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“How much riced cauliflower and zucchini noodles could I eat before I pulled my hair out?”
Weight loss is not a new game for me. I’ve lost 30 pounds a couple of times. Then, when I ballooned to sizes that required shopping at a plus-size store, I eventually lost about 100 pounds. And I didn’t use any particular diet to do it.
But then, slowwwwwly, over the past seven years, almost 30 pounds crept back on. Ten or 15? That’s fine. But 30—unacceptable.
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So I decided to try the Atkins diet, despite having previously dismissed it as a fad. For me, vyying for Atkins-diet results was not only about fitting into the jeans that make me feel like a million bucks. It was for my health. The lab results from my most recent physical exam showed that I was pre-diabetic. That was no joke. I needed to do this.
I figured the low-carb Atkins plan would be good for me, given my pre-diabetes and the fact that sugar is my nemesis. We battle daily. (Oh, how I love/hate my sweet, creamy surrender to pistachio gelato… and dark chocolate fudge and pumpkin cheesecake!) And research consistently shows that low-carb approaches are helpful in managing pre-diabetes and diabetes.
My mission was to try the Atkins diet for a minimum of two weeks and analyze its effectiveness. I had already lost 15 pounds in the last month—the first nine pounds melted off after two weeks of the keto diet, a very high-fat, very low-carb diet which puts your body in ketosis so that you burn fat instead of carbs for energy. Atkins is a type of ketogenic diet, but with more food choices and a greater balance of macronutrients. It’s supposed to be a little more moderate, allowing you to eat more carbs while still losing weight.
The Atkins diet happens in phases. During phase one, or the introduction phase, you aim to eat either 20 or 40 grams of daily net carbs (depending on if you want to take a more drastic or moderate approach), with net carbs being total carbs minus all carbs from fiber and sugar alcohols. (For comparison’s sake, current dietary guidelines recommend consuming between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates per day.)
After a minimum of two weeks, once you’re close to your goal weight, you’re supposed to move onto the second phase, adding about 10 net carbs per day, including a bit of fruit and complex carbs, to your plan. Gradually, you add more and more, until you’re in the fourth and final phase, in which you’re expected to have figured out what you can and can’t eat to maintain your current weight. That final phase is basically the lifestyle that you’re expected to maintain for the rest of your life.
Doctors and dietitians don’t agree on the sustainability of this diet. Karen Lesley, R.D., in Fort Myers, Florida, was skeptical when I told her I was trying it. Besides being a dietitian, she’s also a passionate triathlete. “It was a fad diet. Anybody who can eat a pound of bacon on a diet is ridiculous,” Lesley said. “It’s unbalanced.”
Meanwhile, when I told my friend that I was doing this diet, the first thing she said was: “Didn’t that guy die?”
The creator of the Atkins diet, Cornell-educated cardiologist Robert Atkins, M.D., died in 2003, and his cause of death has been quite the controversy. Critics, including many doctors and medical experts, say he was overweight and had heart problems, which might’ve led to his death at 72. His family and company say he died from brain injury complications after falling.
Regardless of the real reason, does a diet’s founder need to be a personal diet success story for the plan to be good? Yes and no. It did make me pause, but then I tried it anyway because I needed to purge sugar and excess carbs from my life for good.
So, I trudged on, telling myself I wouldn’t use the diet as a license to gorge on crazy amounts of fatty meats and cheeses, with few vegetables. The modernized version of Atkins calls for a foundation of vegetables anyway. To get with the program, I looked up recipes, downloaded the Atkins Carb Counter app, and logged my daily food intake.
Two weeks later, here’s what I learned:
I had a hard time staying under 42 grams of net carbs, which was what the Atkins diet recommended for me after their diet quiz analyzed my goals and dietary preferences: I didn’t want to lose more than 15 pounds, and I wanted a flexible diet with more options. I managed to keep under 42 grams five days out of 14. Other days, my range skipped between the fifties to the seventies.
Somehow it was easier to be more extreme, like when I stayed under 28 net carbs a day on the keto diet, because I’m better at all-or-nothing behavior than the path of moderation. It’s not healthy in the long term, but that’s the way my psychology works.
Sugar can be as addictive as cocaine or heroin, battering our dopamine pleasure receptors to the point that we build a tolerance and need more and more to feel the same sugar high, according to the National Institutes of Health. So for me, extreme rules often help. If I were starting from scratch, I’d go for the stricter Atkins plan, the 20-gram one, at least to start. But that’s just me.
Once I started Atkins, I found tons of convenient, packaged foods designed with low-carbers in mind: ParmCrisps, SmartSweets gummy bears, Quest protein bars, Atkins Endulge chocolate-coconut bars, and my beloved Keto Bars, which come in dark chocolate coconut and chocolate peanut butter.
I gave in. I kept going for prepackaged, processed foods when I was super-tired or late at night. And while these items are great when used in a pinch, you shouldn’t eat them almost daily as I ended up doing.
After all, sugar substitutes can hurt healthy weight-loss goals. In July, the Canadian Medical Association Journal released a report analyzing 37 research studies showing sugar substitutes are linked to weight gain, not weight loss or even weight maintenance. It gets worse: People who regularly consume artificial sweeteners are at a higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, the report shows.
While experimenting with Atkins, I had to either trash the standby meals I usually make at home or transform them using substitutes. (Think: veggie noodles instead of spaghetti.)
Breakfast is always the hardest for me, as I adore cold and hot cereals. They’re easy, quick, and delicious. So, I had to plan ahead: I made an egg-chorizo-spinach-ricotta casserole that lasted so many days I had to put squares of it in the freezer. I’d pull one square out, microwave it, top it with cheese or avocado and salt—wham! Done.
But I got tired of that and other popular low-carb tricks. How much riced cauliflower and zucchini noodles could I eat before I pulled my hair out?
So besides using carb-conscious recipe blogs such as Kayln’s Kitchen, I turned to the source: the huge recipe collection on the Atkins website. Tired of eggs, cheese and meat in the morning, I found my new favorite breakfast alternative, the Almond Muffin in a Minute. You make it with almond flour and an egg in a mug in the microwave. Easy peasy. And it totally did the trick. No weird ingredients that you can’t find in a typical supermarket, either.
Truth: This app isn’t user-friendly if you cook real food from scratch. Logging your meals is more of a pain and less precise than it was with the Keto app. True, it’s free, and you have to pay per month with the Keto app, so you get what you pay for.
Packaged ingredients with brand names and major chain restaurants pop up in the search just fine, but not raw ingredients. No sautéed broccoli appeared in my search, but bags of frozen broccoli from Eden Farms plus a dozen other companies showed up. Also, the quantities are limited. It gives you only one measurement type (ounces or grams or cups) and you have to go with that. It’s harder to be accurate.
In short, the options on the app are so limited, it’s like they don’t expect you to actually cook. You can customize, writing in your own ingredients, but then you have to know how many macronutrients—carbs, fat, protein—every single ingredient has. And who has time to look up every ingredient’s stats on their own? An app is supposed to do that for you.
I live with my boyfriend, and we both share a love of cooking and eating well. It’s one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place. But on Atkins, cooking together was hard because there was so much I “couldn’t” eat. He struggled to figure out what to cook because of all my restrictions. I ended up making zucchini noodles for myself when he made whole-wheat pasta. I washed Bibb lettuce leaves while he bought himself a brioche bun for our lamb burgers with whipped feta.
Visiting family or eating at anyone else’s home wasn’t the easiest either. I didn’t want to subject everyone else to the pain-in-your-ass aspects of my diet, but I didn’t want to fall off the wagon either. It took planning, such as carrying nuts and Quest bars with me at all times. I also went to a Trader Joe’s and stocked up on cauliflower rice and shredded cabbage for my weeklong visit back home over the holidays.
Full disclosure: I did enjoy a couple tiny slices of my mom’s pumpkin cheesecake and my sister-in-law’s Key lime pie during my visit. I was trying to do this diet with moderation, so that meant allowing myself a little wiggle room, right? My body didn’t freak out and gain five pounds, but my evening dessert cravings did resurface a bit.
After two weeks, I lost two measly pounds. Two. That’s nothing, especially because I’m tall and can gain or lose two to three pounds per day in water weight alone.
But I was able to fit into my skinny jeans! I haven’t been able to wear them for at least three years. The waist area was now totally comfortable, with space even. Even though drastic weight-loss wasn’t part of my Atkins-diet results, the diet did help me change my body composition, and I was less bloated. I lost inches, instead of weight, which was fine by me.
The real prize? The amazing results from my recent physical exam at the doctor’s office. More than a year after my scary pre-diabetic and iron-deficient lab results and deep into these low-carb diets, my doctor, Fedir Ilnitskyy, M.D., walked into the patient room with a file folder, a smile, and said, “You earned an A this time.”
The numbers don’t lie. My blood sugar levels had plummeted from a dangerously high level to the lower end of the healthy range. My cholesterol remained healthy and was unaffected by all the extra fat I was eating. (Okay, so I did eat a lot of cheese. I love cheese!) That fat could’ve helped my body absorb minerals better, according to my doc.
“This diet doesn’t work for everyone,” he said, “but it seems to work for you.”