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The Atkins Protein Diet - Pros & Cons

The Atkins diet is one of the most famous and infamous diets in the world. Originally developed by Dr Robert Atkins; a cardiologist, the diet involves a consuming high amounts of protein and fat while restricting or having a significantly lower amount of carbohydrates. So instead of carbs, protein and fats are the main macronutrient components of this type of diet. The key selling points of the diet was that proteins and fats make you feel fuller, faster and for longer due to the absence of insulin spikes causing fluctuations in our hunger and appetite. Reduction of carbohydrates can also put the individual in a ketogenic state, which essentially means that the individual is burning fat as the preferred energy source rather than carbohydrates.

How Healthy is The Atkins Diet?

Naturally, with a high fat intake, concern has been expressed over the risk of increased cholesterol levels leading to high blood pressue and heart disease. According to research however, the replacement of carbs with fats actually showed greater improvements in the level of the good cholesterol HDL than low-fat diet counterparts.1 In fact, replacement of dietary fat with carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates have a greater potential to lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Suspicion has also been raised about the potential kidney damage associated with high protein intakes. Hoever, there has been very little evidence supporting this. The kidneys are in fact, extremely resilient and unless kidney problems are already present, high protein intakes are not an issue.

How Does The Atkins Diet Work?

Over time, the body adapts to the lack of carbohydrates and the subsequent reductions in insulin levels and ensures that blood glucose levels are still maintained through metabolism of fats and proteins, rather than carbohydrates. Most of the metabolism will be from fats rather than proteins. This is called ‘ketone metabolism.’ You may be familiar with the Keto diet, often used by bodybuilders. The Atkins diet is similar to this. After the initial weight loss, a slow introduction of carbs back into the diet occurs through a series of levels. These levels correspond to foods of increasing carbohydrate quantities. As with many diets out there, the main aim of the diet is for weight loss.

Structure of The Atkins Diet

The Atkins Diet is made up of four phases, the first one being the strictest.

  1. Atkins Phase One: Only 20 grams of carbs are permitted per day, derived from vegetable sources. The foods than can be consumed include tuna, salmon, chicken, beef, eggs, pork, lamp, bacon, ham, seafood, soft or semi-hard cheeses, non-starchy vegetables, oils, and nuts. At this stage, protein and fat are to be included with each meal. This phase generally lasts 2 weeks.
  2. Atkins Phase Two: 5 grams of carbohydrates can be added into the diet until only about 2.5 – 5 kilos are needed to be lost. Low glycaemic carbs including vegetables, nuts and berries can be used to increase this quota. If you regularly train, you can increase this carb allocation to 60-90 grams of carbs daily. Throughout this phase, the rung system of progressive food inclusions should be followed until the ultimate goal of phase two is reached, i.e. 2.5 - 5 kilos within target weight.
  3. Atkins Phase Three (Pre-Maintenance): Carbs can be upped by 10g per week. This routine is followed until weight loss has ceased. When this occurs, this would be considered to be your maint enance carb intake, otherwise known as the Atkins Carb Equilibrium. At this stage you can add more carbs into your diet, including starchy vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits. Higher carb meals are now permitted for 1-2 times a week. To account for this decrease your carb intake throughout the rest of the week.
  4. Atkins Phase Four (Maintenance): The expanded food selection is based on a food pyramid as follows: Meat forms the foundation of the diet at this stage, with vegetables, fruits, oils/nuts/dairy, and lastly grains, forming the new structure respectively. Whole unprocessed foods are recommended and this phase is for the individual to continue with the habits formed in the previous 3 phases.

Who Should Use The Atkins Diet?

The lack of carbs makes this diet good for those suffering from blood sugar problems. Consuming foods that have minimal effect on insulin levels means that blood sugar problems are minimised. Overweight or obese individuals can also use this diet. Athletes engaged in large volume, or very high intensity training should avoid this diet, as they rely on carbs for energy. The Atkins diet can still be used by these individuals, however significant changes need to be incorporated to ensure that pre-, during and post-workout meals are substantial enough in carbs to ensure maximum gains of training.

Effectiveness of The Atkins Diet

The modified version of this diet is significantly healthier than the earlier version which emphasised saturated fats and a very low carb intake. A randomised clinical trial published in 20052 compared four different diets, one of which was the Atkins. At the conclusion of the trial, weight loss occured in all trials with no significant differences between diets. In terms of other health benefits, there has not been enough studies looking at the Atkins diet specifically. However studies on low carbohydrate diets have been shown to be able to benefit individuals with type 2 diabetes3 and those at risk of heart disease4 as mentioned above. The exclusion of refined carbs as specified by this diet also presents as an advantage.

Atkins Diet Controversies

Several controversies have been raised regarding the Atkin's diet including that the initial weight loss is due to the loss of water rather than the loss of actual fat. This is due to the fact that a large amount of water is stored in glycogen rich areas such as muscles. Without carbohydrates, the bodies level of glycogen diminishes along with water leading to weight loss. That theory may be true for some, but conclusive confirmation of this is still required. Another controversy about the effectiveness of the Atkins is that the weight loss from followers of the Atkins may have been due to a overall restriction of the amount of foods available, rather than the amount of carbs, similar to other comments about 'fad diets'. And therefore with additions of food in the diet, this weight loss may be stopped and even reversed, due to lack of behaviour change. Again, while possibly true for some, conclusive evidence is still required to confirm this. 

Is The Atkins Diet For Me?

As discussed, the Atkins diet can be beneficial for those wanting to lose weight when used in a structured and methodical manner. The lower consumption of refinhed carbs is also an advantage to many people. It also has the potential to reduce cardiovascular issues and the severity of type 2 diabetes. The modified version of the Atkins diet, including a greater proportion of low GI carbs and less saturated fats may be especially relevant to those wanting to not only reduce body fat, but improve their overall health. However, be aware that there can be some potential side effects to this diet including bad breath, constipation and lethargy. In this author's opinion, the Atkins diet should be treated like every other diet marketed. The key to sustained weight loss and a healthy lifestyle is long term changes in behaviours and development of healthy and balanced eating habits, which includes a variety of foods. Restriction diets often have unwanted consequences of cravings for the restricted food. But if the Atkins diet works for you without any adverse health effects, there is no reason not to continue with it. As with bodybuilding and exercise, no one workout is the best. Similarly no one diet is best. It really depends on what type of eating pattern works for you. Keeping all this in mind, the decision is ultimately up to you.

1. Hession M, Rolland C, Kulkarni U, Wise A, Broom J (January 2009). "Systematic review of randomized controlled trials of low-carbohydrate vs. low-fat/low-calorie diets in the management of obesity and its comorbidities". Obesity Reviews 10 (1): 36–50.
2. Dansigner M, Gleason JA, Griffith JL, Selker HP, Schaefer EJ (2005). "Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets for weight loss and heart disease risk reduction: a randomized trial". Journal of the American Medical Association 293 (1): 43–53.
3. Nielsen JV, Joensson E (2006). "Low-carbohydrate diet in type 2 diabetes. Stable improvement of bodyweight and glycemic control during 22 months follow-up". Nutrition & Metabolism 3 (1): 22.
4. Halton TL, Willett WC, Liu S, et al. (November 2006). "Low-carbohydrate-diet score and the risk of coronary heart disease in women". The New England Journal of Medicine 355 (19): 1991–2002.

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