The Atkins Diet, also known as the ketogenic diet, is a four-stage low-carbohydrate diet which uses the bodily state of ketosis in order to provide weight loss and weight management. Though controversial, Dr. Robert Atkins' diet plan has helped many people lose weight and if his words are to be believed, very well might be the diet we evolved to consume.

See also: What to Eat on the Atkins Diet

"They lose the weight, they feel fine, then they get to their goal weight and they still have 60 more years to live, and are they going to go hungry for all 60 years?"
Dr. Robert Atkins (1931-2003) to CNN on diets which restrict caloric intake

This diet (and variations thereof) is frequently used to treat seizures as it reduces blood glycogen levels, making the brain somewhat immune to seizure triggers. While on this diet, one depends on fats for energy rather than carbohydrates. As a result, you find yourself eating salad without croutons, but with a ton of blue cheese dressing. Like most diets, one must take care to drink a sufficient quantity of water, in this case to avoid damage to the liver and kidneys due to secondary results of ketosis.

KETOSIS

While avoiding supersession of such other writeups as ketosis, no description of the Atkins Diet is complete without at least briefly covering the highest and lowest points of ketosis, at least as it relates to this diet. Firstly, ketosis is a desirable state because it causes your body not to store fat when consumed, and also reduces your body's tendency to consume muscle as fuel. Since ketosis is induced by consuming a minimum of carbohydrates, your body has nowhere to turn for energy beyond the fats you take in, and the fats stored in your body.

On the down side, the reduced levels of insulin can make you tired, though for most this passes in the first couple of weeks. It also increases stress on your liver and kidneys, which is the reason that maintaining a healthy water intake is so important. And it increases calcium loss, necessitating a greater calcium intake.

Dieticians (and others) frequently confuse ketosis with ketoacidosis, a dangerous state which can be deadly in those with diabetes. Put simply, the pH of the blood becomes lower than normal because of increasing acidity due to ketones. If your body is not processing its waste properly, this state can come about. Thus the use of this diet is not recommended to those who require dialysis.

STAGES

The four steps of the Atkins diet are:

  1. Induction: During this phase one consumes 20g (or less) of carbohydrates per day. This is exceptionally difficult due mostly to unnecessary addition of sugar to nearly everything one eats, especially in the USA. Even ostensible meat products like beef jerky or lunch meats tend to be loaded with sugar; most hot dogs are additionally filled with carbohydrate-based fillers. One continues with this step until one has nearly reached their target weight.

    During the onset of this stage, in the first week or so, most people will lose a fair amount of weight due to simple water loss. This should not be mistaken for actual weight loss, as it will be regained immediately if one returns to "normal" dietary process. It is unlikely that anyone will lose more than twenty pounds this way; using the atkins diet to lose twenty pounds is closely akin to using a backhoe to dig a post hole -- in other words, overkill.

  2. Ongoing Weight Loss: During this phase one adds 5g of carbohydrates to their diet each week until weight loss is slowed. One adds these carbs from vegetables, seeds, nuts, and berries. Slowly adding carbs to your diet (Rather than simply jumping to a "normal" eating pattern) allows your body to continue to burn fat stores for energy. One can tell if one is still in ketosis via the use of test strips, a simple litmus test for the presence of ketones in the urine.

  3. Pre-Maintenance: This phase begins once you're within 5-10 pounds of your target weight. At this time you can add starchy foods back to your diet to the tune of 10g carbs per week, dialing back your fat intake to match the new food coming in. The idea here is to move back to a minimal weight loss per day and a balanced diet. If you start gaining back weight, then you simply dial back the amount of carbs you're taking in.

  4. Lifetime Maintenance: This phase begins when you have reached your target weight through pre-maintenance. You can occasionally eat junk food (like candy bars, cookies, and cakes) but this may raise your weight again, sending you back to pre-maintenance.

Some people are on this diet all their lives in order to control seizures, while others stay on it to control their weight. This final stage of the diet can be carried on indefinitely because this final stage is simply a healthy diet little different from the advice of other dieticians; Avoid processed sugar and white flour when possible, watch what you eat, don't binge, eat on a regular schedule.

ADVANTAGES

The major advantage of the atkins diet is that it works all the time, regardless of exercise. This makes it an ideal solution for persons with uncontrolled asthma or some other health conditions which limit their ability to achieve weight loss through exercise. In addition, while in ketosis one's body consumes less protein (in our case, muscle) for energy; during the course of ordinary dieting, one part muscle is consumed for every three parts fat. Putting it back on becomes a time-consuming affair, and is difficult to do if you are on a vegetable-heavy diet, as protein is far more readily available from meat.

When coupled with an exercise regimen, the atkins/ketogenic diet becomes almost brutally effective. Fat is far more energy-rich than carbohydrates but does not break down as easily. Thus, you get plenty of energy, and it is released more slowly. You generally take in a great deal of protein (this diet is all but impossible without meat) and so it is actually easier to build muscle while on this diet.

Dr. Atkins claimed that the diet is a treatment for diabetes, hypertension, gastritis, esophageal reflux disorder, some headaches, and a 'variety of other problems'. He also claimed that it eliminates most of the risk factors for heart disease; note that the high fat intake is not intended to last a lifetime, but it is necessary when your carbohydrate intake is low as it provides energy. The diet is known to reduce the risk of seizures. It is also known to reduce triglyceride levels. High trigylceride levels are known to accompany heart disease and are currently thought to be the primary factor in causing it.

DISADVANTAGES

The first and most obvious disadvantage is that this diet makes it much more difficult to assemble a variety of attractive meals at home. Unless you are flush with cash you will find yourself eating quite monotonously. The second drawback is the "dragon breath" that comes with increased ketone production. This tendency is most pronounced when you begin the diet, and the sour chemical taste in your mouth will be quite annoying until you become accustomed to it. You can keep this from happening by drinking enough water to flush the excess ketones out of your system.

Next, this diet can quite possibly cause kidney failure if you do not take in the recommended eight glasses of water a day. Those who are paying attention will no doubt have noticed that it has been previously (though perhaps erroneously) suggested to drink this much water no matter what one's diet is like, but it is especially important when one is on a high-fat diet such as Atkins. The Atkins Center claims that there are no studies which indicate liver or kidney failure, which does seem to be borne out, but it is a repeatedly-stated concern of most dieticians.

If one does not consume sufficient quantities of fiber, the result can be constipation or loose stool, depending on fat and water intake. It can also cause one's excrement to become more malodorous than such a substance normally is, because of increased quantities of meat in the lower digestive tract. It would be a mistake to eat only meat.

The diet's increased water intake means one has to make sure they get plenty of vitamins. It can also sap you of various oils; to combat this, one can consume macadamia nuts and avocado. Various companies (including, of course, Atkins) sell vitamin and oil complexes intended to offset leaching due to dietary change and water consumption.

ALCOHOL

One of the common questions about the Atkins Diet is whether or not one can safely consume alcohol which is after all converted sugar. The answer is yes, though naturally with certain reservations. First, many alcoholic beverages contain a large amount of unconverted sugar or other carbohydrates. For instance, one beer (A beer is considered 12 ounces for the purposes of this example) is approximately 15 grams of carbs in one shot. The average person will drink more than one beer; the carbs derived thereof add up quickly. Sweet hard alcohols such as rum are far worse. One can however safely drink those in which all of the sugar is converted, such as vodka, scotch whiskey, or gin. Of course, one must avoid mixers which contain sugar. Some no-carb mixers are available, such as sugar free tonic water, which tends to be made with saccharin.

The other caveat is that your body attempts to burn alcohol for fuel before anything else, so while alcohol is in your system, you are not losing weight. Habitual drinking is thus contraindicated while on this diet -- Or, sadly, at any other time.

CONTRAINDICATIONS

There are some states from which one should not essay the Atkins diet; people with severe kidney disease are of course cautioned to avoid it; pregnant women and nursing mothers as well. People with gallstones are also warned to be cautious, and cut out the majority of the fat, though I doubt that you could successfully follow the diet without it.

The diet is significantly more expensive than eating a full range of foods. Many of the cheapest common food items are verboten; breads, starchy vegetables like potatoes, and other starchy foods such as noodles -- that includes ramen of course, students beware. The least expensive foodstuffs you can eat tend to be chicken thighs and hot dogs, though one must be careful to read the packages of the latter because many brands have as much as seven grams of carbohydrates from sugar and filler per frank. Oscar Meyer turkey-based franks have 0g of carbs. Salad can actually end up costing you significant amounts of money if you use the high-fat dressings which will give you energy, as most salad dressings (especially inexpensive ones) are loaded with sugar. Avoid dressings from Kraft and Best Foods; check the produce section for Marie's and Bob's brands, which have far less sugar.

EVIDENCE

A lot of so-called scientists like to pooh-pooh anecdotal evidence because it is not subject to the controls of a formal experiment, but when the numbers become too overwhelming, notice must be taken. Albert Stunkard, to whom can be attributed the saying that "95 percent of all dieters never lose weight, and 95 percent of those who do will not keep it off" (this quote was based on one study of only 100 people) discovered that his chief of radiology had lost 60 pounds on Atkins' diet. "Well, apparently all the young guys in the hospital are doing it," he said. "So we decided to do a study."

I also write from my personal experience; I lost 90 lbs in nine months without doing much exercising, and rapidly decreased my waist size and increased my weight lifting capacity over the course of a semester of lifting for an hour a day twice a week. I chose the diet because I have activity-induced asthma which makes it difficult to do any exercise at all; even walking rapidly leaves me winded. On this diet, I am rarely hungry. It is extremely difficult to locate food when one is on the go, however, as meat tends to be somewhat more expensive than a 'balanced' meal.

But there now have been studies, though none of them have been financed by the NIH. Five studies at Schneider Children's Hospital on Long Island, Duke University, the University of Cincinnati, the Philadelphia V.A. Hospital, and Stunkard's study (led by Gary Foster at the University of Pennsylvania, Sam Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, and Jim Hill, who runs the University of Colorado Center for Human Nutrition in Denver. All five studies showed a reduction in cholesterol in both the "normal" and low-carb diets, but triglyceride levels were notably lower on Atkins. While the jury is still out, it seems that putting fat back into your diet can actually reduce the risk of heart disease.

Perhaps based on the weight of these studies, the NIH is finally spending some money to further explore the possibilities. Foster, Klein and Hill (see above paragraph) have received from them US$2.5 Million to do a five year study of 360 obese persons. Dr. Atkins himself has been putting off a long-term study for supposed want of money (in spite of the great deal of profit he's made on selling books, diet supplements, and low-carb foods) and now Willett, Blackburn and Penelope Greene at Harvard have received a grant from Atkins' nonprofit to do a study as well. The irony of this is that doubtless many of those who have insisted for years that Atkins do a study will decry the results when they come back.

There's no need to wait for such a study to prove that the diet works, however -- at least as a means to weight loss. George Blackburn, president of the American Society of Clinical Nutrition, pioneered the "protein-sparing modified fast" to treat postsurgical patients for obesity. "People loved it," Blackburn recalled. "Great weight loss. We couldn't run them off with a baseball bat." He published a number of papers on the subject which were summarily ignored, perhaps as a result of the low-fat dogma becoming prevalent at the time.

HEAVY OPPOSITION

While sitting on the throne one morning I looked in the trash to find the Spring/Summer 2002 edition of "Weight Watchers Walking", which is apparently "A Supplement to Weight Watchers Magazine". Flipping through it, what do I see?

Memo: To Madonna, Jennifer, and other low-carb diet divas
Re: High-protein diets
FLASH Women whose diets are animal-protein heavy have almost four times as many bone fractures as women who eat more vegetable protein.
FLASH Low-carb diets have a poor record when it comes to long-term weight loss, often resulting in higher intakes of fat and cholesterol and a limited offering of nutrients.
FLASH There's no evidence to support that extra dietary protein builds extra muscle.

Well, well. So Weight Watchers considers the low-carbohydrate diets to be a threat, does it? Remember that this magazine is read generally by Weight Watchers members, who they have a vested interest in keeping inside the program. Consider that they cite no sources for any of these arguments.

The first point, about bone fractures, is a quite real issue. A study begun in 1980 and carried out via questionnaire over the following twelve year period indicated a 22% higher risk of forearm fracture in women "who consumed more than 95 g per day compared with those who consumed less than 68 g per day". This is for overall protein, however, and the abstract does not give the exact numbers for animal protein, which were similar. This may serve to illustrate the importance of taking in vitamin supplements while taking part in the diet, but should do little to dissuade one from utilizing it as a means of regulating obesity.

The second point is amusing simply because all diets have a poor record when it comes to long-term weight loss. The most commonly cited statistic is that 95% of people who lose weight gain it back -- see above for the fallacy in quoting that particular study. The question of course is "does this have anything to do with the Atkins Diet in particular, or simply with a general lack of discipline?" It is true that the penalties for going off the Atkins diet are stronger than most, but the idea with this diet is the same as any other; there are procedures for lifetime maintenance, which is actually the literal name of the final phase of the Atkins diet. If you return to eating the way you did before you dieted, of course you're going to gain the weight back. Furthermore, your system is no longer acclimated to the intake of excessive quantities of carbohydrates common in the western diet, which leads to gaining it back even more rapidly after going off of Atkins than what you will experience from other diets. As the American Heart Association is only too happy to tell anyone who will listen, the trick to keeping the weight off is to not go back to your old behavior.

As for the allegations that the diet results in higher intakes of fat and cholesterol, they are absolutely correct. However, they mean nothing in and of themselves. Even studies which decry the Atkins diet are forced to admit that it raises HDL or high density lipoprotein levels, the so-called "good fat". Of course, as we know, consuming fat does not make you fat, and consuming cholesterol does not raise your cholesterol. That is a talent reserved by carbohydrates.

Finally, while there may not be any evidence that shows that consuming more protein helps you build muscle, ketosis is known to slow the rate of lean muscle loss. It is a little known fact that in general, for every three pounds of fat one burns, one loses one pound of muscle. This is not true while one is in the state of ketosis. In other words, you might not be building more muscle, but you are certainly losing less. This only shows that statistics is an exact science, but marketing is an art.

Since I developed this writeup, some content has gone away and some new stuff has come around. A writeup by skongshoj, for example, whose opening paragraph calls the atkins diet "stupid", makes some significant incorrect statements. For example, one oft-repeated argument repeated there states that no one has ever stayed on the Atkins diet for long periods of time - which is patently false. Besides Dr. Atkins himself who had a congenital heart condition and died at the age of 72 because he hit his head after slipping on ice, the diet is used to control seizures because most seizures require glucose. The writeup also says that the body "reacts as if famine is at hand" and "...starts breaking down its stored fat, glycogen and protein to use as emergency fuel." This is partly true, but ignores the fact that the rate of lean muscle loss is actually slowed during ketosis. In ordinary weight loss, you lose one pound of muscle for every three pounds of fat. You lose less muscle on the Atkins diet, unless you fail to consume enough fat to fill your energy requirements.

In addition, the idea that what you consume minus what you burn becomes fat is not a "basic rule of physiology" - it's not even true. Besides failing to account for waste, it completely ignores ketosis. Much of what we hold to be true is based on limited observation, and we are loath to give up our beliefs even in the face of new evidence, forgetting that science does not necessarily describe how things work, but only how they can repeatably be made to work, based on a given and limited set of observations, because no one is omniscient.

Note: If you have atkins experiences or any other information you would like to share, please put them in your scratchpad and message me. It would be good to avoid filling this shell with GTKY writeups. I am quite responsive when it comes to corrections or requests for additional information.

References:

  1. Website: Atkins Center. (http://atkinscenter.com/)
  2. Taubes, Gary. What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?. New York Times online, July 7, 2002.
  3. alex.tan, ketoacidosis. Everything2, Wed Apr 12 2000
  • Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA. Protein consumption and bone fractures in women. Am J Epidemiol. 1996 Mar 1;143(5):472-9. (Abstract http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=8610662&dopt=Abstract)
  • Website: Hold It! The American Heart Association (http://www.deliciousdecisions.org/ff/wyo_hold_main.html)
  • Thanks to RPGeek and Ichiro2k3 for editing assistance.