THE ATKINS DIET, A FORM OF PALEO?
The atkins diet though fundamentally based upon a concept of carbohydrate counting, actually takes from it some of the fundamental principles of the caveman diet. That is that avoidance of refined wheat and sugar, allows for stabilisation of blood sugar and consequently of insulin levels which will result in fat burning and improved health. Read my review of the atkins diet below and decide for yourself if its really just trying again to return to the original human diet that we were all born to eat!
THE ATKINS DIET
The Atkins Diet, which was at one time the fad diet that swept through the western hemisphere, drastically reducing the waistlines of millions as well as some notable celebrities, still enjoys a good following. Although the hype has now died down, many still continue to take up this diet and there are many who have maintained its principles and continue year after year on the maintenance phase of the diet.
The Atkins Diet, is based on the assumption that the current obesity epidemic currently plaguing the west is not as a result of excess calorie intake but is instead related to excessive intake of carbohydrates. The Atkins diet was indeed one of the major ‘fad’ diets to go completely against the concept that the best way to lose weight and keep healthy was to follow a low fat, calorie restricted diet.
Though the atkins diet was originally perceived by the public as a license to gorge yourself on proteins and fats as long as carbohydrates were strictly avoided, this is not actually the case. This diet when followed in its true sense is actually a genuinely healthy alternative to the modern low fat diet and in a large proportion of cases, if it is followed properly, results in dramatic weight loss, maintenance of goal weights and improvement of blood lipid levels and overall health.
The fundamental concept behind the atkins diet is that excessive carbohydrate intake particularly from simple sugars, leads to high blood glucose levels and raised insulin release from the pancreas. This in turn leads to a rapid decline in blood glucose which makes you tired and also leads to fat formation. The rapid decline in blood glucose following excessive insulin release leads to the person craving more sugar and then produces a vicious cycle which ultimately results in insulin resistance, obesity and a dangerous prediabetic (or sometimes even diabetes itself) state. By religiously avoiding carbohydrates in all their forms, you dramatically reduce blood glucose levels which stabilises insulin release and forces the body to convert its major metabolic process to lipolysis (or fat burning). This has 2 beneficial effects for the person, firstly because this metabolic process is less efficient than burning glucose, the person can eat more calories per day and still lose weight and also any preformed fat cells are preferentially burned off faster than would be expected through a conventional low fat calorie restriction diet.
Of course being outside of conventional wisdom, the atkins diet has many critics, many who say that the only reason you would lose weight is that the food choices you make will ultimately result in a lower calorie intake each day. While there is ample evidence that people do lose weight eating their full calorie allowance and simply restricting carbohydrates, there is some truth that many long term followers of the atkins diet naturally reduce their calorie intake without trying or feeling hungry. Without the spikes in blood sugar, food becomes much less addictive and the person feels satisfied for longer on smaller portions.
If you are considering the atkins diet then you are strongly recommended to first visit your doctor for a physical pre-assessment and especially for baseline blood tests. In virtually all cases if the diet is followed properly, lipid profiles should actually dramatically improve and blood glucose levels should stabilise. However because of the unconventional nature of the diet, its a good idea to get evidence of this fact to allay any of your own fears and those of loved ones as you proceed.
The atkins diet is broken up into 4 separate phases which I have listed below:
Induction: This is the toughest part of the diet where for around 2 weeks you will need to restrict your carbohydrate intake to less than 20 grams a day. This is the sensationalised stage of the diet which all of its opponents refer to when they argue against its merit. In truth this stage should be for 2 weeks maximum for most people (some resistant cases may need longer but long term induction is not recommended) and is designed to force your body’s metabolic process into lipolysis. Ketone urine testing sticks are advocated during this phase as proof that your body has switched its metabolism to fat burning. Knowing the exact carbohydrate content of all foods that you eat is essential while on atkins and no more so than throughout induction. I would recommend reading Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution for reliable information on carbohydrate content and the rules of induction. The main side effects experienced during induction are constipation and sometimes a ketone smelling breath. Supplements are recommended to control constipation and make up for reduced nutrients from not eating fruits etc during this phase.
Ongoing weight loss: Once you have completed induction, you move to the next phase, ongoing weight loss. During this phase, you raise your carb intake by 5 gms each week and continue in this fashion until you stop losing weight. This allows you to know your CCLL (critical carbohydrate level for losing weight) which is essential in tailoring your diet in the long term. You should continue with this phase until you have only 5 to 10 pounds left to lose to reach your goal.
Pre-Maintenance: This phase is not designed for rapid weight loss but is all about increasing your body’s resistance to carbohydrates to prepare you for a healthy life long maintenance diet. The aim is to raise your carbohydrate intake by no more than 10 gms a week and gradually experiment with different foods to see which promote weight gain , appetite cravings and water retention. You may need to lower your carbohydrate intake if you experience weight gain but the ultimate goal of this phase is to discover your CCLM (critical carbohydrate level for maintenance). Phase 3 can last around 3 months as you begin to tailor a diet that works best for you.
Lifetime Maintenance: During lifetime maintenance you need to adhere to your CCLM discovered in phase 3, develop strategies for dealing with temptations to switch back to old habits before the weight was lost, and continue to eat natural, unprocessed, nutrient dense carbohydrates in addition to the proteins and fats that are essential to atkins.
Conclusion: Though a definite improvement on the low fat calorie counting diet advocated by conventional nutritionists, I have some fundamental issues with the atkins diet (which I don’t have with the paleo diet) The concept of carbohydrate counting too closely mimics the concept of counting calories which I believe is simply the wrong mind set for eating. In addition I feel uncomfortable advocating a diet which begins with unhealthy eating (the induction phase) however effective it may be. I’m not a fan of diets which advocate a means to an end approach.