Dieting fads have been around almost as long as modern nutrition, and today these quick-fix, results-guaranteed, scientifically suspect diet crazes are a serious money-making machines, with the ‘diet industry’ crossing almost $800 million annually in Australia.
One funny thing about fad diets is that, much like fashion, they wind up being recycled again and again over the decades. Who would have guessed we’d be wearing jellies again, post-1995? And who would have imagined that the Atkins Diet would still be going strong in the 21st century, with wide-reaching marketing and a reasonably high-profile celebrity ambassador to boot?
The low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet first became popular in the early 1970s, and in the intervening forty or so years it’s achieved steady success, despite the slight hiccup of creator Dr Robert Atkins’ death from heart disease in 2003 – he was, incidentally, clinically obese.
How does it work?
The premise of Atkins – much like that of the Zone, South Beach and the CSIRO Wellness diets – is that weight loss can be achieved through a diet that’s high in protein (meat, eggs, fish) and low in carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, bread). Naturally, Atkins’ regime quickly garnered a lot of popularity, particularly among frustrated American housewives struggling to slim down on rabbit-food diets. Finally, they could consume all the bacon, red meat and full-fat dairy they desired – and just by cutting out carbs, the weight would fall off!
The reason for eliminating carbs is to bring the body into a state of ‘ketosis’, in which fat is metabolised for energy in the absence of carbohydrates. The process of shifting into ketosis results in a diuretic effect, and through this quick weight loss – loss of water weight, that is, not actual body fat.
Common sense would also suggest that consuming less of any food group would result in weight loss – particularly in the case of something like carbohydrates, which encompasses many high kilojoule discretionary foods like chips, biscuits and cakes. Evidence is limited when it comes to efficacy of low-carbohydrate diets over more conventional overall energy restricted, nutritionally balanced diets, and the general consensus at this stage is that carbohydrate restriction is no miracle.
With time comes great advances in science, and so over the years new versions of the Atkins Diet have been released. The versions available now are less scrupulous with their restriction on carbohydrates, discriminating between the ‘good’ carbs (vegetables and whole grains) and ‘bad’ carbs (white pasta, bread, as well as processed foods like pastries) that should be avoided. Similarly, the diet is no longer animal fat friendly, and makes a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats. The importance of fibre is also highlighted, a welcome change from the old-style Atkins diet.
The Atkins Program
The Atkins program consists of four phases, and the individual may choose to begin with any one of them depending on how much weight they intend to lose.
Phase 1: “The induction.” In order to turn the dieter’s body into a ‘fat burning machine’ (i.e. take the dieter into ketosis), Phase 1 involves a diet of proteins, healthy fats and vegetables, plus 20 net carbs daily (net carbs being digestible carbs, with the amount of fibre subtracted). No fruit, bread, starchy vegetables or dairy products are allowed, with the exception of butter, cheese and cream.
Phase 2: “Ongoing weight loss.” Net carbs are amped up to 25-45 daily. Nuts, berries and yoghurt are added to the list of allowed proteins, healthy fats and vegetables.
Phase 3: “Pre-maintenance.” Net carbs are boosted to 50-75, plus fruit and legumes, and breads and grains are introduced. Don’t get too excited, though; “breads and grains” refers only to oatmeal and brown rice!
Phase 4: “Lifetime maintenance.” Net carbs remain at 75 + each day. Protein, healthy fats, vegetables, nuts, berries, yoghurt, fruit, legumes, breads and grains are all allowed.
Atkins also provides a handy list of their own snack bars and shakes you can purchase as part of their program. I may be a penny-pincher, but I just don’t see this as necessary. Sure, people are time-poor, but if Atkins are able to provide food suggestions, menu plans, even entire cook books to outline ‘available’ foods for those on the diet, surely these pricey processed foods are just not needed.
As for the diet… It’s certainly doable, and I have no doubt that following it would result in weight loss – that will happen when you’re consuming fewer kilojoules than you’re expending – but is it sustainable and healthy?
Comparing the diet to the Australian Dietary Guidelines – guidelines that have been produced as a result of extensive research from the best evidence available – it appears that Atkins is flawed. Consuming the recommended 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables would almost completely make up the 75 net carbs allowed during the ‘lifetime maintenance’ phase of Atkins, leaving little room for any flexibility (or enjoyment!). Furthermore, the exclusion of whole grains may mean skimping on fibre – which is key in maintaining weight, appetite and overall health.
Whether or not Atkins is sustainable depends entirely on the dieter’s commitment to the program. From researching it myself, I’m totally confused, the long lists of different fruits and vegetables alongside sums of net carbs seem like too much maths to me. They essentially advocate counting calories, which sets of warning bells to me, and I can imagine that many would tire of its strict nature.
Who might this diet suit? Well, if you don’t love carbs, perhaps this could be for you. However, those cooking for a family may find it difficult – no more stand-by pastas for a mid-week dinner! It’s also been suggested low-carb diets are markedly more expensive than a more traditional diet.
Why all the hate on carbs, anyway?
Carbohydrates are our bodies’ most important source of fuel. Broken down easily and efficiently to glucose (sugar), they are taken up by our muscles and brain for energy. Of course, some carbohydrates are preferable to others, with Low GI (glycaemic index) choices like grainy breads, oats and wholegrain pasta being far more favourable than conventional cereals, and high GI junk food like chips and pies. Choosing lower GI carbohydrates will ensure a slow release of energy, and avoid a slump in blood sugar – those characteristic shakes and lagging concentration that will surely result from a diet such as Atkins.
So, is the ‘New Atkins Diet’ the revolution you’ve been searching for…? Unlikely. To quote one of my lecturers, dietitian Tim Crowe, “If any popular diet was truly a magical solution, it would have permeated through the population by now and we’d be seeing a reversal in obesity rates.”
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