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The Atkins Diet: The Basics

What is the Atkins Diet? Sometimes called the Atkins Nutritional Approach, the Atkins Diet is a low-carbohydrate diet that emphasizes protein and natural fats and limits carbohydrates as key sources of calories.

The Atkins Diet is named for its creator, Dr. Robert Atkins, an American physician and cardiologist. Dr. Atkins developed and first promoted his namesake diet in the 1970s, and it enjoyed a big revival in 2003-2004. These days, a modern version of the diet is sometimes known as the Ketogenic Diet (or Keto Diet), or sometimes the Modified Atkins Diet. Dr. Atkins' book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, a huge best seller when first published, remains popular as a guide for reducing weight, as well as improving overall health, although not without controversy.

Steak with Blue Cheese, Bacon, and Pine Nuts

Photo by Meredith

How the Atkins Diet Works: Reprogramming Body Chemistry

Think of your body as an engine. Both fat and carbs are fuels that the body turns into sugar to rev your muscles, nerves and cells into action. (Sugar that isn’t turned immediately turned into energy becomes body fat.) When the carbs you eat are limited, your body searches for an alternative fuel -- fat -- and starts burning this for energy. Reducing carbohydrates forces the body to burn both body fat and natural fat from foods for fuel. Using fat as an alternative fuel for energy supplies long-term, steady energy, and may lower food cravings, which may make a difference in losing or maintaining weight.

Detractors of the Atkins Diet question the health consequences of eating large amounts of protein and fat, particularly saturated fat, for any length of time. They dispute claims that the diet can reverse heart disease. Certainly anyone with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or high cholesterol are advised to consult their doctor before starting the diet.

Foundation Foods for the Atkins Diet

Like all diets, some foods are restricted on the Atkins Diet. However, others may be eaten in unlimited amounts. You’ll find the foods in every grocery store, and meals prepared from scratch are recommended as the best way to fulfill the diet’s food parameters.

PROTEINS

Meat -- unprocessed beef, pork, veal, mutton, venison, buffalo, ham, and bacon (as long as it’s not processed with sugar; nitrate-free is preferred)

Poultry -- unprocessed chicken, turkey, goose, duck, pheasant, quail, Cornish game hens, ostrich

Seafood -- unprocessed  tuna, salmon, catfish, trout, snapper, sole, sardines, herring, etc., along with shellfish, such as oysters, clams, crab, shrimp, calamari, lobster, mussels, and scallops (avoid processed imitation crab and other shellfish because these contain sugar and additives)

Broiled Tilapia Parmesan

Photo by France C.

Dairy –- full-fat butter, cheese, cream, and yogurt

Eggs -- from any bird, including chickens, ducks, quail, and geese

FATS

Cold-pressed vegetable oils and oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids are top choices for the Atkins Diet. These oils include: olive oil, nut oils, seed oils, vegetable oils (cold-pressed), linseed oil, butter, fats from meat, plus nuts and seeds. Skip margarine.

VEGETABLES

Limited amounts of salad vegetables and other low-carb vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, etc.) are included, but not starchy, sweet vegetables such as corn, potatoes, and peas.

Salad vegetables -- lettuce (iceberg, romaine, Bibb, escarole, mache, radicchio, arugula, endive), leafy herbs (dill, thyme, oregano, basil, cilantro), bok choy, chives, cucumber, fennel, parsley, celery, hot and sweet peppers, radishes, daikon, sprouts, mushrooms, olives, jicama

Other vegetables -- Artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, tomatoes, onions, summer squashes (yellow, patty pan, zucchini), okra, turnips, avocado, Brussels sprouts, leafy greens (mustard, turnip, beet, collards), broccoli

Grilled Hearts of Romaine
 

BEVERAGES

Water is the go-to drink for the Atkins Diet, along with coffee and green tea; small amounts of alcohol are also acceptable except for wines with added sugars, and beer, a high-carb drink

CONDIMENTS AND SPICES

Homemade is best when it comes to these foods, because most commercial preparations include sugar or maltodextrin. Sugar-free versions are acceptable.

SWEETENERS

Natural sugars are not included on the Atkins diet, which includes honey, corn syrup, and all natural sugars (sucrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, glucose), as well as foods and beverages containing these sugars. Most artificial sugars are included, along with stevia.

What You Can’t Eat on the Atkins Diet

This list of foods may or may not seem restrictive, depending on your food preferences, but it includes processed foods: bread, pasta, potatoes, chips, cookies, cakes, candy, ice cream, and sweetened beverages (soft drinks, fruit juices). Grains such as wheat, spelt, rye, barley and rice as not allowed, along with soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil and canola oil. Veggies are the main form of carbs in the Atkins Diet, with the exception of high carb vegetables such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. However, as dieters move through the phases, bean/legumes, fruits and whole grains may be added back to a diet.

HOW IT WORKS: 4 PHASES IN AN ATKINS DIET

The Atkins Diet features four phases with specific do's and don'ts for what may be eaten. First, there’s a strict Induction Phase, and then ongoing, maintenance, and lifetime maintenance stages. Phases typically last a month or two weeks, and several actually include eating limited amounts of carbohydrates.

Phase 1 -- The Induction Phase or Atkins 20
The strictest stage of the Atkins Diet, this first “getting started” phase allows eating only 20 grams of carbohydrates each day, typically as vegetables. Low levels of carbohydrates then cause the body to burn fatty acids, which creates ketones as a byproduct -- a source of fuel to keep you moving when sugar (glucose) intake is limited. This process is called ketosis, and it promotes overall weight loss. This phase is followed for a minimum of two weeks, or until you’re within 15 pounds of your goal weight.

Some dieters prefer to follow the Atkins 40 from the start, a variation of the first phase that allows eating 40 Net Carbs of carbohydrates every day, with various foods from every food group. This plan option was designed to offer a wider variety of food choices.

Phase 2 – Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL)
Limited amounts of carbohydrates (nuts, low-carb veggies, and fruits) are slowly added back into the diet, one at a time following a prescribed schedule, usually 5 net grams per week. The aim is more variety, not more food. This phase lasts until the dieter is within 10 pounds of their target weight.

Phase 3 – Fine-Tuning for Pre-Maintenance
Once a weight goal is within sight, more carbs may be added to the diet until weight loss naturally slows down and metabolism adjusts.

Phase 4 – Lifetime Maintenance
This stage allows eating as many healthy carbohydrates as your body can tolerate without gaining more, or gaining back, weight. The goal is to avoid the yo-yo dieters’ pattern of regaining lost weight. Whole, unprocessed food choices are the norm here too.

Chef John's Chicken and Mushrooms

Photo by Chef John

RECIPES FOR ATKINS DIETERS

Broiled Tilapia Parmesan

This fish dinner served with creamy cucumber salad and slices of red bell peppers can be ready in under 30 minutes.

Pork Chops Stuffed with Smoked Gouda and Bacon

Cut a pocket into the pork chop and stuff it with this cheese-and-bacon mixture. Take it to the grill, and enjoy it with a simple side of pan-fried green beans to complete this low-carb dinner.

Pan-fried Steak with Marsala Sauce

Garlicky broccoli and a simple salad of cherry tomatoes complete this simple low-carb meal.


Check out our complete collection of Low-Carb Recipes.


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