Time for a low-carb, fad diet smackdown! In this corner, we have the defending champion, buster of cards, lover of meat, the defining diet of the 20th century: The Atkins diet!
And in the other corner, we have a newcomer to all those celebrity nutrition blogs, the carb-cutting diet of carb-cutting diets: Keto!
Let’s get ready to rumble!
(And by “rumble”, we’re mostly referring to the sound your stomach will make when it’s deprived of pizza and beer…)
Round one: The theory
Even if you’re new to this fad diet thing, you’ve probably heard of Atkins and keto. And, if nothing else, you probably have a vague idea that both involve cutting out bread, pasta and other carbohydrates.
This is true. Both diets emphasise not only the number of calories you eat but the type of calories. In 1972, physician Robert Atkins published Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution in which he claims that of the three primary macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fat – carbohydrates are the main culprit when it comes to body fat. His diet plan cut out bread, rice, potatoes and other carb-heavy foods in favour of meat, eggs, full-fat dairy, nuts and veggies.
The ketogenic (or “keto”) diet had actually been developed 50 years before Atkins wrote his book but, weirdly enough, it was initially used as a treatment for children with epilepsy. The theory behind the diet is that when the body is deprived of carbohydrates it enters a metabolic state called ketosis, in which the body stops using glucose (from carbohydrates) for energy and instead reaches for fats. Modern epilepsy medication has made its original purpose obsolete, but the ketogenic diet has re-emerged in the 21st century as a weight loss solution.
So yes, both target carbs, but with different goals: Atkins is about reducing carbs, and therefore body fat. Keto is about forcing the body into a completely different metabolic state.
Round two: The foods
Whether shopping for keto or Atkins, you’ll probably put the same items in your cart. These low-carb staples include:
- Meat, especially lean meat like poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Full-cream dairy and cheese
- Above-ground vegetables (no potatoes)
- Citrus and other low-carb fruits
And you will likewise avoid the same sorts of food:
- Bread and pasta
- Cereal grains like oats and rice
- Sweets, soda and anything else with processed sugar
- Potatoes and other tubers
- Carb-heavy fruits like bananas and apples
Round three: The method
Although both diets call for the same foods, how you eat them is very different. The Atkins diet calls for a dramatic drop in carbs to reach a target weight, followed by a gradual loosening of the diet to maintain that weight. It prescribes a complex and meticulous four-phase schedule outlined in detail on the official Atkins website.
Keto is more interested in pushing you out of the carbohydrate nest, so to speak. It demands that you drop almost all carbs cold turkey. To reach and maintain the ketosis state, around 70-75 percent of your calories should come from fats and 20-25 percent from protein, which leaves a measly 5-10 percent from carbohydrates – basically all of which should come from vegetables and whole-fat dairy. (Diet Doctor has a 14-day keto meal plan for beginners.)
Unlike Atkins, keto is all or nothing, and it takes serious discipline to pull off. It’s a literal shock to the system, and since breaking the carb fast can take the body out of the ketosis state, there are no cheat days allowed. In the first week or so, many people report physical withdrawal symptoms known as the “keto flu”.
Round four: The research
This is where things get contentious. Adherents of both Atkins and keto swear that the science has been proven, but in reality, the jury is still out on both.
Many studies and personal testimonials suggest that the keto diet does help people lose weight, although the same goes for basically all restrictive diets, and the theory of the ketosis state has yet to be proven. This is perhaps not surprising as following the ketogenic diet for weight loss is such a new phenomenon.
Atkins has been around for much longer, and studies also show that it helps people lose weight. But again, there is little evidence that shows whether it’s the carb-cutting philosophy of Atkins that helps people shed pounds or simply that the diet causes people to eat fewer calories in general.
For both, nutritionists have raised concerns about the effects of all that fat on the heart and liver. A meta-analysis published in the journal Nutrients claims that extreme low-carb diets, including Atkins and keto, “are not totally safe and can be associated with some adverse events. Notably, in rodents, development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and insulin resistance have been described.”
And the winner is…
That is for you to decide. The important thing is to do plenty of research before starting a diet, pay attention to your own body and, most importantly of all… stick with it! The truth is that basically all mainstream restrictive diets have the same results, according to actual research. The key is to commit to healthy eating and (as long as you aren’t harming yourself) stick to your chosen dietary champion no matter what. Your body will, eventually, thank you.