What Is the Atkins Diet?

Atkins diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The Atkins diet is a widely recognized low-carb diet plan. The current program allows you to choose from different eating styles based on your weight loss or health goals. Atkins 20 and Atkins 40 are described as keto diets by the company.

According to the company, an average person can expect to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week on the plan. People who are already at a healthy body size might use the Atkins program to maintain their weight. The 2021 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Atkins diet number 33 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.1/5.

What Experts Say

"The Atkins diet is a carbohydrate-limiting weight loss diet. Health professionals agree limiting fiber-rich food groups can lead to constipation and nutrient imbalances. A focus on counting carbohydrates prompts eating by numbers instead of exploring individual likes and needs."
Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

The 7-Day Diet Plan

While there are many different versions of the diet, here is one example:

  • Day 1: 1 small tomato, 4-6 ounces eggs, 0.5 tbsp oil, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces tuna, 2 cups salad greens, 1 tbsp dressing; 2 tbsp peanut butter, 5 stalks celery; 4-6 ounces turkey, 1/2 cup sauteed spinach and mushrooms in olive oil, diet soda.
  • Day 2: 1/2 cup zucchini, 4-6 ounces eggs, 0.5 tbsp oil, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces ham, 1-ounce gouda, 1/2 cup sauerkraut; 30 almonds, 10 cherry tomatoes; 4-6 ounces venison, 1/2 cup sauteed kale and bell pepper in olive oil, almond milk.
  • Day 3: 6 stalks asparagus, 4-6 ounces ham, 0.5 tbsp oil, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces chicken, 2 cups salad greens, 1 tbsp dressing; 1-ounce cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup sliced cucumber; 4-6 ounces beef, 1/2 cup sauteed zucchini and broccolini in olive oil, tea.
  • Day 4: 1/2 cup beet greens, 4-6 ounces eggs, 0.5 tbsp oil, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces salmon, 2 cups salad greens, 1 tbsp dressing; 2 tbsp whipped cream cheese, 1/2 cup sliced cucumber; 4-6 ounces venison, 1/2 cup sauteed green pepper and mushrooms in olive oil, herb tea.
  • Day 5: 1/2 cup sauerkraut, 4-6 ounces ham, 1-ounce walnuts, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces hard-boiled eggs, 2 cups salad greens, 1 tbsp dressing; 1-ounce feta cheese, 3 marinated artichokes; 4-6 ounces venison, 1/2 cup sauteed green pepper and mushrooms in olive oil, herb tea.
  • Day 6: 6 stalks asparagus, 4-6 ounces eggs, 1-ounce parmesan cheese, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces trout, 2 cups spinach, 1 tbsp olive oil; 2 tbsp whipped cream cheese, 10 cherry tomatoes; 4-6 ounces lamb, 2 cups bok choy and mushrooms in olive oil, seltzer.
  • Day 7: 1/2 an avocado, 4 ounces eggs, 2 slices bacon, coffee; Atkins bar; 4-6 ounces halibut, 1/2 cup Brussel sprouts, 1 tbsp oil; 2 tbsp whipped cream cheese, 2 tbsp peanut butter, 5 stalks celery; 4-6 ounces pork, 1/2 cup sauteed kale and bell pepper in olive oil, diet soda.

What You Can Eat

Fruits, Vegetables, and Legumes

Non-starchy vegetables are encouraged on the Atkins eating plan. On the most restrictive phase of Atkins 20 (Phase 1), consumers are advised to consume 12 to 15 grams of net carbs from these vegetables per day. On Atkins 20, you can add fruits and legumes starting with Phase 2. The Atkins 40 and Atkins 100 plans allow fruits and legumes at all times.

  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Celery
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes
  • Artichokes
  • Olives
  • Cucumber

Meat, Fish, and Cheese

Meat is not required on the Atkins plan. If you prefer not to eat meat at all, you can follow the vegetarian program. But if you follow the traditional plan, many types of protein are encouraged. Cheese is also on the acceptable foods list, but Atkins recommends consuming no more than 3 to 4 ounces per day. Processed meats with nitrates are not recommended.

  • Ham
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Venison
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Lobster
  • Veal
  • Turkey

Nuts and Seeds

After two weeks on Atkins 20, people on this plan can begin to add fiber-rich carb sources in five net carb increments.

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Peanut butter
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Flax

Oils

You should consume a few tablespoons per day of added fats like oils in the Atkins Diet.

  • Olive oil
  • Sugar-free mayonnaise
  • Butter
  • Canola
  • Walnut
  • Soybean
  • Grape seed
  • Sesame
  • Sunflower
  • Safflower

What You Cannot Eat

The Atkins Diet eliminates foods that are higher in carbohydrates.

Grains

Atkins is a low-carb diet plan, and so, grains are avoided.

  • Bread
  • Oats
  • Flour
  • Rice
  • Cereal
  • Crackers

Added Sugar

Added sugars are not part of the Atkins Diet. Be sure to check labels for hidden sugars.

  • Soda
  • Candy
  • Desserts with sugar
  • Coffee beverages with sugar
  • Condiments with sugar

How to Prepare the Atkins Diet & Tips

The Atkins diet plan relies on knowing how much carbohydrate is in everything you eat. Specifically, consumers count their net carbs. Net carbs are calculated by checking the total grams of carbohydrates in a portion of food and subtracting the grams of fiber and sugar alcohols or glycerin (if applicable).

There are three Atkins programs based on different levels of net carb intake per day. The company recommends that you check with your healthcare provider for personalized advice before choosing a program to manage a medical condition.

Over the years, Dr. Atkins refined his approach as new research about diet and nutrition became available. The Atkins diet still focuses on limiting carbohydrates but offers different intake levels based on consumers' health goals. People on the Atkins diet are also advised to make nutritious food choices, including healthy fats, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and a wide range of protein sources such as seafood, beef, and poultry.

People think of the Atkins diet as primarily a weight loss diet, but some people also use the eating program to control blood glucose, reduce blood pressure, or gain other health benefits. One of the diet's main goals is to help each find the optimal amount of carbohydrates for each person's body.

On each of the Atkins plans, net carbs are divided between three meals and two snacks per day, so that blood sugar remains stable throughout the day. You don't count calories on these programs, but portion size recommendations are provided. Additionally, certain foods (such as added fats) are limited.

Atkins 20

The Atkins 20 plan is what most would consider the classic Atkins plan. It is designed for those who have over 40 pounds to lose, have a waist size of over 35 (for women) or 40 (for men), have pre-diabetes or diabetes.

People on this program start by consuming just 20 net carbs per day. They eat various approved vegetables, lean meats, cheese, and healthy fats to meet their energy needs. After two weeks on Atkins 20, people on this plan can begin to add fiber-rich carb sources, in 5 net carbs at a time. Gradually, they learn to incorporate more healthy carbohydrate choices to reach and maintain their goal weight.

There are four phases to the Atkins 20 program:

  • Induction Phase: Two weeks or longer, keep net carbs at the lowest level
  • Balancing Phase: Slowly add grams of net carbs to find the best carbohydrate balance
  • Fine-Tuning Phase: At least one month; make small tweaks to reach and maintain goal weight
  • Lifetime Maintenance: Continue to eat a healthy diet with limited carbohydrates to maintain goal weight

Atkins 40

This plan offers a more relaxed program where dieters eat from all food groups from day one. The plan is designed for people who have 40 pounds or less to lose, those who prefer a wider variety of food choices, or for people who are breastfeeding and wish to lose weight.

Atkins 100

This is the most relaxed Atkins eating program, allowing 100 grams of net carbs per day with no other restrictions. It is designed for those who want to maintain their current weight, who prefer the widest variety of food choices, or for people who are breastfeeding and have a goal to maintain weight.

Pros of the Atkins Diet

Since weight loss can improve many health outcomes, the Atkins diet may confer benefits by successfully helping people lose weight. It may also offer other helpful side effects.

  • Provides options: Choosing the less restrictive Atkins plans may offer a less complicated and effective way to lose weight. An April 2020 review of diets for weight loss and blood pressure reduction showed that at 6 months, the Atkins diet produced an average of 12 pounds of weight loss, the highest in the study. However, at 12 months, weight loss diminished in all diets, including Atkins. Researchers concluded that "at 12 months the effects on weight reduction and improvements in cardiovascular risk factors largely disappear."
  • Prepackaged meals available: For many busy people, this work may seem overwhelming. As an alternative, consumers can choose to purchase an Atkins meal plan and get pre-packaged meals, smoothies, and snacks.
  • Increases nutritious food intake: Followers of the Atkins diet are likely to replace those less healthy foods with more nutrient-dense ones, such as those on the Atkins Acceptable Foods lists. That means a likely increase in intake of important micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (protein and fiber).
  • Satiety: Protein and fat are digested slowly and have a high satiety rate. The Atkins diet may keep you more satisfied with your meals than other weight-loss diets, which in turn could lead to better compliance.

Cons of the Atkins Diet

For many people, an Atkins diet is a major departure from their typical eating pattern. That can mean some discomfort, as well as difficulty sticking with the program.

  • Expensive: Even if you don't buy pre-packaged Atkins foods, the diet requires plenty of protein sources and limits cheaper, processed foods. For this reason, it might be more expensive than your usual diet.
  • May be challenging: If you currently consume a standard American diet, adjusting to an Atkins plan may be challenging, especially if you choose to go on the Atkins 20 plan. Additionally, even though you don't have to count calories on the Atkins diet, you need to count carbs, calculate net carbs, and balance carbs between meals and snacks. You'll also need to use food lists to make sure you're consuming compliant foods.
  • Side effects: Typically, people consume most of their calories from carbohydrates. Cutting back on carbs can lead to symptoms including headaches, fatigue, mood swings, and constipation.
  • Short-term weight loss: The fast weight-loss effects you might experience on the Atkins diet could be short-lived. Much of the initial weight loss will likely be due to water loss from limited carbohydrates. Regaining weight can be frustrating and demotivating for many people.

Sample Shopping List

The foods you will need to buy for the Atkins diet depend on which phase or version of your plan. Fruit is introduced in Phase 2 on Atkins 20 and is consumed on Atkins 40 and Atkins 100. Keep in mind that this is not a definitive shopping list and if following the diet, you may find other foods that work best for you.

  • Non-starchy vegetables (spinach, arugula, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower)
  • High fiber fruit (berries, pears, kiwifruit, oranges)
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Poultry
  • Beef
  • Eggs
  • Atkins brand bars, shakes, snacks
  • Cheese
  • Olive oil
  • Butter

Sample Meal Plan

Here are one-day sample meal plans for the Atkins 20, 40, and 100. This is not an all-inclusive meal plan and if following the diet, you may find other meals that work best for you.

Atkins 20

  • Breakfast: 5 ounces ground pork, 1 tablespoon avocado oil, 1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper, 1/4 cup chopped green onion, 1/2 cup shredded monetary jack cheese
  • Snack: Atkins vanilla shake
  • Lunch: Atkins frozen sesame chicken stir-fry
  • Snack: 3/4 cup sliced cucumber, 2 Tbsp. vinaigrette
  • Dinner: 6 ounces haddock fillet, 2 cups steamed broccoli florets, 1 tablespoon butter, 1/2 an avocado, 2 tablespoon vinaigrette

Atkins 40

  • Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with avocado, green onions and grape tomatoes
  • Snack: Atkins Peanut Butter Protein Wafer Crisp Bar, and half a granny smith apple
  • Lunch: 6 ounces cooked chicken breast, 1 ounce swiss cheese 1/2 small tomato, 1 dill pickle, 2 romaine lettuce leaves
  • Snack: Half a granny smith apple, 2 tablespoons almond butter
  • Dinner: Atkins Frozen Mexican-Style Chicken and Vegetables, 2 cups of steamed cauliflower rice, 1 tablespoon butter

Atkins 100

  • Breakfast: Atkins Dark Chocolate Royale Shake blended with 3/4 cup frozen riced cauliflower 1/2 cup raspberries
  • Snack: 1/2 medium sweet potato, baked and sliced 1/4 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon chopped green onions
  • Lunch: A wrap made from 4 ounces poached chicken breast, 2 tablespoon Italian Dressing, 1/2 medium cucumber, 1 whole wheat tortilla, 1/2 cup steamed cubed sweet potato
  • Snack: Atkins Birthday Cake Bar
  • Dinner: Chicken cacciatore served over 2 cups of spaghetti squash.

Is the Atkins Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

While the Atkins diet was a novel approach to weight loss when it was first introduced, there have been quite a few similar diets established in the years since Dr. Atkins' book was first published in 1972.

The Atkins diet's macronutrient balance varies substantially from guidelines provided by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that an adult who consumes a 2,000 calorie per day diet should consume 130 grams of carbohydrates per day.

On the Atkins diet, you consume fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Carb intake varies on the plan you choose, and clients can tailor their carb intake to meet their health goals on the Atkins 100 plan. But you can expect to consume substantially more fat, slightly more protein, and fewer carbs than recommended by the USDA.

Lastly, if you are watching your sodium intake, you may want to be careful about the foods that you choose. Frozen meals (any brand) can be higher in sodium. Read labels carefully to make sure that the meals you choose align with your nutritional and health goals.

Low carb eating has become one of the most common approaches to weight loss, wellness, and weight maintenance. However, the program still differs substantially from USDA recommendations.

A Word From Verywell

While the Atkins diet has gained acceptance from many in the nutrition and health communities, some are still worried that the diet is too restrictive to maintain for the long term. Additionally, high saturated fat intake is still a concern—with some studies indicating no relationship to heart health and others still showing a negative effect.

If you choose to try the Atkins diet, speak with your health care provider and talk about how your carbohydrates and fat intake might change on the plan. Based on your health history and current status, your medical provider can make personalized suggestions about whether the program is likely to be healthy for you and modifications that might make the diet more manageable.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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