Grade The Diet: The Atkins Diet
Whenever low-carb diets are discussed, the Atkins Diet always finds a way to sneak into the conversation. Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, this diet was extremely popular and mainstream. For the first time ever you could “diet” while eating bacon, ribs and chicken fingers; is it any wonder why it was so popular? Overall, I don’t like this diet BUT that doesn’t mean that it can’t be useful and provide us with some different things to consider. I don’t personally use a low carb diet or prescribe them for my clients but some people feel great and experience results on ketogenic diets. As I always say, the best diet is the one that is sustainable for the long term. I don’t teach people how to diet; I try and teach them how to eat for life.
What is the Atkins Diet?
The Atkins Diet just calls for you to eat mainly proteins/fats and avoid carbohydrates. The best or worst part (depends how you look at it) is that food choice is of no importance. Blue Cheese, Ranch Dressing, Bacon, Ribeye steaks, mayonnaise, butter, can all be yours. The Atkins proponents believe that most people overeat carbohydrates (which they do) and that by eliminating them they guarantee you will lose weight (this isn’t always true). Carbohydrates do not make people fat, eating excess calories and sitting on your ass all day makes people fat. People who are sedentary don’t have a huge need for carbohydrates yet it normally makes up a majority of their diet. Diabetes and insulin resistance are growing problems so trying to restore insulin sensitivity with lower carbs makes perfect sense for this specific population. Those who lift weights/exercise and experience the boost in insulin sensitivity can tolerate more carbohydrates in their diet, so these people rarely venture into the Atkins diet.
At the end of the day energy balance is still paramount in weight loss. If I need 2,000 calories a day to lose weight and I’m eating all of the fatty foods (low carb of course) that I desire and I end up at 2,400 calories per day, I will absolutely not lose weight. There is no debating this; you must be in a caloric deficit to lose weight. However, this set up does work for some people. Some people need a diet that is very easy to follow and straight forward. So, by completely eliminating a macronutrient from their diet they may be less likely to overeat. If this allows them to stay under their caloric limit and follow the diet for the long-term then it’s better than nothing.
The number 1 benefit to this diet is its simplicity, just avoid carbohydrates, otherwise you can eat what you please. Granted, a majority of the foods that people love are full of carbohydrates, everyone realizes there must be at least some sacrifices made while dieting. So while that bread is a no go, you are free to eat a double cheeseburger with bacon from Mcdonald’s as long as you toss the bun.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people would benefit from some periods of lower carbohydrate intake to help restore their sensitivity to insulin and improve carbohydrate metabolism. Normally, people will lose a good chunk of weight the first week on this diet, though it is mainly a loss of water from eliminating carbs as a gram of carbohydrate pulls roughly 2.7g of water into the muscle. So you will likely pee a lot the first week and drop some cheap pounds which will excite you.
The benefits are:
– Easy to follow
– Allows you to eat fatty foods that you love
– Improves insulin sensitivity
– High protein diets are helpful in satiety, so by staying full you will be less likely to overeat.
– For most, this diet leads to a higher protein intake than normal. High protein diets are beneficial in weight loss, gaining lean tissue, sparing muscle tissue; protein is also very thermogenic (highest TEF compared to fats/carbs), 30% of the calories from protein are lost due to heat from the energy required to digest and absorb protein.
Frankly, it is just not healthy to eat unlimited fats like mayonnaise and chicken wings. I am not saying that these foods need to be avoided like the plague; moderation is the key in any diet. The other issue is that fat is the highest amount of calories per gram (9kcal) compared to 4kcal for 1g protein (some argue 3.2) and 4kcal for 1g of carbohydrates. So if you aren’t keeping an eye on fat intake at all it becomes easy to go above your calories for the day/week/month. I looked over a client’s diet that had followed Atkins before we met and he went over his daily caloric goal almost every single day, so obviously no weight loss occurred. The food choices were less than optimal and I’d assume that his triglyceride and cholesterol numbers weren’t doing so hot either.
In terms of those who lift weights, it’s very hard to gain any tissue on very low carb diets. Studies have showed that tissue can be maintained on a low carb diet (Click Here) but glucose is the preferred fuel source for high intense activity. Some argue that performance and strength will suffer on a ketogenic or low carb diet and while it might at first, some studies have shown that once adapted to the diet (usually around 14 days) there is little change in performance. But for an athlete, strength athlete, bodybuilder, you will need the carbohydrates to fuel exercise and recover from it. There is a difference between effective and optimal…
The negatives are:
– Not the “healthiest” diet if food choices aren’t going to be optimal
– Despite the claims, it’s still very easy to overeat and go over on calories
– Very difficult to add muscle with no carbohydrates
– As soon as carbohydrates are reintroduced the majority of people gain all of their weight back
– Not a long term solution as carbohydrates are everywhere
– Hard to get enough fiber if you are avoiding things like fruit, veggies, etc.
Overall, I think the Atkins Diet should be avoided. There are far better alternatives. While I think it has some nice take home points, it’s too extreme and ignores calories. Carbohydrates are eaten in excess in today’s day and age but they are not the devil. I have no problem with lower carb diets as it can be done in a healthy fashion by focusing on lean meats, healthy fats (avocados, coconut oil, etc) and green fibrous vegetables.
My Grade: D