The response to last week’s blog was fabulous, but it also made me realize that there is still a lot of confusion out there about Atkins, and particularly Phase 1. So I’ve decided to focus some basics this week. After all, if you get off on the wrong foot, you may fall by the wayside before experiencing all the wonderful things Atkins can do for you.
Small but Significant Changes
Atkins has evolved over the years in response to the latest nutritional research. For example, we now encourage consuming considerably more low glycemic vegetables—we call them foundation vegetables—from the get-go. In fact, no less than 12 to 15 grams of the 20 grams of Net Carbs you’ll be eating should be in the form of these veggies. Eating vegetables not only provides you with all important vitamins and minerals, their fiber content also helps avoid constipation. (See What Are Foundation Vegetables? to get the whole story.)
Your best source of up-to-date information about Atkins is this site—be sure to check out the free online courses, including one dedicated to Induction—and the most recent book, The New Atkins for a New You. This is the first book on the diet published in six years. Earlier books such as Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution (2002) and The Atkins Essentials (2004) give a good grounding in the program, but for the latest advice based upon the latest science, the new book is the go-to source. A great deal of research on low-carb diets and Atkins in particular has been published in recent years and I’ll continue to keep you posted on new studies as they are published.
Also understand that we all respond to things differently. Some people lose weight steadily; others lose in fits and starts. Some lose easily; others, particularly women in middle age and beyond and or are inactive, tend to lose more slowly. If you have been a yo-yo dieter in the past, your body may be resistant to weight loss. You will eventually lose, but you may have to develop patience with the process.
Know Right from Wrong
In addition to consuming enough vegetables, here’s how to do Atkins right and avoid making some of the all-too-common errors:
- Count grams of Net Carbs (the grams of total carbs minus grams of fiber, which has no virtually no impact on your blood sugar). The difference between total carbs and Net Carbs is why you can now eat considerably more vegetables than the two cups of salad and one cup of cooked veggies advised in New Diet Revolution. With the current recommendations (and depending upon the foundation vegetables you choose), you could have a big salad at lunch, a side salad at dinner and still have several servings of your favorite cooked veggies. (See the Induction Carb Counter for specifics.) Don’t forget to count lemon juice and other acceptable condiments and include 1 gram of Net Carbs for sugar substitutes. And most important, don’t use your carb allowance for foods that are high in sugar and starches and low in fiber. Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking no carbs are better than 20 grams of Net Carbs and eat only protein and fat.
- Drink plenty of water, of which two cups can come from coffee or tea (caffeinated is fine), herb tea, sugar-free sodas or broth. Eight daily cups is the standard recommendation, but the larger and more active you are, the more you need. As long as your urine is clear or very pale, you’re drinking enough. Don’t ever skimp on fluids in a misguided effort to see a lower number when you hop on the scale. Not drinking enough water actually makes your body retain fluid as a protective mechanism.
- Consume a little salt (or broth or tamari/soy sauce) to avoid experiencing weakness, headaches, muscle cramps or lightheadedness as your body transitions to primarily burning fat for energy. Since Atkins is a naturally diuretic diet, you don’t need to avoid salt to minimize water retention. The symptoms can be the result of an electrolyte imbalance caused by losing minerals along with fluid. Caution:continue to limit salt if you’re being treated for hypertension or your doctor has advised you to limit sodium intake.
- Eat 4–6 ounces of protein at each meal, depending on your height and gender. A petite woman may be satiated by 4 ounces; a guy may need 6 ounces. A very tall guy may even need a bit more. But eating too much protein—or eating only protein and not vegetables—or conversely, skimping on protein, will interfere with weight loss and/or leave you hungry and subject to carb cravings.
- Eat enough fat to feel satisfied, but no more. Trying to combine a low-fat diet with Atkins won’t work. You need dietary fat to help stimulate the burning of body fat. And if you skimp on fat and are eating the right amount of protein and carbohydrate, you’ll be hungry and give into urges for carbohydrates. Remember, natural fats are fine when you control carb intake. On the other hand, don’t assume you can eat as much fat as you want. Calories from fat do add up, even on a low-carb diet.
- Know what you’re eating. By carefully reading package labels, you can avoid those added sugars and other sneaky carbs. Just because a package says it’s low in calories doesn’t mean it’s low in carbs. Avoid low-calorie products unless they’re labeled as low carb. Likewise, use full fat versions of mayonnaise, salad dressing and the like. Low-fat versions of packaged foods almost invariably add sugar to replace the flavor carried by oil. If the label is unclear, check out the food in a carb counter.
- Use low-carb products properly. Most Atkins Advantage™ bars and all the shakes are fine in Induction. However, neither are meal replacements at current formulations. Have them as a snack or as part of a meal. You can have one or two a day , but don’t have more than that or use them in lieu of vegetables. Wait to use other low-products until you’re past Induction.
- Stay away from alcohol in Induction. Even if spirits have no carbs, you’re body will burn alcohol for energy before carbs and fat, so you’re slowing down the process by having a cocktail. Hold off until Phase 2 and even then moderation is the word. Alcohol lets down our inhibitions so you’re more apt to eat foods you’re better off avoiding after a drink or two.
- Each day write down what you eat in a diet journal or use the Atkins Community online journal, which is completely confidential. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) allow you to see patterns you might miss otherwise. You’ll also quickly see if you’re consuming more carbs than you think you are.
- Weigh and measure yourself weekly or use weight averaging. Your weight naturally varies across a three or four-pound range from day to day so weighing yourself daily is setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. Moreover, if you are working out, you may actually be building muscle even as you shed fat, which may keep your weight constant, even as you trim inches and your clothes fit better. (Muscle is denser than fat and therefore takes up less space.) I suspect if you could lose four pounds or fit into a smaller size, you’d opt for the latter.
- Don’t make too many changes at once. Wait a week or more until you’ve become accustomed to your new way of eating before starting or increasing exercise. Making too many changes at one time sets you up for failure. Physical activity is a natural partner to the Atkins Diet, but do go easy. On the other hand, if you already work out regularly, feel free to continue doing so.
- Move from Phase 1, Induction, to Phase 2, Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL) after two weeks if you wish. Or stay put a bit longer if you have a lot of weight to lose. Depending on the number of pounds you need to lose and your tolerance for a relatively limited number of choices in carbohydrate foods. As we discussed last week, it’s important to spend a good deal of time in OWL and to transition through all the phases—and slowly move up the Carb Ladder—to learn your limits as you move gradually to a new and permanent way of eating. Don’t stay in Induction until you have lost all or almost all of your excess weight or you will not have learned how to maintain your new weight.
- Move to Phase 3 at 10 pounds from your goal (or sooner, if you’re willing to trade slower weight loss for more food variety).
- Move to Phase 4 after maintained your new weight for a month. And continue to eat this way going forward. If you disregard this advice and return to your old way of eating, you’ll almost certainly regain those lost pounds.