The Atkins diet has been a popular weight-loss tool for decades. It has been widely talked about in the media, as well as in health- and fitness circles ever since its conception in the 1960s. It was developed by cardiologist Robert C. Atkins and adopts a low-carbohydrate approach to eating.

You've almost certainly heard of this diet - variations of low-carb eating are now discussed just about everywhere online. In that respect, Atkins could be considered the grandfather of low carb. In this article, we'll go over some of the science behind it, as well as the various phases involved. You may find that it works for your particular weight loss goal, but as you are likely aware, it is not necessarily the easiest way of eating to adhere to long-term.

How does it work?

Our bodies store glucose when we consume sugars and carbohydrates. These are easily-accessible energy stores for our bodies. Whether we are exercising, walking around, or just going about our day, we are continually burning through these stores until we replenish them with our next meal.

The Atkins diet does not allow us to replenish these energy reserves by virtue of its low-carbohydrate nature. So when they are depleted, our bodies are forced to switch to an alternate fuel - body fat. Initially, a person will usually see a rapid drop in weight. Water binds easily to carbohydrates, and so when carbs are lowered, a person will drop water weight over the course of the first few days. When maintained over a longer period of time, fat loss will ensue if executed correctly.

The basic idea is to restrict carbohydrates to a bare minimum initially, eating only a limited number of foods, before gradually increasing flexibility. Weight loss is dramatic in the beginning, then slows as more foods are reintroduced, and eventually reaches a break-even point once the weight loss goal is achieved. This allows a person to ultimately reintroduce many of their favorite foods once their target has been reached.

Foods like chicken, turkey, red meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, and certain nuts and seeds form the foundation of the Atkins diet because they are so low in carbohydrates. This brings us to the first phase of the diet.

Phase 1

Also known as "induction", this phase is often recommended for the first two weeks. The goal is to keep total net carbs for the day under 20. The net carb number is derived from taking the total number of carbohydrates from a food, and subtracting any fiber or artificial sugars. What's left is the "net carb" number. So if a food label reads "15 grams of carbohydrate" but it also contains 2 grams of fiber and 3 grams of sorbitol (for argument's sake) the food would have a total of 10 net carbohydrates.

During the first phase, a person will eat only the most basic of "Atkins foods" as mentioned above (chiefly lean meat, fish, eggs, cheese and vegetables). Avoiding soda, artificial sugars and sweeteners is recommended during this phase. A person may find themselves feeling weak, irritable and possibly lightheaded after a day or two, as the body switches to burning body fat instead of using up readily-available glycogen stores. Known as the "Atkins flu", this will often pass within 48 hours or so.

After a few days, the body will enter the state of ketosis, which indicates that it has switched to burning body fat to use as fuel.

Phase 2

Once a person has made it to phase 2 (known as "ongoing weight loss"), they may consider reintroducing additional foods such as cherries, melon, berries, tomato juice, whole milk, cottage cheese, ricotta, etc.

The goal is to keep the total number of net carbohydrates to a range of 25 to 50 per day. This allows for greater flexibility when eating, and provides more opportunities to obtain much-needed dietary fiber, particularly if a person is prone to constipation. Weight loss should still be occurring in this carbohydrate range. This phase may last some time, depending on a person's weight loss goal.

Phase 3

Phase 3, or pre-maintenance, is recommended for those who are in the home stretch and close to their target. It allows for a few more foods, such as additional fruits, starchy vegetables, and modest amounts of whole grains.

In this phase, weight loss should still occur, but will have slowed down a fair amount. 50 to 80 net carbs per day is the current recommendation for phase 3.

Phase 4

Phase 4 is essentially lifetime maintenance. At this point, a person has hit their weight loss goal and is eating many of their favorite foods, including more whole grains and other types of fruits and vegetables that may have previously been off-limits. A daily range of 80 to 100 net carbs is recommended for those in this phase who are looking to maintain their weight loss long term.

Over the course of the Atkins diet, a person will naturally find their Carbohydrate Critical Level for Losing (CCLL). This is the number of net carbs per day that will allow them to lose weight consistently.

In summary

The health benefits of eating low carb are of course disputed. Stable blood sugar - a side effect of low-carb eating - is of course a plus, but reducing carbohydrates too much may impact a person's ability to excel in the gym, for instance. Similarly, while losing body fat is great, eating too much red meat may be harmful to your health long-term. In that sense, you may notice that for every perceived benefit, there is another aspect to consider which may not be so beneficial. At the very least, taking a multivitamin and maintaining adequate hydration in the form of water, coffee and tea is essential. Exercise alongside the diet is also important, with the caveat it is doctor-approved.

Some doctors and nutritionists have advised that kidney function may be impacted when following a low-carbohydrate diet, and that blood sugar may dip too low if a person is not careful. It may also prove difficult to obtain enough dietary fiber if someone is eating primarily protein while following Atkins, for instance.

As with most things in life, it pays to do your research and work out if this particular diet is sustainable for you. It may be a great fit if you enjoy low-carb foods in general. But do be aware that you may find yourself in a difficult position if that desire for a slice of cake becomes too much, in addition to the potential health risks of eating this way over an extended period of time.
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