The Atkins diet — a popular low-carb diet that’s high in fats and proteins but low in carbohydrates — has been around for more than 40 years. Various books written about the Atkins diet are some of the best-selling in the diet category, with more than 45 million sold worldwide since its original publication in 1972.
The Atkins diet was created by an American cardiologist named Dr. Robert Atkins, a physician and nutritionist who developed his diet in the 1970s after researching potential benefits of reducing carb intake. He was specifically inspired by research conducted in the 1950s on the effects of low-carb diets, along with papers published on the same topic in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
What do you eat on the Atkins diet? Because it’s a low-carb diet, things like sugar, fruit, grains and many processed foods are avoided on the Atkins diet. Dr. Atkins believed that, instead, eating a low-carb diet that focuses on foods low-carb foods like meat, veggies, cheese and butter could help many struggling with weight gain quickly shed extra fat.
Below you’ll learn what the Atkins diet is, how it works, the different phases of the diet, what to eat in each phase and also some alternatives to consider based on potential dangers involved.
The definition of the Atkins diet is “a diet high in protein and fat and low in carbohydrates, prescribed for weight loss.” Low-carb diets, including Atkins, have been used for several decades to help people lose excess weight and potentially improve certain health conditions.
The Atkins diet became popular in the U.S. and Europe during the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, Time magazine even named Atkins one of the 10 most influential people of 2002. However, in recent years sales of Atkins products and books have declined steadily. Packaged food products like bars and shakes have earned a reputation for being mostly unhealthy options, not to mention lacking taste. In 2005, the Atkins company filed for bankruptcy, although many dieters still refer to Atkins’ ideas and advice when attempting to lose weight.
While there’s evidence it leads to weight loss, is the Atkins diet necessarily healthy, you may be wondering? Diets tend to affect people differently — for example, women versus men. While they’re not a good fit for everybody, low-carb diets like the Atkins diet have been linked to not only weight loss, but also certain other health benefits too. These include:
There are several different types of the Atkins diet based on your individual goals, starting/current weight and willingness to eat only very low-carb foods. Some variations of the Atkins diet cut carbs more drastically than others. Generally speaking, the lower-carb the diet is, the likelier it is to result in very rapid weight loss (especially in obese individuals).
During the initial phases of the Atkins diet, carbs are kept to about 30–50 net grams (the amount of carbs left when fiber grams are subtracted). This is considered to be “very low carb” according to most health authorities, while phases that include about 100to 130 grams of carbs/day are considered “low carb” or moderate in carbs. As a point of reference, the Institute of Medicine proposes Americans obtain 45 percent to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, which is usually over 250 grams/day.
The Atkins diet works by boosting the body’s fat-burning abilities through consumption of only low-carb foods, along with an elimination of foods high in carbs/sugar. What is it about cutting carbs that causes fat loss? A heavy reduction, or in some cases almost an entire elimination, of glucose from carbohydrate foods causes the body to burn fat for energy instead. Our bodies normally run on glucose for fuel, but fat and protein are used as backup sources when glucose is no longer available. We cannot make glucose ourselves and only store about 24 hours worth within our muscles and livers, so fat-burning and weight loss on Atkins can start to happen pretty quickly.
Glucose, or other types of sugar/carb molecules that can be turned into glucose once eaten, are found in all carbohydrate foods. This is exactly the reason grains and fruits, among other carbs, are off limits on the Atkins diet.
What can you eat on an Atkins diet? No-carb foods and low-carb foods that tend to be very popular among Atkins dieters include high protein foods, non-starchy veggies like leafy greens, oils and cheeses. The Atkins diet (as well as other variations of low-carb diets) reduces most sources of glucose. These include grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, fruits, and sugars or sweeteners of all kinds. Even even nuts, seeds and vegetables have some carbs, although amounts differ depending on the exact kind.
The Atkins diet is categorized into different levels and usually four phases, where you choose which foods to eat and avoid based on your current weight versus your target weight:
Phases 3 and 4 of the Atkins diet allow for more high-carb foods than Phases 1 and 2. During the later phases you can add the following whole foods:
How successful is Atkins? In terms of Atkins results, studies tell us that while low-carb diets have certainly been shown to help promote weight loss, especially in the first six to 12 months, and in some cases provide other health benefits too, overall there is only weak evidence supporting Atkins’ effectiveness as a sustainable, long-term diet plan to lose weight. Ultimately, results from Atkins really depend on a person’s willingness to stick with the diet. Some people are better suited for low-carb diets than others.
Based on research focusing on low-carb diets, here are what studies tell us are some of the benefits that the Atkins diet can offer:
Unlike many weight loss diets that involve counting calories and strict portion control, the Atkins diet focuses more on counting carbs (specifically net carbs, which takes into account how much fiber a food has). Research suggests that for those who lose weight on the diet, results are likely due to consuming less calories overall, possibly entering into ketosis, and feeling satisfied due to adequate protein, fat and fiber intake when followed properly.
A study done at Tulane University School of Public Health involving 148 subjects split between a low-fat diet group and a low-carb diet group found that even though the low-carb diet group ate higher amounts of dietary fat, (participants were told to avoid trans fats and emphasize monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and saturated fats), the low-carbohydrate diet was more effective for weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor reduction than the low-fat diet. Both groups ate lots of vegetables, but the low-carb group included more healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and their butters, along with some dairy.
Consuming too many carbs (especially from refined sugar) is believed to be directly associated with fat gain, obesity, diabetes risk, cardiovascular diseases and other metabolically related medical conditions. The Atkins diet recommends that at least two-thirds of daily calories come from foods that are low in sugar/carbs but high in protein and fat, such as oils, meats and cheeses. Vegetables are also consumed with most meals, which provide volume, fiber and nutrients with little carbs.
The Atkins diet replaces things like processed, high-carb/sugar foods that are prone to causing blood sugar swings, insulin resistance and weight gain — all causes of diabetes — with healthy fats and lean proteins (particularly from animal proteins, which are no-carb foods). As described above, removing foods like fruits, starchy veggies, pasta and bread from your diet causes your body to release less insulin, helping balance blood sugar levels and burn stored fat.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association that included a total of 13 studies found that, according to patients’ self-reported health markers, their hemoglobin A1c, fasting glucose and some lipid fractions (triglycerides) improved when consuming lower carbohydrate-content diets. To be fair, however, Atkins isn’t the only type of plan to produce these results. Other types of diets have also been shown to benefit those with diabetes, such as the Mediterranean diet, even when more unprocessed carbs are included.
The Atkins diet is high in fat, specifically saturated fats that many fear contribute to heart problems. However, when saturated fat comes from healthy sources, such as grass-fed beef or coconut oil, it can actually be beneficial for raising HDL cholesterol levels and lowering risk factors for cardiovascular problems. Eating a balanced, unprocessed diet that results in healthy weight loss can also be vital in lowering LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides, which are tied to heart disease and heart attacks.
One of the leading risk factors for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is having diabetes or being prediabetic, due to the effects of insulin on hormonal balance. PCOS is now the most common endocrine disorder affecting women of reproductive age. It is associated with problems like obesity, hyperinsulinemia, infertility and insulin resistance. While more research is still needed to draw conclusions, some studies have found that a low-carb ketogenic diet leads to significant improvement in PCOS symptoms— including weight, percent of free testosterone, LH/FSH hormone ratio and fasting insulin when followed for a 24-week period.
Low-carb diets have been found to be beneficial for fighting cognitive problems, including dementia, Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy. Researchers believe that people with the highest insulin resistance might demonstrate higher levels of inflammation and lower cerebral blood flow (circulation to the brain), therefore less brain plasticity.
A 2012 report published in the Journal of Physiology found evidence of strong metabolic consequences on cognitive abilities like memory, mood and energy due to a high-sugar diet, especially when combined with a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids. The study concluded that consuming omega-3 fatty acids and preventing insulin resistance may protect learning and memory by influencing brain-signaling mediators.
The foods below can be consumed in small quantities during Phases 3 and 4 of Atkins:
What do you eat for breakfast on the Atkins diet? What can I eat for lunch on Atkins? Here’s an idea of what your week may look like if you chose a breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack each day from the lists below. These meals are appropriate for every phase, including the induction and balancing phases. During the pre-maintenance and maintenance phases you can add more fruits, starches and whole grains.
While the diet might be a bit restrictive for some, it’s possible to follow a plant-based, low-carb diet. Instead of eating animal products like eggs and meat, focus on plenty of low-carb, nutrient-dense vegan and/or vegetarian foods — like vegan protein powders, organic tofu/tempeh, nuts, seeds, low-carb fruits and veggies, leafy greens, healthy fats, and fermented foods. There’s also a similar plan called “Ketotarian,” which combines the keto diet with a vegetarian/vegan diet or pescatarian diet, supposedly for greater health benefits.
Although the Atkins diet does tend to produce substantial weight loss (at least initially), there isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to low-carb dieting that is going to work best for everyone to improve health or quality of life. Losing weight isn’t everything, after all. Your diet also has to be sustainable and actually beneficial for both your body and mind. Research suggests that if someone feels too restricted by his or her diet, that person is prone to gaining the weight back — and possibly even more than was lost in the first place.
Depending on factors like your medical history, age, gender, level of activity, bodyweight and genetic disposition, you may find the Atkins diet to either be very accommodating and rewarding or difficult to follow long term. Some studies have found that dieters on even very low-carb plans report less fatigue, cognitive symptoms, physical effects of hunger, insomnia and stomach problems compared to dieters on low-fat/higher-carb plans. On the other hand, side effects are also possible when low-carb dieting. There seems to be a lot of variability when it comes to effects of the Atkins diet, ketogenic diet, etc.
The Atkins diet may cause possible side effects or worsened symptoms in some people, including:
Like with all dietary plans, it’s important to practice self-awareness if you plan to reduce your carb intake drastically for weight loss. This is especially true if you’re underweight, very active, elderly, have a hormone-related health condition, or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Pay attention to how you feel, your energy, sleep, moods and digestion in order to arrive at the level of carbs in your diet that works best for you personally.
Simply by reducing carbohydrates — especially from added sugar, refined grains and legumes, or dairy if difficult for you to digest — you can substantially improve your weight and health. This is a similar approach to the ketogenic diet and the Paleo diet, although it’s not necessarily the best idea to completely eliminate whole foods like raw dairy or legumes if you tolerate them well. To prevent overeating, cravings or blood sugar swings, it also helps to increase calories from healthy fats and quality proteins, including grass-fed meat, pasture-raised poultry, wild fish or raw dairy.
While everyone is a bit different, if weight loss is your goal, experiment with keeping calories from unprocessed carbohydrates (veggies, fruits, starchy veggies) to about 30 percent of your overall diet. You may want to increase fat intake to about 30 percent to 40 percent of calories and protein to around 30 percent. With this approach, you can lose weight effortlessly, feel better overall and prevent the weight from simply coming back.
To follow a low-carb diet in a healthy way, here are tips to help you get started and stay committed:
Very low-carb versions of the Atkins diet can have similar effects to the keto diet, which seems to be better supported by research than fad diets, such as Atkins. Also simply called “keto,” this is a very low-carb way of eating that strictly eliminates almost all sources of glucose in order to put the body into fat-burning mode quickly. Some people following a keto diet consume up to 80 percent of their total calories from fat. When in ketosis, once glucose from carbohydrate foods is no longer available for energy, the body uses stored body fat instead as a source of energy.
Very low-carb diets, including the ketogenic diets, have well-documented health benefits, including helping treat epilepsy, obesity, potentially cancer, and risk factors for diabetes or metabolic syndrome. The Atkins diet may have similar effects when done properly and in a healthy way.