By Pia K. Hansen
When everyone else is asking for vinaigrette dressing on the side or half a lemon, you can order blue cheese or creamy ranch! You can have Hollandaise, cream cheese and whipped cream - virtually all of your formerly forbidden 'fattening' foods." Moreover, "you're not hungry, weak and miserable eating this way - on the contrary, you'll feel satisfied and full of energy."
Sounds pretty much like a dream diet, doesn't it? And it gets better: according to The Atkins Essentials: A Two-Week Program to Jump-Start Your Low-Carb Lifestyle, the Atkins Nutritional Approach -- no longer simply a diet, just so you know -- will not only decrease your risk of heart disease, it will also prevent and control diabetes, lower your blood pressure and prevent or alleviate other health problems.
And some people do lose a lot of weight when they follow it.
Take Nellie, for instance. At 26 years old, she found herself weighing about 150 pounds -- a bit too much for her own taste.
"Actually, my husband and I both talked about losing some weight and he was the one who suggested Atkins," says Nellie. "He went on the diet too, and I set out for 20-25 pounds and I did reach that. It's a little like the more you lose the more you think 'Hey, that wasn't so hard. I'm thinking I can lose another five pounds.'"
In just the first two weeks, Nellie saw big changes.
"I lost 10 in the first two weeks," she says, "then it plateaued off and then I gradually lost the rest of it within two months."
Was she worried about all the negative press Atkins has been getting lately, such as it may increase the risk of heart disease?
"I wasn't worried at all -- I knew I was eating well," says Nellie. "When not on Atkins, I eat a lot of sweets and I drink a lot of beer, and I couldn't do that on the diet, so those are good changes to my overall eating habits. And I'm finally eating breakfast."
During the induction stage of Atkins, alcohol and caffeine is not allowed.
"That was the hardest thing. I drink coffee every morning. It's not just the caffeine -- it's a ritual -- and I felt completely 'blah,'" she says. "But then I figured out that I could get a decaf with some sugar-free flavor, and then that kind of worked for me."
The fundamental principle behind Atkins can be very simply explained this way: Both carbohydrates and fat provide fuel for the body. Carbohydrates are processed first, and any excess carbohydrates are stored as fat for later use. When a person reduces the intake of carbohydrates, the body converts from processing carbohydrates first, to processing fat instead - this is called ketosis. And that's how Atkins stimulates fat and weight loss.
During 'induction' - the first two weeks of Atkins - carbohydrates in the form of juice and fruit aren't allowed, just like caffeine and alcohol are a strict no-no. The most common sources of carbohydrates such as bread and pasta are sidelined pretty much for the rest of your life.
It's this -- the way Atkins turns the good old food pyramid upside down -- that's leading critics to say that people who follow Atkins are ultimately hurting their health.
Some research studies, including one published by The Heart Institute of Spokane, show that a high-protein diet such as Atkins may cause kidney damage.
The high intake of meat and fat is causing some cardiologists to warn Atkins devotees against a possible increased risk for heart disease.
Considering that Dr. Robert C. Atkins published his Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution back in 1972, the long-term effects (if any) of high-protein, low-carb diets are pretty much still unknown.
It does seem a little odd that the book we checked out offered this advice on how to deal with physicians who may challenge their patients' decision to follow Atkins: "Be proactive. It's up to you as the patient to provide the evidence to overcome any objections your doctor may have." It's then recommended that patients bring in a list "dispelling the myths" conveniently provided by Atkins.
Atkins' books do mention some side effects, one of them directly related to ketosis: bad breath and body odor caused by ketones, which aren't dangerous but are a naturally occurring byproduct of ketosis.
"I noticed the ketones with my husband, and maybe I had some, too -- and he didn't say anything, just to be nice to me," says Nellie. "With me it was leg cramps, and I still notice my legs are kinda crampy."
Was that all?
"No, there was one other weird thing: we did induction for three weeks instead of two, and I felt kinda stupid -- out of it, you know -- in all the time we were doing it," says Nellie.
"Well, things didn't register with me, I wasn't as quick as I usually am. There was this one lady at the store one day who was trying to tell me something, and I just didn't get it," she says.
The feeling changed after a while and Nellie says she feels back to normal now after being on Atkins for about four months.
Atkins recommends that people exercise along with following the diet, to help stimulate weight loss.
"I didn't start an exercise program at the same time as I started Atkins," says Nellie. "I do Pilates once a week - but that didn't start at the same time."
Overall, Nellie found Atkins fairly easy to follow, at least once you get into the mindset.
"In the beginning, when you are trying to find out what's available to eat and where, it was difficult," she says. "We would be running errands and be hungry and wouldn't know where to go eat. Now they have the low-carb wraps - you can put anything in those. Those are awesome."
Another thing Nellie says she's learned from Atkins is looking seriously at what she eats and how much she eats.
"I never thought about portion control before, but now I do," she says. "Adjusting my lifestyle wasn't too hard. It was a little difficult around the office when there was holidays and food all over the place - but soon it makes you feel good to turn down a piece of cake."
Does Nellie see herself staying with Atkins, even 10 years from now?
"I don't eat bread, I don't eat pasta -- and I don't think I ever will again. But I wouldn't say I'm on the Atkins diet now -- I drink coffee, I allow myself a little treat here and there," she says.
Not having kids to cook for and having her husband follow the same menus that she does also makes it easier to stay with Atkins.
"It would be a lot harder if I still had to make mac'n'cheese for the kids," she says.
Nellie has tried some of the special Atkins food and is especially fond of the low-carb candies she says are life-savers.
"I've tried Atkins pasta -- it's OK, but I'd rather give it up totally. I like salad, so I'd rather eat that. I like the soy tortilla chips - they're good," she says.
Today, Atkins is a full-blown diet empire, complete with a Web site (www.atkins.com) a mail-order catalogue, several cookbooks and an official system that allows some restaurants to label their menus as Certified Atkins.
As with any fad, an Atkins cottage industry is booming as well.
"We have 580 low-carb items, everything from bread to pasta and shakes and ice cream and bagels and bake mixes," says Larry Anderson, one of four business partners in the Low-Carb Pantry on North Division.
Anderson is careful to explain that he doesn't offer nutritional education as such.
"We couldn't give diet advice, but we have people affiliated with us who are registered nurses, and we have some support groups affiliated with the store," says Anderson, who's had great success with Atkins as well. "I can tell my personal story, you know, that you can change your lifestyle and not eat as much sugar and carbs as you're used to. The response to our store has been incredible - people like the products, and I haven't had anyone yell at me yet."
The Low-Carb Pantry celebrates its grand opening on Friday, Jan. 30, with special taste-testings from 5-8 pm. The store is located at 9311 N. Division. Call 465-4660.
Publication date: 1/29/04