I’ve never been one to diet, but during the last five years, I’ve steadily gained weight, though I’m eating much less than I ate 20 years ago. My wife has the same problem. We’re both experiencing symptoms that are common when people hit middle-age; sluggish metabolism due to low thyroid function. When your thyroid isn’t functioning properly your metabolism drops, leaving you with less energy and a larger waistline.
Last year I began to reckon with the fact that my metabolism had simply changed, and I couldn’t continue eating the way I always had, unless I wanted to weigh 300 pounds. My wife has tried a lot of different diets over the years, but she’s never found one that allowed her to eat food she likes, feel healthy and stay at the weight she wanted.
During the last year we began cutting out most of the junk food from our diet in an attempt to correct some life-long bad eating habits. We got rid of all the snack chips and crackers in our house and I stopped baking cookies and brownies. (Sorry Gigi.) We gradually transitioned into a habit of eating more vegetables, and avoiding deserts. But we still didn’t see any changes in our level of energy and we weren’t losing weight.
My argument to my wife has been that I can usually fast for several weeks and lose about 2 pounds a day. But I can’t fast indefinitely. Eventually I have to start eating again. And if there isn’t a healthy eating plan in place, the weight goes back on faster than it came off. My wife made me realize that I needed a long-term plan that would help me keep my weight in a reasonable range for the rest of my life.
Among all the diet fads I’ve heard of over the years, the only one that ever made sense to me was the Atkins diet. While every diet plan has a few benefits, most of them have drawbacks that you don’t see until you actually try them. Through stories from friends who have tried one diet after another without success, I’ve just about settled on the fact that people write diet books just to make money from desperate people. In spite of all this, we knew we needed help.
So my wife bought the Atkins Diet book and we began reading it. The more we read, the more the Atkins diet made sense to me. In fact, I would say that the Atkins diet is actually better than doctor Atkins realizes. If he knew the truth about the cause of heart disease, he would realize that his diet is probably the best diet for maintaining cardiac health. But I’ll talk more about that later.
The basic premise behind the Atkins diet is that over the last century, we’ve developed a different way of eating from how we’ve eaten historically. Modern diets are heavily laden with sugars and carbohydrates, which is a recent trend that causes a number of problems, including diabetes and obesity. The goal of the Atkins diet is to reduce the intake of sugar and carbohydrates to a level more in line with how we might have eaten years ago, in the hope of also reducing excess body fat and lowering blood glucose.
The Atkins diet addresses the problem of how the body stores and burns fat, and how excessive carbohydrate intake messes up that process. I’ll explain below how glucose and fat are burned:
The body has the ability to burn several different things as fuel. Its main supply of fuel is glucose, which is a form of sugar. Insulin is also necessary. Insulin is a hormone that must be present in order for glucose to be burned. As long as there are adequate supplies of glucose and insulin available in the bloodstream, the body will burn glucose all day long.
When supplies of blood glucose run low, the body can create more by converting glycogen into glucose. Glycogen is as a form of glucose the body can store up in reserve. As long as there is a supply of glycogen available, the body will convert it to glucose for fuel. This is the body’s most efficient way to operate.
Once the stores of glucose and glycogen are used up, the body will switch to burning fat. This is a less efficient way of producing energy, but the body’s cells can burn fat if they need to. Here’s a little tidbit of information for you: If you believe that your body will burn fat simply by exercising, you are mistaken. The body cannot burn fat until all the stores of glucose and glycogen have been used up first, and for most people it takes days to reach that point. Fat will only be burned after glucose and glycogen have been used up.
The reason why most of us never burn fat is because we’re continually consuming carbohydrates that are converted into glucose and burned by the body. You have to actually stop consuming carbohydrates (usually for several days) before your body will begin to burn fat.
The body uses a different process to burn fat than it does to burn glucose. The first difference is that fat burning does not require insulin. The second difference is that fat burning creates ketones as a waste product. You can test for ketones in the urine, but you can also detect it on the exhaled breath of a person who is burning fat. Ketones have a slightly sweet, fruity odor that’s similar to the smell of nail polish remover. (Ketones and acetone are chemically similar and their odor is similar.)
The Atkins diet severely restricts carbohydrate consumption, forcing the body to exhaust glucose and glycogen reserves and begin burning fat. This usually happens within the first few days. I know this was true for my wife, because when she started the Atkins diet, after only two days her breath had the distinct odor of ketones on it; evidence that her body had switched over to burning fat, instead of glucose.
The eating strategy for the Atkins diet is different from most diets. There really isn’t a restriction on calories. You can eat until you feel full. The restriction is on carbohydrates. During the first few weeks, carbohydrate intake is kept as low as possible to get the body switched over to burning fat. After the first few weeks, carbohydrates can slowly be added back in, but the idea is to break the addiction most of us have to things like bread and pasta and prevent the carbohydrate addiction from returning.
Some of the foods you can eat are beef, fish, pork, poultry, eggs, milk, butter, sour cream, cheese, salads (with low-carb dressing) and some of the green vegetables, onions and peppers. (My wife loves salads and she found a good bleu cheese dressing with almost no carbs in it.) The diet is similar to what people probably would have eaten 100 years ago. It’s heavy on fats and proteins and low on carbs. Most fruits are restricted (at first) due to their high sugar content. Pasta and breads are also off limits, because they’re high in carbohydrates. Atkins recommends checking the label on any food you plan to eat. Look for information on how many grams of carbohydrate it contains. Total carbohydrate consumption should be kept below 20 grams per day.
The reason why I think the Atkins diet could work for me as a long-term solution is because the foods that are allowed are foods I would normally eat anyway. It doesn’t require me to try new foods I’m not accustomed to (green smoothies anyone?) I’m a carnivore at heart and I love a good steak on the grill, a pan fried pork chop or a nice burger. Bacon and sausage are fine, too. Throw in some cooked asparagus, or snap peas or peppers and I’m happy. Sure, I’ll miss the bread and pasta, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, if it will help me live to be a healthy old man. My wife is gluten intolerant anyways and she shouldn’t be eating bread or wheat pasta.
One last thing:
Recent findings have pretty clearly demonstrated that heart disease is not caused by high cholesterol, as we’ve been told for the last 40 years. The plaque formations found in diseased arteries are not caused by high cholesterol. They are also not the primary cause of heart disease. The primary cause of heart disease is inflammation of the coronary arteries. Plaque deposits are created by the body in an attempt to heal the inflamed blood vessels. Heart disease is actually an inflammatory process of the blood vessels. Incidentally, your entire nervous system is made up of cholesterol and doctors are now wondering if diseases like Alzheimer’s might be caused by excessively low cholesterol levels. (For more information on the real cause of heart disease, go here.)
The best strategy for reducing heart disease is not lowering your cholesterol, but lowering the inflammation in your body.
How do you reduce inflammation?
Many experts now believe that one of the leading causes of chronic inflammation is persistently high blood glucose levels; a problem that can be virtually eliminated by following the Atkins diet. If these facts are correct, you can kill two birds with one dietary stone.
Our hope is that by following the Atkins diet, we can lose the excess weight we’ve been carrying around, reduce chronic inflammation and lower our risk of suffering heart attack and stroke.
For me, it’s the only option that makes sense.
Note: If you’re a diabetic or you’ve been diagnosed with insulin resistance, the Atkins diet may be a good choice for you because it addresses these problems by reducing blood glucose. Check with your doctor before starting any diet plan. More information can be found in the book Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution