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Dr. Atkins Views on Low-Carb Sustainability

Posted Aug 19 2012 4:37pm
Is a Low-Carb Diet Sustainable? (Photo by Alpha )

As most of you know, I’m extremely partial to the 1972 and the 1992 versions of The Atkins Diet. The ’72 version was based on Dr. Atkins own experiences following a low-carb diet and a few initial clinical observations. The original ’92 version (the first edition) was based on the feedback that he actually got from his patients. Many of them were cheating by adding a few vegetables to Induction along with the salad, which they eventually admitted to.

Since Dr. Atkins patients still lost weight easily eating that way, Dr. Atkins decided it was okay to add 2/3 of a cup of cooked vegetables to his Induction Plan. Because of that addition, he lengthened Induction from one week to two. The second edition printed around 1999 was exactly the same as the first one except for a one-line comment he made about how he couldn’t find anything unreasonable about deducting soluble fiber grams from the total carbohydrate count – the type found in the psyllium husks he was recommending at the time, not the type found in vegetables.

It was only after the Atkins’ Nutritionals company came into the picture that things started to change. Before that time period, The Atkins Diet was very, very different. It was not the super-sized, narrow-minded, low-carb products and meal plan it has evolved into today. It was extremely individual. There was no carbohydrate ladder and no one telling us what we should or should not add to our diet. In fact, the chapter on Real Life back then even showed low-carb dieters how to add baked potatoes to their diet.

The sugar substitutes available at that time were terrible, so no one confronted anyone else for eating a small amount of cane sugar instead. What most people did back then was multiply the carbohydrates in the sugar by two to make up for it. There was no low-carb products, no wheat-protein saturated recipes, and no genetically-modified corn being used to create maltodextrin, sugar alcohols, ethanol, and in the processing and packaging of meats and vegetables. The diet was quite sustainable. It worked, and it worked well.

So what happened? Why don’t we have hundreds and thousands of low-carb dieters reaching their goals every year? Why has a standard low-carb diet become unsustainable? Food allergies and sensitivities (leaking gut syndrome) are definitely a large part of the problem, but there’s more going on than just food and chemical intolerance.

Because this problem hits extremely close to home, I’ve been looking at Dr. Atkins’ original diet book lately – searching for clues on sustainability. I’ve read about how Dr. Atkins discovered and created his original diet. I’ve listened to the folks who have been testing their blood ketone levels and what they’ve been saying about how the state of ketosis is a direct relationship between protein, fat and carbohydrate consumption. I also recently filled out the JUDD calculator to see if a calorie cycling diet was even possible for someone like me.

Granted, none of that addresses the problem of sustainability, but research for me has always been an activity I enjoy. Plus, I never know where I will find the piece of the puzzle I’m searching for. Once I had my brain wrapped around the implications and consequences of the latest Nutritional Ketosis theory and discovered that JUDD was completely unrealistic for me (Down Day was 350 calories, Up Day was 1450), I decided to move forward in my reading.

Dr. Atkins had lofty ideals. His dream was to bring low-carb dieting to the world at large. He wanted to correct our metabolic issues, change our outlook on life, and change our life itself. To do that, he designed a plentiful, palatable and varied way of eating. I believe that’s what most of us are searching for too: A diet we can live with for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, that’s not what low-carb eating has become today.

  • So how did we travel so far away from Dr. Atkins’ intent?
  • How did we get from palatable and varied to something that’s a one-size-fits-all approach?
  • Did Atkins actually intend for his diet to be a high calorie, high fat and very low-carb diet?

“I quite deliberately opened up Bloom’s test diet…His was a three-day diet. And, as I said earlier, it was designed merely to observe the metabolic effect of a zero carbohydrate diet. It was bacon and eggs, meat and salad, period. This was his purpose – fine for a short-term experimental diet.”

Bacon and Eggs (Photo by Adria Richards )
I can easily agree with this because this is exactly the problem I’m having constructing a reasonable carbohydrate-restricted diet that fits into my current health problems and restrictions. It’s why the hHCG diet was not sustainable for me. Interestingly enough, in the 70s, Dr. Atkins considered a zero carb or a very low-carb diet unsustainable for most individuals, and yet we hear a majority of low-carbers preaching at those who are struggling for answers to lower their carbs and up their fat.

The diet Atkins started with, what we would call Induction today, was simply a three-day test. That type of meal plan isn’t a way of eating. It’s far too restrictive. It can get you into ketosis quickly, but it wasn’t something that Atkins could enjoy and stick with for life. I’ve found over the past couple of years that it isn’t something I can stick with either, and ditto for the dozens of individuals who fall away from low-carb communities, boards and egroups. Try eating nothing but chicken breast and frozen broccoli spears for more than a couple of days and you’ll see what I mean.

What Dr. Atkins was searching for was a diet he could live with and enjoy for the rest of his life. That’s why he spent a great deal of time adding various foods to the diet. The only fats in that three-day test was a little oil and vinegar dressing for the salad, plus whatever natural fats came with the eggs, bacon and other meat.

“I added mayonnaise, butter, and the other fats I loved. I also added the concept of gradually adding carbohydrates until the break-off point – the Critical Carbohydrate Level – is reached.”

Low-Carb Blueberry Muffin (Photo by Lindsay Hickman )
This is what makes The Atkins Diet special. It’s what makes it unique, and it’s what makes it work long-term. At its very essence, it’s what makes a low-carb diet sustainable. You slowly add your favorite carbohydrates back into your diet, five to eight grams at a time, until you reach the point where you stop losing weight.

This type of slow addition also gives you the added benefit of discovering food intolerances provided you add your foods back one at a time instead of an entire group and you evaluate the results. Once you know how your body is going to react to particular foods and carbohydrates in general, you can dial the carbs back down to where you’re losing weight again at a reasonable pace.

To Atkins, a reasonable pace was about five carbohydrates below the level that causes your weight to stall. In other words: maintenance. Since he believed people should enjoy dieting, he wasn’t in a rush to see the pounds drop off quickly. That is an entirely different mindset then most low-carb dieters have today, but then, his view on the purpose for fats being in the diet is drastically different as well:

“It makes all of the difference in the world, psychologically, to be able to eat luxuriously and substantially on a diet –“

The real reason fats were included in the Atkins Diet is because of the psychological lift they give you, not because they are physically essential to your health in large amounts as so many low carbers believe. The real Atkins view is that dietary fats make the diet sustainable because he equated enjoyment with sustainability. Dr. Atkins next explained what he meant by luxurious eating:

“to have heavy cream in one’s coffee, whipped cream on berries, mayonnaise, fried foods, fatty meats such as pastrami and pate, butter sauces –“

Fatty Meats Make Low Carb Sustainable (Photo by Arnold Gatilao )
In addition, he thought desserts were especially important because they helped to keep you on plan. Notice that Atkins defined fatty meats as pastrami and pate, which are not very fatty by today’s standards. In the ‘70s, luxurious eating wasn’t a 16-ounce Rib Eye with a huge slice of cheesecake for dessert. It was a reasonable serving of lean London Broil with a sliver of cheesecake.

Although the majority of low carbers have adopted the mantra of “This isn’t a diet; it’s a way of life,” most of them don’t actually believe that – at least, that isn’t the way they approach dieting. From what I’ve seen and heard over the past five years, most people approach a low-carb diet from a short-term perspective. They want quick weight loss now and think that once they get close to their goal weight, they’ll be able to adjust their carbohydrates.

The trouble with that line of thinking is that for most folks, they never make it that close to goal because in an effort to survive, the body will always adapt to drastic ways of eating. Metabolism slows, thyroid levels drop and the body does whatever it has to, to survive. That includes adapting to your current carbohydrate level. What many forget, or don’t want to believe, is that a low-carb diet produces the same types of physical and mental survival responses that starvation does.

While ancient ancestors might not have been exposed to our modern world of food manufacturing practices and plenty, and were therefore healthier, our bodies certainly have! The body will adapt to whatever type of food we give it. If it doesn’t adapt, then disease and other health problems result.

“This isn’t a short-term approach; it’s a lifelong way of eating. You’ll end up with a diet that’s as personal to you as a pair of contact lenses.”

I just love that line! That’s exactly what happens when you actually follow the Atkins program. You end up with something that’s personal, unique and designed to fit your metabolism and health issues.

The sad thing I came to realize was that most of us are not doing Atkins. We’re doing something else. If something else is working, that’s fine, but we need to make sure that if we’re not doing Atkins, that we don’t fall into the trap of later on claiming that The Atkins Diet doesn’t work. You can’t honestly say that if you have never given the actual Atkins Diet a fair trial.

If you follow the actual Atkins program, there is no end to the diet’s flexibility. That’s because when you finish the Induction phase, you begin adding back foods you’ve been missing. It’s those missing foods that help to keep the diet satisfying and sustainable. In fact, in 1992, dieters were given the option of either doing Induction as Dr. Atkins laid it out in that book or tossing out his ideas and eating anything you wanted – provided you kept to 20 full carbs per day.

That’s a very different mantra than what is preached among the low-carb community today. Today, we hear all the time how large amounts of dietary fats are necessary for health. Even those of us with serious fat malabsorption get told that’s the reason why a low-carb diet stopped working. We hear how we “need” to follow the carbohydrate ladder laid out in 2002. We’re told to eat a lot of calories per day to stay out of starvation mode, and we’re told to eat lots of vegetables because they are somehow magic to the low-carb process.

None of that is true. Not only does it go against Dr. Atkins’ views, but those types of demands work to make the diet itself completely unsustainable.


Because when you follow what appeals to and works for someone else, you often wind up eliminating your own comfort foods. According to Dr. Atkins, your personal comfort foods are the secret ingredient that makes a diet sustainable!

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