You've probably heard plenty about the Atkins Diet over the years. You know, that incredibly popular and controversial diet that involves cutting right down on your carbohydrate intake. You may have also heard of "ketogenic diets" - it's a more scientific term so you may not recognise it.
Did you realise that the Atkins Diet is a type of ketogenic diet? In this article we'll have a brief look at what the term means and my experience of this type of diet.
The Atkins Diet
The original Atkins Diet book, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, was released in 1972. Dr Robert Atkins was interested, among other things, in getting his own weight under control. Primarily using self-experimentation techniques he found that eating a diet very low in carbohydrates tended to make him lose weight quickly. His experimentation was based upon other research papers and, as a result of his own studies, he became confident that the science behind the diet was sound. The resulting book was a resounding success and, over the next 30 years up to his death in 2003, Robert Atkins continued to produce popular diet books based upon the low-carbohydrate principle.
Some would argue that only the first "phase" of the Atkins Diet is "ketogenic" but it's very clear that this element is central to the whole diet. There are many other diets of this type with different names and claims but, if they talk about severely restricting the intake of carbohydrates, then they're probably forms of ketogenic diet. The process of "ketosis" is quite complicated and would take some time to describe but, in essence, it works because cutting down on carbs restricts the amount of blood glucose available to trigger the "insulin response". Without a triggering of the glucose-insulin response some hormonal changes take place which cause the body to start burning its stores of fat as energy. This also has the interesting effect of causing your brain to be fuelled by what are known as "ketone bodies" (hence "ketogenic") rather than the usual glucose. The whole process is really quite fascinating and I recommend that you read up on it.
All forms of ketogenic diet are controversial. Most of the debate surrounds the issue of cholesterol and whether ketogenic diets increase or decrease the levels HDL "good" cholesterol and/or increase or decrease LDL "bad" cholesterol. The number of scientific studies is increasing year on year and it is certainly possible to point to strong cases on both sides of the argument. My conclusion (and this is only my opinion) is that one could equally make the case that a carbohydrate-laden diet has negative effects on cholesterol and I think that, on balance, a ketogenic-type diet is more healthy than a carbohydrate-heavy one. Interestingly, there isn't so much controversy about whether ketogenic diets work or not (it's widely accepted that they do); it's mostly about how they work and whether that is good/bad/indifferent from a health perspective.
I too am a bit of a self-experimenter. I know this approach isn't for everyone and it does carry an element of risk. I've experimented with a ketogenic diet for around eight years now. I sometimes lapse, mostly during holidays, but I always return to the diet as part of my day-to-day routine. I find that I can easily lose the several extra pounds that I put on during the holidays within around two weeks of starting up the keto diet again. I suppose it helps that I really enjoy the type of food I get to eat by following this regimen. Many of the foods I like are quite high in protein and fat. I do miss carbohydrate-rich foods such as pizza and pasta but I think that loss is outweighed (sic) by the benefit of being able to each rich food and still keep my weight under control. It goes without saying that I have to avoid sugary foods but I don't have much of a sweet tooth and I can still enjoy things like good dark chocolate, in moderation.
It's difficult, if you are just starting out looking for a diet that works for you, to know where the truth lies in this debate; if the scientists can't sort it out then how are you going to? The plain truth is that you'll need to educate yourself, weigh up the arguments, then follow your own best judgement. My experience has been largely positive but you will, no doubt, have heard of friends having problems on low carbohydrate diets for one reason or another. There is no such thing as a miracle diet and most of them are just variations on a theme but all ketogenic-type diets are based upon a very specific principle and that principle has been demonstrated to induce weight loss in many people. Perhaps you should try to base your opinion on the available evidence and not on anecdotes. It's your body and your health, after all.