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The Atkins Diet: Getting Started, Staying Focused

The Atkins Diet is an organized program for achieving permanent weight control through the intelligent consumption of carbohydrates. And there's more than weight loss at stake here: what really matters is your overall health and well being. In fact, many people who don't need to lose weight choose to follow the Atkins because of all the health benefits it provides.

Atkins is a four-phase lifetime eating plan that helps you:

  • Achieve a carbohydrate awareness regarding quality and quantity of carbohydrates consumed
  • Learn your individual threshold for carbohydrate consumption
  • Incorporate vitamin and mineral supplementation and regular exercise

Here's what else you need to know about Atkins:

  • Though certain guidelines must be followed, the Atkins is flexible, with a wide variety of choices to suit a variety of eating preferences and lifestyles.
  • Atkins is not a one-size-fits-all approach—it is a customized eating plan that you will match to your unique metabolism. By learning your individual threshold for carbohydrate consumption, you can reach your ideal goal weight and stay there—without hunger pangs or feelings of deprivation.

Atkins is based on four core principles, all backed by solid scientific research:

  • Weight loss
  • Weight maintenance
  • Good health and well-being
  • Disease prevention

There are four Phases of the Atkins Diet:

  • Phase 1: Induction
  • Phase 2: Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL)
  • Phase 3: Pre-Maintenance
  • Phase 4: Lifetime Maintenance

The Real Goal of Atkins

It's important to remember the ultimate goal of the Atkins Diet is to advance through each Phase, culminating in Lifetime Maintenance, which should become your permanent way of eating. Moving from one Phase to another will help you achieve and maintain a healthful weight, develop good eating habits, feel good and decrease risk factors for chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. People who don't need to lose weight can start with Phase 2: Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL) or Phase 3: Pre-Maintenance and move into Lifetime Maintenance.

The Four Principles

Let's take a closer look at the four principles of Atkins:

  • Weight Loss Both men and women who follow Atkins readily lose pounds and inches. If you're one of the very few who has a truly hard-core metabolic resistance to weight loss, there are ways to overcome the barriers that prevent a successful outcome.
  • Weight Maintenance Most low-fat, low-calorie diets may fail for one reason: hunger. Although many people can tolerate hunger for a while, very few can tolerate it for a lifetime. When you do Atkins, you feel satisfied by the foods you eat; you gradually find your effective individual level of carbohydrate intake, which is the tool that allows you to maintain a healthy weight for a lifetime.
  • Good Health and Well-Being With Atkins, you'll meet your nutritional needs by eating healthy, wholesome foods and omitting junk food. You'll find that this results in less fatigue—not just because you're losing pounds, but also because you will stabilize your blood sugar. When you do Atkins, you start feeling good long before they reach your goal weight.
  • Disease Prevention By following an individualized controlled-carbohydrate nutritional approach that results in lower insulin production, people at high risk for chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes will see a marked improvement in their health.

On to an overview of the four phases of Atkins: Induction, OWL, Pre-Maintenance and Lifetime Maintenance:

  • Phase One: Induction This first phase of the Atkins focuses on dramatic reduction of carbohydrate intake. It's the most restrictive phase of the program; it also results in the fastest weight loss, since your body will begin burning primarily fat for energy when sufficient calories from carbohydrates are not available. This occurs through a process called ketosis, which we'll cover in more depth later in the course.

Doing Induction successfully requires that you stay on it for at least two weeks, although you can safely do it for months if you have a lot of weight to lose.

If you do not need to lose weight and you want to use this Phase to break addictions to junk food and sugar, you will need to make sure your calorie intake is very high to avoid weight loss. (Women should consume a minimum of 2,000 calories daily; men, 2,800 to 3,000 calories daily)

Briefly, when you go into Induction you will:

  • Limit carbohydrate consumption to 20 grams of Net Carbs (defined below) per day coming primarily from carbohydrates for a minimum of two weeks
  • Satisfy your appetite with foods that combine protein and fat, such as fish, poultry, eggs, lamb, pork and beef; eat limited amounts of hard cheeses (cheeses do contain some carbohydrates)
  • Consume a balance of healthy natural fats such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats, but avoid manufactured trans fats (e.g. hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils)
  • Consume carbohydrates in the form of nutrient-dense foods such as leafy green vegetables
  • Drink at least eight glasses of water daily

Where Have All the Calories Gone?

Here's the first of a many pieces of good news you're going to get as you learn more about the Atkins Diet: You don't need to count calories at this point. You will naturally take in fewer calories because your appetite will be under control with sufficient amounts of protein and fat.

When you give your body too many carbohydrates to metabolize, it burns them for energy. But if you carefully control your carb intake, your body burns fat instead. And that, in a nutshell, is the secret—if there is one—of the Atkins Diet.

As you read further, you'll see why that's true and how to determine what your net carb intake should be.

What's a Net Carb?

The Atkins Diet works by restricting carbohydrates, which come from grains, legumes and other plant sources. But most carbohydrates contain fiber, which is not completely digested by the body. Since fiber has a neglible effect on blood sugar, these substances don't count as carbs on Atkins. So Net Carbs represent the total grams of carbohydrates minus grams of fiber. Net Carbs are the only carbs that you count when you do Atkins.

Successful completion of Induction means transitioning to the next phase: Ongoing Weight Loss.

As good as Induction is for quick, dramatic weight loss, it's important for you to understand that it's only the first Phase. Staying in Phase 1 for too long can become boring. Also, it can lead to a crash-diet mentality where you might assume it's okay to go back to eating anything, because you can always go back and lose the weight all over again by repeating Induction.

You can start with Phase 2 if you don't have a lot of weight to lose, don't mind losing weight at a slower pace, or you find Phase 1 too restrictive.

  • Phase Two: Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL) When you switch to Ongoing Weight Loss (OWL), your rate of weight loss will naturally slow down. The first week on OWL, you will increase your daily carb intake from 20 to 25 grams; the following week you move to 30 grams of Net Carbs per day, and so on. You should increase intake on a weekly basis until your weight loss slows to one to two pounds each week.

During OWL you'll find out how many grams of carbs you can eat and still lose weight. This is called your personal carb balance.

When you go into OWL you can start adding back nutrient-dense foods like more non-starchy veggies (e.g., asparagus, broccoli); berries like raspberries and strawberries; nuts and seeds like hazelnuts and almonds; and soft cheeses (e.g., cottage cheese).

Phase 2 lasts until you're within 5 to 10 pounds of your weight goal. Successful completion of OWL includes transitioning to the third Phase of the program: Pre-Maintenance.

  • Phase Three: Pre-Maintenance When you're within 5 or 10 pounds of your target weight, it's time to move to Pre-Maintenance.

Now that your weight goal is in sight, the best strategy is to lose the last few pounds very slowly to ease into a permanently changed way of eating. This Phase lasts until you hit your target weight and maintain it for a month.

Each week in Pre-Maintenance you can add 10 more grams of Net Carbs to your daily allotment. As long as weight loss continues, you can gradually introduce foods such as lentils and other legumes, fruits other than berries, starchy vegetables and whole grains.

When you hit your goal weight and maintain it for at least a month, you've found your carb tolerance level. This is the level of carbohydrate intake at which you will neither gain nor lose weight, and is the key to the final phase, Lifetime Maintenance.

  • Phase Four: Lifetime Maintenance Once you've maintained your goal weight for a month, you've reached Lifetime Maintenance. Lifetime Maintenance is key to the Atkins Diet. In this Phase, the average number of daily grams of Net Carbs ranges from 40 to 120 per day, depending on your metabolism, age, gender, activity level and other factors. If you exercise regularly, you'll probably have a higher carb tolerance level.

In this stage, you will look great and feel great about your progress. But it's important for you to understand that losing weight is only a piece of the puzzle. Atkins isn't just about losing weight; it's also about maintaining health for life. Lifetime Maintenance is designed to help you stay healthy throughout your life.

Summing Up and Moving On

To recap, the Atkins Diet is a four-phase lifetime eating plan in which you need to:

  • Control the amount of carbohydrates you eat
  • Learn which carbs are the most nutrient-dense
  • Learn your individual threshold for carbohydrate consumption
  • The Atkins Diet has four basic principles: weight loss, weight maintenance, good health and disease prevention. And it has four phases: Induction, OWL, Pre-Maintenance and Lifetime Maintenance.