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It all started in 1963 when Dr Robert C. Atkins proposed a new dieting method which was so different and innovative that it started numerous debates and is regarded as a breakthrough in the world of nutrition. The Atkins diet promises that, not only will you lose weight and not be hungry with a low-carbohydrate diet, you will also achieve better heart health and memory function, as well as other wellness benefits. But what does it involve exactly? How does it work on a physiological level? Does it actually work? Are there any health concerns? In this week’s article find out why Dr Atkins’ books started a revolution.

The basics

In a nutshell, the diet described in Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, is based on the theory that overweight people eat too many carbohydrates. Our bodies burn both fat and carbohydrates for energy, but carbohydrates are used first. By drastically reducing carbohydrate consumption and increasing protein and fat, our bodies naturally lose weight by burning stored body fat more efficiently.

How the Atkins Diet Works

Drastically restricting carbohydrates causes the body to go into a state of ketosis, which means it burns its own fat for fuel. The energy comes from ketones, small carbon fragments that are the fuel created by the breakdown of fat stores. When the body is in ketosis, feeling of hunger is reduced, and thus you’re likely to eat less. However, ketosis may cause unpleasant effects in a small number of people such as unusual breath odour and constipation.

As a result of adopting such a diet regime, the body changes from a carbohydrate-burning engine into a fat-burning engine. In other words, instead of relying on the carbohydrate-rich foods usually consumed for energy which leaves fat stores just as they were before (alas, the hips, belly, and thunder thighs are popular fat-gathering spots), the fat stores become the primary energy source. The inevitable and desirable result is of course weight loss.

In slightly more detail, we need to understand what happens we eat a carbohydrate-rich meal. First of all, sugar from the carbohydrate quickly enters the bloodstream. The body’s response in order to keep the blood sugar from rising is the secretion of insulin. Insulin is responsible to transport glucose into the cells, help the extra sugar to be stored in the liver and muscle as glycogen, and once these stores are filled to capacity, insulin then converts any extra sugar to fat. According to the Atkins theory, if the body keeps on producing too much insulin as a result of to the excess sugar from the diet, it may become less responsive to insulin and eventually may develop the metabolic disorder diabetes. On the contrary, a body in ketosis burns up excess fat, and in time, according to the Atkins theory, will return to normal metabolic function. Although all the fat in this diet may temporarily spike the cholesterol level, according to the theory this is short lived as weight loss occurs.

What you can eat and what is forever forbidden?

But how do we make our body burn fat instead of carbohydrates? For most people, the carbohydrate consumption must be no more than 40 grams a day for this to occur. Apart from this drastic reaction, the Atkins theory suggests adding physical activity might be necessary for ketosis to kick in but exercise in general is not promoted as part of the diet, at least not in the first 2 weeks of the program. One of the main disadvantages is that people are urged to supplement with vitamins, since they won’t be getting them from sources such as vegetables and fruits which are high in carbohydrates and therefore avoided.

The good news is that this plan allows you to eat foods that many dieters have only dreamed about and it promises you will not be left feeling depressed and deprived which, let’s face it, more often than not is the result of a strict diet. So, the Atkins diet sets just few limits on the amount of food you can eat but severely restricts the kinds of food allowed on your plate. Milk, white rice, white flour and refined sugars such as in deserts and sweets are forbidden. Carbohydrates are restricted, about 20 grams of net carbohydrates per day, which means total carbohydrates minus fiber, in the first two weeks. To put things into context, this translates to three cups of loosely packed salad or two cups of salad with two-thirds cup of certain cooked vegetables each day. No bread, no pasta, no cereal, no fruit. No surprise it might seem impossible to many people! On the Atkins diet, you are eating almost pure protein and fat. Meat, fish, egg and cheese, in fact the non diet options, are increased. You are not counting calories; surprisingly, you may be eating more calories than before. At a later stage (after the first 2 weeks), the carbohydrate allowance is increased in the form of fiber-rich foods, certain fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods but others remain in the lifelong list of forbidden pleasures.

Too good to be true? What about the health concerns?

The Atkins diet remains highly controversial. According to the Atkins official statements a large number of studies since 2002, including those funded by the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health, demonstrate some benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet. In addition, the Atkins diet plan has been reported as more efficient for weight loss when compared with other diet plans.

On the other hand, many health experts remain cautious. First of all, the body needs a minimum of about 150 grams of carbohydrates daily for efficient and healthy functioning. Below that, normal metabolic activity is disrupted. Moreover, the brain needs glucose to function efficiently as this is the only fuel it uses, and it takes a long time to break down fat and protein to get to the brain. Carbohydrates, especially in the form of fruit, vegetables and grains are more efficiently converted to glucose.

The Atkins diet works at producing weight loss and possibly works at maintaining the desired weight as well, but there are still concerns over its long term safety. Heath professionals argue that this is not a healthy diet especially long-term and may increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. There is also potential for loss of bone, and liver and kidney problems due to the high amounts of protein consumed.

Food for Thought

In conclusion, the Atkins diet has changed and improved over the years to promote a variety of foods including lean protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and in some cases, whole grains and healthy fats. However, after all these years, the fact that fat can make you slimmer still sounds impossible or too good to be true to some of us. What we need to understand is that nothing magical is going on with Atkins other than calorie restriction. This diet is very restrictive, and limits half of the foods we normally eat. In the end it’s not protein, it’s not fat, it’s not carbohydrates; it’s calories. The simple truth is that you can lose weight on anything that helps you eat less, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Once again, be open-minded, critical and do your own research before adopting any fancy and promising diets.

By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & Certified Sports Nutritionist

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