Atkins Diet: why the original version worked so much better

Fun facts:  back in the early 70s, people ate less overall.  Giving them a diet rich in fats and low in carbs would make them eat more at the beginning, in an attempt to satisfy the carb craving, and then eat less, due to unexciting meal routines and rich food.  That helped.  Requiring that people drop the starches and booze and candy cut out LOTS of unnecessary calories also helped — as did requiring them to drink eight large glasses of water per day.  This was the days before hydration, folks, and the occasional slurp from a drinking fountain was IT for most workers and students.   That sort of thing.

Atkins sort of went haywire in the 90s  when people were not just having a bacon and egg breakfast and skipping toast; they were eating LOTS of bacon and a three-egg omelet, then noshing on beef jerky until lunch.  Lunch was not a piece of chicken and a side of spinach; it was a rotisserie chicken and skip the greens.  Dinner?  Steak drenched in butter, with pork rinds and diet soda all night.  Even the metabolic advantage of a low-carb diet can be wrecked by calories.  It’s hard, but we did it.  Low-carb doesn’t require a significant calorie deficit to work, but there is no way you can choke down 4,000 calories per day and expect to lose weight.  It’s not magic, it’s science.

Look too at the excess junk food (beef jerky, charcuterie, pork rinds) popular with modern Atkins followers.  Back in the day, snacking between meals was less common (still feeling the effects of the authoritarian 50s — not a bad thing in eating) and certainly was not the meals-between-meals we eat now and call it “snacking.”  Moreover, people had not yet started freaking out about cholesterol, for better or worse, and there were nowhere near as many highly processed sugar-based dietetic foods, nor as many should-be-low-carb-but-aren’t foods.

Beef jerky?  Cured with sugar and a ton of salt.  Rotisserie chicken?  The seasoning rub has substantial sugar hiding underneath the salt.  Same with barbecue, jerk flavoring, Cajun blackening, and all Asian foods.  In a balanced diet, this would be no big deal, but on a low-carb diet, it’s a killer.  If you are carb-sensitive, your body will focus on that fractional sugar, and your low-carb weight loss will stall.  A large diet soda, an ounce of cheese, soy sauce, a half-cup of mayo for your tuna, the green pepper holding your chicken salad, the onion on your burger, even caffeine can throw you off.   Not everyone is that sensitive, but even small amounts make a difference for some.

And even for those who are not sensitive, a large quantity of those things will kill you.  Even guzzling tea all day can break the carb allowance.

After the 90s, Atkins Inc. started pushing lifestyle food products, like low-carb “power bars” and recipes to make cream pies with chickpea flour instead of wheat crusts and sucralose instead of sugar.  Why bother, people?  Consuming empty calories is as much a killer.  Better to have a tiny slice of the real thing than half a pie of some overprocessed concoction of chemicals and off-flavored substitutions.  (Anyone whose parents foisted carob on them instead of chocolate knows what I mean. )  In addition, the modern attempt to seem healthy by adding a bunch of vegetables only increased the carb load and decreased the fat.  Doesn’t sound too bad, but again: it throws off the process for many.

Another modern killer was the cholesterol issue.  I’m lucky in my ancestry:  my close nordic and middle eastern roots combined to allow me egregious intake of hard animal fat, and my cholesterol is so good my doctor checked it twice in disbelief.  If you have cholesterol problems, pick a different diet.  Avoid starches, sure, but if you low-fat it as well, it’s just called being sensible.  High fat intake is crucial to this diet, and it is not for everyone.

And remember:  this is a temporary plan, not a way of life.  Weight loss diets cause weight loss; way-of-life diets keep you just as you are.  If you’re perfect, a weight loss diet is not for you.  If you have a bad relationship with food, see a shrink before you diet or your bad pattern will repeat itself.  If you can’t wait for the diet to be over so you can gorge on chips again, it’s not the right time for you to be on ANY diet.  But if you are basically not normally fat, but went through a period of stress / depression / bad habits / hyperfocus on school or work or some other project, chances are you got sloppy.  This will get you unsloppy and back to your old self, wearing your skinny jeans and following your historically skinny habits.  If you are extremely overweight, drastic measures to lose weight are perfectly appropriate.

Even more drastic change can be accomplished by zero-carb, high-fat, low-calorie dieting.  Don’t try this for more than two or three days in a row.  It’s particularly useful if you plateau easily.  One day per week, eat no more than 800 – 1000 calories, and they must be >90% fat.  Brie cheese works, or take a tablespoon of olive oil every couple of hours, just as if it were medicine.  You will lose weight and climb out of the plateau.  It’s like hitting a reset button for low-carb weight loss.

Obviously there is a need for a multivitamin, at the very least, and way more than eight glasses of water.  An oversimplified but still useful analogy would be the distillation of alcohol.  Fermenting sugars, with the aid of anaerobic yeast activity, create complex molecules with the byproducts of carbon dioxide and ethanol — exactly the same process, incidentally, as rising bread dough (with the unconcentrated/undistilled ethanol evaporating during bread during the baking process.)  Removing sugars from your diet and adding a lot of water allow a sort of reverse distillation process, in which your body burns fat instead of carbs, and this burning is possible by adding a lot of water.  Water helps burn fat the way oxygen helps burn wood.  The more you drink, the more you burn.  Just keep an eye on those electrolytes!

If all of this seems unbelievable, consider the Inuit, who have historically eaten only meat, fish, and fat, and the story of Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an anthropologist who lived among them for an extended period with no ill effects.  (Like them, he ate raw liver, which provides Vitamin C.)  Consider the Lancet study, which followed three groups:  one group ate 90% protein, one ate 90% fat, and one 90% carbs.  The Fat group lost a substantial amount of weight, the Meat group lost some weight, and the Carb group gained weight.  A study at the Naval Hospital in Oakland put people on 1000 calories per day, with no more than 10% carbohydrates; over a ten-day period, they lost more body fat than the group who fasted completely.  There’s more.  A lot more.

But let’s review the bidding:  back in the 50s, Grandma had the generic low-carb diet which worked quite well.  In the 70s, Mom had the original Atkins Diet.  They both followed the same basic meal plan:

Bacon and egg breakfast with coffee.  Chicken cutlet, tuna salad, or bare hamburger for lunch.  Steak, chop, meatloaf, or similar for dinner.  Lots of water.  A pickle if something crunchy was needed.

In the 90s and oughts, we had:

Huge cheese omelets for breakfast, with bacon / salami / pepperoni slices to nosh until lunch.  Breve lattes from Starbucks.  Toppings scraped off pizza, or cold cuts rolled with cheese for the midday meal.  Fake power bar for snack.  Huge steak, barbecued chicken, hot links, or similar for dinner.  Pork rinds or beef jerky in front of the boob tube.  Diet soda and/or coffee or tea all day, with a bottle of water or two.

Calorie bomb.  Crypto-carb sabotage.  Mission result:  fail.

Mum and Grandma knew best.

And my dear sister, who dislikes meat and hates fat, lamented that Atkins didn’t work for her:  boiled egg for breakfast, tuna with lemon and cracked black pepper for lunch, naked chicken breast for dinner.  But the little darling is already skinny; I’m not sure what she expected.

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