Like Mel Gibson and John Edwards, the Atkins diet made headlines in the mid-2000s before seeing a swift fall from grace. (Remember when every celebrity from Demi Moore to Catherine Zeta-Jones was reportedly touting its benefits?) While the low-carb plan may not be quite as popular as it once was, plenty of people are still losing weight on it, and some have even speculated recently if it’s poised to make a comeback. If you’re curious about what Atkins entails, here’s what you need to know.
What Is the Atkins Diet? The Atkins diet is a diet for weight loss and maintenance that entails curbing carbohydrate consumption in an effort to switch the body’s metabolism from metabolizing glucose to metabolizing stored body fat as energy in a process called ketosis.
The diet has four phases: Phase 1, the induction phase, greatly restricts carbs in an effort to kick-start weight loss. In this phase, which lasts at least two weeks, a maximum of 20 net carbs can be consumed per day. Phase 2, the balancing phase, reintroduces nuts and certain fruits and vegetables back into the diet. Phase 3, the fine-tuning phase, encourages dieters to gradually increase net carb intake until weight loss slows down. Phase 4, the last stage (and more of a lifestyle than a phase) is the lifetime maintenance period: once at goal weight, the aim is to eat as many healthy carbs as the body can tolerate without regaining pounds.
Developed by cardiologist Robert Atkins in the 1960s, this low-carb diet became the focus of a bestselling book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, in 1972. It took until the early aughts, however, to become one of century’s biggest diet crazes: in 2003, at the peak of the craze, an estimated 1 out of every 11 North American adults was on Atkins.
So Why Go on Atkins? The Atkins frenzy of the early 2000s may have mostly faded, but it remains one of the best-known low-carb diets. It can be highly effective for achieving rapid weight loss: in one 2012 study, researchers found that low-carb dieters lost an average of nearly 18 pounds over a period of six months to a year. A few other small, short studies have suggested that Atkins may raise HDL cholesterol and lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
This diet boasts that you’ll never be hungry, since when you’re on it, you’re able to eat as frequently as you want; in fact, you’re encouraged to eat every two to three hours when awake. And because cutting back fat isn’t a focus, you’re able to eat all the bacon and eggs that you want.
When to Skip Atkins Atkins isn’t for everyone. The restrictive first phase of the diet is famously challenging; you’ll likely have to sacrifice some of your favorites (bread, juice, and even low-fat Greek yogurt, we’re looking at you). And resisting temptation’s just the beginning. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you're severely restricting carbohydrates, you may experience side effects like headaches, bad breath, weakness, fatigue, and bowel issues. Furthermore, to succeed on the diet, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the carbohydrate content of everything you eat, as well as your weight (changes in weight affect how many carbs you can have in your daily diet).
Dietary restrictions add another layer of complication. According to the Atkins website, with the help of soy products, seeds, nuts, and eggs, the diet is “perfectly possible” for vegetarians, and “challenging…but not impossible” for vegans. Being gluten-free poses less of a problem, but you’ll need to think beyond skipping bread and pasta, and be sure to read all food labels to check for unanticipated sources of gluten.
While the government recommends 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat, as much as 63 percent of calories come from fat on Atkins — a number that worries most cardiovascular experts. It’s also unclear how higher amounts of animal protein and fat affect long-term health (Atkins hasn't been studied beyond two years, so long-term risks are uncertain).
Foods That Are Off-Limits At first, you'll need to avoid all high-carb items on the diet. This includes vegetables like carrots and turnips, fruits such as bananas and grapes, starchy tubers like potatoes, as well as beans and legumes. Eventually, you should be able to add back in beans and legumes, as well as some whole grains like oats and rice; however, chances are that you’ll need to indefinitely stick to a diet moderately low in carbohydrates, even if you reach your weight loss goals, otherwise you’ll gain back the weight. Say goodbye to high-carb, sugary foods and drinks like sodas, juices, cakes, candy, and beer, which are all pretty much permanently off-limits.
So What Can You Eat? Atkins followers should base their diets around meats, fatty fish and seafood, eggs, full-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, low-carb vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, and asparagus, and healthy fats. Gradually, you’ll reintroduce other vegetables and fruits, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Coffee and tea are acceptable, so long as the caffeine doesn’t spark cravings; so is alcohol in small amounts, later on (although it has to be low in sugar).
The Atkins Meal Plan
If you’ve decided to give Atkins a try, here are a few options that’ll help you get started.
Paprika Grilled Salmon with Lemon Aioli
Marinate fresh salmon fillets briefly in olive oil and paprika, then sear them in a hot pan. Serve with garlic mayonnaise and a light spinach salad. Get our Paprika Grilled Salmon with Lemon Aioli recipe.
Roasted, Herbed Beef Tenderloin
Don't skip out on good eating just because you've cut carbs; roasting a piece of beef tenderloin still feels special. Get our Roasted, Herbed Beef Tenderloin recipe.
Easy Skillet Kale
Lemony curly kale, wilted just enough but not too much, would be a fast and delicious side to enjoy along steak. Get our Easy Skillet Kale recipe.
Shower roasted asparagus with grated bits of boiled egg for an elegant take on breakfast that makes the Phase 1 cut. Get our Asparagus Mimosa recipe.
Spicy Oven-Roasted Chickpeas
Once you’re able to add beans and legumes back in to your diet, crunchy, spicy oven-roasted chickpeas make a satisfying and high-protein snack. Get our Spicy Oven-Roasted Chickpeas recipe.
BLT Scrambled Eggs
Tomatoes are often reintroduced in the second phase, and they’re worth looking forward to in this breakfast dish. Whisk eggs with mayo before scrambling to achieve a creamy texture with a natural sweetness; serve them alongside leeks, bacon, and tomatoes. Get our BLT Scrambled Eggs Recipe.
Steak and Bacon Salad
Stave off hunger with a steak and bacon salad. Get our Steak and Bacon Salad recipe.
Faux Tandoori Chicken
With little control over what goes into your food, it can be especially tough to eat out while on Atkins. But if you’re craving South Asian takeout, try re-creating a version of tandoori chicken in your kitchen at home. Get our Faux Tandoori Chicken recipe.