When Atkins’ Diet Revolution made its debut in the 1970s, it was a welcome relief from the low-fat diets in vogue at that time. These low-fat diets ran on the simple premise that, if you eat more fat, you would become fatter; if you cut down on fatty foods, you’d become thinner. The low-fat craze found all our favorite processed foods coming out in low-fat versions, from low-fat milk to low-fat cookies and cakes. It did help the food industry quite a lot, but did not bring down obesity one bit. Apparently, our body doesn’t work by that simple logic.
In a complete reversal of strategy, Atkins’ promoted high-fat foods and shunned carbohydrates instead. You were encouraged to eat fatty cuts to your heart’s content and lather your dishes with plenty of butter and grease. But you were warned to stay off breads and pasta and most types of vegetables and fruits. Glucose derived from carbohydrates being the primary source of energy, cutting down on this food group means depriving the body of its ready supply of energy. This was expected to make the body turn to its fat reserves for energy. And it did work. But only for a short while.
Shifting the focus from dietary fat to carbohydrates was a good move, because high-carb diet is a major cause of a number of metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance and Type II diabetes. People who followed the Atkins’ diet experienced rapid weight loss within a few days, if not as much as 15 pounds in the first two weeks as it claimed. They were delighted to have all the high-fat bacon and hamburgers back on their plates too.
Let’s see what happens when you drastically reduce the carbohydrate content in your diet. In a typical day of Atkins’, you will be having as little as 20gms of carbs, mostly from the very few vegetables you are allowed to eat during the initial phase. That constitutes less than 10% of daily calories if you are on a 1,200 calories diet. Normally, over 50% of daily calories come from carbohydrates. Body responds to this drastic undersupply of carbs by burning glycogen stored in the muscle tissue, causing muscle breakdown. The fat tissue is burned as a last resort, since it is a very inefficient way to produce glucose for the body to use as a fuel.
Burning the fat reserves for energy results in the release of ketone bodies, and this condition is referred to as ketosis. Fasting for extended periods and extreme low-carb diets are the usual causes of ketosis in healthy people, although it can commonly occur due to lack of insulin in people with Type I diabetes. Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and bad breath are only a few of the many undesirable effects of ketosis. Some people experience nausea and vomiting.
Mild ketosis may not affect your health or normal functioning, and may even help you burn stored body fat, but severe ketosis can raise the acidity of the blood. This life threatening condition is called ketoacidosis. Diabetics and pre-diabetics are particularly at risk. Clinically induced ketosis has been used in the treatment of epilepsy, but it is not recommended for weight loss because of its negative side effects. Moreover, despite the immediate reduction in body weight lowering blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure in the short term, ketogenic diets have not been shown to have any significant long-term health benefits.
Avoiding a major macronutrient group puts your health at risk as it makes you deficient in many micronutrients that come with it. For example, colorful fruits and vegetables contain several antioxidants and other phytochemicals that protect us against oxidative stress responsible for cancer and many degenerative diseases. They are abundant in water soluble vitamins like Vitamin C and B-complex vitamins. And we all know very well, vitamins and minerals obtained from food are better than what supplements provide.
Fiber is another important component conspicuously absent in low-carb, high-fat diets because they avoid excellent sources of fiber such as whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Of the two types of fiber, the insoluble fiber bulks up the stomach contents; it facilitates their easy passage through the digestive tract and faster elimination of waste products. Constipation is a common complaint of people on low-carb diets. Soluble fiber is heart healthy as it helps lower LDL cholesterol, reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. It helps the growth of beneficial microbes in the intestines too.
While allowing butter and cream, Atkins’ shuns the other dairy products that are good sources of milk protein. It also overlooks the nutritional benefits of yogurt, which is an excellent probiotic food. High fat diets that do not include ample amounts of vegetables that provide B-complex vitamins and folic acid increase the amino acid homocysteine. High levels this amino acid is associated with increased heart disease risk.
Lowered insulin sensitivity
In extreme low-carb diets like the Atkins’, very little carbohydrate is consumed in the form of either starch or sugars. This may adversely affect your insulin sensitivity. Normally, when carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and other simple sugars, it triggers the pancreas to produce the hormone insulin. You need to have a minimum amount of carbs in your diet to keep your insulin-producing pancreas cells active. You don’t want them to shut shop as they do in people with Type I diabetes.
Apart from channeling glucose from the blood to be stored as fat, insulin plays a part in the formation of muscles. Amino acids that come from our food are the building blocks of all the proteins that make up the muscle fibers. Insulin promotes the absorption of amino acids into the muscle tissue. Insufficiency of insulin resulting from extreme low carb-diets causes muscle loss. That may be why such diets produce short-term weight loss, but do not have a similar effect in the long-term. Muscles are energy guzzlers, so the more you have them; the better you will be at staying lean.
High-fat diets’ effect on heart health
Atkins’ diet is very low in carbs while being very high in fats, especially saturated fats found in meats. While people enjoyed getting some fatty cuts of meat on their plates after the fat restriction they faced previously, it turns out that saturated fat is not that great for your heart or the arteries. It remains one of the main culprits for raising the low-density lipids that clog the blood vessels.
High-fat diets are also known to increase insulin resistance in the long run. The original Atkins’ diet plan has since been modified to cut down on saturated fat and incorporate more lean cuts. But removing fatty meats in addition to the heavy cut on carbohydrates make this diet highly restrictive and unsustainable.
Lowered thyroid function
Reducing carbohydrate intake is associated with lowered thyroid hormone production, particularly the T3 hormone. This leads to a condition known as euthyroid sick syndrome. Sluggish metabolism is a typical symptom, one that every weight watcher wants to avoid. Low-carb diets also increase the rT3 hormone that acts against the T3 hormone, exacerbating the condition further.
Other hormonal disturbances resulting from decreased carbohydrate content in the diet are rising cortisol levels and falling testosterone levels. Both are undesirable side effects, particularly for people who want to follow a healthy lifestyle with adequate exercise. It should be noted here that Atkins’ originally advocated ‘no exercise’ but have since changed its stand.
Hormonal changes are even more perceptible in women who undertake low-carb diets. They may experience irregular cycles or amenorrhea, mood swings, anxiety and chronic fatigue.
Ideal diet for fine figure and optimum health
Cutting off entire food groups is definitely not the answer. Extreme low-carb diets and extreme low-fat diets are equally bad, giving you only short term results, if any. They are not sustainable in the long-term. On the other hand, a diet that provides a good amount of lean protein and moderate amounts of both wholesome carbohydrates and good dietary fats may help. In fact, almost all the benefits of low-carb diets come from the increased amounts of protein that comes with the meat.
What you need to cut off from your diet are processed foods, including foods that use sugar as an additive. Taking this middle path has been proven to be beneficial for weight loss as well as good health. More importantly, it can be part of a sustainable lifestyle.
Finally, take a look at the Atkins diet website. You can see that the main focus is on pushing highly processed convenience foods such as shakes, bars and chocolate treats. And what do they contain? Artificial sweeteners which are harmful to you; derivatives of glucose such as polydextrose; and a number of other highly processed additives. How can you make a Caramel Chocolate Peanut Nougat Bar without sugar? Caramel is nothing but slightly burnt sugar syrup and nougat is a boiled sugar confectionary. So, if you have to fake both, you would need a whole lot of substitutes that are as bad as the original ingredients, if not more harmful.
How long will it take for us to realize that highly processed fake foods are behind the modern-day diseases, including obesity, cancers, and neurodegenerative disorders?