Atkins Controversy

By Joslyn Thompson BSc, DipPTST

Of all the diets I have come across in my career, the Atkins it seems has been the most controversial. It has gained great publicity from the stars, Jennifer Aniston, Geri Halliwell, et al have all become wonderfully emaciated on this fab diet and they look gorgeous so we'd like a piece of the pie too!!

In his book Atkin's talks about how big Americans have become on a diet of refined carbohydrates (white bread/pasta/rice) and sugars, now this is nothing new, most of us know such a diet is not a healthy option, point taken, thank you Atkins but it doesn't mean we should cut out carbs all together. Carbohydrates vary in the levels at which glucose is released into the bloodstream those known as High Glycaemic Index (GI) carbs are quick releasing (including some fruits) and those with a medium to low GI have a slower rate of absorption into the bloodstream. Yes the influx of glucose into the bloodstream in excess of what is converted to glycogen (carbohydrates stored for energy/fuel) does turn into fat, but that is particularly relevant to those refined carbs and sugars. But hang on aren't fruits good for you? Yes they are and looking at the American diet it would seem fruits are not the primary culprits for fat gain, like refined carbs. So when Atkins speaks of stabilising blood sugar levels we don't need to cut out carbs all together, we just need to make a move towards more unrefined carbs (wholemeal bread, fresh veg, etc) and cut down on the sugary stuff.

So, to the diet. Well you're allowed to "liberally" eat as much protein and fat as you like, yes that includes saturated fat the very demon we have been warned against by the medical profession to cut down on due to it's conclusive link to CHD. Now this is the point at which I just go, hang on a minute here everyone, you lot are about to go on a diet that let's you eat as much fat as you want! Even if it gives you coronary heart disease?! Oh no hang on, I forgot, Jennifer Aniston says it's OK so never mind what Dr's have been saying to you for years, what do they know anyway! In fact I'm thinking about giving 'ol Jen a call to sort out my back troubles she really seems to know her stuff!! So yes my frustrations all start here. We have had it drummed into us for years saturated fat is bad for you, then along comes someone telling you it's the new thing to get you skinny, and out goes your rationality left in the dust of the bandwagon you've leaped on with gay abandon to shed that fat!

God this diet sounds great doesn't it, no restrictions of calories and still lose weight, but despite the 'eat as much as you like' claim, calories are reduced massively on the diet. Take steak for example, although higher in fat than most carb foods (but that's OK as we don't mind putting ourselves at risk to CHD) it is also more water dense thus lower in calories. This goes for many other protein-rich foods so by being on the Atkins diet you are cutting out a huge amount of calories.

But if this diet is so low in calories how come there have been wonder claims of not having any sugar cravings and feeling peckish? After all that's the very reason people hate dieting isn't it? This sense of reduced appetite and sugar cravings is the result of two separate mechanisms. By reducing carbs you are eliminating erratic sugar intake thus stabilizing blood sugar levels, reducing sugar induced cravings. And by eating so much fat along with stimulating amino acids (protein buildinG blocks) to cross the blood brain barrier (discussed later) in larger quantities you develop a greater sense of satiety.

Let's take a closer look at protein. Proteins are made up of building blocks known as amino acids. We need protein for the growth and repair of our bodies. Recommended daily amounts for an average male and female are 63 grams and 50 grams per day respectively. For active individuals e.g. athletes, weight lifters etc values are higher due to more required by the body. We get protein from our diet and it is also produced internally. Approximately 75% is stored in the muscles and 25% in the liver as a back up system for the brain where stored protein is converted into glucose (brain fuel) should glucose levels in the bloodstream become low. Most healthy eating plans will encourage you to have carbs as approx 60% of your daily intake. This makes sense as it's the body's preferred energy source with the brain alone requiring 576 calories or 144g (bearing in mind Atkins urges you to have just 20grams a day in the induction phase) a day as it's regular energy supply, and the remainder giving us energy to go about our daily tasks. So if we cut out this energy supply where else can we get it from? Well luckily our bodies are complex beyond comprehension and have many back up systems to keep us going should we starve it of it's main energy source! This is the part where Atkins claims we start tapping into our fat stores. But both fat and protein can be converted into energy. So bearing in mind how efficient the human body is, if it needs to tap into a back up energy system, which one is it going to tap into first? Protein stored readily in the liver and muscles or the fat that has been sitting there quite comfortably for some time. It's a bit like limescale in a bath tub that just won't budge without some real hard elbow grease, hint hint! So yes, on Atkin's measily 20grams of carbs a day we'll tap into the brains backup system, the liver. But we've got a whole load of brain fuelling to do to make up those remaining grams as well as fuel the rest of the body. The rest is obtained from muscle tissue. Quite ironic really, we're gaining energy whilst becoming weaker by eating into our muscle tissue. So that lightheadedness most Atkins dieters feel in the initial stages is the brain screaming for it's fuel, and the body rushing to convert those amino acids into glucose to feed it.

So we've now cut out all our carbs and are not really bothered whether or not that's good for us, whilst at the same time loading up on protein, surely too much of that can't be good for you? Once we have utilised the protein we need, 75% into muscles and 25% into liver what happens to the excess? Thereafter excess has to be broken down and disposed of, the amino acids have to be split before disposal. One half turns to ammonia which is toxic within the body and has to be removed. If too much of this waste passes through the urinary system, it can put a lot of stress on the kidneys. The other half is very acidic increasing pH levels in the blood stream. The body neutralizes these increased levels by absorbing calcium from bones into the bloodstream making our bones weaker and leading to osteoperosis in the long term.

Now this next part is another bit that really gets me as a personal trainer. Atkins uses the trusty scales to see the weight loss, but what exactly is being measured. OK so you've cut out your carbs, now each gram of glycogen (stored carbohydrate in the body) attracts 2.4grams of water, so not only have you cut out all those carbs but look at all of that water you've lost too well done! What else do the scales measure? Let's see: glycogen, (well we've cut that right out so that's a few more notches off the scale); muscle, (well we're eating into that to give us energy); bones, (we're reducing the density of those as we're reabsorbing calcium into the blood stream, later disposed of as waste); connective tissue (phew haven't managed to steal any of that); oh yeah and fat, (well maybe a smidge of that has budged for good measure.) All forms of weight loss apart from fat loss are detrimental to health, and using scales to measure fat loss when so many other variables count is useless. If you're serious about losing fat, a better guide is to have your body composition assessed measuring actual fat. Whilst there is a small degree of inaccuracy, it is much more indicative of fat composition than the scales. Most personal trainers will assess your body composition if you wish to have it done, leaving Atkins, Slimmers World et al raving deliriously about how much water and muscle you've lost in the background, well done!!

The weight loss industry has to be the most successful industry in the world with approximately $36 billion being spent in the US, it's the only industry where despite a product not working time and time again people just keep on buying it. Are there any bells ringing yet?! There's been a little old theory that has sat quietly in the background for a while now - a healthy sensible diet with preferably resistance exercise, oh yeah you've heard that before, how boring! Have you tried it though, with as much dedication as applied to Atkins or all those other diets? I would urge you to do that first. Effective weight management, which I'm sure is what you're all trying to achieve comes first with the acceptance that this change will not happen over night, and if it does it's certainly not fat that's tipping the scales in your favour. Weight loss beyond 1-2lb / 0.5kg per week is sure to be muscle and water loss, not fat. By losing muscle tissue you slow down the metabolism burning less calories when inactive and piling those pounds back on when you stop dieting again because let's face it, how many lifetime dieters do you know? When you stop dieting, having lost muscle tissue, requiring less calories, all the under utilised calories are converted into fat. Many overweight people suffer from a slow metabolism. A 1.4kg increase in muscle increases metabolism by 7%, so add a few gym workouts to your fat loss plan. Also try to eat little and often of unrefined carbs in particular stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing cravings. Woohoo, this looks like the long term road to weight loss!! So I hope you'll press the bell to let you off the bandwagon at the next stop, or dispose of that wool that has been firmly wrapped around your eyes. Our bodies can't be tricked into quick fat loss solutions there's one way that works so why not give it a bash and see how you get on Good Luck !!


'Dr Atkins New Diet Revolution' - Dr Robert C Atkins
'Protein Metabolism and Physical Activity' - Carla B Sottovia
'Low Carb Diets Revisited: The Atkins Controversy' - Phil Kaplan
'Addressing the New Protein Diets Head On!' - Phil Kaplan

DaxMoy : Personal Trainer in London