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The Atkins Diet: Everything You Need to Know

atkins food collection
Last Updated on May 29, 2022

The Atkins diet has a relatively long history in the diet world, starting in the 1960s by cardiologist Robert Atkins. Dr. Atkins was a diehard believer that fat wasn’t causing his patients to gain weight, but carbohydrates were.

So, he set out to change the way people eat by encouraging them to increase their fat and protein intake. The goal? He wanted to alter their metabolism into a fat-burning machine.

Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Rob Lowe, and Alyssa Milano have all attested to and endorsed the Atkins diet. So, whether you’re curious to jump on the diet wagon with your favorite celeb or want to weigh the risks that come with any diet, we’re here to help.

How the Atkins Diet Works

egg and vegetable dish on black ceramic bowl

The Atkins diet offers many attractive benefits to people wanting to lose weight. Some of the most notable ways that it diverges from many other diets include:

  • You can eat as much fat as you want

  • There are no counting calories

  • You don’t have to measure portions

  • You don’t have to exercise to achieve weight loss

That said, there is some counting, and that’s in the form of carbohydrates. It’s crucial not to underestimate the number of carbs you eat because if you do, your body could fall out of ketosis during Phase 1, reducing how rapidly you lose weight. 

The Low-Down on Ketosis

Ketosis is a transformation in how your body burns energy. When you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, you force your body to burn fat instead via ketones. 

The fewer carbs you eat, the more ketones your body produces. And thus, your body uses fat for energy. Unlike the Keto diet, the Atkin diet only has you enter ketosis during Phase 1. Even then, some people might not fully reach ketosis, especially if they’re not counting their carbs as carefully as they should be. 

After Phase 1, you’ll increase your carbohydrate intake, which will take you above the ketosis limit.

Aside from weight loss, studies show that ketosis has several other benefits, including reducing seizures in kids with epilepsy and being good for people with diabetes, as it helps manage blood sugar levels.

However, entering a state of ketosis isn’t for everyone. It often produces short-term side effects like constipation, headaches, and bad breath. 

But it can also lead to more serious conditions such as ketoacidosis, which impact breastfeeding moms. It’s also crucial to eat plenty of high-fiber, low-carb vegetables if you choose the Atkins Diet to prevent gastrointestinal issues.

Atkins Diet Phases

Poached egg on low carb bread

Here’s the good news if you’re already missing the bread and desserts that you won’t be able to eat when starting the Atkin’s Diet—this diet begins with a high level of carbohydrate restrictions. Still, it gradually increases your net carb intake with time.

You’ll move through this process in four phases. Below is an overview of each so you can get a feel of what to expect.

Phase 1

Phase 1 is the most restrictive part of the Atkins diet, which is a good thing considering that people are often the most motivated when they first start a new weight loss journey. The goal is to reduce your carbohydrate intake to 20 grams per day.

A couple of situations don’t qualify for Phase 1, and those people should immediately begin with Phase 2. They include:

  • Vegetarians

  • People without a lot of weight to lose

During Phase 1, you can choose between eating three regular meals or four to five smaller meals. You shouldn’t go longer than six hours without eating during the day, and you should aim to consume 115 - 225 grams of protein-rich food per meal, depending on your height.

Of the 20 allotted carbs, 12 - 15 of them should come from low-carb cooked veggies and salad. Furthermore, drinking eight glasses of water is crucial, as is taking an iron-free multivitamin. Supplementing with an omega-3 fatty acid supplement is also an option.

Phase 2

Once your body starts rapidly losing weight, you can choose to move into Phase 2. 

During this time, you’ll experiment with how many carbs you can consume while still having weight loss, albeit at a slightly slower pace. You’ll also get to eat a wider variety of foods.

If you’re starting Phase 2 as a vegetarian, the Atkins diet recommends beginning with 30 grams of carbs per day. Nuts, seeds, and some cheeses are among the foods you can eat during this phase, making it easier for vegetarians to get protein.

Every person will respond differently to Phase 2, so gradually increasing your carbohydrate intake ensures that you continue to burn ketones. 

Phase 3

It’s time to move to Phase 3 once you get close to your goal. You’ll continue to lose weight steadily during this time, but it’ll slow down compared to Phases 1 and 2. 

You should aim to increase your carbohydrate intake by 10 grams per week. As with Phase 2, you’ll need to listen to your body carefully to strike a balance between increased carbs and weight loss.

So, how do you know when it’s time to move into Phase 4? Once you reach your goal weight and maintain it for one month, you’re officially ready to move into this maintenance phase. 

Phase 4

Unlike many fad diets, the Atkins diet is a permanent lifestyle change. So, Phase 4 involves lifetime maintenance to help you stay at your ideal weight.

Of course, Dr. Atkins realized that everyone falls off the wagon sometimes. So, if and when that happens, he built a system for that—dropping your carbohydrate intake by 10 - 20 grams to get back on track.

Furthermore, since you’ll likely naturally increase your carb intake some at this point, incorporating exercise is helpful to compensate for it.

Foods You Can Eat on the Atkins Diet

By now, you’re likely wondering—what can I eat on the Atkins diet?

The approved list of foods will evolve (and for the better!) according to the phase you’re in. So, Phase 1 offers the strictest food limitations while phase four lets you eat the widest range. Every time you pass into a new phase, you can continue eating foods from the previous phases.

So, below are some examples of the foods you can eat. 

Phase 1 Foods

  • Salmon

  • Bacon

  • Chicken

  • Crab

  • Shrimp

  • Eggs

  • Cream cheese

  • Avocado

  • Cucumber

  • Butter

Phase 2 Foods

  • Almonds

  • Peanuts

  • Blackberries

  • Strawberries

  • Chickpeas

  • Soybeans

  • Cottage cheese

  • Yogurt

Phase 3 Foods

  • Apples

  • Pears

  • Carrots

  • Yams

  • Barley

  • Quinoa

  • Cornmeal

Phase 4 Foods

You can eat any food from Phases 1 - 3 once you enter the fourth and final phase. While it’s ideal to stay only with these foods, birthday parties, special events, and cravings happen.

So, identifying when you stray from the approved Atkins diet food list and reducing your carb intake by 10 - 20 grams is the Atkins diet’s suggested way to get back on track.

Foods You Can’t Eat on the Atkins Diet

vanilla icecream with sprinkles

Although there are foods you can only eat once you reach specific phases of the Atkins diet, other foods are always no-nos. 

Below are the foods that can kick you out of ketosis quickly during Phase 1 and reduce your weight loss in the other phases, causing you to start from scratch, depending on the severity and length of your binge.

  • Fruit juice

  • Soda

  • Cake

  • Candy

  • Ice cream

  • Wheat

  • Pizza

  • Spaghetti

All of these foods are high on the glycemic index, and it likely comes as no surprise that Atkins diet or no Atkins diet, doctors recommend limiting your intake of them anyway. 

Atkins Diet Pros

Most people who go on the Atkins diet do so with the hope of rapidly losing weight. 

Kim Kardashian is famously known for losing 60 pounds on the Atkins diet, and that was even after following a modified, higher-carb version called the “Atkins 40,” which starts Phase 1 with 40 grams of carbs.

Kardashian was breastfeeding at the time, so she worked with her doctor to determine that this was the healthiest route for her baby.

Aside from rapid weight loss, below are some of the other pros you may experience by following the Atkins diet:

  • Regulate blood sugar levels

  • Prevents metabolic syndrome

  • Reduces risk of heart disease

  • Lowers blood pressure

That said, doctors point out that weight-loss diets of all kinds can often produce similar results. For example, numerous studies show that reducing excess body weight helps reduce and, in some cases, reverse the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Atkins Diet Cons

Unlike some diets that take a gentler approach by including more foods from the food pyramid, the Atkins diet often causes dieting newbies to experience several symptoms as their body adjusts to a high fat and protein intake.

Some of the most common side effects of the Atkins diet include:

  • Dizziness

  • Fatigue

  • Constipation

  • Nausea

  • Headache

  • Bad breath

You might also feel weak, despite eating so much muscle-building protein, due to a lack of carbohydrates. 

Since the body uses the glucose in carbohydrates to aid with physical activity and bodily functions, people on the Atkins diet often go through symptoms as their body adjusts to learning to use fat for fuel.

That said, people often adjust quickly to this diet. So, Atkins diet advocates encourage healthy people to give the diet time to see if these side effects subside.

Atkins Diet Modifications

Since the standard Atkins diet isn’t the right fit for everyone, some people turn to their doctor or the Internet for ideas on modifications. Like Kim Kardashian, starting with a higher base carbohydrate intake might be a better fit for them.

In other cases, some people begin by consuming fewer than 20 grams of carbs, as they want to ensure they reach true ketosis. Such a situation makes Phase 1 of the Atkins Diet similar to the Ketogenic diet.

What Are the Risks of the Atkins Diet?

Most studies on the potential negative consequences of the Atkins diet have only lasted for one or two years. So, there’s little data on the long-term impact of this diet on your health.

Nevertheless, although research suggests that the Atkins diet may improve triglyceride levels in the short term, some doctors believe that those benefits may not last in the long term.

Furthermore, although short-term studies show that the Atkins diet may reduce the risk of heart disease, some researchers suspect the long-term impact of eating such a high-fat diet can actually cause heart disease over time. They also suspect it could increase the likelihood of certain cancers.

The Importance of Speaking With a Doctor

It’s always wise to consult with your doctor before starting any diet. However, if you take any of the following medicines, it’s vital to check with your doctor first, as the Atkins diet might impact their performance.

  • Diuretics

  • Insulin

  • Oral diabetes medication

People with kidney disease should also avoid the Atkins diet. And, like Kim Kardashian, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should talk with your doctor to see if a modified Atkins diet is feasible for you.

In many cases, doctors recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women skip the weight loss portion of the Atkins diet, which they typically consider Phases 1 and 2, and jump to Phase 3 or 4 instead.

Is the Atkins Diet Right for You?

Despite being around for decades, the Atkins diet didn’t gain true popularity until the 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, countless celebrities and non-celebs alike have given the diet a shot, many with impressive results.

Nevertheless, choosing the Atkins diet comes with potential side effects and possibly longer-term health risks. So, we encourage you to continue doing your due diligence and check with your doctor before giving this diet a try.

References

Atkins, retrieved from https://www.atkins.com/

Sam Gutierez, What Do You Eat on the Atkins Diet, retrieved from https://www.insider.com/what-do-you-eat-on-the-atkins-diet-2018-5

What Is the Atkins Diet and Is It Healthy retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-is-the-atkins-diet-and-is-it-healthy/

Katey Davidson, MScFN, RD, CPT, What Is Ketosis retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-ketosis

Suzannah Weiss, Here’s What Kim Kardashian Ate to Lose 60 Pounds, retrieved from https://www.self.com/story/heres-what-kim-kardashian-ate-to-lose-60-pounds-after-having-a-baby

Mayo Clinic Staff, Atkins Diet: What’s Behind the Claims? Retrieved from, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/atkins-diet/art-20048485

Carbohydrates, retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/

Modified Atkins, retrieved from https://charliefoundation.org/diet-plans/modified-atkins/

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