When the Atkins Diet was first introduced more than 40 years ago, its popularity soared. After all, as a good friend told me, you can eat all the steak and cheese you want and even top it with bacon and still lose weight. If it sounds too good to be true it probably was and after criticism, the Atkins Diet has morphed over the years to include exercise and a more nuanced approach to the high protein, low carb approach.
“I have been using low carbs in my practice for about 18 years,” says Dr. James Carlson, a Family Medicine practitioner with the Franciscan Physician Network at the Cedar Lake Health Center who believes that Atkina was right about many aspects of our American diet. “From obesity to heart disease, including, but not limited to, diabetes, lowering carbs has an extreme healthy beneficial impact—often allowing many patients to stop their meds entirely.”
Indeed, according to WebMD, online studies show that low-carb diets are as effective for weight loss as traditional approaches and can improve cholesterol and triglycerides.
Carlson points out that from a nutritional biochemical perspective, our bodies need more fat, cholesterol and protein to be and remain healthy.
“Unfortunately when it comes to nutrition and what to eat we’ve lost our way,” he says.
“A lot of people believe in diets like the Atkins Diet,” says Jill Kilhefner, RD, CD, Clinical Dietitian, Porter Regional Hospital. “The benefits of the program is that it’s a concrete program, you don’t have to recreate the wheel and it has science behind it. If you follow it the way it’s prescribed you can have a significant weight loss. But you have to follow it. The problems occur when people pick and choose and end up eating lots of fattening protein and carbohydrates.”
“There’s a lot of confusion about carbohydrates,” she says. “Carbohydrates are where we get our energy so when we want to cut back on carbs, we need to cut back on simple carbs that kind you find in sugar and processed foods like white bread products, fruit juice, candy, white rice and white pasta.”
Instead even when we’re trying to limit our carb intake, we need to consume complex carbs—those found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, barley and multi-grains. Though both fresh fruit also contains sugar, because it’s complex carb it also has vitamins, fiber, phytochemicals and provides satiety, keeping you fuller longer so you don’t feel hungry right away. Protein also makes you feel full so you don’t want to eat as quickly as when you’re consuming simple carbs which quickly break down into sugar and spike insulin levels.
“The idea of Atkins is simple, decrease the carbs you eat so instead of burning glycogen in your muscle—where carbohydrates are broken into glycogen to be stored in your muscles to be burned for energy throughout day and to use in your activities, you burn your fat stores instead, helping speed up weight loss,” says Kelly Devine Rickert, MS RD CSSD LDN, a Registered Dietitian/Health Coach at Franciscan WELLCARE. “But the problem is threefold. One, since you are not eating carbohydrates, your body burns ketones from using your fat for energy. The downside to this is no energy—people often complain of having difficulty even walking up a flight of stairs and bad breath even as ketones cause a bad fruity smell in your mouth.”
Another con according to Rickert is that many low carb, high protein diets espouse the belief that all protein is okay. Rickert says because of this some people tend to have higher lipid levels after doing Atkins or similar diets for some time because they are consuming a lot of cheese, and fatty meats.
“Most people will go back to eating carbohydrates and when they do, they gain all or most of the weight back,” she continues. “Why is this? Because they never learned what a healthy source of carbohydrates are, what the correct portion size is or how to pair them with protein.”
Kim Kramer, Kim Kramer, RDN, LDN, Ingalls Wellness Dietitian, Kids Eat Right Crew Illinois Representative, Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media Spokesperson believes that everybody should try to avoid extremely low carbs diet, but the two populations that need to avoid this the most are people with diabetes and/or high cholesterol.
“People with diabetes are on medication to help regulate blood sugar and without any carbs, these people can go dangerously low with blood sugars,” she says. “People with high cholesterol or heart disease need to monitor the amount of cholesterol they eat each day and many of these diets don't restrict cholesterol, so people are eating more bacon, eggs, sausage, etc.”
Her final caveat is that our bodies need at least 120 grams of carbs a day for minimal brain function and many of these diets recommend carb amounts much lower than this.
Dale Batz, registered dietitian at Franciscan Alliance, worries that long term use of Atkins-like diets excludes too many healthy foods and provides unhealthy cardiac nutrition as well as too much cholesterol and saturated fat.
“We cook less,” he says, espousing the notion of staying away from processed and fast foods. “As a rule; busy lifestyles have resulted in fewer healthy well balanced meals being prepared at home. More processed foods are purchased at the store. Most of these meal options are higher in calories, unhealthy fats and sodium, leading lead to excessive energy intake and weight gain year over year.”
For anyone considering a low carb, high protein diet, Rickert recommends instead of taking all the carbohydrates out of the diet, to take out all the refined, processed, white carbohydrates out.
“The ones to keep?” she asks rhetorically. “Low glycemic fruits and vegetables such as berries, apples, whole grains such as quinoa, oats, wild rice and dairy like Greek yogurt and low fat cows, rice or almond milk.