Correcting Misconceptions About The Atkins Diet by Dana Carpender

Got this inquiry in my email recently:


Hi Dana,

I’m beginning (again) this low carb eating regime and I’m hoping you can answer some questions for me. I tried this successfully when it was Dr. Atkins but we all know that while it is successful, it is impossible because of no veggies and fruit. I’m a veggie fanatic although at 215 lbs. you’d think I was a fast food addict (which I do not eat).

Here are my questions.

    • 1. I adore New York Flatbread. It has 7 grams of carbs per board. Is this not a good choice?
    • 2. How can I compute glycemic load when I see foods such as the flatbread?
    • 3. I also adore no sugar added (whatever that means) Klondike bars which have 22 grams of carbs and sugar. Are these off the plan for dessert?
    • 4. Most of your desserts have artificial sweeteners. These things do not digest well for me. My body hates aspartame and Splenda. What exactly is Sucanat?

Right now I think I’m between eating plans so my weight is not moving. I hate having to give up beans after renewing my relationship with them. It seems no plan has everything except perhaps Weight Watchers which allows bits of everything but I’m looking for a life style change and I believe this best suits me.

Thanking you in advance for your consideration,

Diane Bollinger


Hey, Diane —

I chose this email for the column because it covers such an interesting range of topics. Let me go over them in order:

First of all, the Atkins Diet is far, far from impossible, as thousands, if not millions, of happy long-term Atkins dieters can attest. Your problem apparently is that you haven’t read Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, but rather are sort of making up a version of what you think Atkins is – all meat and eggs – from anecdotal reports and popular press articles. The Atkins Diet does not, does not, DOES NOT ban fruits and vegetables. Am I clear here? Really, it doesn’t. Never did.

It does ban fruit for the first two weeks, during the Induction Phase, when carbs are kept to 20 grams per day or fewer. Even the Induction Phase, however, not only permits vegetables, but prescribes them. Induction dieters are told to eat 2 cups of salad vegetables or very low carb cooked vegetables per day. This includes the vast majority of vegetables – all leafy greens, cauliflower and broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, celery, mushrooms, artichokes, avocados, eggplant, onions – really, it’s far easier to list the vegetables not allowed during Induction than all the ones that are – skip corn, peas, carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and you should be fine.

Since many Americans never look at a vegetable other than the lettuce and tomatoes on their burgers and the fries next to it, this means that a whole lot of people will be eating more veggies than they formerly did, even on this strictest phase of Atkins – which, again, Dr. Atkins only insisted on for the first two weeks.

After those two weeks, daily carb intake on the Atkins Diet is increased by 5 grams per day on a weekly basis – in other words, you eat 25 grams per day for a week, then 30 grams per day for a week, and so on – until you find a level where you are losing steadily but not at break-neck speed, and are still in mild ketosis. You stay at that level – your “OWL” (Ongoing Weight Loss level) till you’ve lost the weight you need to lose, then increase carbs, again, in teeny increments, till you’re neither gaining nor losing, to find your maintenance level. Keep in mind that your maintenance level may change over the years – mine has gone down a bit as I approach menopause, but might increase a bit if, say, I started walking 5 miles per day.

Once the dieter is through the Induction phase, fruit is allowed so long as he or she stays within the daily carb limit. Since fruits vary widely in carb content, you can eat more of some of ’em than others. A cup of halved strawberries has 11 grams of carbohydrate, which will fit into a pretty tight carbohydrate limit, as will, say, half a grapefruit, at 10 grams. A medium banana, on the other hand, has 27 grams of carb, and a medium apple has 25 grams – doesn’t mean you can’t ever have these things, but if you choose them you’re going to have to skip some – possibly all – other carbohydrate-containing foods for that day.

All of this entirely overlooks, by the way, the fact that before his tragic death, Doc Atkins embraced the “net carb count” concept (what I tend to call “usable carbs”) pioneered by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades in their excellent book Protein Power. This is the now-common practice of subtracting fiber grams from total carbohydrate grams, to find the number of grams of carbohydrate you actually digest and absorb. Using this method, that apple only has about 20 grams of net carb, and will fit in a little more often. A cup of raspberries has only 7 grams of carb if you subtract the fiber – that’s a lot of raspberries!

Further, using the subtract-the-fiber principle, you can have nearly FORTY CUPS of shredded romaine, even on Induction, since shredded romaine has 1.55 grams of carb per cup, 1 gram of which is fiber. You could have nearly that much spinach, for that matter. That amounts to pretty nearly unlimited salad greens, even for a veggie fanatic. You have to go a little easier on tomatoes or onions, but I trust the point is made that the Atkins Diet allows for plenty of produce.

Please, folks, take the time to read Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, or, if you prefer, New Atkins For A New You, rather than just assuming you know what the diet entails. It’s a whole lot more livable than many people assume – says the girl who has been eating low carb for 16 happy years now.

On to your questions, Diane:

  1. I have come to distrust wheat in any form. I will not eat it, regardless of the carb count. This is fairly new for me; I did eat a little low carb bread and some low carb tortillas for many years. I have come to consider gluten toxic; see my article about Dr. William Davis’s new book Wheat Belly. However, if you do want to include wheat products in your diet, 7 grams per serving is not a tremendous carb count, though of course you have to “budget” for it in your daily carb allowance. I would caution you to consider this a once-in-a-while treat, rather than a staple item in your diet.
  2. Computing glycemic load is rough, because we don’t have a glycemic index for each individual product, and that’s what you need to calculate glycemic load. The best you can do, very likely, is to look at the most common range of glycemic indices for breads – which runs around 70-75. Multiply that by the grams of carbohydrate in a serving to get an approximate glycemic load. That gives your flatbread a probable GL in the range of 50 (500 if you’re reading Dr. Rob Thompson, who leaves out the decimal point on glycemic indices) – mid-range. Have two pieces, and that doubles, of course.Again, the equation for glycemic load is glycemic index x total grams of carbohydrate. This simple math tells us that there is no way to eat a lot of carbohydrate and still eat a low glycemic load diet. Please keep this in mind.

    (Oh, and if you are reading Dr. Rob? Remember, his diet is simple: No starches, no sugary beverages. Which leaves out the flatbread entirely. Sorry.)

  3. The reason the no-sugar-added Klondike bars, and all other no-sugar-added ice cream products, for that matter, are not labeled “sugar free” is that the milk used to make the ice cream has naturally occurring sugars in it.I have looked at the Klondike Bar website. I’m guessing you like the Krunch bars, since they’re the ones with 22 grams total carb. The site tells us, further, that 4 grams of that carb come from fiber, 7 grams from sugar (again, presumably sugar that occurs naturally in the milk), and 7 grams from sugar alcohols. You may notice that this adds up to only 18 grams of carb, total, leaving us wondering where the other 4 grams come from. I can only guess that they’re in the form of starch, since that’s the one kind of carb that doesn’t get its own listing on nutrition labels.

    So how many of those grams do you need to count? All of the sugar, of course. You also need to count all of the starch, those hidden 4 grams. That gets us up to 8 grams. You don’t need to count the fiber. But what about the sugar alcohols?

    That’s a harder question. Why? Because sugar alcohols are carbs that you digest and absorb only partially – and different sugar alcohols are digested and absorbed at differing rates, and to differing degrees. I generally count half of maltitol, since the best figure I can come up with is that it’s about 50% digested and absorbed. Since that’s the only sugar alcohol I’m seeing here, I’d count half of that 7 gram sugar alcohol figure, or 3.5 grams.

    So where does that leave us? 4 grams of sugar + 4 grams of starch + 3.5 grams maltitol = 11.5 grams of carb you need to worry about. That’s pretty high, if you ask me; I wouldn’t buy them. You might see if your grocery store carries Breyer’s CarbSmart Ice Cream Bars (no, they’re not owned by, CarbSmart licenses their trademark “CarbSmart” for the ice cream products); they have a crunch version too, and it runs somewhat lower in usable carbs – about 6 grams per bar. Even so, I’d still consider these an occasional treat, not something you eat every day.

    And flashing forward to your next question: You know the ice cream bars have artificial sweeteners, right?

  4. Sucanat is to sugar what whole wheat flour is to white flour: It’s the unrefined version. Sucanat, a contraction of the words “Sugar Cane Natural,” is unrefined sugar cane juice that has been dried and ground to a coarse powder. It tastes a lot like brown sugar, but lacks the sticky quality and pack-ability that characterize brown sugar. Sucanat is more nutritious than sugar, but is not any easier on your blood sugar. It will cause a steep blood sugar rise, and trigger an insulin release.

I would recommend instead erythritol, or one of the erythritol blends becoming popular. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol (aka polyol), but it has both the lowest absorption rate and the least gastric effect of any of the sugar alcohols. Truvia is a blend of erythritol and stevia, while Lakanto – which tastes a little brown-sugar-y – is a blend of erythritol and lo han guo, a Chinese herbal sweetener.

Xylitol, another sugar alcohol, is also gaining popularity. It even appears to have some health benefits, particularly where oral health is concerned. I don’t use it because it’s highly toxic to dogs, and my pug, Dexter, is a talented food thief; I couldn’t bear it if he snuck a cookie and died as a result. But if you don’t have dogs, or your dogs are better disciplined than mine, xylitol is another sweetener to consider.

I hope this helps! Thanks for your questions; I know that others will find the answers useful as well.

© 2011 by Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.

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