The Atkins diet is a low-carb diet somewhat similar to the ketogenic diet shown to help with weight loss and improve certain health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
It’s one of the most popular diets and aims to help you achieve health and weight loss goals by getting the body to burn fat for fuel. This is achieved through a high-protein and high-fat (think lots of eggs and cheese!) diet with limited carbs in the induction phase — 20 grams of net carbs — up to 100 grams in the fourth, or maintenance, stage.
It offers straightforward rules, and separate stages to progress through, to build up your carbohydrate intake while still achieving your weight loss targets. If you’re the goal-oriented type, then this diet could be a great option for you, offering more freedom and flexibility as a reward for your discipline in the early stages of the diet.
What Is Atkins Diet?
Robert Atkins first published Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution in the 1970s. The book revolved around maintaining a form of a ketogenic diet that aims to get the body to enter ketosis and burn fat. While the standard keto diet follows a similar low-carb approach, the Atkins Diet is strictly limited to 20 grams of net carbs in the beginning to 50 grams, then 80 to 100 grams as you progress through the phases.
The Atkins diet offers a more sustainable approach than the keto diet, allowing individuals to progress through stages of the diet plan. This commences by almost eliminating carbohydrates from your diet, then slowly reintroducing them to encourage sustained weight loss and weight maintenance.
How Atkins Diet Works
Usually, your body uses carbohydrates as a source of energy, by breaking them down into glucose molecules, giving your cells energy. When carbohydrates are in low supply, your body instead burns fat for energy, producing what are called “ketone bodies” to fuel your body, particularly the brain. This is what this diet is centered on, allowing you to burn more calories as fat stores are broken down into ketones.
Some key ground rules for the diet are to maintain three meals a day, as well as two snacks. They also recommend eight cups of water a day, and to limit or eliminate your alcohol consumption as this slows weight loss. Exercise is encouraged—they recommend 20 minutes of moderate activity, 3 times a week. However, it is important to start slow and easy, as your body will take time to adjust to the lower carbohydrate intake. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling more fatigued after your usual workout routine!
Phase 1: During the induction phase, you will be on a low-carb diet with a carbohydrate intake of 20 grams a day, with around 12 to 15 grams of this coming from salad and cooked vegetables. High-fat and high-protein foods alongside low-carb vegetables are the focus of this phase. This is to kickstart your body into burning ketones to initiate weight loss, and will continue for around two weeks. Expect lots of dairy, meat, fish, eggs, and low-carb vegetables. Avoid starchy vegetables like beetroot and potatoes as they can undermine your weight loss efforts.
Phase 2: As you enter this phase of the diet, you can increase your carbohydrate intake to around 30 grams by incorporating more nuts and berries. You are able to increase carb intake by an extra 5g per week up to 40g total to find your carb tolerance—this is the total carbohydrates you can consume before your blood sugar levels spike and weight gain occurs.
Phase 3: This maintenance phase is about finding the optimal carb intake that allows you to reach your goal weight and stay there. You can achieve this by adding 10 g of carbs per week and observing how your body responds, allowing you to reintroduce foods such as legumes, whole grains, and starchy vegetables. If you’re not getting the results you are after, you can then reduce carbs by 10g, then try increasing in 5g increments until you find that sweet spot.
Phase 4: Lifetime maintenance – Here is where you regain the freedom to add carbohydrates from a wide variety of sources. This will vary depending on the carb tolerance of the individual, anywhere between 80 to 100 grms. As you regain control, you can continue to reintroduce foods so long as you remain around your target weight.
There is a version of the Atkins diet known as the Atkins 40, in which phase 1 starts with restricting to 40 g rather than 20g of carbs per day. This could be beneficial if you are looking to lose weight but want to maintain more freedom and aren’t looking for drastic weight loss.
Overall, the Atkins diet is estimated to be a more expensive dietary choice—at around $100 per week, given that it is based on fresh, unprocessed foods, particularly in the initial phases. Luckily with the later stages adding more flexibility, you can also expect to have lowered costs as you reintroduce more foods.
Sample Diet Plan
We have created a sample menu for the first phase of this diet. If you’re wanting to make mealtime easier, the Atkins website has low-carb meals and snacks you can purchase.
Breakfast: Spinach and cheese omelet with avocado salsa
Snack: Celery and cream cheese
Lunch: Cobb salad
Snack: Deviled eggs
Dinner: Fish with roasted cauliflower
Health Benefits and Drawbacks
- Effective for improvement and management of obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Ameliorates metabolic syndrome in obese individuals
- Improves high blood pressure and blood lipid composition
- Side effects can occur particularly during phase 1: Headaches, fatigue, and dizziness
- Micronutrient deficient: Getting insufficient micronutrients while on this diet can lead to other health conditions. Many proponents of the diet recommend taking supplements
- Counting carbs: Given the strict carb requirements — only 20 grams in the induction phase and a limit of you have to count carbs every meal. This can take a toll on your mental health, and detract from your ability to enjoy food and eat out
The Bottom Line: Is the Atkins Diet a Healthy Way to Lose Weight?
When compared to other popular diets, the Atkins diet has come out on top, showing clinically significant weight loss in both the short term (six months) and long term (over 12 months).
While it may be a challenging diet to stick to in the initial phases, you will be rewarded for your efforts long term. We think that this diet can be a highly effective means of getting to your goal weight and contribute to other health benefits.
Meagan Morris is the editor in chief of Celebribody. She's veteran health and wellness editor with over 15 years of experience. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Yahoo Health, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and Women's Health, among others. She spends most of her time writing, but her favorite part of the day is spent under a barbell doing squats.