Why Atkins Works, Even Though It Shouldn’t

I think a lot about diet and its connection to weight gain.

It’s a major issue for society, when one third of Americans are obese, two thirds overweight.  It’s a problem not only for those afflicted, but for a society that has to pay for burgeoning healthcare costs.  And it’s a shadow lurking over many of our heads: many of use are not yet overweight but fear a future in which we are.

Atkins Diet

It really seems to work. But we shouldn’t need it.

But there’s mass confusion about what actually makes us gain weight, why it’s so hard to lose once we’ve gained it, and what we should do about it.  And though I’ve read and bought into many theories of weight gain, I’ve never been sure that any one explained everything completely.

But there’s mass confusion about what actually makes us gain weight, why it’s so hard to lose once we’ve gained it, and what we should do about it.  And though I’ve read and bought into many theories of weight gain, I’ve never been sure that any one explained everything completely.One of the biggest mysteries has been the Atkins diet.  Largely because it’s very hard to dispute that it works.  Cut carbohydrates completely from your system, and even the most obese tend to lose weight significantly.  I lost weight this way nearly a decade ago.

But the theory behind the Atkins diet just doesn’t sound right: carbohydrates, even those found naturally in apples, blueberries and potatoes, cause an insulin spike in our bodies, Atkins insists, and that insulin spike, when it occurs over and over again, tends to make us gain weight and be predisposed to diabetes.

All seemingly true as far as it goes, particularly in his most obese patients.  But something doesn’t sound right about apples, blueberries and potatoes causing mass weight gain and diabetes, two problems that hardly existed just 100 years ago, when people were certainly eating all of those foods.  So why should we have to cut them out now?

And I think the best, and most haunting, answer comes from Gary Taubes.  His book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, details his in-depth review of weight gain research over the past couple centuries.  He suggests that long-term weight gain indeed involves insulin, and that cutting carbs can indeed help you to cut weight.  All in accordance with Atkins.  But he provides a backstory that Atkins never provided.

Certain foods, particularly refined carbohydrates (white flour, white rice, white pasta and sugar), all of which are consumed in far greater quantities in today’s western diets than ever in human history, produce marked spikes in insulin levels unequalled by any whole foods found in nature.  Over time, these repeated, dramatic insulin spikes cause our muscle cells to become resistant to insulin.  So it takes more and more insulin to cause our muscle cells to take up the sugar that’s in our blood and convert it to energy.  So our body starts producing more and more insulin in response to any blood sugar spike, in order to get our muscle cells to take in the same amount of sugar.

But insulin also signals the uptake of sugar into fat cells.  And unlike muscle cells, fat cells do not become more insulin resistant over time.  This means that, when muscle cells become more insulin resistant and the pancreas produces more insulin in order to make up for that, this larger dose of insulin tells our fat cells to start really putting away the calories.  So our fat cells take in and store more and more energy, while our muscle cells take in the same amount.  Hence we get fatter and fatter.

And apparently, this insulin resistance becomes severe enough in many people that even an apple, blueberry or potato, any of which would cause little trouble in a normal, healthy body, causes a great enough insulin spike that it tells your fat cells to store more energy.  So, once you’ve become severely insulin-resistant, the only way to avoid gaining, or maintaining that excess fat, is to avoid foods that cause any sort of insulin spike–which means avoiding any meaningful amount of carbohydrate.

So, whereas a normal, whole food diet should be adequate for a normal, healthy person to keep weight off, it won’t necessarily work for someone who’s already hit a certain degree of insulin resistance.  These people need to cut carbs entirely if they wish to lose weight.  In other words, they need Atkins’s nearly-all-animal-products diet.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then Atkins may well have been doing the right thing for his already-obese patients.

But what Atkins didn’t do is tell people correctly how to avoid ever becoming overweight or obese to begin with.  And I don’t think the all-animal-products diet is necessary for that.  I think a plain old whole-foods diet that can include any complex carbohydrates and any unprocessed animal products would be perfectly healthy.  But unfortunately, obese people may be well past the point where that diet will work for them.  They need something more extreme, if they’re going to sustainably lose the weight.

This would also explain why losing weight, once it’s been gained, is so darned hard, and why so few (if any) do it successfully over the long run.  You can starve yourself for a few days, weeks, months, but you’re not going to starve yourself for years.  And starving yourself simply isn’t healthy.  Your body will tell you, more and more powerfully, to eat and stop the starvation.  And so you start eating again, and if that food includes any carbohydrates, energy will get tucked back away into your fat cells.

And that’s why Taubes’s theory can be so haunting.  He doesn’t seem every to say so, but it may be impossible to reverse insulin resistance, and therefore impossible to reverse weight gain, without a severe diet like Atkins’.  The key may be simply to avoid gaining weight in the first place, which would mean avoiding refined carbohydrates wherever possible.

Unfortunately, that would be too late for many of us.  I plan to read Taubes’s second book, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, to see what he suggests.  From what I’ve heard, he more or less recommends an Atkins diet.  I’ll post an update as soon as I’ve read the book.

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15 Responses to Why Atkins Works, Even Though It Shouldn’t

  1. claireausten says:

    Both of my parents lost a tremendous amount of weight on the Atkins diet and they swear by it. Actually, nearly 10 years later, my dad still eats an Atkins-like diet. I’ve tried the diet myself and found that not only did I feel absolutely horrible, I gained weight. I just didn’t understand! I’ve thought a lot about it – and I believe that everyone’s body is different. I’m not sure how or why, but something is very different. Why would I gain weight on the same diet my parents lost weight on?

    There is just so much more research to be done in the area of nutrition and digestion. I think they’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg.

    • Doug says:

      Claire, You make some very valid points. There are actually diets out there (for instance, the blood type diet) based on your idea that different foods are good for different people, and they may well be right. I find it curious, for instance, that there are people who swear by Atkins, which allows almost exclusively meat in its early phases, and Dean Ornish’s diet, which allows no meat or other animal products. Who’s right? The only common thread I see between the two is the avoidance of refined carbohydrates. So curious to know the truth behind all this stuff. Doug

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  14. Chris says:

    Haunting indeed…although I don’t believe Taubes thinks insulin resistance is for life (according to some youtube videos I’ve seen him talking in): it could very well be similar to smoker’s lungs: you get benefits right away from “cessation of carbs” and then, if you keep those limits up, it’s quite possible your body’s insulin resistance will repair itself over time…it could be years though. Certainly longer than most people stay on a “diet”, even one as appetizing and satiating as Atkins (it could be quite hard, in some social environments, to always say no to all sorts of amazing starchy, sugary, or, the worst in my view, the starchy/sugary dishes!!).

    Atkins or low-carb eating, in general, isn’t as restrictive as many like to think: fruit are perfectly fine as you reach your goal weight, particularly berries and “vegetable-like” fruits like tomatoes. But you do have to take it slow…once you know your body is not genetically programmed to handle carbs well, that’s a fact that will certainly “haunt” you for life, insulin-resistant or not.

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