By Dr Adam Simon

The Atkins Diet: Fat loss or Fiction?

Does the Atkins Diet work, or is the science behind cutting carbs faulty? We explore the evidence for and against this popular weight-busting trend.

Let's be honest, most of us could do with losing a bit of weight. But it's hard to find time in a hectic modern lifestyle to break our bad habits and make a sustained effort to get healthier.

Does the Atkins Diet work, or is the science behind cutting carbs faulty? We explore the evidence for and against this popular fat loss trend.

Let's be honest, most of us could do with losing a bit of weight. But it's hard to find time in a hectic modern lifestyle to break our bad habits and make a sustained effort to get healthier.

It's no wonder then that we're so eager to find a shortcut or dieting hack that'll get us to where we want to be quickly and without the fuss of giving up our favourite foods or exercising regularly.

Possibly the most popular craze in this area is the Atkins Diet. A staple of celebrities and probably the longest-running fad diet of modern times, it's been touted as a silver bullet for weight loss.

But does the evidence back up Atkins' extraordinary claims? In this guide, we'll find out.

An Intro to Atkins

The brainchild of Dr Robert Atkins, the Atkins diet first became popular during the 1970s and has seen a few tweaks in the years since it was first released. However, the basic principle has stayed largely unchanged.

In short, Dr Atkins pegged carbohydrates (carbs) as the main culprit behind weight gain, as well as the development of conditions like heart disease. He recommended limiting the consumption of carbs, with a view to forcing the body to burn its stored fat to use as energy.

The diet itself is broken down into phases, which run from kick-starting your weight loss by dramatically cutting the amount of carbs you consume to slowly adding carbs back into your meals until you reach the final ('maintenance') stage.

Atkins can seem very appealing, given that you can still chow down on tasty foods like bacon, beef and dairy products like butter, cheese and cream while continuing to lose weight.

There's been a great deal of research done on both the Atkins diet and low-carb diets in general, however, the findings have been mixed to say the least.

The Good

In the interests of fairness, let's start with the positives. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence on Atkins' success and some celebrities swear by it.

TV chef Nigella Lawson called it the perfect diet for those who love food, while Kim Kardashian expressed her love for it on Twitter claiming it helped her shed weight after childbirth.

While there's a fair amount of research in support of Atkins, very little is definitive. However, some highlights include:

  • 2004 study found decreased cholesterol and improved insulin resistance in participants, although its authors acknowledged there was a lack of evidence around its effectiveness on weight loss, claiming it would be irresponsible to recommend the Atkins diet to obese patients.
  • last year tested a range of popular weight loss programs and found that when compared to a control group who only received counselling, participants on the Atkins diet saw an improvement of weight loss between 0.1 to 2.9 per cent.
  • 24-week study involving 83 obese patients found that both body weight and BMI (body mass index) had been significantly reduced for those on an Atkins-style ketogenic diet with no unpleasant side effects.
  • from 2003 placed 63 individuals on either a low-fat or low-carb diet for 12 months. Initially the low-carb group saw greater weight loss when measured at three and six months. However, by 12 months the difference between the two groups was negligible.

Unfortunately for fans of Atkins, there's a great deal more evidence that falls either into the categories of uncertainty or denying its effectiveness.

wide-ranging review into low-carb diets to date, 19 trials were examined and compared with balanced diets to determine how effective they were. It found that short-term weight loss occurred in both kinds of diet, but little or no difference in weight loss up to two years of follow-up.

A 2003 review of low-carb diets like Atkins by the American College of Nutrition blasted them for relying on poorly controlled, non-peer-reviewed studies, anecdotes and non-science rhetoric.

This was echoed in 2004, when Atkins was condemned as pseudo science by nutritionist Dr Susan Jebb, head of nutrition at the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research Centre.

Fad diets in general prey on the overweight, offering quick fixes and psychological tricks. However, I see no medical benefit at all in them, and in particular from the Atkins diet,she said.

Due to the heavy restrictions on what you can eat while on the Atkins diet, it also suffers from a high dropout rate, which weakens the evidence in its favour and suggests its results, if present at all, may be unsustainable in the long term.

There's also some evidence to suggest Atkins can not only be ineffective in helping people lose weight, but may also pose serious health risks to participants.

These include:

  • Concerns over the amount of saturated fats consumed leading to increased risk of developing heart conditions
  • A high-protein diet speeding up the progression of diabetic kidney disease
  • Gut problems like constipation, stemming from a lack of fibre and carbs
  • A risk of losing muscle instead of fat
  • A lack of essential vitamins and minerals
  • Greater risk of developing kidney stones
  • A higher chance of developing brittle bones due to a lack of calcium or vitamin D
  • The potential to develop complications like dehydration, cardiac arrhythmias, kidney damage, eye damage and even death.

It's worth noting that there's few studies that have methodically examined the long-term effects of Atkins, which make its effectiveness in both weight loss and preventing disease hard to gauge.

The Bottom Line

While there's some evidence low-carb diets like Atkins can help people lose weight in the short-term, many nutritionists think this is due to a range of factors, including:

  • Cutting out an entire food group severely limits what can be eaten
  • Much of the weight lost in the short term can be water and muscle tissue, which can actually prevent dieters from keeping weight off in the long term
  • Protein-rich food sources like meat can be better at making you feel full than carbs.

As we explored in the studies above, the Atkins diet suffers from a high drop-out rate, which is usually attributed to it being so hard to stick to on a day-to-day basis.

The dieting world is also rife with stories about the rebound' weight gain experienced by those who quit a low-carb diet and switch back to regular foods.

While Atkins might be good for a short-term boost in weight loss, the risk of a rebound, combined with the potential for serious complications means you should at least think twice before plunging into it.

Sadly, until a magic fat-burning pill comes along, there's only one guaranteed way to lose and keep off weight in the long term.

It's nothing you haven't heard before eat less, eat better and exercise more. And while it's easier said than done, there's no way to cheat your way round it.

No amount of fad diets or 'life hacks' are a suitable substitute for the meaningful lifestyle changes that you'll need to implement if you're to make any serious and sustainable headway on your weight loss.

And You? 


And if you're looking for expert medical advice on losing weight, or any other aspect of nutrition Push Doctor can help.