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What Is Atkins, Anyway? A Definition and Pitfalls

Over the years, I've read some strange ideas about what the Atkins diet is:

  • All meat
  • A crash diet
  • Not low-carb, high fat
  • High protein
  • An eating plan where you gorge yourself

Wrong on all counts. A friend of mine was curious a few weeks ago about what it really was. I described it to her, and she can't stop raving about it now:

Friend: What do you eat?
Me: Meat, eggs, cheese, non-starchy vegetables, and fats like olive oil, mayonnaise, lard and butter.
Friend: How much do you eat?
Me: You eat until you're full.
Friend: When do you eat?
Me: Whenever you're hungry. You should also take some vitamins.

There are more details, of course, but that's it in a nutshell. How does such a simple diet get so convoluted in people's minds? I blame fads in eating and thought.

A trend now is to eat vegetables by the pound--no exaggeration. Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution specifically says not to fill yourself with vegetables--that's a tactic of traditional low-calorie diets. Atkins induction calls for two small salads a day--small meaning one cup of lettuce, loosely packed. What's wrong, though, with eating lots of vegetables? First, they aren't NO-carb. A cup of cooked brussels sprouts, for instance, has eight net grams of carb. A cup of chopped red peppers has six--and they're all sugar. Not much by themselves, but if you eat three cups of each, you're up to 42 grams of carbohydrate--that's 22 grams over induction. Second problem is the Chinese Restaurant Effect. Your intestines sense when they're being stretched and release hormones, the net effect being a release of insulin. It can happen even if you stuff yourself with sawdust.

Another trend is snacking on nuts. I've never had a significant weight problem, but nuts even put weight on me. A commenter at another site remarked that he didn't lose weight on Atkins induction because he ate too many calories...from nuts. Nuts aren't an induction food for good reason: they're easy to overeat (especially if they're salted and you're craving salt) and most of them aren't very low-carb. A cup of pistachios has 21g (net) of carbohydrate. Dr. Richard Bernstein says he knows of only person who can ration nuts out in tiny amounts; I recently read about someone who tells people to put their nuts in an Altoids tin--that's the right amount. If you're on Atkins induction, just don't eat them. Snack on meat or hard cheese or deviled eggs or pork rinds if you need to.

Yo-yo dieting has probably been around as long as diets. But a diet can't work for you if you're not on it. Go back to your old habits and you'll go back to your old problems. There are certain things you can't eat on Atkins if you don't want to gain weight or suffer from whatever problems drove you to low-carb. Likewise, you shouldn't smoke if you want to enjoy good health, but I never hear justifications for smoking as I do for eating sugar and starch: it's the holidays, I'm on vacation, I'll go on a diet later. The last one baffles me. If you know you need to go on a diet, why make it harder for yourself? It's like smoking five packs of Camels right before you go mountain climbing in the Rockies. Our friend who liked to snack on nuts remarked that he also often ate peanut butter and bread for a snack, justifying it by saying liked to live, didn't like restriction for its own sake and that Mark Sisson and others had cake on occasion.

Here, we come to honesty and accountability. I don't mean to bust the guy's chops (he seems nice enough), but you don't snack on 50g of carbohydrate on a low-carb diet--period! (Atkins induction is limited to 20g per day.) If you really thought there's no point in restricting carbs, you wouldn't be trying to do it. Comparing frequent, high carb snacks with treats enjoyed on special occasions by a lean, athletic person who doesn't need to lose weight is dishonest. And come on--peanut butter on bread is a convenient snack, usually for children. Key lime cheesecake with people you love is living.  (Atkins suggests losing a few pounds beforehand if you know you're going to indulge.)

Measuring things helps. Atkins induction limits salads to two cups and day and cheese to 4 ounces a day. Heavy cream is also limited. (Meat, eggs, fats and calories are not.) Get a food scale, some measuring cups and measuring spoons--don't eyeball servings. Daily weigh-ins let you see problems while they're small. If you wear stretchy or baggy clothes, you can gain a lot of weight before they're tight.

Don't Make Assumptions, Read the Book. Get a LC diet book with a program that makes sense to you and that you can live with and follow it to the letter. Preferably, the author should have a lot of experience treating patients or clients. I think it's better if the diet doesn't allow cheat days. You'll see better results if you don't cheat, you won't be cycling between carb burning and fat burning (it can take days to switch), most people lose their taste for sweets if they go off them long enough, and you'll form good habits. My friend who can't quit raving about Atkins did just that--she has The New Atkins for a New You and went by the book. A lot of people with problems didn't.

Click here for Part II.


JasmineJohend said…
This is a fantastic post thank you and very timely for me!! It's Winter here and I'm currently having a love affair with brussel sprouts ATM and didn't realise how many carbs they have. I am far exceeding my carb limit just with my veggies. Back to meat for a while I think. My body will always find a way to get those sugars in, even making me crave broccoli and brussel sprouts.
Larcana said…
Thanks for the reminders....I read all this same stuff everywhere. Even on sites that I like and approve of, there's this carb creep thing going on all the time.
Nuts, veggies, chocolate, cheese, etc....please! If you are at maintenance yes eat some of those things within reason...but don't eat a bag of nuts or whatever and think this is not going to cause weight and fat gain.
Lori Miller said…
Even hard cheese is limited to four ounces on induction. Brussels sprouts are OK later on in Atkins (if you stay within your "critical carbohydrate level"), but you need to get out the measuring cup.
tess said…
SO TRUE!!! i'm sure every person who "rolls their own" theoretically-low-carb diet and fails COULD do very well if they actually ate the foods Atkins et al really recommends!
Lori Miller said…
Probably so. There are people with hormonal problems that need medication, but cleaning up your diet first is faster and cheaper than going through a bunch of thyroid tests, blood ketone testing, and so on.
JasmineJohend said…
When I was fat I never cared for vegies. I have to laugh when I read on various sites people don't binge or crave broccoli etc - not true for me being massively weight reduced! I can crave and binge on lettuce or sawdust. Just hope bugs and insects don't start to look appealing...
Lori Miller said…
When vegetables are prepared well, it's easy to eat a lot of them. Coincidentally, John Briffa's blog post today says that in one study, people who try to fill up on fruit and veg ended up eating *more* and gaining weight.

People still eat bugs in Africa and part of Asia. In other places, the irony is that people kill insects that are far more nutritious than the crops they're trying to protect.
Cindy C said…
Thanks for such a good post. I found a book I had stored away 25-35 years ago. I don't think I ever read it then. Then I had blood sugar problems and watched my sugar intake, but was thin then. That book is Elmer Wheeler's "Fat Boy's Book, losing 40 pounds in 80 days" from 1950. In reading some in it now, it is not high fat,or low carb, but it mentions if you have a meal high in carbs, be sure to limit carbs at later meals. He adds butter to vegetables, but limits the amount, and eats fatty meats, but cuts off the extra fat. He says carbs burn up too fast leaving you hungry, so go for protein instead, which he says stays in the stomach longer. He mentions fat having more calories, so limits fat, but he still does not go very low fat. He even states exercise is good for health, but not for weight loss. He writes in a comic tone, and a person would probably enjoy reading it and seeing the funny illustrations.
Lori Miller said…
Atkins said his diet was different from existing ones that cut carbs to around 60g per day.

I agree that most exercise isn't very useful for weight loss. In over ten years in Denver lindy hop scene (lindy being an athletic dance), I never saw anyone slim down. I did see some dedicated lindy hoppers gain some weight over the years, though.

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