The Atkins diet

 At the beginning of a new year and having over indulged during the holidays many of us come to the realisation that we have to lose weight.

While we all know that there is no magic solution to losing weight – it is a simple equation of eating fewer calories than you burn – over the years a plethora of diet plans have promised quicker, easier and more permanent slimming solutions. Usually endorsed by some stick thin celebrity, diet plans go in and out of fashion and range from the fairly sensible to the frankly bizarre

Over the next few weeks the Observer looks at some of the better known diet plans and their claims.

The Atkins diet became popular in the late 90s and early 2000s. It is controversial because it encourages slimmers to eat a diet rich in some dairy products and protein from meats like steaks and bacon while severely restricting carbohydrate intake.

Devised by Dr. Robert Atkins, the diet has attracted as many detractors as adherents in recent years. Once hugely popular, the plan spawned many imitators but has lost ground due to several well-documented medical studies.

The theory behind Atkins
The slimming programme advocates a low carbohydrate diet that is high in protein and fat, including saturated fats, with the option of eating leafy vegetables.

The Atkins diet essentially restricts the intake of foods such as pasta, breads, cereals, fruits, dairy products, sugary foods and starchy vegetables and advocates eating generous helpings of fat and protein like red meat.

Dr. Atkins’ diet was founded on his belief that carbs force the body to over produce insulin causing hyperinsulinism, which metabolises blood glucose and makes you feel hungry.

Unsustainable indefinitely
Research has shown that low carbohydrate diets, while successful in the short term are not suited for prolonged periods. Many find it difficult to stick to the Atkins diet indefinitely as food options are limited, so dieters often end up returning to their previous, weight-inducing eating habits.

The Atkins diet supports the theory that a low carb high protein diet works by making the body tap into its fat reserves to lose weight. The reported downside of the diet is that eating a lot of protein can cause a build up of ketones: a naturally occurring metabolic chemical made in the liver from the breakdown of fats and part of the body’s normal reaction to starvation.

High ketone levels cause many Atkins dieters to have bad breath, which has a strong acetone smell. Medical opinion suggests that raised levels of ketones can compromise brain function in the long term. Staying on the Atkins diet for extended periods can also cause extreme fatigue, leg cramps, weakness and dizziness.

Most medical practitioners agree that bodies need carbohydrates for energy and optimal brain function.  Carbohydrates are an important source of fibre, which helps maintain blood sugar, reduce cholesterol, and regular bowel function.

Carbohydrates also contain vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and magnesium.

Sticking to the diet also means cutting out whole grains, most fruits and vegetables, all of which promote heart health and good blood pressure.

Personal account
A worker in the local financial sector went on the Atkins diet for nine months in early 2004. He has subsequently put on much of the 40lbs lost on Atkins.

“I went on it because in your thirties, I like most people, had started a family, was getting my career on track and as a result had very little personal time… and had started to look like [the wrestler] Giant Haystacks,” he says.

Most of the diet’s appeal was that it was “so straight forward” with no calorie counting involved. “I remember eating lots of ham and salmon rolls with cream cheese and plenty of fry ups and thick steaks.”

The diet was not without its issues though and he ultimately got bored by it. “I love bread and potatoes… you just didn’t have the extra leg to your meals without vegetables,” he says. “Looking back on it was nonsense. There was no balance there.”

Now keen to lose the “extra pounds sensibly”, he is using portion control and has amped up his weekly exercise routine.

Sandra’s story
Sandra Munro was 43-years-old when she started on the Atkins diet because “It seemed tried and true.”

Her first attempt was for six months. “Once off the diet I would begin to put on weight again and would go back on it periodically over the next year or two”, she says.

“Initially, while the body was adjusting to the new regime, I felt very debilitated, however after about three days; I began to have a lot of energy and lost my appetite… The weight dropped off very fast at first (it was explained that much of this was fluid loss) so I did not get too excited. Once the diet was established however, the weight continued to come off at a pleasing rate.”

Despite her Atkins success story, Sandra who is now a vegetarian has reservations about the slimming system. “The main problem with the diet is that is does not feel very ‘healthy’ (all that fried food, cheese, eggs and limited types of fruit and vegetables).

She says: “Large quantities of meat are difficult for the body to digest and it was suggested by a holistic practitioner that it would be better to cut meat out for the interim and feed my body fresh fruits, grains and vegetables.”

“The world is a very different place now… People are much more informed and don’t just take things on face value – many doing research on the internet before engaging in certain activities, particularly diets”.

 Points To Remember
* Consult your doctor or nutritionist before embarking on any weight loss programme

* The Atkins  diet is not for those with chronic illnesses like diabetes and kidney disease

* The diet can disrupt the diabetics’ metabolic system as a low carb intake can cause low blood sugar, which is as harmful as having high blood sugar levels.

* Those with kidney disease can find that the high protein content of the diet can promote heart disease and high blood pressure.