This is my review of the Atkins diet that I originally posted in 2004. It’s hard to believe just how hard the medical industry attacked this book, and much of the information holds up well, certainly a lot better than the mainstream low fat diet misinformation that is still being put out to this day.
Many people have heard of the Atkins diet. For a long time, his dietary theories have been reviled by the medical industry. But recently (sadly, mostly since his premature death from injuries sustained falling on ice), more and more studies are proving him right. The low fat camp are starting to lose the high ground.
His most well known book is “Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution”. This is a weight loss book, an update of his original Diet book written in the 70’s and one of several books on diet he has written, based on more than 25 years of clinical experience. The idea people used to have is that it is extreme and unhealthy. But let’s look at what is actually involved and see if these preconceptions are true.
It is a high protein, low carbohydrate, whole food diet. It is based on the fact that eating carbohydrate raises blood sugar levels and thus insulin levels, causing blood sugar that is excess to requirements to be stored as fat. For certain people, this results in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. These people have a metabolism that is unsuited to processing sugars, and often have associated problems such as hypoglycemia, carbohydrate addiction, yeast infection and food allergies. If you have previously been consuming a low-fat, high-carb diet, Dr Atkins’ diet is designed to bring you back into balance, and then keep you there. So the first stage is very low carbo, and as you progress, you can gradually increase it. Also included in the book are suggestions for nutritional supplements that will help lose weight, as well as support your health, and a batch of recipes to help you along the way.
So, is this an extreme diet? Yes, it is, but so is a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. The low-fat, high-carb diet is suitable for people with one type of extreme metabolism, and the Atkins diet is suitable for people with a metabolism at the other end of the spectrum. I suspect that people who are overweight, and have unsuccessfully tried every other diet around (including the low-fat/high-carb diet that is widely believed to be so healthy), have the type of metabolism that is well suited to a diet like the Atkins diet. I have found from my own experiences with the O blood type, Elimination and Hunter-Gatherer diets that a low-carb works much better for me than a low-fat one.
Is it an unhealthy diet? Dr Atkins has been unable to find any scientific evidence that it is, while many studies show that low-carb diets are most effective for weight-loss, without side effects. And don’t forget that until the late 19th century, everybody ate a whole food diet, and many people ate high protein diets, without getting heart disease and cancer. These diseases didn’t become widespread until the 20th century, after the advent of refined flours and sugared drinks.
Ah, you say, but didn’t the famous 4-year Harvard study of 90,000 nurses prove that a high intake of saturated fat causes bowel cancer? Yes, it’s true that this study showed a slightly higher incidence of bowel cancer in the group with the highest saturated fat intake. But what they didn’t say anywhere near as loudly, was that the group with the LOWEST intake of saturated fat had the HIGHEST incidence of breast cancer. Dr Atkins asked them how the total cases of cancer stacked up against saturated fat intake. They couldn’t tell him, they didn’t look at that. He also asked how the cases of cancer stacked up against the intake of sugar/refined carbohydrate. They couldn’t tell him that either. Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in this study.
What about your repugnance at the idea of eating a high fat/cholesterol diet? Firstly, fat is not the enemy that you thought is was. Some fats are necessary for good health. Some people are very sensitive to fats and don’t process them well, but for most people there is no correlation between the amount of fat you eat, and how fat you are. It has also been shown that the amount of cholesterol in your blood is totally unrelated to the amount of cholesterol you eat. Secondly, this does not have to be a high fat diet. There is a certain amount of fat in it, but you can tailor that to your own taste and requirements. In fact, Dr Atkins encourages you to experiment to find the right protein/carb/fat balance for your body.You will also find that when you stop eating refined carbohydrates, a lot of fats will drop out, often the very dangerous trans fats.
I do have a few reservations about Dr Atkins diet, though. Firstly, he includes a lot of dairy products in the eating plan. While he says that some people are allergic to dairy, and should not include them, I believe that processed (pasteurised and homogenised) dairy products are not good for most people, even if there are no immediately apparent effects from eating them. If you can get hold of raw dairy, go for it.
Secondly, many of the new recipes rely on Splenda as a sweetener. While it is generally considered to be the safest artificial sweetener available, it doesn’t suit everybody. See the sweeteners page for more info.
Thirdtly, most of the recipes in the new edition of the book use his products (eg. Baking mix). This makes it much easier for anyone in the States, but is awkward for people in other countries, as he doesn’t give alternatives. Try and get a copy of the older version of the book, which has more useful recipes. A combination of soy flour and soy protein, with a little guar gum added is probably the closest alternative to the baking mix.
This leads to my final concern – the use of soy flour as a way to get substitutes for bread, pancakes, etc. Soy products that haven’t been fermented are very unhealthy and soy flour or protein powder should be avoided. I don’t have an easy answer for a replacement, though ground almonds and whey protein powder can sometimes be used.
If you are looking for a weight loss tool, and the trendy low fats diets just don’t work for you, I think you would get quick and effective results. Remember though, that this is a plan for life. If you are metabolically unsuited to eating high levels of carbohydrate, that is not going to go away. If you go back to a high carb diet, the weight will pile back on. As always, I would caution you that if you try it and it doesn’t work, or it makes you feel ill beyond the 4-5 days to get through withdrawal symptoms, don’t keep going, try something else. I have heard anecdotal evidence of people who have done really well on it to start with, then start getting side effects. If this happens, maybe you have come back into balance, then gone “out the other side” and need to re-evaluate your protein/carb/fat balance. Or maybe you have some allergies that need detection.
If you have other health problems, they may be resolved by the Atkins plan. It is in the same “family” as the Hunter-Gatherer and O blood type diets, and any one of them is worth trying. My feeling is that the Hunter-Gatherer is the most comprehensive, though I acknowledge that it also takes the most work to comply with. Two other books covering similar diets are Dr. Atkins’ Age-Defying Diet Revolution which is aimed at improving health rather than weight loss, and has less restricted carbs than the weight loss program, and The Carbohydrate Addict’s Lifespan Program : A Personalized Plan for Becoming Slim, Fit and Healthy in Your 40s, 50s, 60s and Beyond. I plan to review both of these books shortly.
This plan has been very effective for countless people in restoring their health and regulating their weight. Many of the criticisms leveled at it are completely unfounded.
Some points to consider, however:
- While many people find this diet very effective, it is not for everybody. It can be very high in saturated fat, so is probably more suitable for people with an extreme Hunter Gatherer metabolism. Some people may find one of the Syndrome X diets more suitable.
- There is quite strong reliance on soy and dairy in this plan. This is of concern as many people are allergic to one or the other, but it can be hard to do the plan without them. Many people who react to commercial dairy products can eat raw dairy, which is much healthier, though it is hard to find. Soy that hasn’t been fermented should be entirely avoided.
- Many of the new recipes rely on Splenda as a sweetener. While it is generally considered to be the safest artificial sweetener available, it doesn’t suit everybody. See the sweeteners page for more info.
- Constipation can be a problem as your body adjusts. Be sure to use the psyllium husks to prevent this. If you have any problems with indigestion, use a good Betaine HCl & pepsin supplement to assist in protein digestion.
- When in ketosis, it is important to drink plenty of water (at least 2 to 2.5 litres per day) to flush out your system.