What Is the Atkins Diet? And Why It Works So Well
I’m sure that you already have some preconceived ideas of what you think the Atkins diet is all about. With such a high profile, and being constantly in the media, the Atkins diet is probably one of the worlds most well-known diet plans.
But what is this diet really all about? How does it work? And, what is the science behind it? In this article I will answer these questions, which will show you why it’s such a successful weight loss program that is successfully followed by millions of people worldwide.
The History Behind
During the 1960s, Dr Robert Atkins was an overweight physician and cardiologist working in the US. After reading a study about a low-starch diet he became interested in the concept of a low carbohydrate diet and decided to research it further.
When he successfully lost weight himself, he tested out his diet on 65 of his patients who were also overweight, and when they also lost weight he realized he was on to something. In 1972 he published his best-selling diet book Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution – it sold millions and he became an overnight celebrity.
In 1992, he published an updated version of the book called Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, in which he modified some areas in line with the current ideas about nutrition, but he still remained true to his original diet plan.
The Science Behind
Atkins believed that carbohydrate was the enemy to weight loss. The Atkins diet plan, (or the Atkins Nutritional Approach as it is also known), essentially involves following a low carbohydrate diet.
Carbohydrates are consumed in limited quantities in order to “switch” or alter the way the body metabolizes foods. So, instead of the body metabolizing glucose for energy, it will start to metabolize stored body fat. And when stored body fat is being used as the main energy source, then the theory is that you will start to lose weight.
Carbohydrate and Glucose
Carbohydrate is found in starchy foods like potatoes, pasta, and rice. But the body does not process carbohydrate very efficiently and so enzymes breakdown the carbohydrate molecules into glucose (which is sugar, actually; glucose is sometimes called ‘sugar in the blood’). Glucose is a much more efficient energy source and is easily transported around the body in the blood stream, where it is quickly used up by the cells and has to be replaced frequently.
Insulin is a hormone that the pancreas produces; insulin regulates the amount of glucose in the blood. (One form of diabetes is caused by a lack of insulin). When the blood glucose levels in the body are low, usually just before a meal, then insulin levels in the body are also low. So, if the body does not have enough glucose to maintain energy levels then it will start to look elsewhere for its energy in order to keep the body functioning normally. This is where it gets interesting, because the body will then begin to metabolize stored body fat.
Ketosis Explained – Why Carbs Are Limited
This switch from burning glucose to burning body fat is known as ketosis. In order to induce ketosis (fat burning), glucose levels in the blood stream have to be controlled. This is where the limit in the consumption of carbohydrates comes into practice – remember, carbohydrate is converted into glucose in the body and it’s the lack of available glucose that causes the switch to fat burning (ketosis).
So, the theory behind is that by reducing your carbohydrate intake you will ultimately produce less glucose and therefore your body will find other sources of energy to metabolize (burn) – in this case, fat.
How Do You Know If You Are in Ketosis?
You pee on a stick! The easy way to make sure your body is in a state of ketosis (fat burning) is to test your urine for ketones. Using the same strips that a diabetic patient uses to test for sugar in their urine, you can check daily to make sure that your body is still in ketosis. If it isn’t then you should reassess your carbohydrate intake.
That’s the science, so how does the diet actually work in practice?
The 4 Phase Diet Approach
The Atkins diet has a four phase approach:
Phase one – Induction
Phase two – On-going Weight Loss (OWL)
Phase three – Pre-Maintenance
Phase four – Lifetime Maintenance
It is broken down into these phases so that you lose weight fast, but also safely. During each phase you will be allowed to eat specific items from the acceptable Atkins diet food list .
Let’s take a quick look at each of the 4 phases of the diet.
Phase One: Induction
This is the part where you kick-start your body into weight loss. This stage serves two purposes:
1) To switch your body from glucose to fat burning by inducing ketosis
2) To boost your weight loss and give you some fast results
Induction should last for at least two weeks. It is during this phase that you are likely to see the most significant weight losses. And, it is also the most restrictive phase of the diet – you will only be eating 20g of Net Carbs each day.
What are Net Carbs?
Net Carbs refers to the carbohydrate content of certain foods. During Phase One of the Atkins diet you are allowed to eat foods from the acceptable food list, (see the Atkins diet food list ); the carb foods on this list are mainly vegetables that have been selected for their vitamin, mineral and nutrient content – and also because they are low in carbs.
Out of a total carbohydrate allowance of 20g of net carbs per day, 12-15g have to be from the vegetables on the diet food list.
As well as following the net carb rule – by using the Atkins list – there are other rules that must be followed in order to succeed :
* You must eat meals at regular intervals, for example 3 meals a day or 6 smaller ones, but you must not go for longer than six waking hours without eating.
* Each meal should include at least 120-180 gramsof protein. See the Atkins diet foods to eat during the induction phase for a guide to which high protein foods you can eat.
* Try to include one tablespoon of oil, or a pat of butter, on your meat, salad or vegetables at each meal.
* You may also have (per day) up to 120g of cheese, 10 black or 20 green olives, half an avocado, 30g of sour cream, or two to three tablespoons of cream, and up to three tablespoons of lemon or lime juice.
* You should drink at least eight (not too small) glasses of water per day.
* It is also advised that dieters should take a daily multivitamin tablet and Omega-3 supplement.
Foods You Can Eat Freely During Phase One
Unprocessed meat, poultry and most fish do not contain carbs, so the bulk of meals should be made up from these proteins.
Eggs are a breakfast staple, they can be eaten in any form.
Oils and fat: Butter. Oils (vegetable and olive). Mayonnaise (with no added sugar).
Dairy: Cheese. As mentioned above, you can have up to 120g of cheese per day, but remember that cheese contains carbohydrate, so you have to count it. Take a look at the homepage for a guide to the net carbs in some popular cheeses.
Milk is very high in carbs, so basically milk is a no-go, particularly in phase one.
Cream: Single or double, fresh or sour. Use in your coffee instead of milk (you can water it down first if you prefer). You are not allowed milk during the induction phase but you can use a low-carb alternative such as soya-milk if you really need to.
There is more about this phase on this page (Atkins diet induction), including a guide to which Atkins products you are able to eat during induction.
Phase Two: On-going Weight Loss (OWL)
Once you move on to this phase you can start to introduce more foods and carbs back into your diet. You will still lose weight, but not as quickly as in phase one. This stage prepares you for a life of healthy eating – because this diet is a program that is sustainable in the long term.
While you still follow the rules laid down in phase one, you start to increase your intake of daily net carbs, starting at 25g. What you are trying to do here is see how many net carbs you can introduce back into your diet, and yet still continue to lose weight.
What Additional Foods Can I Eat During Phase Two?
Nuts and seeds are now reintroduced, berries and other low carb fruits, some legumes, more dairy products. You can also now try out a few vegetable juices, see juicing for weight loss for more information about these. There are also a range of other Atkins products that you can eat during this OWL phase, see the Atkins products page for more details on these.
Phase two lasts until you start to near your goal weight. Most people will be within ten pounds of their goal weight before they move on to Phase three.
Phase Three: Pre-Maintenance
With just ten pounds to go, weight loss is once again deliberately slowed down. The idea is that during this phase you should begin once more to increase your daily carb intake, (by 10g of net carbs each week or so), until you find your carbohydrate threshold or “Carbohydrate Level for Losing” (CLL). Once you have your CLL you stay on it until you’ve lost all your excess weight.
Then, before moving to Phase four, you need to maintain your weight for one month. This is done by adding even more carbs, this time in the form of whole foods – which have not been allowed until now.
Whole foods includes fruit, starchy vegetables and whole grains. By re-introducing these in tiny portions you will learn how much you can tolerate before you start to gain weight. You’ve now discovered your ACE – your Atkins Carbohydrate Equilibrium.
Your ACE = the amount of grams of net carbs you can eat daily without gaining or losing weight.
Phase Four: Lifetime Maintenance
Here you put all your knowledge of the Atkins diet plan into effect. You follow the eating plan using the food list, and you maintain your goal weight. For life!
So now you have the answer to “What is the Atkins diet?”.
Why This Approach Is More Likely to Succeed than Other Diets
The Atkins diet plan is an approach to dieting that lends itself to success. With four easy to understand and follow phases, you are learning as you lose weight, and are discovering how to keep that weight off in the long term.
Because you gradually introduce more foods you are not denied in a way that more restrictive diets can make you feel. It makes the diet sustainable, and maintainable.
Understanding how to increase or decrease your net carbs throughout the rest of your life is like having a magic formula. If your lifestyle changes, for instance you become more, or less, active, you can adjust your diet to meet your new nutritional requirements. And still easily maintain your goal weight. It is a way of eating for life.
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