Atkins Diet


Dr. Robert C. Atkins first introduced the Atkins Diet in the early 1970s.  The program enjoyed sporadic popularity over the next few decades, gathering a strong following in the 1990s with his best-selling book Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution.  It has been estimated that over 20 million people worldwide have tried the diet, and according to The Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in New York, the Atkins Diet has been used to successfully treat everything from obesity and Type 2 diabetes, to high cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, and high blood pressure.


You can lose weight and not be hungry if you follow a strict low-carbohydrate diet.   


People consume too many carbohydrates, which contributes to weight gain.  Therefore, cut the carbs and load up on proteins and fats, and your body will naturally lose weight.   

Program Overview

Our bodies burn both carbohydrates and fats, with carbs burned first.  The Atkins Diet suggests that if you drastically reduce carb intake and eat more proteins and fats, your body will naturally lose weight by burning stored fat more efficiently.  How does it do that?

When your food regimen changes from a high-carb/high-glycemic diet to one that does not provide sufficient carbs to replenish glycogen stores, your body starts going through a set of stages to enter ketosis.  During ketosis, the brain switches over to burning ketones, which are produced when the body burns fat for energy or fuel, drawing on the body’s existing fat stores, and reserving remaining glucose only for its absolute needs.  This also ensures that the body’s store of protein in muscles is not depleted.   Thus, fat is burned more efficiently, and you feel less hungry, less likely to eat as much, and ultimately lose weight.

There are four phases to the program:

Phase 1:  Induction  

This phase generally lasts two weeks.  During this initial period, you are expected to severely limit carb intake to just 20 grams per day (typically, we consume 250 g). You can eat unlimited amounts of traditionally rich foods such as red meats, eggs, and cheese, but must strictly avoid high-carb foods, especially refined sugar, milk, white rice, flour, and grains.   

Phase 2:  Ongoing Weight Loss

During this phase, you can slightly increase your carb intake by 5g daily for a week at a time until you can find your Critical Carbohydrate Level for Losing Weight.  This is the maximum amount of carbs you can eat each day to still lose between one and three pounds a week.  

Phase 3:  Pre-Maintenance

Once you have just 5 to 10 pounds left to lose, you can increase carb intake by 10g each day for a week at a time.  The idea is to slow down your weight loss to no more than a pound a week to get your body ready for the final phase of weight management.  At this phase, you are allowed to begin including a tiny (and I mean tiny) amount of traditionally starchy foods like bread or pasta.

Phase 4:  Lifetime Maintenance

In this final phase, you can have a slightly more varied diet that allows carb intake to increase.  Most people will still be limited to around 90 to 120g a day, which is still significantly less than what we normally eat in a day.  


Program participants can eat unlimited amounts of all meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and most cheeses. Vegetable oils are allowed, as are high-fat condiments such as butter, sour cream, mayonnaise, and guacamole. Small amounts of non-starchy vegetables and certain fruits (such as cantaloupe and berries) are allowed.  The diet greatly restricts the consumption of carbohydrates: bread, pasta, cereals, starchy vegetables, dairy products (except cheese, sour cream, butter, and heavy cream), most fruits, and foods containing refined sugars.

Plan Strengths

One of the program’s biggest strengths is that you do not need to cut out the foods you love best such as meat, cream, cheese, and other high-fat foods.  Because you have so many choices of foods that will keep you from getting hungry, your risk of cheating is considered smaller in comparison to other low-calorie programs that are more restrictive.  

A low-carb diet may be a more natural diet for humans, as it focuses on meat instead of grains (wheat, rice, etc.), which have only been a part of the human diet for the last 10,000 years or so.  In the evolutionary scheme of things, the argument that our bodies have not evolved and adapted enough to cope with the introduction of these new diet components is often made.

There are definitely health and weight loss benefits to limiting sugary processed foods, like cakes, cookies, ice cream, candies, donuts, chips, French fries, processed flour, and bread product, as advocated by the Atkins Diet.  According to Atkins literature, participants can lose considerable amounts of weight quickly (claims are up to 10 to 30 lbs. within the first month) and not feel continually hungry.   A review of over 60 studies on the Atkins and other low-carb diets supports this premise, finding that people on these types of diets tend to lose more weight in the first six months.  However, it is important to point out here, that weight loss was similar to what was seen on other plans after that initial 12-month period.   

According to the Atkins official website, a NIH funded Stanford University Diet Study (2007) published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that the Atkins Diet delivered the strongest weight loss results with the most beneficial metabolic effects among four top diet regimens (Atkins, the Zone, LEARN and Ornish diets).

Two studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine and Annals of Internal Medicine support the Atkins Diet for improving heart health.  The studies found that several healthy heart indicators, such as a decrease in serum triglyceride levels, a greater increase in serum HDL (“good” cholesterol), and a reduction in LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels were found among participants of the Atkins Diet.  

Plan Weaknesses

One of the major criticisms leveled against the Atkins plan is that it fails to provide for adequate nutrients needed for normal bodily function.  For instance, the brain needs glucose to function efficiently and it takes a long time to break down fat and protein to get to the brain.  Carbs, especially from vegetables, grains and fruits are more efficiently and quickly converted to glucose, which the brain needs.  Under the Atkins program, participants are severely restricted in eating carbs, thus, the American Dietetic Association is concerned that the program does not allow for the minimum carbs (150 g/day) needed to ensure proper metabolic activity.  

Another criticism is that it may increase your risk of developing cancer.  According to the American Cancer Society and a large body of existing research, 33 to 50 percent of all cancers can be prevented through the consumption of a healthy diet.  Therefore, it has been recommended that we eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.  This, of course, goes against everything the Atkins Diet advocates.

Japan enjoys one of the lowest rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in the world.  Surprisingly, their diet is very rich in carbohydrate content and very low in saturated fat and red meats.  This healthy diet contradicts that of the Atkins plan, which is hard to reconcile considering the general good health of the Japanese people.  Apparently, they must be doing something right.   

Because the diet is so restrictive in terms of what you can eat, it has a high drop rate.  In some studies, up to 40 percent dropped out because they could not adhere to the diet.  For vegetarians, the program is not very accommodating.  In its early stages, the program does not allow for nuts, seeds, beans, and many vegetables.  Therefore, vegetarians are left with few food options.

Some plan participants have also reported side effects such as chronic bad breath, constipation, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, insomnia, and nausea.   Additionally, by focusing on using fats instead of carbohydrates for energy, an increase in uric acid has been found, meaning participants have an increased chance of experiencing kidney problems, gout, and headaches.


While there appears to be definite weight loss achieved using the Atkins plan, it is difficult to determine if it is a result of the actual diet regimen or simply because calorie intake is severely restricted.  Furthermore, the diet plan appears to advocate the limitation of certain macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates) which play an important role in proper body function.  In short, it does not seem to advocate establishing a well-balanced healthy long-term plan for eating.  Finally, exercising may prove challenging as many participants often complain, at least in the early stages, of experiencing weakness and tiredness.

The information provided here is for educational or informational purposes only.  Dave DePew does not endorse any of the programs/services reviewed here.  

Additional Resources

Atkins – Official website. 

Barrett, S.  Low-Carbohydrate Diet. Quackwatch. 

Goodwin, K.  Atkins Diet:  A Comprehensive Analysis. 

Eat Fat, Get Thin.  UC Berkley.  Wellness Letter, April 2000. 

Atkins Diet Overview.  WebMD.