Reviewed By: Casey Seiden MS, RD, CDN, CDE
Anyone who remembers the Atkins Diet fad of the early 2000s knows that low-carb diets aren’t a new thing. Although keto could be considered the new generation’s Atkins, the Atkins diet is still alive and well. Even though it navigated a slew of controversy at the time, it opened up some new understanding about the balance of carbs, fats, and proteins in a heart-healthy diet. Atkins has a lot going for it, so here’s what to know about one of the first low-carb diets.
Touted as a “more flexible keto” diet plan, Atkins has been the low-carb diet of choice for many years. Essentially, Atkins is a low-carb, high-fat and -protein diet that changes the body’s metabolism to start burning fat (rather than glucose) for fuel. Today, it has expanded to allow for multiple “levels” or “phases” of the diet where you can choose the carb level that works for your needs and goals, and progresses over time to allow for a gradual introduction of more carbohydrates for maintenance.
The Atkins Diet attracted a lot of negative attention in the early 2000s because we were still figuring out whether it’s carbs or fats that contribute to obesity (although we’ve since determined that it’s a lot more complicated than that). Thankfully, the attention the Atkins Diet received spurred more research into the long-term effects of low-carb diets in relationship to heart health, paving the way for our better understanding of heart-healthy diets today.
One of the main benefits of this diet is that you may feel more satisfied and less hungry soon after meals high in fat and protein. This can be helpful for someone who finds themselves hungry and grazing on snacks soon after meals. Unlike refined carbs, fat and protein provide more sustained energy and also help keep your blood sugar levels stable. Typically, when we think of a keto-style diet like Atkins, we envision a lot of butter, bacon, and grease, but the Atkins foundation emphasizes healthy fats from nuts, seeds, heart-healthy oils, and olives, but at the same time is also liberal with what animal proteins can be included. The Atkins Diet emphasizes vegetables as a primary carbohydrate source and so encourages intake of an important food group many of us don’t get enough of.
The Atkins Diet can be very limiting. With such a strict limit on the grams of carbohydrates allowed in a day, many people fall short on dietary fiber intake without eating more fruits and whole grains. Fiber is incredibly important for our gut health and microbiome, helping to lower cholesterol and reducing our risk of certain cancers. With a decrease in fiber comes an increase in animal proteins, which are high in cholesterol and saturated fat, known risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, a recent 2020 study observed that neither low-carb nor low-fat diets were associated with total mortality; however, there was a difference in mortality rates when comparing unhealthy and healthy low-carbohydrate diets, meaning adults who consumed more plant protein and unsaturated fats were found to actually lower their mortality, and it was higher amounts of saturated fat (such as that promoted in Atkins) that had negative outcomes. Another pitfall of the diet is the focus on counting net carbs, as opposed to total carbohydrates. The term “net carbs” means that, in any given food or product, you can take the total carbohydrate content and subtract the fiber and sugar alcohols/glycerin to get your “net carb” value. This formula, which is not recognized by the FDA or American Diabetes Association, can be troublesome. Looking out for only net carbs can encourage dieters to look for products that contain more man-made fibers used as fill ingredients, artificially manufactured glycerin (a sweet tasting substance), and sugar alcohols; which, depending on the alcohol, might impact your blood sugar more than you expect and in excessive amounts can cause a lot of gastrointestinal upset.
Given all the above pros and cons of the Atkins Diet, here’s how you can apply some of the principles to your eating habits. First, choosing more vegetables is always a good place to start, so anyone going for the low-carb approach will benefit from bumping up their intake of these colorful foods. On the other hand, there is room for some leniency when it comes to consuming carb-containing fruits. Fruits naturally contain fiber and beneficial vitamins and minerals, and so choosing a food whose ingredient label you can recognize and pronounce (aka real strawberries or blueberries) can be a healthier choice than shopping for the many Atkin-friendly bars, shakes, and sweets that are heavily processed and contain artificial sweeteners. When it comes to protein, variety is key and one strategy you could use to help moderate your saturated fat intake would be to choose mostly fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc.), followed by tofu and soy proteins, then leaning on nuts and seeds, and finally consuming some lean chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and lamb sparingly.
Achieving a heart-healthy diet can require some extra help. To meet with our registered dietician and learn more about the right eating patterns for you, we invite you to contact our New York City office by calling or filling out our online form.
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