Foods for the Induction Phase of the Atkins Diet

Learn what to eat and what not to eat in the first phase of Atkins

Roasted chicken with fresh salad
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The first phase of the Atkins program, known as the induction phase, is designed to jump-start your weight loss and boost your fat burning metabolism. You will cut back your carbohydrates to 20 grams per day and get most of your calories from fat and protein. Learn what food is allowed and what is restricted during this phase.

Induction Phase of the Atkins Diet

Induction is the strictest phase of the Atkins diet. This phase is meant to force the body to convert from using carbohydrates for energy to using fat. There is a list of acceptable foods that shouldn't be deviated from, but portions of most foods are unlimited. This is the phase of the most rapid weight loss. However, that loss won't come easy given the very limited foods available during this phase. Foods allowed include most proteins, vegetables, cheese, and fats and oils. For foods with carbohydrates, you will limit your total intake to 20 grams of net carbs.

Protein Foods

Most non-vegetable and non-dairy protein foods, such as meat, fish, seafood, and eggs, have little or no carbohydrates. You are allowed to eat them freely.

There are just a few restrictions:

  • Bacon, ham, and other cured meats are allowed as long as they are not processed with sugar. Nitrate-free cured meats are also preferred.
  • There are some shellfish to limit, like mussels and oysters, which are a little higher in carbs.
  • Imitation crab or imitation shellfish are prohibited.


The bulk of the carbohydrates in the Atkins diet comes from vegetables. It is important to know the carbohydrate counts of the vegetables you are eating. Twelve to 15 grams per day (not counting fiber) should come from vegetables.

Vegetables that are not allowed in the Atkins induction phase include corn, potatoes, green (English) peas, and other sweet or starchy vegetables.

Dairy and Cheese

Most cheeses have less than a gram of carbohydrate per ounce, but check labels carefully, as some have more.

Follow these guidelines for cheese and dairy products:

  • The Atkins diet allows 3 to 4 ounces of full-fat cheese (including cream cheese) per day during induction.
  • No cottage cheese, farmer's cheese, or other fresh cheeses are allowed.
  • Milk is not allowed in the induction phase.
  • A heavy or light cream is permitted.

Fats and Oils

People starting the Atkins eating plan are cautioned not to attempt to do a low-fat version of the diet. Adequate fat content is vital to the success of the diet. The Atkins plan advises eating a balance of natural fats and eating no trans fats.

Follow these guidelines for fats and oils:

  • Eat plenty of cold-water fish and other foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (If you are pregnant, be aware of FDA guidelines about fish consumption).
  • Olive oil, especially those that are labeled virgin or extra-virgin, should be emphasized in your meal planning.
  • The recommended oils for stir-frying are canola, peanut, and grapeseed oil, especially if "cold-pressed" or "expeller-pressed."
  • Avoid corn, soy, safflower, and sunflower oil except in small amounts, and only if not heated. These have high amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. Cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils are recommended.
  • When choosing mayonnaise, choose regular full-fat mayonnaise, preferably using the guidelines above for types of oils used.
  • The same rules apply to salad dressings. Check the labels as added sugars are forbidden.
  • Butter and other sources of saturated fat, such as coconut oil, are acceptable but should be balanced by other fats.
  • Only use margarine that has no trans fat.


Water is the preferred beverage. The Atkins plan advises you drink eight glasses (8 ounces of water each) per day. If you are hungry and it is not a mealtime, try drinking water first as you might just be thirsty. Soda water or carbonated water with sugar-free flavorings are acceptable.

Follow these beverage guidelines:

  • Do not drink any beverage with sugar in it, including the natural sugar in juice or cider.
  • Herbal teas, decaffeinated coffee, or decaffeinated tea are good choices.
  • Some people can get away with drinking caffeine, but you have to experiment to see if it triggers cravings or slows your weight loss.
  • Diet sodas sweetened with Splenda (sucralose) are acceptable.
  • Clear broths are usually very low in carbs (but, as always, read labels).

Special Foods Allowed

Some foods with small amounts of carbs are acceptable. It is necessary to count the carbs and make sure that total carbs for the day remain under 20 mg. These are allowed:

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of lemon or lime juice (this is the only fruit exception)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of heavy cream or 1 ounce of sour cream
  • 10 to 20 olives
  • Half of a small avocado
  • Controlled-carb convenience foods, such as low carb snack bars

Extra Fiber

The Atkins plan recommends psyllium (the main ingredient in Metamucil and other fiber supplements) and flaxseed meal for more fiber. This will help prevent constipation during this phase.

Sugar Substitutes

The preferred sugar substitute for the Atkins diet is Splenda (sucralose). Small amounts of Sweet'N Low (saccharine) are acceptable. Note that the powdered forms of these sweeteners have added carbs, usually 1 gram per packet. You can also find liquid (no carb) sources of Splenda.

Foods Forbidden in the Atkins Induction Phase

There are several foods that are absolutely forbidden because these foods have hidden sugars and carbohydrates:

  • Grains and anything made with whole grain or flour including bread, cake, crackers, and pastries.
  • Any food that includes added sugars, which are found in most processed food. 
  • Fruits and fruit juices
  • Some dairy products like milk, cottage cheese, or fat-free or low-fat cheeses
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, beets, and corn
  • Legumes such as beans and peas
  • Deli salads, which often have added sugars
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Nuts

What Food Can Be Added After Induction?

In phase two, which is usually begun in the third week, you can move beyond vegetables to other foods, such as nuts, seeds, and berries. These foods can be added:

  • Nuts such as almonds, cashews, and pistachios.
  • Berries, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon
  • Milk, yogurt, and fresh cheeses like cottage cheese and ricotta
  • Seeds such as sunflower seeds
  • Foods listed on the Atkins carbohydrate ladder
  • Naturally low-carb foods such as coconut milk, unsweetened soy or almond milk, shirataki noodles, some soy flours, and other specialty low carb foods
  • Beans
  • Tomato juice

Preparing Your Pantry 

To reduce temptation, you might want to remove foods from your house that aren't allowed on the Atkins plan. If this is the case, then consider restocking your pantry and refrigerator with foods that you can eat on a low carb diet.

Length of Phase One of the Atkins Diet

Induction should last two weeks. Dieters can continue longer if they desire, as long as they tolerate the change well, or if they have a lot of weight to lose.

Goals of Induction

  1. To induce benign dietary ketosis, a state where fat is the primary fuel of the body. In this state fat metabolites called ketones show up in the urine and can be detected with Ketostix. Atkins likes using ketosis as a sign that people are using fat for energy. When people are in a state of ketosis, their appetite tends to diminish. 
  2. To stabilize blood sugar and the symptoms that may come from erratic blood sugar, such as fatigue, mood swings, and “brain fog.” This may reduce food cravings.
  3. Rapid weight loss. People tend to get a boost when they see the numbers on the scale drop rapidly.

The Effects of Dietary Ketosis on the Atkins Diet

When the body is not given carbohydrate to convert into energy for bodily functions, it will use the fat and protein available through the Atkins diet. The switch to a different source of energy will affect your body. People experiencing ketosis due to the Atkins diet or any other low-carb diet may experience mood swings, constipation, bad breath (due to extra ketones expelled from the lungs), headaches, nausea, fatigue, kidney stones, or high levels of calcium excretion. To prevent these and other side effects, drink water frequently, don't skip meals, and stay relatively active.

Alternatives to the Atkins Induction Phase

There are many other low-carb diets that don't cut carbs quite as far as Atkins Induction. They also lead to weight loss and the health benefits low-carb diets can offer. One approach may be to start out following all the rules of induction but be prepared to loosen up if you find that you are on the verge of quitting altogether. Another strategy might be to start at a higher carb level, such as 30 or 40 grams per day.

A Word From Verywell

While many people are successful in using the Atkins diet, it is not for everyone. The induction phase of the Atkins diet is very restrictive in order to produce dietary ketosis. It will require being scrupulous in following the guidelines for what you can and can't eat. If you can't stick with it, remember that there are many diets that can help you lose weight.

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