It’s been 10 years since everyone you know was “doing Atkins,” in a low-carb craze that swept the nation. But while the fad faded, nutrition experts are encouraging Americans to watch their intake of white sugar and carbohydrates, and the Atkins diet itself has continued to evolve. If you’ve thought about revisiting the program, there’s much you should know about how it aligns with current nutrition recommendations, and what you can expect on the new version of the plan.
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“Because we’ve been around for 40 years, we know where the pitfalls are and where people get in trouble,” says Colette Heimowitz, vice president of nutrition and education for Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. We asked Heimowitz for her tips on following the Atkins diet in a safe and healthy way—and getting the best results.
Get up-to-date. All smart, safe diet plans evolve as new research on nutrition emerges. The Atkins diet may still be based on the principles Dr. Robert C. Atkins laid out in Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution in 1972, but it’s been updated many times over the years, most recently in The New Atkins for a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great, published in 2010. Don’t try to do the diet based on an older version of the program—or worse, what you vaguely remember your mother-in-law eating when she did it 10 years ago.
Watch portion sizes. Part of the appeal of Atkins early on was that its author often emphasized that it was OK to eat as much of the approved foods as you wanted, provided you stopped when you were full. But after studying people on the plan, Heimowitz says, they found that “people could eat through their hunger cues, taking in 4,000 calories a day, and then wonder why they’re not losing,” she says. Now the program offers portion control recommendations, such as only 4-6 ounces of protein in a sitting, and only 4 ounces daily of full-fat dairy products.
Fill up on Atkins “super foods.” No, they’re not steak and butter, as a famous New York Times magazine cover story once suggested. Like many healthy eating plans, the cornerstone of today’s Atkins diet is vegetables, which you should aim to get 8-10 servings of per day. Other staples of the plan? Eggs and foods packed with healthy fats, such as fatty fish, extra virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts. In the later phases, berries are great for snacking, Heimowitz says, especially when combined with almonds to slow the absorption of sugars.
Don’t stay in Phase 1 forever. The first phase of Atkins, known as “induction,” is the strictest, forbidding even some healthy foods like grains, legumes, potatoes, squash and yogurt. The payoff? In this phase, weight comes off fast. “Because they feel so great, their appetite is under control and they’re losing at a nice clip, many people are afraid to go beyond induction,” Heimowitz says. “But then they never learn how to get more variety in the program to maintain weight loss. You need to modify it to maintain.” Based on your weight-loss needs, you should stay in Induction anywhere from two weeks to several months.
Offset water loss. In the early weeks of the plan, it’s common to shed lots of water weight. (That’s partially why the scale moves so quickly, which can be encouraging early in a diet.) To be safe, you should make sure to drink lots of water during that time to prevent dehydration. The Atkins plan also recommends adding a teaspoon of salt per day to your diet in the induction phase—in the form of table salt, broth or soy sauce—to help keep your electrolytes balanced.
Know that all carbs aren’t created equal. One of the biggest misconceptions about Atkins is that it’s a no-carb plan, Heimowitz says. In fact, from day one, you’re eating some carbs—mostly vegetables—but their effects on insulin and blood sugar are tempered by their fiber content. When it’s time to add in additional carbs in phase 2, though, it can be tricky. “You need to add carbs at a very slow clip and not over 5 net gram increments,” Heimowitz says. “So that means a half cup of berries or another cup of vegetables, an ounce or two of nuts. And you need to add them in the order of which has the lowest glycemic index.” These details are laid out in the Atkins “carb ladder,” which can be adjusted based on your health history and individual needs.
Check out these recipes from The New Atkins for a New You Cookbook: Sausage, Fennel, and Leek Wild Rice Pilaf; Mustardy Mac ‘n’ Cheese; and Crustless Ginger Cheesecake With Lime Sour-Cream Topping.