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The Promise

Can you lose weight by drastically cutting back on carbs like bread, potatoes, and sweets while still eating bacon, mayonnaise, and butter?

That’s the idea behind Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. Robert Atkins, MD, wrote the book more than 40 years ago. There are newer versions of the diet, including New Atkins for a New You, and a web site.

Old or new, the Atkins diet turns the typical carb-heavy American diet on its head.

The theory is that when you drastically cut back on carbs, your body turns to your fat stores for fuel. The result is you burn body fat, releasing a by-product called ketones that you’ll use for energy.

The plan is not recommended for people with severe kidney disease.

What You Can Eat and What You Can't

The first part of the plan, called the induction phase, has these rules:

  • No more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day, mostly from certain vegetables
  • Protein and fat from poultry, fish, eggs, red meat, butter, and vegetable oils
  • No pasta, bread, grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, or dairy other than butter, cheese, and cream
  • No nuts, seeds, or legumes like beans
  • No caffeine
  • No alcohol

Next comes the "ongoing weight loss" stage, when you slowly add more vegetables, and you can include seeds, nuts, legumes, berries and other fruit, wine and other low-carb alcohol, and whole grains.

After that, to help keep the weight off, you may be able to eat more carbs and add more foods to your diet, depending on your body's needs.

Newer versions of the diet, including New Atkins for a New You and the Atkins web site, emphasize making good food choices, such as healthy fats.

Level of Effort: Medium

You don't have to go to meetings or buy special foods. But you're probably going to have to make some big changes in your menus.

You may notice that your breath has a distinct smell, due to the ketones your body makes. Some call that smell bad; Atkins said the smell is "not an offensive one." You may also have headaches and feel irritable.

Limitations: Cutting out food groups, especially whole grains and dairy, really limits what you can eat. It also means your diet may be low in certain nutrients including fiber, calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

Cooking and shopping: You will need to count carbs and factor that into whatever you're cooking at home or ordering in a restaurant. You should read food labels and use the carbohydrate counter in the book.

The first phase of the diet may be challenging, since the list of foods you’re allowed to have is very limited. You may have to skip many of your favorite foods and treats.

You’ll also need to keep a close eye on your weight. Changes in your weight affect how many carbs you can have in your daily diet.

Packaged foods/meals: A variety of Atkins-branded products are available, but none are required.

In-person meetings? No.

Exercise: The Atkins plan recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.

Does It Allow for Dietary Restrictions or Preferences?

Vegetarians and vegans: The Atkins web site says the diet is “perfectly possible” for vegetarians, and “challenging ... but not impossible” for vegans. The site offers options if you avoid animal foods. Beans and tofu are allowed. Vegans and vegetarians start out in the ongoing weight loss phase (skipping the first very low-carb phase). The web site emphasizes legumes and soy foods (including tofu) for vegans, and soy and a small amount of legumes for vegetarians.

Gluten-free diet: The Atkins diet cuts back on carbs like bread. But it doesn't ban gluten. If you go on this diet and are trying to completely avoid gluten, you'll need to do more than pass on the bread basket; you should also read food labels to check for stealthy sources of gluten.

Low-salt diet: You should be able to limit your sodium on the diet, but check sodium on food labels.

What Else You Should Know

Cost: No major costs beyond shopping for your meals.

Support: You do this diet on your own. The official Atkins diet web site has online forums, groups (like Vegetarians on Atkins), meal plans, and weight-loss tools. You may also sign up for a welcome kit that includes information and three Atkins bars.

What Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy Says:

Does It Work?

The Atkins diet is one of the best-known low-carb diets, and the research shows it can work. If you fill your day with processed carbs like white bread, pasta, and potatoes, and you don’t eat many fruits and veggies, then this diet may be the jump start you need to lose weight.

You can quit your usual go-to foods and start with the Atkins food list. The initial phase is limited in food choices but focused on protein, fat, and vegetables that are low carb and not starchy. No processed foods. In each phase you add back food groups: first nuts, seeds, and berries; then fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

So the closer you get to your weight loss goal, the more variety of foods you’re allowed. Ideally, you’ll stick to their healthy list and not go back to your old ways.

If you like variety in the foods you eat, the Atkins diet is not for you. And if you struggle with portion control, this plan could be difficult. The fat and protein emphasized here is calorie-rich, so the portions have to stay small.

Is It Good for Certain Conditions?

This diet does have controversy. When you’re overweight, shedding some pounds can improve your health, and we know the Atkins diet works. But it’s still unclear how the higher amounts of animal protein and fat in the Atkins diet affect long-term health.

Recent research suggests that people on the Atkins diet who chose foods rich in plant fat and protein did better with their health than those who went with the diet rich in animal fat and protein.

This makes sense to me, and the newer versions of the Atkins diet reflect this idea. They focus more on getting fat and protein from heart-healthy choices like olive oil and protein like soy and lentils.

If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or high cholesterol, this diet may not be for you because of the focus on animal fat and protein. Talk to your doctor about finding a healthy diet you can stick with to get the weight off.

The Final Word

For the person who needs structure in their diet, limiting starchy, sugary carbs will help cut calories and allow for weight loss. And focusing on proteins and fats that are plant based is the healthy and smart thing to do.

But to be really healthy, you have to move on from the restrictive initial phase of the Atkins diet. It’s the later phases of the diet that give you the variety of foods that are important for health. You have to exercise and keep portions small while you reintroduce nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.

WebMD Diet A-Z

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