Issues of the Atkins Diet

I know this is long, but if you're doing the diet, or considering it, read it. There's a lot of information you probably don't know that you need to...

First off, Dr. Robert Atkins was a very intelligent chap who happened to be one of the earliest people to both understand diet and nutrition, and see the marketable opportunity in it. I say "one of the earliest" because Atkins' diet seems to be fundamentally derived from the principles taught by Rheo Blair (formerly known as Irwin Johnson, he changed his name early in his career to have more market appeal). Before Atkins' diet was ever written, Rheo Blair was advising people to eliminate many of the common carbohydrates from the diet (bread, fruit, etc.) so that the body would be forced to burn something else in its place- obviously fat. Blair's diet seemed to be effective and was gaining small pockets of popularity, and around that time, Atkins took this concept one step further and published his diet to promote the elimination of all utilizable carbohydrates entirely, making it a little more extreme, but seemingly more effective. Atkins' version eventually became a best seller 25 years later due to the rising average bodyfat levels of people in the 1990's (which had plenty to do with new "innovations" in food that the FDA shouldn't have allowed, but did anyway. But we're not going to get into that.)

Today, the diet has been worldly popular long enough for everyone to recognize the simple fact that the diet is both effective and flawed. But the "effective" side of that is heavily publicized, and the flaws are not, so they come simply by the speculation of those who don�t take it for face value. Those who question the diet in terms of "it can�t possibly be good for the body" are right, though they very rarely understand why. The side effects that most people assume the Atkins diet would produce from the excess fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, don�t exist. Numerous (mediocre) studies have actually shown moderate improvements in cholesterol, both LDL and HDL, blood pressure, and just about everything else people fear in the Atkins diet. So really, what people are worried about most, doesn�t exist at all. So this means the diet is safe then right? No, there are far worse side effects than what people imagined these to be... But we'll get into that later.

Basically the point of me writing all of this is that people almost never understand what they're doing to their body with the Atkins diet. That and every single day of the year somebody new asks me about it and I have to spend 20 minutes explaining all of this for them to understand that there's a better option. So here it is, everything you need to know about the Atkins diet that I've become tired of explaining...

We'll start with what you could call "the good", basically why the diet appears to work, then we'll finish with "the bad", but don't start skipping through, because it's all related- so read it all. First off, yes, the diet can be effective. When you eliminate carbohydrates many things happen. The main one they use to advertise is that carbohydrates normally act as the body's primary energy source. When the body doesn�t have them, it needs to turn somewhere else for energy, and second in line is fat. Technically protein can be used as energy, but it�s quite a process, and frankly not worth the hassle for your body to convert it. So your body begins to use fat more efficiently and much more frequently, which is great.

Another benefit, which is more complicated, and therefore less advertised, deals with insulin. It's the reason that the "Subway diet" is total garbage- but on a side note, you can get results on the Subway diet, it's just going to take a ton of cardio. So in that same respect, you could replace the word "Subway" with "toaster strudel", "Little Debbie�s", or something along those lines and have it be equally effective, providing the cardio is the dynamic factor. But my point was that the Atkins diet is one of few diets to really involve insulin. Insulin has many effects in the body (keep reading, it'll come up again later). It's a hormone that is released in response to carbohydrate ingestion, and a couple of the effects it has deals with the body's aging process and bodyfat. The less you can control your insulin, the quicker you age, and the harder it is to burn bodyfat. Once you've eaten carbohydrates, and your body kicks out the insulin, it hangs out in your system for up to about 4 hours, hindering your body's ability to burn fat all the while. So when you eliminate carbohydrates, you eliminate the insulin barrier (and if you're on the Subway diet, your insulin is just amazingly messed up).

So far, the Atkins diet is looking pretty good. Your body is forced to burn fat as there are no carbs present, and not only does it become efficient at burning it because of this, you have no insulin interrupting this process. On top of this, just because of the boundaries of your food choices, your body will be getting a good deal more protein, which is the most important part of the diet, regardless of what anyone says. Protein keeps you alive, it's been recognized as the most important part of the diet since it was first given a name (named after the Greek word "proteios" meaning "of first rank").

All good things so far. But all those good things don't account for the results. People seem to think they have increases in their metabolism, and all these other great things accounting for fat loss. None of that is right. A) There is virtually no fat at all accounted for in the initial weight loss, regardless of how much it is, and B) your metabolism experiences some pretty lofty problems. Metabolism is more complicated than we all think it is. Summed up, it's the collection of every chemical reaction occurring in the human body, and carbohydrates play a critical role in a good majority of them, as these reactions will only take place in the presence of these carbs. Plenty of the necessary reactions that routinely take place in your body are unable to occur. So metabolic benefits are out.

But there were still a few benefits, the insulin control, the increased protein, and the efficiency of burning fat as energy. And we all know that within the first couple weeks, everyone on the diet experiences fantastic changes. So are these the factors that account for this initial weight loss? Not necessarily... or more realistically, not at all. Those immediate effects come from a number of things. First off, protein acts as a natural diuretic, and in the adaptation of your body responding to tripling your protein intake, much of that weight is excreted into the toilet. The body can easily lose five pounds of water in a single day because of this. Good times. Then you drain the glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates), which account for about 1% of your total bodyweight, so there's another pound or two lost before you�ll actually lose any fat. On top of those numbers, on average, the elimination of carbohydrates initially creates a 40% reduction in total caloric intake during the first two weeks caused by the limited food choices. So when you're overly excited about losing 5 or 10 pounds during those first couple weeks on the diet, go ahead and calm down, maybe a quarter pound of that is fat, at the absolute most.

But luckily these people have all given their miraculous testimonial to every living being on earth about how effective the diet already is. They're proud that they've lost weight so rapidly and they're excited about it. It's understandable. It's normal human behavior. But after two or three weeks, the body runs out of bodyweight outside of fat that it can lose, and the diet is no longer such a speedy thing. Burning fat doesn't happen at that pace, regardless of what the Atkins' crew preaches. But by the time the dieter realizes that the Atkins diet realistically causes a 200+ pound body to lose about a quarter pound of fat every week, and not eight pounds, a dozen people have already heard about the colossal effects that occurred right off the bat, and obviously want to try it as well. I can't really blame them. So obviously the popularity grows pretty rapidly in those circumstances. Everyone who tries the diet broadcasts to the world how well they're doing even though no fat loss has taken place yet. Then eventually the body reaches the point at which it can burn fat and it comes so slowly that the dieter can hardly keep the motivation to eat pork again.

Okay, so we haven't really gotten into the negative effects yet. You know now that the diet works okay, not great, but it'll produce some results. Now, whether those results are worth the side effects or not, I'll let you make that decision.

I'm going to try to keep as simple as possible to explain all this, but it's going to get a little complicated here and there. Okay, energy is basically ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and there are multiple ways your body can produce it. In the presence of carbohydrates, all of these ways are possible. Without carbohydrates, the Krebs cycle (series of chemical reactions producing ATP) is basically the only way your body can do it. Remember that thing a couple minutes ago about carbohydrates playing a critical role in chemical reactions? A lot of those reactions take place here. So without carbohydrates, your body will rely almost strictly on the Krebs cycle, which is kind of a shame because that particular way only works if the body's oxygen supply stays above a certain level. So come time for the body to do anything anaerobic, it doesn�t function properly, and hence, can barely do it.

That's kind of a problem. It would help to have your body be able to perform normal daily functions. But no worries, it takes a while before you're totally incapable of performing anaerobic activity entirely and your body begins to function so poorly from the fact that many of the chemical reactions that are required for daily life cannot be completed. That takes a while. And far worse than that is the lack of insulin. Earlier we talked about the benefits to insulin control, and Atkins takes that control to the extreme. Sure, less insulin has its advantages. But guess what? (Rhetorical question.) You die without it. That's not an exaggeration. All your living tissues in your body keep that state of "living" because of insulin. Remove the insulin and you remove their life source. And when I say living tissues, I don�t just mean skeletal muscle. That will lose its function from the inability to produce ATP through anaerobic glycolosis (similar to the Krebs cycle, but carbs are required and oxygen is not). What I would be concerned with if I were you, is the fact that your connective tissues, smooth muscle (i.e. organs), cardiac muscle (i.e. heart), these things, these are all dying so long as you�re on the Atkins diet. So if you are on the diet, I hope you haven't been on it long enough to cause irreversible damage that will soon end your life. Have a happy rest of your day :-)

Okay, so in conclusion, I have to give Dr. Atkins the respect he deserves for being an extremely intelligent person, credited with plenty of great ideas, but the entirety of his most popular idea isn't right for you. The human body is massively complicated, and in the most direct way I can put it, cannot be summed up by the simplicity of this particular diet.

Now, as always, if something was unclear, or there's something that I didn't fully cover in here, please, by all means ask me about it. Just don't come up to me and say "but I lost 13 pounds in two weeks on this diet!" Seriously, I'll just politely ask you to read this again. And if you continue to do the diet after reading all of it, more power to you. I'm not trying to dissuade you from that, this simply for the knowledge only. I'm not telling you what to do. But in the case that you do continue on with the diet, I do not envy your pain in watching someone else eat a cinnamon roll. Not because you normally love cinnamon rolls, but because you can no longer live without carbs, any carb source will do, and cinnamon rolls smell pretty good under those conditions.

Questions and Answers Via You People

Thank you all of you who asked the questions... Curiosity is most appreciated here...

Question 1) "Good carbs / bad carbs" Doesn't the Atkins diet say that you can have certain carbs, just not the bad ones?

Answer 1) Yes. Good observation. But whether carbs are good or bad is situational, not definitive, as the Atkins diet claims. What the Atkins diet does is eliminate all the carbs that your body can truly utilize. Specific veggies are included into their diet, and veges are considered "good carbs." But the reason that they�re good is because you can't absorb them. Cows can. They have a completely different digestive system than we do, and hence, can be "range fed" and actually survive. But what cows can utilize isn�t what humans can. These veggies pass right through our digestive tract, which is why they "keep you regular." The majority of everything that your body can utilize is absorbed by what's called strait arteries in the first bunch of inches of the small intestine (called the duodenum). The slower digesting stuff is picked up by what's called arcades from the next foot and a half or so (called the jejunum). Don't check my spelling either, we're going off of old memory here and I haven't had to use some of these words in a while.

Anyway, the foods that aren't absorbed here (i.e. the veggies Atkins allows) just keep going on through, past that until they reach the large intestine, which is fundamentally just a trash compactor, where they'll stay until the next time "regular" comes around again. So as these carbs are never picked up by anything inside your body, they obviously have no impact on your blood sugar. And with no blood sugar changes, the body won't release any insulin.

The other carbohydrates the Atkins diet allows come in the form of their bars, shakes, and obscure food items, or mixes, or whatever. You've probably heard the term "net carbs" by now, or "total impact carbs." Those are getting to be pretty commonly used, primarily because of the Atkins diet. So they'll say on the side of a food label "Net impact carbs 3� grams" or something like that. That means that, although this mysterious food item contains maybe 20 or 25 grams of total carbohydrates, there's only 3� total grams that have any impact on the blood sugar. The rest is something like glycerin/glycerol or some other messed up fiber-imitator. And these get pretty funny because most of them are just chemically modified antifreeze, which has been modified by as little as 1 carbon atom (and the hydrogen that's attached to it). So it tastes nearly identical to antifreeze, but instead of poisoning you, it passes right through similarly to your veggies. The difference, which is fairly comical, is that it lubes the intestinal tract pretty well on the way through, hence the "may cause funky butt release" warning labels. Of course they're worded different, but that's what they mean. Anyway, to answer the question in a more simple way, the carbs that Atkins allows have no real impact on blood sugar at all. And without that blood sugar change, the body isn't releasing the insulin right, so all the lofty problems associated with that remain...

Question 2) I try to eat a low carbohydrate diet, not exactly like the Atkins diet, but I try to watch my carbohydrates. Is this okay?

Answer 2) That is great. You're doing excellent. My point is not to instill fear into everyone who ingests food. My main point is that the Atkins diet has major side effects that people don't really know about. And no review of the Atkins diet that's ever been written (to my knowledge) has ever covered the massive problems it creates based on insulin and the inability to produce ATP through anaerobic glycolosis, or the problems in executing many of the common chemical reactions routinely completed in your body. But your conscious effort to watch what you eat probably doesn't have those side effects. That is unless your conscious effort happens to be the Atkins diet.

Question 3) You said that you would only lose like a quarter pound of fat per week at most on the diet. But even after that first few weeks, I was still losing weight at a pace of at least 4 or 5 pounds per month. How do you explain that?

Answer 3) Easy... You picked up my Atkins write-up in the weightroom of a local gym, likely right after completing a workout, correct?

Question 4) And??? (Honestly, this was the entire e-mail... It got a smile out of me.)

Answer 4) And it's not the diet that's doing it. Remember somewhere in the middle of the thing you read, I mentioned that even the "Subway diet" can work, though the diet itself is doing nothing to aid the pace of your fat loss? That's what's going on here. The diet alone doesn't do much for you. It's the fact that you're down here all the time- congratulations on that by the way. You deserve a congrats for your work ethic in the gym. I'm being serious. It's an important part of your health, which is one of the absolute largest factors in determining the quality of your life. You're one of few people who's actually got the dedication and work ethic to do it. Most people can't ever get to a decent level of consistency, so congrats on that.

Question 5) I know you're a body builder, isn't the body builder diet almost the same thing?

Answer 5) Okay, I gotta make one thing clear, I'm not "a body builder." I'm just "a guy who happens to compete in body building once in a while." I don't like to be defined by it because body builders are absolute morons. It just blows my mind how incompetent they are. Not all of them, but go to a bodybuilding show and try to talk to someone above a 4th grade reading level. You'll find very few opportunities to do that. Granted, there's obviously some exceptions to that rule... but I've been thinking about it for 10 minutes now and I haven't thought of any yet, so... Anyway, to actually answer your question though, yes, the majority of their diets are Atkins-based. Although I should say Rheo Blair-based, as it was Blair (Irwin Johnson) who started the whole thing. The difference was Blair�s crowd was in fact body builders (and those who desired to be), back in the early-Schwarzenegger days. Atkins just saw the potential of targeting that concept at the general public, capitalizing on the lucrative opportunity in a much more populated crowd. But being as every human on the planet knows the name Atkins, we'll just say, "yes, body builders eat like the Atkins dieters in many situations." But that doesn�t make it right. Body builders generally die a couple decades younger than the average, non-doctor population. The doctor thing isn't implying that they eat bad or something- that�s believed to be more of a stress-based issue. At least it appears to be. Anyway, hope that answers the question.

Question 6) Well what should I eat then?

Answer 6) I got this question a good number of times, and it's kind of a tall order. Besides the fact that I would spend at least 4 to 6 hours typing this answer (depending on the goals of each person), it's kind of what I get paid to do, and if I did it for everyone for free, my bills would arrive in a very very scary envelope. I wrote this Atkins diet thing for everyone free because there's enough people doing it and that in itself worries me more than my paycheck does. And I wanted this information to be extremely clear to everyone- so hence the "please ask me questions" aspect of it. So the point of this was basically just information on that specific topic. But I'm always more than happy to answer everyone's questions about any aspect of health and fitness- just try to keep them a little more specific than "what should I do?"

Question 7) Well, what do YOU do to get around the insulin thing? Like when's the best time to eat carbs? I've heard that eating carbs early in the day is good because then you have the whole day to burn them? Is that good? Or is there something better?

Answer 7) Wow, kind of rapid series of questions there. Okay, me personally, it depends. It depends what I'm doing with my diet at the time. If I want to put on size, which I haven't actually done in a couple years now, but if I felt like doing that, I'd be eating about 10 thousand calories per day. So in that case, I worry more about too much insulin. But if I'm cutting body fat, I just time my carbohydrate intake right, to where it'll go into replacing the draining glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates). In this way your body will use them well, get the needed insulin appropriately, and have no worries in fat or health. Specific carbs, specific times. That's really all it boils down to. The eating carbs early in the day thing... It's okay. Your body doesn't quite work exactly like that, but close enough. As for "is there something better?" There are plenty of things that work. Your body operates in a certain way, and all of the diets out there kind of set weird boundaries to impact that in one way or another. This works great for some people who do well with controlling limitations and such, but I personally can't stand it. The main thing that bothers me is that none of these diets actually teach you anything. They don't teach you how the human body operates, or why the diet works at all, other than their little marketing phrases to sell it to you. So all the information people buy into is simply a product of marketing from the diet industry. That pretty much sums it up as short as I can get it. If I were to broaden on that, you'd eventually stop reading, and I would have developed a wicked case of carpal tunnel by then. So if you want to know more about any one specific diet (other than Atkins in this case), feel free to ask.