Atkins is, of course, the most well-known of all the low-carbohydrate diets, with an estimated 20 million people around the world having tried it at some stage since it was first launched in the early 1970s. However there are a number of more recent versions, all of which involve restricting carbohydrate intakes, instead relying on protein and fats to provide the body with its energy requirements. So what is the thinking behind a low-carb diet, and why do they work? What are the effects on the body?
The Atkins Diet - a quick overview
Atkins originally proposed that many of the health issues we face today, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes, are a result of the introduction of processed foods into our modern diet. He asserted that early man ate a healthy meat-based diet, supplemented by raw vegetables and fruit. Then until the 20th century, people have eaten meals loaded with animal fats, meat and eggs without any problems and it wasn’t until the introduction of refined flours and sugars into our modern diet that the chronic diet-related problems we face today arose. His solution was to all but eliminate carbohydrates from the diet for the first two weeks, when no more than 20g of carbs are to be eaten daily, and all fruit and vegetables are eliminated from the diet altogether. This sends the body into a state called ketosis where, unable to get energy from carbohydrate, existing fat stores are burnt as a source of energy. After this initial phase, the diet then moves into somewhat less severe phases of weight loss and weight maintenance, but still operates in a mode of restricted carbohydrate consumption.
Critics of his thinking argue that there is no evidence that early man ever ate the kind of high-protein diet that Atkins describes, and suggest that carbohydrates such as bread and rice have been the most important staple for the majority of human history. Further, his assertion that refined foods are a 20th century phenomenon is false, as it is known that the Romans produced white flour, and white rice has been the staple of China for well over 2000 years. But most important of all is the huge amount of nutritional research in the past 30 years that have shown diets high in fat and protein, and/or low in complex carbohydrates, are contributors to Coronary Heart Disease and cancers. Atkins himself had a heart condition that he tried to keep secret. The process of ketosis that Atkins says is essential to kickstart the diet, is stressful to the kidneys and liver, and may lead to osteoporosis.
How to go low-carb
More recently, several diets have evolved from the Atkins principles but take into consideration our greater understanding of the health effects that restricting certain groups of foods can have. As a result, most health practitioners agree that for healthy weight loss you should:
- Avoid refined and processed carb-heavy foods (such as pasta, white bread, biscuits)
- Low-GI carbs (especially wholegrain foods) should be included in any diet
- Consume moderate amounts of healthy protein, but minimize red meats
- Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts and beans
- Minimise dairy consumption, opting for low-fat alternatives
- Eat small amounts of healthy fats (fish oils, mono-unsaturated fats)
- Moderate your alcohol intake (although a glass of wine a day is good for lowering cholesterol and therefore the risk of heart disease)
Healthy weight loss means losing no more than one kilo per week, and should be accompanied by exercise.