My approach to nutrition

What has worked for me

My approach to nutrition

I was a skinny kid and pretty much what they call a hardgainer.  It took me years to gain strength.   For most of my training years, I took the ‘skinny’ me for granted and focused on building strength and size.  I had a powerful lesson that I would learn:

“What you take for granted, you lose.”

I was beyond strong by any standard for my years, but the lack of focus on nutrition was begging for attention.  Pictures like this one (taken a few years ago) appeared more and more often, and I knew something had to be done.  Things had gotten out of control, with 39% body fat with over 80 pounds to lose to reach, any semblance of normal weight seemed almost out of sight.  I had lost weight before, in years past, mostly as a result of severe caloric deprivation.

But I knew if I was going to lose weight, it had to be a permanent change and not simply a matter of seasonal deprivation.  I set about looking for a program that would meet the following requirements:

  1. Provide high quality sources of protein to maintain and keep improving my strength training.
  2. Offer a starting point that accelerates weight loss, turning the body into a fat-burning machine.
  3. Gradually adjusts as weight loss needs subside.

After much reading, combined with my prior many cycles of attempting to lose weight permanently, I finally committed to the Atkins Nutritional Approach.  The results were astounding: over 80 pounds of weight lost and body fat percentage cut in half – in under six months.  I lost 14 inches off my waist and my prior strength levels had all either been maintained or improved.

Being thrilled with my weight loss, and now having maintained that weight with Atkins for almost 18 months, I wanted to share some of the research that compelled me toward this approach along with my personal experience.

Atkins is Ketogenic

I needed to burn fat, and when your body burns fat for fuel (a process called lipolysis) it produces active agents called ketones  to act as energy in your body.  Anyone looking to burn fat will have ketones in their system.  They are a perfectly natural part of the process of burning fat. When your body is producing ketones for fuel it is said to be in a state of ketosis.  Any process such as diet, fasting, or starvation, that results in fat-burning and ketone production is said to be ketogenic.

Dr. Atkins founded the Atkins diet on volumes of medical research.  His desire was, through diet and exercise produce a state in which the body naturally turns to burning fat. In his words, this can all be summarized:

“The Atkins nutritional approach stimulates the process of lipolysis, a state I hope you are always in: burning your fat for energy. A secondary process of lipolysis is ketosis. Ketosis occurs when you are taking in a low level of carbohydrates from the food you eat, as you will during the Induction phase of Atkins. Lipolysis results in the creation of ketones (that’s ketosis), a perfectly normal and natural function of the body.” Robert C Atkins MD, New Diet Revolution, 3rd Edition (1992)

In today’s world people attempt to make distinctions where they unfortunately do not exist.  Atkins, in their response to certain ‘keto’ diet challengers, suggests that “Atkins is a better ketogenic diet. On Atkins you get more food choices and eat a greater balance of macronutrients.”  Atkins is ketogenic.

Atkins Changes With Your Needs

Carbohydrate restriction is the only mandate in the Atkins Nutritional Approach.  How much?  Well, again, it depends on your needs.  From his earliest work in 1972, Atkins recommended four phases which continue pretty much unaltered almost 50 years later.  They are summarized here.

Phase 1: Induction.  This is when you help your body switch from burning carbs to fat. This process is called ketosis, and you should notice weight loss quickly. You’ll eat protein, fat, and only 20 grams of carbs in veggie form daily.   At this point, your carb sources should consist primarily of low glycemic index vegetables like broccoli, spinach, brussell sprouts, green peppers, onions, asparagus, and nearly all types of lettuce.  Make no mistake, these meals should be filled with delicious meats and vegetables.

It is understood that carb totals should exclude dietary fiber.  One cup of broccoli, as an example, contains 6 grams of carbohydrate but this total includes 2.4 grams of dietary fiber.  Because dietary fiber has no affect on blood glucose levels, it is deducted from the total.  Net carbs for one cup of broccoli would be 6 minus 2.4, or 3.6 grams of carbohydrates.

During this phase your body should be shedding pounds quickly at the start.  If you’re not coming to Atkins with a severe weight loss problem, or you prefer vegan nutrition sources, then you could begin Atkins at Phase 2.

Phase 2: Ongoing Weight Loss.  After water weight and initial weight loss, with regular exercise, your weight loss should stabilize in the 1 to 4 pounds per week range.  In my case, when I am in Phase 1 I plan very specifically on 3 to 4 pounds per week.  If my losses deviate from that much I look at my food and exercise journals to see where changes can be made.  During this time of close weekly monitoring, increases in carbohydrate can also be made to the extent that ongoing weight loss continues.

As time passes you enter Phase 2, with net carbs in the 25 to 50 gram range per day.  Carbohydrates remain in the low glycemic index category, but they get much more exciting.  Foods like strawberries and Greek Yogurt become within range here and you are encouraged to enjoy them while monitoring their affect on your weight loss progress.  Keep in mind that, should carbs in your diet reverse the process of ketosis currently under way, it may take three to four days to see this process boosted back into action.

Phase 3: Pre-Maintenance.  As you reach within 10 pounds of your goal weight, you pass into phase 3, a time dedicated to getting familiar with your bodies ongoing reaction to adding carbs to your daily diet.  In this phase, it is normally expected that carbs should be in the range of 50 to 80 grams per day.  Foods with moderate glycemic index, such as apples, pears, carrots, potatoes, and whole grains, can also be carefully added back into the diet.

In my case phase 3 is the most important phase.  It is during phase 3 that ‘normal life’ should begin to take shape cautiously keeping in mind that errors with too many carbs put an end to ongoing fat burning.  Errors such as this take days to overcome.

Phase 4: Maintenance.  When the target weight has been reached, Atkins recommends a long-term target of carbs in the 80 to 100 gram range as long as it does not affect your weight. During the maintenance phase it is possible to make mistakes, and you will need to adjust for those mistakes accordingly.

Over the recent holiday season, I went a little overboard with the liberty provided in this phase of the diet and gained over 10 pounds.  I returned to phase 1 of the program and in a short time I was back on track for long-term success.  Once you’ve completed a weight loss cycle, you will find it easier to occasionally return to prior phases on an as needed basis.

This post represents a culmination of my personal journey to controlled carb living.  Atkins, as well as other ketongenic diets, may or may not be for every reader.  Atkins may not be suited for you if you are diabetic, pre-diabetic, or have heart, liver, or kidney dysfunction of any kind.  You should have approval of your doctor before pursuing any new dietary program.