My old nemesis, the Atkins Diet, is getting a lot of publicity these days with its low-carbohydrate, high protein diet plan that promises weight loss of about a pound a day. I can't believe that this ineffective and dangerous diet from yesteryear has resurrected as the "latest" diet craze. I call it the "been there, done that, doesn't work" diet. You see, I am a battle-scarred veteran of the Atkins Diet. I know from long time personal experience that this diet does not work and is not good for you. I am worried that many people will be tempted to follow this diet and ruin their health. Therefore, although I am a private person, I want to share with you my personal story.
My mother "introduced" me to the Atkins Diet through the 1972 book "Dr. Atkin's Diet Revolution: The High Calorie Way to Stay Thin Forever". She was trying to shake off the weight gained from having five kids in the space of nine years, while I wanted to get rid of bulges in my hips and thighs (I was thin as a child but gained weight as I entered adolescence).
I would lose about seven to ten pounds in the first ten days, but the weight loss would always plateau after that. By that time, I would be dizzy, irritable, weak, nauseated, constipated, sick of meat, and looking at "pan de sal" like it was dessert. Looking back now, I realize I always followed the same pattern after the initial ten days of no carbohydrates at all. I would stick to my "magic" number of 22 grams of carbohydrates a day for about a week (but still no more weight loss). Then, because of feeling deprived and frustrated, I would start bingeing on food that was "forbidden" - bread, rice, pastries, etc. The weight would quickly come back on and oftentimes with an extra pound or two. This would make me very depressed. I would binge some more and try to get rid of the calories by exercising excessively. After a few weeks, I'd go on the zero carbohydrate plan again, and the whole cycle would repeat itself. As you can see, the Atkins Diet and I became very familiar with each other. I could recite all the carbohydrate gram contents of food by memory. Somewhere along the way, someone taught me to throw up after bingeing. I became a bulimic (bulimia is an eating disorder that involves cycles of bingeing and vomiting). All in all, I was stuck in "bulimia and Atkins hell" for about three years. By the time I graduated from high school, I was twenty pounds overweight. You would think that I would have been smart enough to say "This stupid diet doesn't work" but I never blamed the diet. I blamed myself. I thought I didn't have enough "willpower" to stick to it religiously and make it work.
Immediately after high school, I lived with my paternal grandmother for a while. She was a woman who believed in healthy eating and regular exercise and had a great figure (even in her seventies) to show for it. One day as we were eating lunch together (hers was vegetables, rice, grilled chicken, and a mango; mine was a hamburger patty with no bread and loaded with mayonnaise), she mentioned that I would never lose weight eating that way. I told her that mine was a scientific diet and proceeded to explain about proteins and carbohydrates. She listened patiently, then said, "Cristina, you might have the scientific words, but I have common sense and my common sense tells me that eating all that fat will make you fat. Eat everything but just eat moderately." She was so right. However, being a stubborn teenager, I didn't listen to her.
It wasn't until a few months later when I was in boarding school with a slim vegetarian roommate (she ate bread, rice, pasta, vegetables, fruits - everything that was a no-no for me!) that it began to dawn on me that maybe the Atkins Diet was not the way to go. Not only that, my roommate (Cindy, wherever you are, God bless you!) would talk more about the health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle than about the weight I would lose. I started to think that if being "pleasingly plump" was my destiny, then the least I could do was to be healthy.
However, old habits are hard to break and the bulimia and the Atkins Diet had me solidly in their grip. It wasn't until after my roommate and I parted ways and I transferred to another school that I finally said, "Enough is enough!" because I was breaking down physically, mentally, and emotionally. I bought books on nutrition, took up yoga, got psychological counseling, walked daily to school and, most of all, took my mind of losing weight and concentrated on living a healthy lifestyle. I became a lacto-ovo vegetarian meaning I drank milk and ate eggs aside from fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts. I ate natural fiber rich foods and stayed away from highly processed food. I began to enjoy exercise and not do it as a punishment for eating the "wrong" foods. Without knowing it, I was eating a high carbohydrate, low fat, moderate protein diet -- the exact diet that the Food Pyramid represents. I lost all twenty pounds within a year. The weight loss was slow and since I wasn't paying attention, I didn't even notice until my school uniform started to almost fall off me. I had abundant energy, I was mentally alert, I was fit, and with the help of the psychological counseling, I was beating the bulimia.
It's been twenty-plus years since then and I have never regained the twenty pounds that was my obsession in high school even after going through two pregnancies where I put on 37 and 50 pounds respectively (eating too much healthy food because I was "eating for two"!). I continue to eat a fiber-rich predominantly plant-based diet with small portions of lean meats like chicken and fish. And, of course, I exercise regularly.
I know now that crash diets like the Atkins Diet can actually affect your mental and emotional state as well as your physical health. According to nutritionist Elizabeth Somer (Shape Magazine, November 1996), new research indicates that fad dieting (such as eating fewer than 1,500 calories and 30 grams of fat per day, a high fat-high protein-low carbohydrate diet or focusing on one food at the exclusion of others, i.e. cabbage soup or bananas) can decrease your attention span, dull your memory, and lower your I.Q. She says it rarely results in permanent weight loss and actually may trigger compulsive eating and bingeing. She says that starving the brain of its main fuel supply (carbohydrates) may cause thinking and emotions to be blunted.
It is for these reasons that I give the Atkins Diet a big thumbs down! Next week, I'll share with you why many scientists and nutritionists feel the same way.
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