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The Atkins diet: What it is

What it is

Steak with Bearnaise sauce, eggs, and bacon; cheddar cheese omelettes -- don't hold the yolks; Blue cheese dressing and silky smooth avocado cream soup made with real cream? These rich foods are allowed as part of the controversial diet described in Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution, a phenomenal best seller, and several follow-up books.

The Atkins diet promises that not only will you lose weight -- and not be hungry -- with a low-carbohydrate diet, but you'll also be on the road to better heart health and memory function, as well as other wellness benefits.

The diet is based on the theory that overweight people eat too many carbohydrates. Our bodies burn both fat and carbohydrates for energy, but carbs are used first. By drastically reducing carbs and eating more protein and fat, our bodies naturally lose weight by burning stored body fat more efficiently.

Although it's undoubtedly the weight-loss claims -- and noted success stories -- that are selling the books, the Center for Complementary Medicine in New York (which Atkins founded) claims that most people follow the Atkins diet for weight maintenance, good health, and disease prevention.

What you can eat

By restricting carbohydrates drastically to a mere fraction of that found in the typical diet, the body goes into a state of “ketosis”, which means it burns its own fat for fuel. A person in ketosis is getting energy from ketones, little carbon fragments that are the fuel created by the breakdown of fat stores. When the body is in ketosis, you tend to feel less hungry, and thus you're likely to eat less than you might otherwise. However, ketosis can also cause a variety of unpleasant effects (such as bad breath and constipation) in a small number of people.

As a result, your body changes from a carbohydrate-burning engine into a fat-burning engine. So instead of relying on the carbohydrate-rich items you might typically consume for energy, and leaving your fat stores just where they were before (the hips, abdomen and  thighs), your fat stores become a primary energy source. The purported result: weight loss.

In slightly more detail, consider what happens when you eat a high-carbohydrate meal. Sugar from the carbohydrate quickly enters the bloodstream. To keep the blood sugar from rising too high, the body secretes insulin. Insulin allows the extra sugar to be stored in the liver and muscle as glycogen, but these stores are rapidly filled to capacity. The insulin then converts any extra sugar to fat - that which we're trying so hard to get rid of.

According to the Atkins theory, if the body keeps on making "too much" insulin -- as it tries to deal with the "excess" sugar -- it may become less responsive to insulin and eventually may develop the metabolic disorder, diabetes. The Atkins theory states that this should properly be called "unstable blood sugar" since the blood sugar level rises and then drops quickly.

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