The Atkins Diet: Sorting out Fact From Fiction

The Atkins Diet: Sorting out Fact From Fiction

Few events in the nutritional word have sparked more controversy than the introduction of the Atkins Diet by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. Indeed, if you select a person off the street and mention the Atkins Diet, you are likely to get a strong reaction one way or the other, even if the person could not explain exactly what the Atkins Diet is. If you press for an explanation, a person might talk about eating a pound of bacon for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch (without the bun), and a steak for dinner with a load of butter on it. Or, they might just say ''high fat, no carbs.'' Most people, I think, would be highly skeptical of the diet upon first hearing of it, if for no other reason than it seems so different from all other types of diets. I, too, had been skeptical until I read Dr. Atkins book, Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution.

Before I describe the diet itself, let me first describe what it is not. Many people in the nutrition industry describe the Atkins Diet and other low carb diets as a ''fad''. To understand why that word does not apply to the Atkins Diet, let me quote a fad is ''A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze''. (highlighting mine) I emphasize ''brief'' in the definition simply because Dr. Atkins proposed his diet more than 30 years ago. It rose to prominence in the late 70''s, but faded from the public eye for some time before emerging again recently. Yet, the implication that the diet is a ''fad'' does not wash because the diet appears to have stood the test of time.

Second, people mistake the strict phase of the Atkins Diet for the diet itself. In other words, people assume that the Atkins Diet essentially eliminates all carbohydrates (vegetables, fruit, grains, etc) permanently. Like the South Beach Diet, however, the Atkins Diet consists of multiple phases. The first phase is the most strict, with a virtual elimination of all carbohydrate foods, except for lettuce leaves and some vegetables. Some confuse the initial phase for the entire diet, but it is not. Rather, that stage lasts two weeks with the purpose of eliminating cravings for sugar and other easily digested carbohydrates. It also helps to put the body into a state of ketosis, where the body burns primarily fats as fuel, rather than carbohydrates. As one progresses through the diet, one can begin adding more carbohydrates, but as with most other diets, certain foods remain a rare indulgence.

Lastly, the Atkins Diet is not necessarily a high-fat diet. Admittedly, this is harder to see both from the types of food eaten while following the diet and from the Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution book itself. Yet, according to Dr. Atkins, "...eating lean foods is quite appropriate..only a small percentage of dieters should be on a high-fat diet, and that''s limited to people who don''t do well when the diet''s lean."1 (pg. 302) He includes a number of recipes high in butter, cream, and egg yolks, but those recipes are intended as special treats, not part of the typical Atkins Diet. Turkey and chicken breast (which are leaner than dark poultry), together with lean beef, eggs, and salad form the staples of the Atkins Diet. Bacon, contrary to popular opinion, is not emphasized very strongly in the diet.

So, then what exactly is the diet? I cannot do justice to the entire nutritional system Dr. Atkins devised in this brief space, but I will attempt a concise summary. Basically, the diet emphasizes protein over carbohydrates, and it particularly emphasizes that simple carbohydrates found in starchy foods such as pasta, rice, french fries, etc. are the primary reason for the obesity epidemic that plagues affluent western countries. Highly processed foods, particularly highly processed foods high in carbohydrates, lead to insulin resistance, resulting obesity, type II diabetes, and other disorders when eaten in abundance. The primary goal of the diet is to eliminate those highly processed carbs.

The other part of the diet involves the induction of ketosis, what Dr. Atkins calls Benign Dietary Ketosis, not to be confused with the life-threatening ketoacidosis experienced by type I diabetics (those who need insulin injections). Ketosis of the form doctor atkins describes occurs when total carbohydrate intake is low, such that people burn off fat stores for energy. As fat get metabolized by the body it burns off particles called ketones that get excreted in urine. The diet recommends testing for ketosis using ketosis/lipolysis strips. A dieter is encouraged to maintain that state of ketosis during the early stages of the diet.

As mentioned above, extreme carbohydrate restriction occurs only in the early phase of the diet. After the initial two weeks, that restriction gradually is lifted, but that doesn''t mean one can go back to cookies and ice cream. Rather, the diet calls for more vegetable and limited fruit consumption. To give a brief summary of the foods generally permitted by the Atkins Diet, and in what proportion they''re allowed check out the food pyramid proposed by the Atkins Center. As you can see, protein compromises the bulk of the food consumed on the diet, with vegetables forming the second highest tier on the pyramid. Specific fruits, such as berries and avocados, form the next tier, with nuts, cheese, oils and dairy the next. Last comes whole grains, such as oats and barley. The placement of grains stands in sharp contrast to the current food pyramid, but the Atkins placement is probably deserved.

Again, I cannot do justice to the diet in this space. Should you wish to learn more, I recommend reading Dr. Atkins book and checking out the website. When you do so, you''ll be more qualified to judge the diet on its merits. I wouldn''t recommend the diet without qualification, though, for the high protein aspect of the diet causes a strong diuretic effect (it makes you urinate more often) that can be dangerous for people on certain medications. Other than that, there are certain other aspects of the diet that might not be best for everyone, including the call to count carbohydrates, which could dissuade people who are not at all detail oriented.

Ultimately, though, it would be better for you to make the decision regarding the diet on your own, in consultation with a physician.2 Dr. Atkins himself advises working closely with a physician during the course of the diet to check blood chemistries. He wants you, the dieter, to know how the diet affects your health, not simply your waistline. So, he advises regular blood work to check cholesterol and triglyceride levels, at the very least. Also, if you have any medical condition consult a physician before trying this diet.

Finally, I must conclude with a brief opinion. The basic principles outlined in the Atkins Diet are sound. I think, for example, that if one looks closely into both the Atkins Diet and the South Beach Diet, one will find very strong similarities between the two. There do exist differences between the two diets, but they are more by way of emphasis than basic principle. If you reduce your intake of highly processed foods, your waistline will shrink and your health will greatly improve. What, exactly, one replaces those highly processed foods and in what proportion forms the basis of the difference between the two diets. Both, though, emphasize that diets are meant to last for a lifetime and are basically a permanent change in eating habits rather than some temporary measure to shed pounds. They both implement a system to proceed from a strict initial phase to a lifetime maintenance phase that will aid one in permanently changing your way of eating.

Lastly, the Atkins Diet provides hope. Weight problems and the associated health disorders can be controlled. If for no other reason than that, I encourage anyone who has struggled with weight issues to read this book even if you choose, say, the South Beach Diet over the Atkins. Hope is an extremely powerful motivator and Dr. Atkins'' book and the nutritional system he describes can give you that most precious of gifts in abundance.