Atkins vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

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The Atkins diet is familiar to many consumers as a high fat, low-carb lifestyle. Atkins was the first mainstream ketogenic eating plan. The current version of Atkins differs from many popular ketogenic diets in that it allows for a higher net carb intake. For some people, this might make Atkins easier to follow.

However, if you start to follow the Atkins plan, you may have a hard time reaching nutritional guidelines. Most notably, the USDA recommends that adults consume most of their calories from carbohydrate. On Atkins, you'll consume more fat and protein than carbohydrate.

If you are considering the Atkins diet for weight loss, weight maintenance, or improved health, consider how it compares to USDA recommendations and to other similar diets before you make a final decision about which diet is best for you.

USDA/HHS Recommendations

Nutrient Balance

Your nutrient balance while on the Atkins diet will substantially from guidelines provided by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. These government organizations provide recommendations for intake of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein) and other important nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that adults consume about 130 grams of carbohydrates each day.

On the Atkins diet, you consume fewer than 50 grams of carbohydrate per day. On the traditional Atkins diet (Atkins 20) you consume no more than 20 net carbs per day. Although your total carb intake might be higher, it will be nowhere near the guideline set by the health experts at USDA and HHS. On any of the Atkins plans, you can expect to consume five percent to 15 percent of your total calories from carbohydrate.

You can also expect to consume substantially more fat on Atkins.

Depending on the Atkins plan that you choose, you can expect to consume 55 percent to 70 percent of your calories from fat. USDA guidelines recommend that adults consume 20 percent to 35 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.

Protein intake on Atkins falls within the range recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for adults. On Atkins, you can expect to consume 20 percent to 30 percent of your calories from protein. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults consume 10 percent to 35 percent of their calories from protein.

If you follow the Atkins plan, you may not meet your recommended intake of certain other nutrients. For example, the Dietary Guidelines recommended that you consume about 22–33 grams of fiber per day as an adult. Most people reach this goal by consuming whole grains and legumes. You can get fiber from leafy greens and other foods on the Atkins approved foods lists during Phase 1 and Phase 2, but it will be harder to reach the recommended goal.

Lastly, you may lack certain vitamins and minerals on Atkins depending on the foods you choose to consume. For example, adults should consume 75–90 mg of vitamin C per day. For many people, primary sources include fruit and fruit juice. On Atkins, you will have to be careful to consume vegetables such as kale, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli to get enough of the vitamin.

Food Groups

Of the five food groups present in the Dietary Guidelines, Atkins significantly limits two of them. An overall pattern of healthy eating includes fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy and grains as the building blocks for meals and snacks.

On the Atkins plan, your intake of fruit and grains is limited. On Atkins 20, during Phase 1 you won't consume any fruit or grains. Gradually, however, you will learn to consume limited amounts of these foods, but still not at the intake levels recommended.

For example, you should consume about two cups of fruit per day according to the Dietary Guidelines. Eating that much fruit, however, will probably put you over your net carb limit for the day on Atkins 20.

Grain intake is also substantially limited on Atkins. According to the Dietary Guidelines, you should consume about six ounces of grains each day. Six ounces of oats, for example, provides about 21 grams of carbohydrate and three grams of fiber for a total of 18 net carbs—close to the daily limit on Atkins 20.

Lastly, dairy may be limited as well on Atkins. Although some types of dairy are allowed, others need to be limited because of the carbohydrate they provide. And while the Dietary Guidelines recommends consuming lower fat dairy, Atkins recommends higher fat dairy.

Variety

Because certain food groups are limited on Atkins and because the recommended macronutrient favors substantial fat intake, your diet is less likely to include as much variety as what is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines.

It is important to note, however, that many (some would say most) Americans do not adhere to Dietary Guidelines recommendations. In fact, many health experts note that few Americans consume a varied or healthful diet.

According to the CDC, only one in 10 Americans eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day. So, even though the Atkins diet provides less variety than recommended by the USDA and HHS, it may provide more variety than the diet you currently consume.

Calories

The Atkins diet does not require you to count calories. However, according to Atkins sources, a minimum of 1500 to 1800 calories is recommended for women and 1800 to 2000 for men. Adjustments can be made in 100-calorie increments for those who are very physically active.

On Atkins food lists, portion size recommendations are provided that will help you stay within those calorie targets. Without monitoring your caloric intake, however, you won't know if you are reaching or exceeding your goal.

If you are unsure of the number of calories you need each day to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, you can use a calorie calculator to estimate your number.

Similar Diets

The Atkins diet is a ketogenic diet, but it varies slightly from many of the traditional ketogenic diets that you might see on websites or in books. If you are considering Atkins, it might be helpful for you to evaluate the similarities and differences to decide which is best for you.

Atkins is also often compared to other low-carb diets such as the South Beach Diet or the Kimkins diet and diets that limit processed grains, such as the paleo diet.

Ketogenic Diet

General Nutrition: On a traditional ketogenic diet, you can expect to consume less than five percent of your total calories from carbohydrate. On the Atkins plan, your carb intake is still low but it is higher than on a traditional keto eating plan.

On Atkins 20 you start by consuming five percent to 10 percent of your total calories from carbohydrate. On Atkins 40, you begin by consuming 10 percent to 15 percent of your total calories from carbs.

Depending on the variation of the keto diet you choose, you will consume most of your calories from fat (75 percent to 90 percent), and the remaining calories come from protein (5 percent to 20 percent).On a traditional ketogenic diet, like on Atkins, you may find it hard to reach the recommended daily intake of certain nutrients such as fiber, and other vitamins and minerals that you would get from consuming fruits and vegetables which are limited on the plan.

Cost/Accessibility: A traditional ketogenic diet is not a commercial diet so there is no subscription fee or required foods to purchase. However, many of the keto diets recommend eating foods that are more expensive such as avocado or MCT oil.
If you are considering going on a ketogenic eating plan, using Atkins may be a smart way to proceed simply because the website and the books provide a wealth of easy-to-follow and free information that can make shopping and cooking easier.

Weight Loss: While some studies have shown significant weight loss on a ketogenic diet, other studies have found that this eating style is no better than low-fat or other low-carb diets for long-term weight loss results. In addition, no calorie targets are provided on a keto diet. Therefore, it is possible to consume more calories on this eating plan and gain weight as a result.

Sustainability: The ketogenic diet is often criticized as being hard to maintain for the long-term. Because the eating program is substantially different from a typical American diet, some consumers have a hard time maintaining the program when eating out or socializing.

Some may find Atkins easier to follow and easier to maintain because the carb intake is higher and because so much easy-to-follow information is provided.

Paleo Diet

General Nutrition: On a paleo diet, you'll consume foods similar to those consumed by our prehistoric ancestors. Since grains were not available to these pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors, you won't consume any traditional carbohydrate foods, like bread, pasta, or cereal grains.

On a paleo diet, just like on Atkins, your carb intake will be very low. However, on the paleo eating plan, no specific macronutrient targets are identified. On both diets, you eat meat (preferably grass-fed), seafood, vegetables, eggs, nuts/seeds, healthy oils, and some fruit.

While the program sounds similar to Atkins, the plans differ in that the more recent versions of the Atkins plan provide serving sizes and suggested intake amounts. For example, they suggest that you keep meat and seafood portions to 4–6 ounces. On the paleo diet, there are generally no recommended portion sizes.

Also, on the paleo diet, you don't consume any processed foods (such as microwavable foods or packaged smoothies). Customers who choose one of the Atkins delivered meal plans will consume many of their meals in this form.

Cost/Accessibility: The paleo diet is not a commercial diet and there is no subscription or meal plan to purchase. However, many complain that the paleo diet is expensive because of the types of foods that are recommended (such as grass-fed meats and fresh produce). Additionally, on a paleo diet, you won't consume any convenience foods.

On Atkins, you have the option of consuming more expensive foods like grass-fed meat, but it is not required. Additionally consuming convenience foods such as bars, shakes and packaged meals is acceptable, making the plan easier to stick to for some.

There are books devoted to paleo eating and paleo recipes but there is no single authority that provides specific food lists or other tips. Atkins, however, provides these resources for free.

Weight Loss: A study published in 2017 suggested that the paleo eating style to be helpful for weight loss, but results have been inconsistent. In fact, the study found that paleo eating can produce weight loss but simply because you are likely to decrease your calorie intake when you adhere to the eating plan.

Atkins has been studied extensively and there are quite a few studies that demonstrate that you are likely to lose weight on the plan, according to a review article written in 2017. However, according to another study published in 2017, researchers often conclude that almost any weight loss plan is likely to work as long as you can stick to it for a long enough period of time.

Sustainability: Both the paleo diet and the Atkins diet have been criticized as being difficult to maintain. Cutting carbs is substantially difficult because most Americans are used to eating foods that are starchy and sugary. The more sustainable diet for you may depend on your access to fresh meat, seafood, and produce and your willingness to prepare these paleo-friendly foods on a regular basis. For people who don't have the time or the budget, Atkins may be more sustainable.

South Beach Diet

Like the Atkins diet, the South Beach Diet was developed by a physician (Dr. Arthur Agatston) who was trying to help his patients lose weight. It also has stages during which you stick to different calorie or macronutrient guidelines.

General Nutrition: On South Beach, phase one allows you to consume about 1,000 calories per day. Of that, about 25 percent to 35 percent of your calories will come from carbohydrate—more than is allowed on Atkins. Fat intake begins at 30 percent to 40 of total calories (lower than Atkins) and then increases to 40 percent to 45 percent of total calories.

Atkins advises eating a variety of fats, including saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fat. South Beach advises minimizing saturated fat, such as not eating butter or the dark meat of poultry.

On the South Beach diet, you'll be able to consume a wider variety of foods and may be able to meet the recommended Dietary Guidelines more closely. However, the South Beach diet also provides a higher fat recommendation than is suggested.

Cost/Accessibility: Atkins and South Beach are similar in that they provide a range of resources for the people who choose to follow their eating plans. There are many South Beach diet books available that outline both the eating plan and exercise recommendations. The website also details much of the information.

If you choose to purchase a meal plan, both brands provide a range of options based on your preferences. You can expect to pay around $100 per week or $10 to $15 per day for food and snacks on each of the plans.

Weight Loss: The South Beach diet has not been studied as extensively as Atkins for weight loss. However, one 2014 review of studies evaluating South Beach found no difference in weight loss versus usual care. That same report which also evaluated Atkins, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets achieved modest weight loss, but many subjects regained the weight, leading study authors to conclude that "despite millions of dollars spent in the weight loss industry, available data are conflicting and insufficient to identify one popular diet as being more beneficial than the others."

Sustainability: Both diets are similar in design and require you to give up many foods that you may be used to eating. The Atkins diet is more structured and requires stricter tracking, while the South Beach diet is more flexible and doesn't require carb counting.

If you are trying to decide between the two eating plans, you may want to examine the acceptable food lists for each to see which program looks more appealing. You are less likely to stick to a diet that does not include the foods you enjoy.

A Word From Verywell

Some people choose to go on Atkins because they are likely to experience weight loss in the early stages of the diet. Successful weight loss during induction is well documented. However, you should consider the stages beyond induction before you adopt the eating plan. You are not likely to see permanent changes unless you stick to the diet and maintain the eating style long-term.

Additionally, talk to your healthcare provider before considering this or any other diet plan. While
Atkins may provide health benefits for some, it may not be the best diet for you if your health history requires that you limit your saturated fat intake.

If you are unsure about which diet to follow, get a referral to see a registered dietitian. An R.D. can not only evaluate your nutritional needs but can also make recommendations and help you develop meal plans to help you reach your goals.

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Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.

  2. Obert J, Pearlman M, Obert L, Chapin S. Popular Weight Loss Strategies: a Review of Four Weight Loss Techniques. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2017;19(12):61. doi:10.1007/s11894-017-0603-8

  3. Atallah R, Filion KB, Wakil SM, et al. Long-term effects of 4 popular diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2014;7(6):815-27. doi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.113.000723