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Everything you need to know about the Atkins diet

Your complete guide to the weight loss diet

A bowl of a keto-friendly dish on a table.
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Many of us set great fitness goals but face the common hurdle of selecting the best diet plan to support these aspirations. You know the health outcomes that you’re aiming for, but there are so many popular diet plans to choose from that you’re unsure of where to start. Think of the foods you like to eat, but also the foods that would be most healthful to eat on this journey.

Another factor is the ever-changing perception of what is healthy and what is not. Fad diets have come and gone, but some have stuck because of the results generated, like the Atkins diet

The Atkins diet plan can be effective for weight loss or lowering blood pressure. You can also utilize it to improve energy or complications like metabolic syndrome. This low-carb diet uses a greater intake of protein and fat to meet your health needs.

Eggs on avocado toast
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What is the Atkins diet?

Cardiologist Robert Atkins created this diet because he viewed carbs as the major culprit of weight gain and other health issues. The objective is to alter metabolism by burning fat for energy instead of carbs. This can be implemented as a four phases diet consisting of reduced carb intake and the “net carbs” system based on the difference between total carbs and fiber content.

With Phase 1, you are aiming for fast weight loss and are allowed to have 20 grams of net carbs in a day. This is followed by Phase 2, in which weight loss occurs more slowly, and Phase 3, where you reach your desired weight goal. By the fourth phase, you would have increased your carb intake to 120 grams from the initial 20 grams, and you would do this as long as you were maintaining your target weight.

Man running outside.
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What are the benefits of the Atkins diet?

Weight loss

As your body uses fat stores for energy, you may start seeing weight loss. Protein and healthy fat sources like fatty fish and olive oil can help boost satiety, while fiber-dense carbs will keep you feeling full for longer, helping to curb cravings and prevent overeating. Be mindful of your net carbs, in which you may opt for a food with four grams total that contains two grams of fiber, resulting in a net carb value of two.

Fiber is essential for cleaning out the gut and improving function by supporting good bacteria. A healthy and efficient gut can attenuate blood sugar and appetite. These positive effects on metabolism and energy are key for losing weight. 

Glycemic control

The lower carb intake of the Atkins diet can help with blood sugar regulation. Many carbohydrates are high-glycemic foods that cause blood glucose levels to spike and result in hyperglycemia. If this is unmanaged, it can lead to long-term complications related to nerve damage as well as kidney damage.

The higher protein content makes this diet helpful in diabetes management, and increased intake of healthy fats also supports improved conditions. Some studies have shown that adherence to a low-fat diet has caused adverse glycemic effects in individuals with diabetes. On a low-fat diet, healthy fats are often replaced by unhealthy carbs that raise blood sugar and don’t fulfill satiety. 

Heart health

Adhering to the Atkins diet may see better heart health. With weight loss, there may also be decreased blood pressure and improved total cholesterol. In some instances, there were positive changes in triglyceride levels.

The results of some studies suggest that a low-carb diet can reduce the risk of heart disease by increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing triglycerides over one year. There have also been reports of reduced triglycerides and improved aortic stiffness over time. 

Neurological function

The Atkins diet has some aspects that are ketogenic in nature, which can make it desirable for ameliorating neurological conditions like migraines, headaches, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. 

Some research suggests that altering the fuel source for the brain by shifting from carbs to fat may help with balancing the function and excitability of the brain. Greater amounts of fat and less sugar have been noted as a great way to alter the excitability of the brain and reduce the possibility of seizures. 

An egg, blueberries, almonds, and avocado.
Jenna Hamra / Pexels

What can you eat on this diet?

The biggest aspect of the Atkins diet is controlling carb intake. High-fiber vegetables and other plant foods have been added to a modified Atkins diet to account for vegetarian and vegan needs, as well as to address health issues. In addition to fiber-rich plant foods, consider choosing eggs, fish, and olive oils as accepted foods, with some whole grains, fruits, and nuts being added in after phase one. 

Slices of bread.
Cats Coming / Pexels

What foods are restricted on this diet?

On the Atkins diet, you’ll be omitting heavy carbs like pasta, bread, and sugar-based snacks. Certain restrictions vary depending on which phase you’re in. The first phase restricts nuts and fruits, with these items being reintroduced slowly by phase two and whole grains added by the third phase. 

Fish steak on a plate
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Are there any possible adverse effects?

Ketosis-related issues

When you consume fewer than 20 grams of carbs a day, you’re unable to use glucose for energy, and your body breaks down fat stores for fuel. As a result, your body enters ketosis, causing an accumulation of ketones. When this happens, you may experience migraines, nausea, and fatigue. 

At the risk of other complications, consult a professional if you have kidney troubles or take medications for diabetes or diuretics. 

Processed foods

Several ready-made foods are promoted on the Atkins diet. This includes shakes and convenience bars, many of which contain sodium and artificial sweeteners, as well as processed ingredients. Meats like ham and bacon are processed with sugar and contribute to carbohydrate count.

While some processed foods are included, some healthier carbs are often left behind to avoid exceeding the limits. This could mean some fruits and vegetables are excluded from the diet, which can lead to nutrient depletion. These are carb sources that contain antioxidants and phytonutrients that provide health benefits, so complications could result from their omission. 

Weight regain

With fast weight loss diets, we often see temporary weight reductions and regained weight because the eating pattern may not be suitable or sustainable for your lifestyle. Some research suggests that Atkins may be beneficial for short-term weight loss of up to six months and possibly for longer-term or greater than one year. Be mindful that as you cut carbs out and rely on the other macronutrients, overloading with great amounts of fat and protein may still cause weight gain.

Chicken and asparagus.
Harry Dona / Pexels

Example meal plan

Breakfast: Salmon croquettes

Lunch: Kale salad with turkey, eggs, and olive oil 

Snack: Almonds

Dinner: Grilled chicken with asparagus, herbs, and lemon juice

Christine VanDoren
Christine is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist with an undergraduate degree from Missouri State University. Her…
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