The Atkins Diet: Everything You Need to Know (2024)

The Atkins diet is a low carb diet, usually recommended for weight loss.

Proponents of this diet claim that you can lose weight while eating as much protein and fat as you want if you avoid foods high in carbs.

Since the early 2000s, numerous studies have shown that low carb diets — without the need for calorie counting —are effective for weight loss and can lead to various health improvements.

The Atkins diet was originally promoted by Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who wrote a best-selling book about it in 1972. Since then, people worldwide have used the Atkins diet, and many other books have been written about it.

The diet was initially considered unhealthy, mostly due to its high saturated fat content. Today, saturated fat’s effect on health and heart disease, in particular, is a topic of debate among researchers.

A recent review that the American Heart Association (AHA) conducted on saturated fat’s impact on heart disease concluded that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat can help lower cardiovascular disease by about 30%.

Additional research also suggests that replacing saturated fat in your diet with polyunsaturated fats reduces the chance of cardiovascular events, like heart attacks and strokes.

However, another review of the literature shows no association between lowering saturated fat intake and reduced risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, some experts believe that not all saturated fats have the same effects on heart disease risk. Others contend that overall diet is more important than singling out individual nutrients.

When compared with other diets, research also suggests that Atkins and other low carb diets may lead to more weight loss and greater improvements in blood sugar, HDL (good) cholesterol, triglycerides, and other health markers than low fat diets.

Research has also found that low carb diets may increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, though how much seems to depend on the person. In one study, researchers found a wide variance in the individual increases in LDL (bad) cholesterol of 5-107%.

Here’s a brief summary of how to start the Atkins diet. It’s always a good idea to consult your registered dietitian or physician before starting a new weight-loss diet plan.

The Atkins diet is split into 4 different phases:

  • Phase 1 (induction): Under 20 grams (g) of carbs per day for 2 weeks. Eat high-fat, high-protein, with low carb vegetables like leafy greens. This kick-starts the weight loss.
  • Phase 2 (balancing): Slowly add more nuts, low-carb vegetables, and small amounts of fruit back to your diet.
  • Phase 3 (fine-tuning): When you’re very close to your goal weight, add more carbs to your diet until weight loss slows down.
  • Phase 4 (maintenance): Here you can eat as many healthy carbs as your body can tolerate without regaining weight.

However, all these phases may not be necessary.

Some people choose to skip the induction phase altogether and include plenty of vegetables and fruit from the start. This approach can be very effective and can help ensure you are getting enough nutrients and fiber as well.

Others prefer to stay in the induction phase indefinitely. This is also known as a very low carb ketogenic diet (keto).

Individuals on the Atkins diet are told to avoid, or limit, the following foods:

  • sugar: found in soft drinks, fruit juices, cakes, candy, ice cream, and similar products
  • refined grains: white bread, white rice, white pasta
  • “diet” and “low fat” foods: are sometimes very high in sugar
  • high carb fruits: bananas, apples, oranges, pears, grapes (induction only)
  • starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes (induction only)
  • legumes: lentils, beans, chickpeas, etc. (induction only)

You should base your diet around these foods while on the Atkins diet:

  • meats: beef, pork, lamb, chicken, bacon, and others
  • fatty fish and seafood: salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel
  • eggs: omega-3 enriched or pastured — most nutrient-dense (16)
  • low-carb vegetables: kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and others
  • full-fat dairy: butter, cheese, cream, full fat yogurt
  • nuts and seeds: almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds
  • healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and avocado oil
  • whole grains: brown rice, oatmeal, bulgur, quinoa, teff

Build your meals around a high fat protein source with plenty of vegetables, nuts, and some healthy fats, while only including small portions of complex carbs that fit within your individual daily carb goal.

Beverages

Here are some drinks that are acceptable on the Atkins diet.

  • Water. As always, water should be your go-to beverage.
  • Coffee. Coffee is high in antioxidants and may offer health benefits.
  • Green tea. Green tea is also high in antioxidants.

You can drink alcohol in small amounts while on the Atkins diet. Stick to dry wines with no added sugars and avoid high carb drinks like beer, try to stay away from mixed drinks like co*cktails as they tend to have the most sugar among alcoholic beverages.

Following a plant-based Atkins diet requires extra planning. Since meals on the Atkins diet are based around high fat sources of protein (typically from meat, fatty fish, and dairy), people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet need to substitute with alternatives to make sure they are meeting their nutrient needs.

About 43% of what you eat should come from healthy plant-based fat sources such as avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and coconut oil. About 31% of your food should be protein from plant-based sources like soy or beans.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can also eat eggs, cheese, butter, heavy cream, and other high-fat dairy foods.

The following tips and resources can help you follow the Atkins diet whether you’re eating at home or at a restaurant:

  • Plan a weekly menu: Follow this sample 3-week menu of Atkins-friendly meals
  • Shop wisely: Here is a suggested shopping list. Eating organic is not necessary but always try to choose the least processed option that fits your budget.
  • Include snacks: Make a list of low-carb snacks you can turn to when you get hungry between meals.
  • Eat out with caution: Ask for extra vegetables instead of bread, potatoes, or rice; order a meal based on fatty meat or fatty fish; Get some extra sauce, butter, or olive oil with your meal. Here is a guide to common Atkins substitutions you can make at various types of restaurants.

Following the Atkins diet requires you to restrict certain nutrients that are important for your body. So while you may lose weight and experience other favorable metabolic changes, the Atkins diet can also result in the following side effects, particularly in the early phase of the diet.

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • constipation
  • low blood sugar
  • kidney problems
  • electrolyte imbalance

Restricting carbohydrates on the Atkins diet also puts you at risk of not getting enough fiber, which helps protect against heart disease and certain types of cancer, helps regulate appetite, and supports gut motility and healthy gut microbiota.

And, as mentioned earlier, the high saturated fat content of the Atkins diet may raise LDL (bad) cholesterol in some individuals. This may put you at increased risk of heart disease, though the research on this is conflicting.

Some research also suggests high fat diets, like the Atkins diet, influence the gut microbiome. Certain changes in the gut microbiome may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

One metabolite of the gut microbiota, known as tri-methylamine N-oxide (TMAO), is a predictor of incident cardiovascular disease events, like heart attack and stroke. In one study of several popular diets’ effects on TMAO, the Atkins diet was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disorders (as measured by levels of TMAO) when compared with a low fat (Ornish).

Summary

The Atkins diet is not for everyone and may pose some risks — both short term and long term. The long-term risks include the possibility of changes in your gut microbiome as well as increased LDL “bad” cholesterol. Make sure to consult your doctor before beginning any kind of new diet.

Is Atkins and keto the same?

Atkins and keto are both low carb diets that can promote weight loss, diabetes management, and heart health. The difference is the carb intake: Atkins allows you to increase carb consumption slowly over time, while keto asks you to keep low to allow for ketosis and fat burning.

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Is Atkins good for losing belly fat?

In one 2020 study on older adults living with obesity, researchers found that participants who followed a very low carb diet like Atkins did lose some belly fat. That said, more research is needed to understand if this is the case across other age groups and states of health.

How many carbs can you have on Atkins a day?

The amount of carbs you eat in a day depends on the phase of the diet you’re in. You begin the diet with just 20 g of carbs daily for two weeks and slowly increase the amount as your diet progresses. That said, the amount of carbs you eat in a day while on the Atkins diet will depend on your carb tolerance and weight loss or weight maintenance goals.

The Atkins diet can be an effective way to lose weight, but it’s not for everyone. It may not always be easy to access fresh produce or high-quality meat, and relying heavily on these foods may prove quite expensive for many people.

Additionally, restrictive diets have been shown to increase the likelihood of some individuals developing disordered eating habits.

People with high cholesterol or an increased risk of heart disease should monitor their cholesterol for unfavorable changes while on the Atkins diet. Those with diabetes should consult their doctor before beginning the Atkins diet.

Additionally, individuals with kidney disease and people who are pregnant should not follow the Atkins diet.

That said, if you’re serious about the Atkins diet, consider buying or borrowing one of the Atkins books to learn more before getting started or print this article to use as a guide.

As always, consult a doctor or registered dietitian before starting a new weight-loss diet to make sure it’s right for your individual health needs.

Just one thing

If the Atkins diet feels too limiting for you, but you still want to follow a lower-carb eating pattern, consider making small substitutions each week, such as replacing bread during dinner with an extra serving of vegetables or snacking on veggies and nuts instead of pretzels or chips.

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The Atkins Diet: Everything You Need to Know (2024)
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