerhealth.com.

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