The Atkins Diet Program and the Gluten-Free Diet

Can you follow Atkins if you're also gluten-free?

Atkins diet books
© Jane M. Anderson

You absolutely can follow the Atkins low-carb diet if you're also following the gluten-free diet. In fact, the Atkins diet—which cuts carbohydrates from grains to zero in the diet's initial weeks and then gradually ramps them back up—shares the title (along with the South Beach Diet) as one of the most gluten-free-diet-friendly weight loss programs around.

In fact, some people actually discover their sensitivity to gluten grains (wheat, barley and rye) when they start Atkins. When this happens, people typically feel great for the first few weeks (the time when the diet contains no grain products), but then start to feel terrible when they reintroduce low-carb-friendly products that happen to contain gluten.

However, if you're following the Atkins diet and you also need to stick with the gluten-free diet, you need to be aware that not all foods listed on the Atkins diet are gluten-free. You'll most likely be fine in the first two phases of the diet, but start to run into approved foods that contain gluten in the last two phases. You can't just assume that if something is Atkins-approved it's also gluten-free.

So How Does the Atkins Diet Work?

The Atkins diet helps you to lose weight by restricting your carbohydrate intake, forcing you to burn fat for energy rather than sugar. In theory, this also serves to eliminate cravings for certain foods.

Atkins is arranged in four phases. You start by severely limiting your carbohydrate intake, and then slowly add carbs back in until your weight loss stalls or stabilizes. 

The first phase, Induction, is the most restrictive: it limits you to no more than 20 grams of carbs per day (read more about induction here: Atkins Diet, Phase I: Induction). You can eat meat, fish, poultry and eggs, along with some cheeses and vegetables.

Since no grain-based foods are allowed in Phase I, gluten should not be an issue as long as you make sure to stick with gluten-free drinks and gluten-free salad dressing. Induction lasts up to two weeks.

In Atkins Phase 2, you can eat everything you ate in Phase 1, plus you can add berries, cottage cheese (make sure to pick up a gluten-free cottage cheese brand), nuts, seeds and some juices. Again, no grain-based foods are allowed, so assuming none of your condiments contains gluten (double-check here: Gluten-Free Condiments), you should be safely gluten-free in this phase of the diet.

Atkins also advises that people can consume the company's bars and shakes during Phase 2. Many of these are considered gluten-free to less than 20 parts per million.

Atkins Phase 3 and 4: Gluten Can Sneak Back In

Phase 3 of the Atkins diet is mostly gluten-free—the only grains allowed are oats and brown rice. But if you also react to oats, or you're just not careful to choose a safe oatmeal, you could run into trouble on the gluten front (see: Is Oatmeal Gluten-Free? for more details).

In addition, at this point in the diet some people following Atkins start to fudge a little by enjoying a grain-based treat, or just get a little careless... and that's when they may discover (through nasty symptoms) that they're sensitive to gluten.

If you already know you can't have gluten, make sure you don't slip up in Atkins Phase 3.

Phase 4, meanwhile, is the diet's maintenance phase—and it allows grain-based food, although the official diet website recommends including only wheat pasta, oatmeal and brown rice. To keep this part of the diet gluten-free, you certainly could skip the wheat pasta and include only oatmeal and brown rice (make sure to choose a safely gluten-free rice).

Also, note that Atkins brand products are not gluten-free. Since many people eat these in Phases 3 and 4, you'll need to steer clear.

A Word from Verywell

Atkins warns against "carb creep," which the program says can result in weight gain once people finish the more active phases of the program.

The same could be said of "gluten creep": the Atkins diet makes it simple to eat gluten-free, but it would be easy to slide back into old dietary habits once you've completed the program, and to allow gluten to sneak back into your diet. If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, that would obviously be a mistake.

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By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.