Low Carb Diets: What Dr. Atkins Got Right

Reader’s Note:

From time to time, we will publish educational articles that have differing points of view from what we promote at Labrada Nutrition. This is not to confuse readers, but rather to arm them with information and educate them on other dietary programs. While it’s easy to get lost in the diet programs that come and go  (Atkins, Keto, Paleo, Zone, South Beach etc.), learning the concepts and reasoning for differing approaches will help you solidify and affirm your personal program according to your specific age, body-type, metabolic status and goals. In our Labrada Coaching and Nutrition Plans, we typically recommend a higher carbohydrate intake than the Atkins program for best results, but also recognize that specific metabolic, longevity, and or health issues may require modification. Enjoy!

Robert Atkins – The cardiologist-turned-diet-guru upset the nutrition and health world in 1972 with his ground-breaking book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. And revolutionary it was, asserting ideas that were seen by some as medical blasphemy.

A decade after the U.S. government had declared a war on dietary fat, Atkins showed how the low-fat strategy wasn’t working, explaining that the focus was on the wrong dietary component. It was not fat that was the culprit – steadily increasing national obesity rates – he said; carbohydrates were the problem.

Before “Keto” There Was Atkins 

What Atkins, who also struggled with weight loss, proclaimed decades ago is similar to the concepts behind the ketogenic diet. In short, he said:

• High carbohydrate intake is what predisposes a person being overweight or obese;
• As long people ingest 20 grams of carbs per day, they do not have to limit fat or protein intake, eating as much as they like;
• Such a low-carb diet would not be detrimental to one’s health;
• Total caloric intake does not need to be counted.

Where Atkins Was Right

While Atkins did not have the research capacity to identify the mechanism by which his observations hold true (he thought it was through the excretion of ketone bodies and the higher caloric cost of converting fat and protein to energy), his assertions have been proven through subsequent research.

• Low-Carb diets (even up to 40 grams of carbs per day) do indeed bring about fat loss;
• Such diets do not appear to have health consequences;
• These diets are effective without the need to count total calories.

Fascinating Study

In a classic study by Bazzano and colleagues at Tulane University, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2014, 148 men and women were divided into either low-carb (<40 gm/day) or low-fat (<30% daily cal) group. After 1 year – a long time for a prospective dietary intervention – the low-carb group had greater decreases in weight and fat mass, and greater increases in lean tissue than the low-fat group.

But here is the really fascinating thing. This was an “ad libitum study,” meaning that as long as the subject adhered to their group’s guidelines they could eat as much as they wanted. That is, as long as the low-carb group did not eat more than 40 grams of carbs (160 calories from carbs), they could eat as much chicken and ribs as they wanted. And as long as the low-fat group ate less than 30% of their diet as fat, they could eat as much pasta and bread as they wanted.

So, they ate to their heart’s desire; no one was sacrificing or starving. And yet, the low-carb group lost more fat than the low-fat group. That is, when low-carb dieters can eat as much as they want, they end up eating less than subjects on other diet plans. Why?

How Low-Carb Works

Although Atkins did not have available the research we now have, he was right that low-carb diets work to lose body fat. The research now shows that the mechanism for this success is through the hunger feedback loop.

McLernon and colleagues showed that low-carb dieters experienced significantly fewer negative mood and hunger symptoms than low-fat dieters. And Ortinau and colleagues found that high protein foods improved appetite control, satiety, and reduced subsequent food intake in healthy women relative to high-fat snacks.

The bottom line? Protein and fat make you feel full for longer periods of time, and therefore you eat less.

What Can You Do?

As the research continues to mount, we are seeing that there is no magic number of grams of carbs per day (i.e., 20 versus 40, etc.) that yields results. Instead of there being a threshold for success, there is more of a sliding scale. So, you don’t have to radically change your diet all at one time. You can start slowly. Here’s how to do that:

1. Slowly begin to substitute protein foods for carbs. Typically, there is some fat in protein foods. If you’d like to add fat, look for healthy oils like olive oil. Try carb substitutes if you haven’t already. There is an entire industry of vegetable-based foods that can substitute for carbs. Examples:

• Cauliflower for pizza bread and rice;
• Almond flour for pancakes and breads;
• Lentils as pasta.

2. Start taking a good look at the carbs you’re eating. Become more familiar with how many grams you take in. Your cup of rice? That’s 45 grams of carbs right there. Maybe you can cut that rice in half and grab another piece of grilled chicken or fish.

3. Gauge your energy levels. Many people actually begin to feel more energy as their body becomes more efficient at using fat for fuel.

4. As you experience success, continue to substitute protein and fat for carbs. Everyone is a bit different, so you decide the level of carbs where you can balance energy, fat loss, and overall satisfaction.

Yes, Atkins was right – at least in part. Depending on your training, longevity, and metabolic status you may be able to implement these concepts and gauge your progress. This could be the strategy that works for you!

About the Author: Bob LeFavi

Bob LeFavi, PhD, is a professor of sports medicine and Dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. He has been department head of health sciences and sports medicine at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA. Bob won the bantamweight class at the IFBB NorthAmerican Bodybuilding Championship and was runner-up at both the USA and National Championships. He also competed in the CrossFit Games as a Master’s athlete and has written over 750 articles in the popular press on training, diet, and fitness.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.