Curb your carbs: Does the Atkins diet really work?

Atkins dieters eschew carbs, like this pasta, chips and bread sticks in order to lose weight quickly. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

Atkins dieters eschew carbs, like this pasta, chips and bread sticks in order to lose weight quickly. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

If you're considering a weight loss plan, you've probably heard about the Atkins diet or at least the principles of the low-carb diet plan.

The Atkins diet got its start in the early 1970s with Dr. Robert Atkins. He advocated limiting carbohydrate intake while increasing protein and healthy fat consumption. So what does this mean for you? What foods can you eat, what foods are off of the table and can the plan really offer long-term change and weight management?

What's the key to the Atkins diet?

Instead of forcing participants to count calories and restrict the intake of foods such as meat and cheese, Atkins focused on carbohydrates. The diet's main claim is that high carb intake causes an excess of sugar in the body, which in turn prompted insulin production and turned sugar into fat. By vastly reducing the amount of carbs consumed, the body was forced into a state of ketosis.

Ketosis occurs when your body doesn't have enough carbs to burn for energy, and instead switches to burning fat. The reported result is weight loss and a lowered risk of diabetes because you aren't producing as much insulin. Possible side effects from ketosis include bad breath and constipation, and you may also experience heightened cholesterol levels during the diet's initial phase. Some experts are critical of ketosis, arguing that the brain needs at least 150 grams of carbs per day to function properly.

What to eat and what to avoid

On the Atkins diet, you can eat many foods that are prohibited in other weight-loss plans: Meat, seafood, eggs, cheese, olive oil and even butter are all acceptable, but you must severely restrict your intake of fruits, vegetables, processed sugars and breads. Trans and saturated fats should be avoided wherever possible — similarly, white flour products must be completely removed.

To be successful on this plan, you must learn to count carbs, and know exactly how many carbs you're eating. Atkins uses a system called net carbs where the carb value of an item is found by subtracting its fiber content from its carbohydrate total. One-half cup of raw broccoli, for example, has a net carb value of 1 gram, since it has 2.3 grams of total carbohydrates minus 1.3 grams of fiber. Black beans, meanwhile, have a whopping 13 grams of net carbs despite also having eight grams of fiber.

The four phases of the Atkins diet

The Atkins diet is divided into four phases. The first two-week phase, called Induction, is the most restrictive. It's intended to rapidly put your body into a state of ketosis by severely limiting carbs. Of the 20 carb grams allowed per day, 12 to 15 must come from salad greens or an approved list of fruits and vegetables, including pumpkin, turnips and tomatoes. No alcohol is permitted and exercise, while beneficial, is not required. Drinking eight glasses of water per day is mandatory. Some dieters see losses of five to 10 pounds per week in this phase.

The second phase, called Ongoing Weight Loss, slows the weight-loss process by adding five grams of carbs per week by increasing vegetable intake, then cheese, then nuts and seeds, alcohol, legumes and other fruits. This phase lasts until you are within 10 pounds of your goal weight.

Phase three, called Pre-Maintenance, focuses on finding the maximum amount of carbs you can eat while keeping your weight stable. In this phase, you can introduce 10 grams of carbs per week until you stop losing weight. Forbidden items such as processed sugar or white flour can be added in small amounts.

The final phase, Lifetime Maintenance, sees a return to more familiar eating habits but with hopefully smarter food choices such as whole and unprocessed options. If at any time you begin to gain weight, move to a lower phase and start again.

Nutrition experts agree that this diet will help you lose weight when followed, but some argue it can increase your risk of heart disease or permanently damage your metabolism. Others advocate it as an alternative to restrictive diets, which have no room for more "typical" eating habits. Before you start any new diet plan, however, consider consulting a nutritionist for advice, since acute physical or ongoing medical conditions may make it prohibitive for you to start any kind of carb-restricted diet.

While Atkins isn't for everyone, the plan does offer a way to lose weight while still keeping many of your favorite foods on the table.

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