Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: Atkins

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on April 12th, 2012)

First a little disclaimer:
I have not had an opportunity to read Dr. Atkin’s books yet but I have done extensive reading about the diet. Some points are extrapolations of this information but most is accurate and referenced in the material I have used.

Another very popular diet is the Atkins Diet. It has had two incarnations over the years. It was introduced in the 70’s but was abandoned as people learned more about nutrition and the impact of fats on health and people were scared away from it. It was revived in 2002 with Dr. Atkin’s second book where he made several changes to his approach to weight loss. This time it became very popular.

The Atkins diet is based around the idea of forcing your body to utilize fats as a primary energy source rather than sugars. It falls under the category of “Ketogenic” Diets where “Ketones” or “Ketone Bodies” accumulate in the blood stream as the waste products of fat breakdown.

The human body, and in fact that of most omnivores and herbivores, is designed to derive its energy from the glucose in carbohydrates. During a period of fasting the body switches over to the energy stores of fat. Many people think that the Atkins diet removes carbohydrates completely from the diet for the rest of our lives but this is not true. Dr. Atkins is not saying that carbohydrates are bad but that the type and amount we currently consume in our culture is bad. This diet has four stages with very strict rules to follow designed to initiate the fasting metabolism and the utilization of fat as energy and then slowly reintroduce good carbohydrates back into the diet. Initially all carbohydrates (simple and most complex) are removed from the diet along with alcohol and caffeine for 2 weeks. Then things are regimentally added back to the diet week by week. Phase three involves maintaining a caloric intake where weight is still lost and phase four is maintaining the habits learned during the diet.

This is a very regimented and strict diet to follow and it requires a lot of diligence and mental work on the follower’s part. It is not easy and is very limiting in our carbohydrate heavy culture. That being said, I think this is a great diet IF you can maintain the strict path it sets.

The mainstay of the diet is fat which makes many people baulk and run away. We’ve been told that fat gives us heart disease, high blood pressure, and makes us fat. These are all true. But in this case the fat is being utilized rather than stored. If you remember back to the post in December on cholesterol, fats are packaged to go to the tissue for storage and vice versa. It is the fats being packaged for tissue storage that are the “Bad Cholesterol” and cause all of the issues related to a high fat diet. The “Good Cholesterol” actually has a protective role in heart health and with the Atkins diet there is more fat being transferred back to the liver for use. The ratio of good and bad cholesterol is what is truly important in heart health. So, yes there is more fat in the diet but it is not necessarily increasing the risks of heart disease.

The trick with a high fat diet is making sure that the fat is healthy fat. The program recommends that only 20% of your daily caloric intake but that all the help you get. So it is up to you to police yourself and make sure the fats you are eating are the healthy ones.

In the first phase of the diet vegetables are emphasized. Not just any vegetables. My favourite vegetables! Dark, green, and leafy! This is a high point in the diet for me. During the most strict part of the diet good veggies are demanded and continue to be a mainstay as more things are allowed back into the diet. The part that I don’t like is that there is little explanation of why! If you remember this was one of my main complaints about the Weight Watchers diet. Atkins is very thorough in explaining how fats are used in the body why this is good for you but not so good with anything else. These vegetables are an essential source of fibre and our water soluble vitamins. The fibre keeps us full for longer and helps give our feces bulk which improved intestinal movement. The vitamins are essential parts of our biochemical functions both inside our cells and in the fluids of our body like blood.

Along the same lines proteins are emphasized during the initial phase of the diet but only meat is suggested at a protein source. The regular vegetarian and vegan source of protein like legumes and nuts are completely restricted for two weeks. Later these protein sources are added back in but two weeks without a protein source will cause significant problems for a person. I have not come across a version of the Atkins diet that is vegetarian/vegan friendly but that does not mean one doesn’t exist somewhere.

As I have said previously the rules in this diet are extremely strict and there is no system to police what you eat other than yourself. So without fully explaining why it is set up the way it is we cannot guard ourselves completely. So if we do not understand what we are eating and why it is possible to “maintain” the Atkins diet but still not be having a “healthy” diet. Vitamin and protein deficiencies can be devastating to our health let alone the foods that fit within a low carb, high fat diet that are actually bad for us such as Trans and Saturated fats, chemical sweeteners, and processed foods.

Now the main concern I have with the Atkins diet is that fat is not just for energy storage in the body. Like cholesterol, fats are used to build chemicals used around the body. If the majority of fat is being used as an energy source then this could divert from this essential process in the body. There is one specific type of fat that is used in this hormone synthesis so it is conceivable that this is not actually a problem. This concern is solely based on theory on my part. There is no research to my knowledge that supports this claim but it still worries me.

There is a line of snack and food products associated with Atkins but I have been unable to determine if they are made by the Atkins organization. These products utilize artificial sweeteners to replace sugar and are fairly high in saturated fats which the diet suggests we limit1. These products may fit with the Atkins formula but are not a healthy food choice at all. Cut veggies or nuts (but not until they are allowed in the program) are much better choices to deal with cravings rather than the packaged alternatives.

So over all I think the Atkins diet (the 2002 incarnation) is an excellent diet but as with Weight Watchers it does not go far enough into explaining the reasoning behind the rules and regulations if puts us through. Without knowledge it is hard to form lasting habits but the Atkins diet tried to replace this with strict rules. This is not the diet for you if you struggle with willpower and cravings when you try to change something in your diet. Once again, I find this diet not going far enough in its measures to maintain a healthy lifestyle through the oversight of not eliminating the modern chemicals in food sources. They do recommend whole foods but do not say to avoid the artificial ones.

Thanks for reading and come back next week for another diet under the microscope.
Dr. Ben

References
1. http://caloriecount.about.com/atkins-nutrition-m374

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