The Atkins Diet – Does it Work?

Atkins diet products

The diet and weight loss industry is estimated at more than $50 billion dollars a yearand that’s just the U.S.! That means countless Americans have resorted to spending money on diet programs, pills, books, and food to lose weight – and yet 35.7% of Americans remain obese. Unfortunately, the majority of these plans burn out as quickly as they come into the limelight. 

The Atkins program, however, has not followed the traditional fad diet trajectory. This diet program was created by Dr. Robert Atkins in 1971 and gained notoriety in 2003 and 2004. Dr. Atkins based his program off of research performed by the Journal of American Medical Association in the ’70s, which explored the important role fat plays in our diet.

Unlike some of the other diets we have reviewed (think: Gluten FreePaleo, or the 5:2 diet), the Atkins Program is a structured diet program.Popular dieting trends often expect you to flip a switch and change your eating habits overnight, without a gradual introduction to the program— which we think is a fairly unreasonable approach to healthy eating.

The Atkins Program utilizes four phases to get your weight goals on track. The diet aims to shock your system by almost completely eliminating all carbohydrates. Not surprisingly, your weight loss is effectively jumpstarted. Eliminating an entire food group that typically accounts for 45-65% of your diet will undoubtedly help you shed some excess weight. In fact, the first stage of the Atkins diet calls for only 10% carb consumption! However, it is a common misconception that the Atkins diet is a high protein diet. While there is a strong emphasis on the importance of protein, the Atkins diet is categorized as a high fat, low carb diet.

The four phases of the Atkins Diet:

Phase 1: Induction. This phase is the strictest of the four phases and lasts for two weeks. It requires you to cut your carbohydrate intake to 20 grams of net carbs per day— equal to about five red peppers. The net carbs are calculated by subtracting fiber from the total carbohydrates. For example, there are six grams of carbohydrates in a medium red pepper and two grams of fiber, so the net carb of the average red pepper is four. It is also recommended that 10-15 of these 20 net carbs come from what Atkins calls “foundation vegetables”. These include broccoli, asparagus, peppers, celery, and cucumber. This phase stresses the importance of vegetable and protein intake, and even eliminates fruit, nuts, and grains.

Phase 2: Balancing. During this phase you are able to introduce nuts and berries back into your diet. You are told to continue to eat a variety of the foundation vegetables, getting at least 12-15 grams of net carbohydrates from this source. However, you are unable to eat foods with added sugars—that means no cookies, no cakes, no candy. Unlike the induction phase, there is no time limit to the balancing phase. The Atkins Program advises you to remain in the balancing phase until you are ten pounds from your designated goal weight.

Phase 3: Pre-maintenance: Once you are ten pounds from your goal weight, your pre-maintenance begins. In this phase, you are allowed to add ten grams of carbohydrates per week; however, stay alert, if you start gaining weight you must cut back the carbohydrates once again.

Phase 4: Maintenance: After you have reached your goal weight, the maintenance phase begins. This signifies the start of the “rest of your life”. After the Atkins program, you have shocked your system by eliminating the majority of carbohydrates from your diet and are to continue eating a diet with a decrease in carbohydrate intake.

So, why has this diet program prospered for so long?

Well, although it might not be the healthiest approach to weight loss, it does work. In fact, it is often ranked among the best diets in the U.S. The premise of the program is a quick way to shock your body and increase fat burn. However, it is important to note that our understanding of food has changed significantly since this diet was first introduced. We now understand a lot more about the digestibility of different foods and the need for portion control. Unfortunately, this was not considered when the diet was first created.

To the positive, the Atkins program aims to stabilize your body’s blood sugar levels, which is one of the key components to weight loss and healthy weight management. Dr. Atkins actually designed his program to combat the “traditional” American diet, which he believes consists of high-carbohydrates and low-fat intake. Unlike the more traditional (and very popular) diet approaches in the U.S., the Atkins program embraces the intake of fat—and this is certainly something we like to see. As you may recall, we recently explained why “Fat is Our Friend”.

The growing appreciation for fat intake over the typical “low fat diet” has also been investigated in many science research initiatives. Overall, the majority of research is finding that low-carb diets are more effective than low-fat diets. On average, low carb diets are known to increase HDL Cholesterol (the good cholesterol that puts you at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and helps keep your metabolism strong) AND decrease your triglycerides. When your triglyceride levels are too high, they can increase your risk of a stroke, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.

Remember: Every Body is Different!

While it is good diet advice to increase your protein and healthy fats while decreasing your carbohydrate intake, the Atkins diet expects everyone to fit its mold. It is important to remember: every body is different. You should not adjust your lifestyle to fit a diet program, you should create a diet program that fits your lifestyle.

To better understand how to tailor the Atkins Diet to your own lifestyle, we spoke to Dr. Keith Berkowitz, author of The Stubborn Fat Fix and advisor to Dr. Atkins. Dr. Berkowitz explained that while a low-carb, high-fat diet can help obtain weight loss goals, there is no “hard and fast rule” that applies to everyone for weight loss. In fact, although he utilizes certain aspects of the Atkins diet, Dr. Berkowitz does not recommend the induction phase of the program. Instead he recommends roughly 50-75 grams of carbs per day, although this can change depending on the patient and his/her weight loss goals. He believes you should eat foods that are nutrient dense to help control blood sugar levels. Dr. Berkowitz explained that balanced blood sugar levels and digestibility is the key to weight loss and healthy weight management.

One issue we have with the Atkins diet is the lack of healthy serving size recommendations. The Atkins program only regulates the amount of net carbohydrates you can intake, thus allowing its devoted followers to eat hot dogs, red meat, and cheese without any portion control. With these rules, you could literally eat hot dogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

While we agree that healthy fat is good in moderation, endlessly eating processed meats every day will not support long-term heart health. This is something Dr. Berkowitz also addressed. He does not think the science behind “net carbohydrates” is exact and believes it is difficult to monitor your consumption that way. Additionally, not all protein options are easy to digest. Bacon and some dairy products, for example, are hard for your body to break down.

Additionally, in the first phase of the Atkins Diet you are told to eliminate fruit and nuts. However, there certainly are healthy ways to include both these food groups into a diet and still lose weight! Mixed berries, for example, are high in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. This high fiber content keeps berries from significantly spiking your body’s blood sugar levels (unlike tropical fruits). Nuts are also a well-rounded food not worth eliminating. They are packed with Omega-3, fiber, and vitamins, as well. Like berries, nuts can help to improve heart health and can help lower your cholesterol.

And let’s not forget about the power of whole grains and their importance to overall body health. We mentioned this in our “Debunking the Gluten Myth“ post. Eliminating carbohydrates like over-processed white bread is obviously going to help your weight loss, but there are healthy, whole grain carbohydrates that can nourish your body. Barley, quinoa, and sprouted breads will provide you with fiber, iron, and enriched nutrients (like Vitamin B).

Losing weight is one thing, but staying healthy is another. The short-term effects of the Atkins diet will allow you to lose weight, but there is no science that determines whether this approach to eating will keep you healthy in the long run. According to the National Center of Biotechnology, “skeptics are concerned in part because of the absence of long term studies needed to answer questions raised about the safety of the Atkins diet including whether it will promote osteoporosis, colon cancer, heart disease, kidney damage, and gout, as critics charge.” Overall, the Atkins program may be an acceptable way to lose weight quickly, however it has not proven its ability to maintain overall body health in the long term.

Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota

intestine drawing on woman's abdomen

Probiotic supplements are becoming increasingly popular. Walk down the dairy aisle and you will be flooded with probiotic enhanced yogurts, drinks, and even cheeses. Doctors are saying that we need the “right” gut bacteria to balance our digestive system. We are even being told that our gut is our second brain! Is this true?  And if it is, are probiotics the intelligence behind the brain?


Every day we have trillions of intestinal bacteria working hard to convert food into nutrients, make vitamins, digest our food, reduce gut inflammation, and keep our immune system strong.

What is the difference between Prebiotics and Probiotics?  Prebiotics and probiotics set the stage for good bacteria.

Prebiotics enter your stomach, survive the acidic environment of a pH from 1.5 to 3.5 (a neutral pH is 7.0), and move into the small and large intestine to feed the good microbiota in your gut. This means the prebiotics actually feed the probiotics. Probiotics would not be able to do their job properly without prebiotics. But, you don’t need to look for a supplement to get some good prebiotics. They are very easy to incorporate into your diet! Foods like asparagus, leeks, artichokes, onions, chicory, endives, and yams will give your body good prebiotics to help aid the probiotics in your small and large intestine.

Probiotics, (pro and biota, “for life”) are live bacteria that live in your small and large intestine and help maintain overall body health. Besides digesting your food and assisting with vitamin creation, new research indicates that probiotics keep your immune system strong, prevent infections, and help control inflammation. The good bacteria creates a slightly hostile environment where bad bacteria (such as salmonella, E. coli, fungus’ and yeast) find it difficult to survive. Incorporating probiotics in your diet is easy with yogurt, kefir, soft cheeses, or fermented foods such as sauerkraut, sour pickles, miso soup, or cabbage.



Now, what is this so called “second brain” ?

The gut is often referred to as the second brain because it has its own nervous system in the gut called the enteric nervous system. It is a network of millions of neurons that signal to each other as if they are in the brain in our head and they use the same chemical factors and proteins to signal to each other. So similar findings to microbes in the gut that could affect the nervous system in the gut. One interesting statistic is that microbes are required for a large proportion of serotonin synthesis and they affect neurotransmitters and neuropeptides signaling factors for neurons.
-Elaine Hasiao, California Institute of Technology

Of course, the human brain makes all of our logical and intellectual decisions. However, it is the “brain in our gut” that contributes to our health and emotions. The gut has its own nervous system, which is a network of millions of neurons. They signal to each other and use the same chemical factors and proteins as the ones in our head. The brain and gut then talk to each other using the Vagus nerve, which connects the two and is part of the enteric nervous system (ENS).

To better understand the role of gut bacteria, new studies have taken two groups of genetically identical mice: one group with the normal amount of microbiota and one without any at all. These experiments showed a marked difference in social behavior and brain function based on the absence or presence of gut microbiota. These initial studies inspired scientists for further research to understand which microbes perform specific functions. Additionally, researchers are discovering that the bacteria may be a coded intelligence. This means specific types of bacteria can tell your cells, and even your genes, what to do. This is controlled through the epigenome system, which is made of DNA proteins in the cell which can alter the gene functionality. A fascinating example under investigation is showing that certain bacteria can turn on or off certain genes such as those involved in Alzheimer’s. The exciting research on gut microbiota – the name given to the microbes living in our intestines – is just beginning to grow.

The more we understand about the tens of trillions of microorganisms in our gut (which represent over three million genes) the more we can learn about what is the optimal combination to keep our immune system strong and our emotions happy. But this is not as easy as just throwing a bunch of bacteria into a petri dish and analyzing through a big data computer program or a ‘human simulator’.

Every human being is estimated to share about 1/3rd of all the gut microbiota. The remaining 2/3rds (approximately) is believed to be unique to each individual. Each person hosts a unique set of microbiota and every human reacts differently to various microbes. Examine someone’s microbiota in their large intestine and you can even tell where they grew up! If you were born and raised in Iowa, you have a much different gut microbiota than someone living in India. If you were born via caesarian section your bacteria is different than someone who was born naturally. Were you breastfed? That makes a difference as well. If you were allowed to eat dirt in the garden and roll on the floor with a puppy your immune system developed much differently than if you were raised in a busy city. Your microbiota is also evolving every day based on what you eat, where you travel, and how you live.

source: Huffington Post

Today’s exciting research of microbiota goes beyond the just the basics. In 2015 alone, more than 1,700 papers were published regarding the relationship between your gut bacteria, diseases, and your mental health.

Each type of bacteria has a specific set of genes, which makes the bacteria unique to the host. Some are better pathogen fighters, some adhere to the intestinal wall, and some act as anti-inflammatory agents.

Doctors and researchers are looking at the effects of specific microbiota and autism, intestinal cancer, weight loss, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. The list is endlessly exciting. The relationship between gut microbiota and overall immune function is strong and understanding this will have a huge impact on our health. Albeit this is very new research with very preliminary results.

Currently, two leading European organizations are collaborating on a significant portion of research concerning probiotics. MetaCardis is a research project investigating the role of gut microbes in cardio-metabolic diseases (CMD). These discoveries will enable the development of future CMD treatments. My New Gut is a project that will “research how the human gut microbiota and its microbiome influence obesity, behavioral and lifestyle-related disorders, and vice versa. It also helps to identify specific dietary strategies to improve the long term health of the population.” MetaCardis and My New Gut findings and collaborations with other organizations will set a new frontier for human health. A great resource for this progress is Gut Microbiota for Health.

What probiotics to take?

Before you run to the grocery store, understand that gut microbiota is a very new field. Researchers and scientists are experimenting but are still unsure as to the exact perfect combination of microbiota in your gut. While we now know that the bacteria can influence your health and mental well-being, the scientific community is still a ways away from recommending a specific combination. Even if they could, because of everyone’s unique combination, what can help one person may not help another.

If you consume too much bad OR good bacteria, you might have unintended consequences. It is widely recognized that you must replace the good bacteria in your gut after a course of antibiotics— you’re probably familiar with acidophilus. We also know that if you have C-difficile (a disorder caused by the use of antibiotics) your last – and in many cases – the most effective treatment is to replace your gut bacteria with a loved one’s poo (eek!).

While certain strains show promise in the lab, it is hard to tell what their exact effect on the human body will be and how these strains will react with other bacterial strains in the gut.

We have to keep in mind that the development of a probiotic is not easier than that of any other drug. It is a long process that carries the risk of failure together with the prospect of great benefits for the patients. -Prof. Philippe Marteau, Paris University, Paris, France

A well-balanced diet rich in microbes is the best solution.

Today’s research shows that if you have a healthy gut and are not experiencing any disorders, you don’t typically need to take probiotic supplements. However, they can be helpful for travel, if you are sick, or have a specific intestinal disorder. To help you out, we found a very handy US Probiotic Guide, which helps determine what probiotic is right for you. The European Society for Primary Care Gastroenterology also has a list of 32 specific probiotics that might give you some clarity.

Of course, you should always consult your doctor—but this will help guide you in the right direction if you are fighting a cold, struggling with irritable bowel syndrome, or preventing diarrhea issues from antibiotics or travel.

Skin: Your Body’s Largest Organ

woman sitting with hands on knees

The inner workings of our skin:

The epidermis is the exterior layer of the skin. It acts as a protective shield. The outer most barrier of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum. The dermis contains the underlying tissue and includes your sweat glands and hair follicles. And the hypodermis is the deepest layer of connective tissue.

Your skin absorbs tiny particles all day long and protects you from bacteria that can enter your body through your pores. While your skin is able to protect against larger microbes, certain nanoparticles are able to penetrate the different layers of the skin— and (depending on their size) enter your circulatory system.

Today, there are differences in opinion concerning your skin. It is easy to get caught up in the headlines that say big cosmetic companies are using toxic ingredients that are carcinogenic. But in reality, the research doesn’t exist. There is much speculation over what types of products you should be using to protect your skin properly but while your skin is susceptible to nanoparticle absorption that can affect your skin’s health, the long term effects of particle absorption are unknown.

What is a nanoparticle?

Nanoparticles are emitted from a variety of different sources and can also be created in different ways. Once formed, they are released into the atmosphere and are able to be absorbed by the human body. If this sounds vague, it’s because it is! These particles range from 1-100 nanometers in size and change depending on the source it was emitted from (such as pollution, smoke, technology), if they are absorbed (through your pores or through inhalation), nanoparticles are believed to cause damage to your cells. A 2011 study indicated that free radical formation can also be triggered by nanoparticles.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely prevent the absorption of nanoparticles— not to mention scientists are not entirely sure what the long-term effects are once these particles enter the circulatory system. Thus, the difficulty of protecting your skin comes from a shortage of research.

It is nearly impossible to create a “rule of thumb” when it comes to giving advice on how to protect your skin from absorbing different nanoparticles.

Size Matters

Nanoparticles are able to penetrate the skin layers depending on their size. According to a study performed by Dr. H Schaefer et al., “skin penetration depends on particle size is often taken as a rule: particles below 3 μm (micrometre) diameter can penetrate the stratum corneum through the intercellular pathway; particles between 3 and 10 μm accumulate preferentially in the sebaceous follicles; and particles above 10 μm do not penetrate the skin (they possibly remain adhered to the skin surface in the case of film-forming ability).”

If a nanoparticle is under 3 micrometres it is able to penetrate all 3 layers of skin and enter the circulatory system. The issue is, not every person’s reaction to these particles being absorbed is alike AND there is very limited research on what happens when the particles are inside your circulatory system. So, the only way to best protect yourself is to understand the largest sources of these nanoparticles and how to avoid absorption.

Where do harmful nanoparticles come from?

Three of the most harmful free radicals come from pollution, cigarette smoke, and UVA rays. In the study, “Cosmeceuticals and Active Ingredients” Dr. Lintner et. al., describes how millennials (in particular) are not accustomed to protecting themselves against these toxins because the “free-radical generated damage is not immediately visible.”

Although you may not realize it, our skin is subject to aggressors that deteriorate its overall health every single day. And although the long term health effects of your skin may be unknown, we do know that these aggressors slowly weaken your skin tissue and inevitably cause the skin to age prematurely.

While pollutioncigarette smoke, and UVA sun exposure may be three of the most significant causes of free radicals entering the skin, they may not be the only ones affecting the health of your skin. For example, a recent study found that there are nanoparticles released from a photocopy machine when you are making a copy. Based on your proximity to the machine, you are most likely inhaling these toxic nanoparticles, which then sit in your lungs! Additionally, there are also new concerns over the nanoparticles emitted from new 3-D printers. In a world where technology continues to have a strong presence in our day-to-day lives, it is important to be cautious of over-use.

The simple fact is: our skin has not modernized along with society.

As technology changes, our climate becomes more severe, and pollution becomes a larger problem, our skin has a more difficult time protecting itself against free radicals. Our skin is equipped to protect itself to a certain degree, however as you age the ability for your skin to continue creating metabolic enzymes that fight aging begins to slow. That, paired with the pace of our progressive lifestyle has caused the overall health of human skin to deteriorate.

It is also important to understand that “the aging of the skin manifests itself in many ways: drying out, loss of elasticity and texture, thinning, damaged barrier function, the appearance of spots, modification of surface line isotropy, and finally wrinkles.” (Lintner et al.). Thus, not every person’s skin damage manifests the same way. Having a dermatologist assess your skin health and recommend products that are tailored to your skin needs is important.

So, how do we keep our skin healthy?

Using the right creams to combat premature aging and always use SUNSCREEN!

One of the most interesting studies we read tested the accelerated aging of human skin in a tropical climate. The study was performed over a six month period and used 50 Caucasian volunteers, who were split into two groups, receiving either a placebo or a moisturizer containing Thermus thermophilus ferment (TTF), with the hope of proving that skin that was not sufficiently protected would experience measurable deterioration. “The results indicate that under these special conditions of accelerated aging, the skin aged by approximately 4 years in the placebo group, whereas no deterioration occurred in the TTF-treated group”

Yes, you read that correctly! By properly protecting and moisturizing their skin, volunteers in the treated group were able to maintain their skin’s health, whereas those who were subjected to accelerated conditions, aged 4 YEARS in a 6-month period!

While sunscreen protects your skin by its ability to combat UVA and UVB rays from damaging your collagen, moisturizers and cosmetic creams can help to replenish your skin’s collagen. Collagen is a type of protein that helps keep your skin firm and looking young. Products containing peptides are believed to help your skin as peptides are the amino acids found in collagen. By actively replenishing your body’s natural supply, you can help your body fight the effects of premature aging. You can also replenish your body’s collagen through the foods and vitamins you eat! Vitamins C and E, for example, have antioxidant properties that help replenish collagen and repair cell damage.

If you are thinking that the nanoparticles in cream or sunscreen will also enter your skin, it is true that that is a possibility. But, the current understanding of the advantageous effects of sunscreen outweigh any potential negative effects of nanomaterials in topical creams. According to the study performed by Lintner, et al. “we affirm that the current weight of evidence suggests that nanomaterial currently used in cosmetic preparations or sunscreens pose no risk to human skin or human health; on the contrary, they provide a large benefit to human health by protecting human skin against the adverse effects of UV radiation, including that of skin cancer.”

Broad-spectrum sunscreen is proven to be the most effective anti-aging cream you can use to protect your skin, so look for a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Recent studies have shown that zinc oxide is the most favorable sunscreen ingredient as is not absorbed into the skin after application.  Using sunscreen regularly is known to reduce the risk of premature aging and skin cancer.