Why the original low-carb diet is now advocating more carbs

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
January 12, 2015
Corbis Images

All-you-can-eat bacon. Be honest, this is why you first decided to try a low-carb diet. And this is why the Atkins diet has endured for more than 40 years. Dr. Robert Atkins (who passed away in 2003, may his soul rest in peas) has long told us we could eat as much cheese, sausage, and eggs as we wanted and still lose weight-such a liberating idea that one could almost forget that potatoes, bread and pasta are off limits. (Find out what happens when you're Fueled by Fats Alone.)

But it's hard not to think about French bread and Belgian waffles-and even harder to ignore the health benefits of incorporating whole grains into your diet. Feeling deprived of one's favorite carbs, along with lingering concerns over the long-term health effects of ditching an entire macronutrient, is driving people away from the Atkins diet in droves. (Maybe for The Healthy Diet You May Not Have Heard Of?) So Atkins (the company, not the doctor) has quietly decided to change its core program to-happy day!-allow for more carbohydrates.

The new Atkins diet still focuses on protein and fat, but now it recognizes that there is such a thing as too much protein, and adds healthy unprocessed carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, nuts, and legumes to the acceptable list. "It's not only about bacon and sausage," says Colette Heimowitz, the lead nutritionist and "keeper of the diet" at Atkins Nutritionals, in an interview with The Atlantic, adding, "And if people want a slice of toast with their eggs in the morning, they can have it."

We did not see that coming.

Back in the '70s, when Dr. Atkins was first experimenting with low-carb diets, he was working primarily with morbidly obese patients. And for these patients, drastically limiting carbohydrates worked when no other diets did. This led to Atkins' original diet, which allowed for a minuscule 20 grams of carbs (the amount in one medium apple) per day during the introductory phase. New research is finding, however, that not only can most people who aren't morbidly obese handle more than 20 grams of carbs, but they need more than that to feel healthy and happy. In fact, a recent study linked a Low Carb Diet to Shorter Life Expectancy.

While Atkins did get people to embrace eating fat again by showing it doesn't cause heart disease, the diet also spawned a generation of low-carb dieters who overindulged on processed foods like bars, shakes, and the now-iconic bacon and turned up their noses at produce because of the naturally-occurring carbs in fruits and veggies. People were trading important vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants in produce for a hope that thin thighs came in a shake. It didn't work. Studies found that while low-carb dieters often dropped pounds the fastest initially, at the end of a year there was no difference between what they lost and what people on a more well-rounded diet lost.

So now the Atkins diet has been revised. "A young athlete could probably do 100 grams [of carbohydrates]," Heimowitz said, "but we're talking to the masses, the general public-how many carbs can they eat and still maintain the principles of Atkins?" They decided on 40 grams in the introductory phase of the new "Atkins 40" diet. While 40 grams still isn't much (about the amount in two pieces of bread), the diet now allows people to increase their carb intake into the 100s, as long as their weight weight remains stable. (Find out What Happens to Fat When You Lose It?) The new diet emphasizes a moderate approach with plenty of fruits, vegetables and even whole grains.

Now the question is, can we even call it Atkins anymore? Perhaps it's time we agree that moderation and balance are the best, if not the sexiest, ways to lose weight.

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