Introduction to Atkins

Atkins Diet

Dr Robert C. Atkins first developed the Atkins Diet in the 1960s but it was not until the 1990s that it really took off. Despite always being seen as controversial, the publication of Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution brought his diet back to the fore. The ensuing media attention and public interest has ensured that his theories have never been long out of the spotlight.

Dr Atkins has set up a facility in New York called The Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine where he uses his theories to help people lose weight. He and his colleagues use the principles of the Atkins Diet to combat a range of problems for patients, not only obesity. The Atkins Diet can be used to treat high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and also elevated triglycerides.

While the Atkins Diet has many detractors, the continued interest it holds for people can be seen by the fact that Dr Atkins’ book has been a regular on the New York Times paperback bestsellers list. While a very rough estimate, it has been guessed that over 20 million people have used the Atkins Diet to lose weight.

How the Atkins Diet Works

The Atkins Diet is a specifically tailored diet designed to minimise a person’s carbohydrate intake and increase the consumption of protein and fats. Dr Atkins believes that a high-sugar diet, including other refined carbohydrates, increases insulin production. Insulin is a hormone which encourages calories to be stored as fat. By rapidly decreasing a person’s consumption of these carbohydrates, their body must use the fat to get its energy and metabolise this instead of storing it. Atkins has labelled this latter process Benign Dietary Ketosis (BDK).

As has already been seen though, the Atkins Diet does cut out or restrict some crucial food groups. These include fruits, grains and dairy products – all traditionally thought of as necessary elements of a balanced and healthy diet. This means that you must be careful when following the Atkins Diet, as it can be easy to get the balance wrong.

Principles of the Atkins Diet

The first, and possibly most attractive, principle of the Atkins Diet is that you do not have to count calories. Not only that, but that it does not really matter how many you consume. As long as you avoid the food groups which encourage the storage of the energy that you are consuming, for example foods containing a high concentration of carbohydrates, then you can eat as many foods containing protein and fat as you like. This is particularly attractive and refreshing to people who have tried many diets in the past as the majority seem to be fixated upon lowering your calorie consumption.

If you are not consuming carbohydrates, then you are not producing insulin and therefore not encouraging your body to store fat. By the same token, given the lack of new available carbohydrates, your body looks for an alternative energy source. In this way your existing stored fat is turned into energy, also known as Benign Dietary Ketosis (BDK), and you are able to lose weight.

Research on the Atkins Diet

Dr. Atkins’ diet revolution is based upon the very unconventional assertion that calorie counting is not necessary for an individual to loseweight. Originally, Kekwick and Pawan published a paper in 1956 which provided the scientific background research which forms the basis of Dr. Atkins’ diet. This research consisted of obese participants taking part in clinical trials. These involved different groups consuming different diets – primarily controlling the calorie intake of the individuals. One group had a reduced calorie diet, one a normal calorie diet and one an increased calorie diet. These were tested over a period of seven to nine days, including a differing macronutrient balance. That is to say creating diets containing varying amounts of carbohydrate, fat and protein. It was found that the individuals who experienced the most pronounced weight loss were those who consumed a reduced or normal calorie diet. This may not seem unusual however what was surprising was that, within these groups, the most weight loss occurred in those who consumed a diet consisting mostly of fat or protein in contrast to one composed primarily of carbohydrates.

Not merely this, but those participants who consumed 2,600 calories per day comprising primarily high in fat foods lost weight. In contrast, those who had a diet which relied greatly on carbohydrates but that was only 2,000 calories per day in total actually either maintained their original weight or even put weight on.

Some have tried to explain these results away by asserting that the weight loss could merely be as a result of fluid loss. However, the extent of the weight loss and the fact that the results were demonstrated across a range of participants seemed to indicate that there was more to it than that. The researchers concluded that this specific diet had increased the participants’ rate of metabolism. In this way, these researchers supported Dr Atkins’ later assertion that his diet plan of limited carbohydrate consumption and increased protein and fat consumption actually aids weight loss.

Over the years many different researchers have conducted similar studies, particularly in the early 1960s just prior to Dr Atkins’ diet ‘revolution’, such as those by Olesen, Pilkington and Yudkin. These studies, although they supported the idea that a reduction in carbohydrate intake aids weight loss, tended to support the popular assertion that weight loss is primarily linked to a reduction in calorie consumption.

The assumptions that Dr. Atkins’ diet regime is founded upon were therefore controversial from the beginning, and by no means unanimous. Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that the study done by Kekwick and Pawan was in fact itself flawed in many areas. They themselves admitted that the temperaments of the individual participants made it hard to conduct a fair study. For instance some participants would not stick to the diet, secretly consuming extra food. Alternatively those participants who had been put on the high fat, high protein diet found it difficult to finish these meals, as they were unused to consuming such quantities of rich foods at once, and therefore did not consume the quantities of calories that they were intended to. These, and many other inconsistencies, meant that these studies could not be considered to be unbiased and so speculation and disparity of opinion has continued among the medical community. This lack of consensus has filtered through to the media and the public.

Phases of the Atkins Diet:-

The diet plan is based around different phases, with high restrictions of carbohydrates in the beginning phases and more relaxed menus later on. There are four different phases: Induction, Ongoing Weight Loss, Pre-Maintenance, Lifetime Maintenance.

The Induction Phase

This Lasts about two weeks and is designed to shock the body into a state of fat-burning ketosis. This phase is highly restrictive of carbohydrates, disallowing starchy vegetables but allowing all sorts of protein, and certain amounts of fats such as oil and soft cheeses.

The Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL)

This phase lasts until the dieter is within 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of their target body weight. The daily carbohydrate intake increases each week. This phases refers most immediately to the carbohydrate ladder, with nine different rungs:

  • Induction acceptable vegetables
  • Fresh cheese
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Berries
  • Alcohol
  • Legumes
  • Other fruits
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Whole grains


This phase allows the individual to determine the amount of carbohydrates which are allowable in their own diet without gaining any weight. More carbohydrates may be eaten than is necessary for ketosis.

The Life Maintenance Phase

This is the final and ongoing phase. Essentially, the individual is expected to maintain good eating habits according to the Atkins plan.

Does Atkins Diet Work? »