The history of Atkins

The daddy of low-carb diets, Robert Atkins may not have been the first to harness the appeal of carb-free, but he was certainly the first to bring the concept to the mainstream dieting public.

In 1963, American physician and cardiologist Robert Atkins came across a study published by Dr Alfred W. Pennington. His research explored the theory that cutting starch and sugar from the diet could lead to significant weight loss. Putting the pound-shedding theory to the test, Atkins shrunk his own bulk and adapted the findings into the diet and formidable brand we know today.

Since his first book, ‘Dr Atkins diet revolution’, was published in 1972 the waist-reducing formulae has been nipped and tucked into an increasingly modern form. To date, Atkins diet books have sold in the region of 15 million copies – making it the bestselling weight loss book in history.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and read more about popular diets such as the Dukan diet and 5:2 diet. Also check out some of our delicious low-carb dinners, low-carb breakfasts, low-carb snacks and top 10 low-carb lunch ideas. If you are considering cutting back on carbs, then find out more in our spotlight on low-carbohydrate diets guide.

A selection of low carb foods

The diet

The Atkins diet is similar to a ketogenic diet as both emphasise the consumption of fat and protein but severely restrict carbohydrates. The body will turn to glycogen stores (carbohydrates) for energy first if supplies are plentiful. Ketogenic diets essentially force the body to switch from burning carbohydrates for energy to burning fat. This often has the desirable effect of weight loss, though high levels of ketones in the body can be problematic and may lead to a state known as ketoacidosis.

The four phases of Atkins summarised from

1) The induction phase of the programme starts by cutting carbs almost completely from your daily diet. In fact, you are encouraged to only eat 20g of net carbs a day – compared to the government guidelines (Reference Intake) of 260g.

The aim here is to get your body to rely primarily on fats for energy. Followers will lose the majority of weight in this phase and eat this way for at least two weeks.

2) The second stage focuses on continued weight loss and you are now allowed between 25 and 45 grams of net carbs a day. The idea is to slowly re-introduce carbohydrates back into your diet to avoid weight gain.

3) The pre-maintenance stage continues to re-introduce carbs back into the diet, with five main objectives for dieters including losing the last '10 pounds' slowly, testing your tolerance for previously forbidden foods and maintaining previous weight loss. Once you’ve maintained your goal weight for a month you’re ready to move onto stage four…

4) This final, lifelong phase is billed simply as maintenance. Atkins suggests that by now you should have discovered how many carbohydrates you can include in your diet without regaining weight.


Nutritionist Kerry Torrens says:

The Atkins diet was based on Atkins’ belief that it’s the carbs in our diets which are responsible for our weight gain and that by eating more protein we can switch on the “satiated” trigger, which helps us control our appetite. For this reason strict limits are put on carbs especially during the initial weight loss stage, but unlike most other diets there are no restrictions on the amount of fat you can eat. Unsurprisingly, it’s during this initial phase that most weight loss is achieved, although much of this is thought to be because of the loss of glycogen stores combined with water, and this is easily re-gained once carbs are re-introduced.

The plan encourages dieters to cut out processed, refined carbs as well as alcohol but allows the inclusion of red meat, butter, cream and cheese. The only fat Atkins suggests you avoid are the man-made trans fats typically found in spreads and processed foods. These trans fats have been linked to clogged arteries and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Enjoying some fat in a healthy, balanced diet is important because not only does it help promote our absorption of fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, E and K but certain fats are essential to health. These essential omega fats are needed in the diet for the manufacture of hormones and for a healthy nervous system. More recent evidence is also suggesting that the saturated fat in dairy foods may be less harmful than we once thought. However, although Atkins places no limit on saturates, public health advice remains that we should limit our consumption to 20g of saturates daily. Choosing lower fat animal products like poultry, fish and lean cuts of pork would help towards this. In order to achieve your 5-a-day any follower of the Atkins diet needs to understand which fruit and veg are low carb, so it's important to understand what is a starchy veg (those restricted by the diet) and those which are non-starchy (those which can be included). Good choices of non-starchy veg would be courgette, cucumber and leafy greens like spinach. Low carb fruits would include avocado and olives. Eating a wide range of fruit and veg not only allows us to get plenty of vitamins and fibre but also means we benefit from protective plant compounds like flavonoids and carotenoids which help fight heart disease, certain cancers and may help delay the signs of aging. Most health professionals believe that cutting out major food groups may be detrimental to long term health and in particular a high protein diet, like Atkins, if followed consistently over a long term may have an adverse effect on areas such as bone health, as well as renal function for those with an existing kidney condition.

As a result of following a low-carb diet people sometimes report the following:

  • Lack of energy, fatigue and dizziness because of the low levels of carbs
  • Bad breath and a dry mouth
  • Constipation and potential bowel problems because of the low levels of fibre
  • Nutrient deficiencies because of the lack of food choice

Please note, if you are considering attempting any form of diet please consult your GP first to ensure you can do so without risk to health.

More information...

If you want to read more about net carbs and the Atkins diet in more detail you can do so at

Weight loss and good health can be achieved by following a healthy, balanced diet. Our nutritionist approved plan helps you find your perfect portion size, guideline daily amounts and nutritionally balanced breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks:
A balanced diet for women
A balanced diet for men

Want facts and information on other diets? Read more from our health editor and nutritionist on other popular weight loss plans:
The Dukan diet
The Paleo diet
The 5:2 diet

This article was last reviewed on 6th June 2018 by nutritionist Kerry Torrens.

A nutritionist (MBANT) Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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