Diets explained: The Atkins diet

The Atkins diet is a well-known member of the diet-fad family. While many have effectively lost weight using this diet, it remains controversial as health professionals continue to question its safety and the long-term health effects living on the Atkins diet may cause.

Dr Robert Atkins first published the diet in 1972, in his book Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution. He has since revised the diet to include more fibre-rich vegetables and some wholegrains.

The Atkins diet theory
Your body burns both carbohydrates and fat. Carbohydrates are easier to break down, so your body burns these first, often leaving the fat to deposit on your belly, hips and thighs. By dramatically reducing the amount of carbohydrates you eat and increasing the protein and fat, your body will naturally move on to burning fat instead of carbohydrates, resulting in weight loss.

How it works
Drastically reducing the carbohydrates in your diet causes your body to go into a state of ketosis, which means it is burning its own fat for fuel. When the body is in a state of ketosis you tend to feel less hungry, meaning you are likely to eat less than normal, further adding to weight loss.

What you can’t eat
For most people your carbohydrate consumption should be no more than 40 grams per day. You cannot consume refined sugar, milk, white rice or white flour. Carbohydrates mostly come from fibre-rich vegetables – fruits are not encouraged. Medical professionals often suggest that those on the Atkins diet take a multivitamin pill, to make up for the loss of fruits and many vegetables.

What you can eat
On the Atkins diet the amount of food you eat is not restricted. You can’t eat certain foods, but you can eat as much as you want from the ‘allowed’ list. You can (and are encouraged) to eat foods which are typically regarded as ‘rich’. You can consume red meat, fish, shellfish, fowl, regular cheese (no diet cheese), butter, mayonnaise and oils.

Modifying the diet
After the initial period of weight loss the Atkins diet does allow for adding fruits and vegetables to help maintain a healthy weight and slow weight loss down.

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What the experts say
The Atkins diet remains highly controversial with health professionals. It is clear that for many people this is a quick and effective way to lose weight. It has also been shown to improve your triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. However many have concerns about the long term safety of staying on the Atkins diet.

Robert H. Eckel, MD, director of the general clinical research centre at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Centre in Denver, says “We worry that the diet promotes heart disease… We have concerns over whether this is a healthy diet for preventing heart disease, stroke and cancer. There is also potential loss of bone and the potential for people with liver and kidney problems to have trouble with the high amounts of protein in these diets.”

Another health concern is that some people experience side effects from ketosis, the process your body goes through on the diet. These can include nausea, dizziness, bad breath and constipation.

Is this the diet for you?
It is strongly recommended that you do not go on the Atkins diet if you have kidney or liver problems. The Atkins diet has been shown as an effective way to lose weight in the short-term, however, health professionals are concerned about it as a long-term lifestyle choice. It is often healthier to lose weight gradually through healthy lifestyle changes. If you are thinking of making an extreme dietary change, such as the Atkins diet, it is important to discuss it with your GP first, as you may have a health issue which would make it unsafe, or you may be taking a medication which will be affected by starting the Atkins diet.

You can find out more about the Atkins diet at the WebMD website