5 Fantastic Ways to Use the Atkins Pre-Maintenance Plan Today

Chinese Chicken and Celery Stir-Fry: a Healthy Maintenance Dish
What to do when life's challenges
won't let you eat low carb.

Thinking about Atkins pre-maintenance might seem premature for many low-carb dieters, especially since it is usually saved until you have shrunk down to 5 or 10 pounds from goal.

However, there are times in life when the Atkins Pre-Maintenance Plan can be quite useful, even today.

Taking a moment to understand what the pre-maintenance phase of Atkins is, and isn't, as well as know when Phase 3 can be helpful to keep you on plan, will enable you to face important challenges in your life without setting you back.

Pre-maintenance can empower you to make the best decisions when challenges arise, especially those that get in the way of your eating plan.

You don't want to lose all of the hard work you've accomplished so far.

And that can certainly happen if life interrupts your forward motion before you've gotten anywhere near your goal.

Keto isn't a diet.

This isn't just a mantra. It's a way of handling life's challenges when they won't let you eat low carb. And yes, that does happen. So, if life is crazy right now and circumstances are blocking your way, don't quit.

Here's what to do instead of going face down into the cherry pie.

Pinterest Image: Steak and Potatoes

Keep Your Mind in the Game

You might think that you already know how to do Atkins and that pre-maintenance is simply more of the same -- but at a higher carb level.

On a fundamental level, that's true.

But no matter why you're moving from Phase 2 to Phase 3, keeping on top of your mental attitude is harder than you think.

Pre-maintenance gives you the opportunity to be in charge of what you eat. It allows you to handle life's complications in a responsible way.

For that reason, I've put together this simple pre-maintenance guide to help you mold the Atkins Diet into something you can live with and depend on right now to get you through the mishaps, as well as the rest of your life.

Whether you're:
  1. 10 pounds from goal
  2. In need of a lengthy maintenance break
  3. Dealing with an unexpected emergency
  4. At a point where your body won't give up any more fat stores
  5. Pregnant
the aim you're shooting for won't be weight loss. The aim is to hold onto your losses. Hence, the way you juggle food and food quantity with what's going on in your life will be different.

As you begin the process of creating a maintenance plan, for whatever reason, the focus will be to transform what you're currently doing into an individualized controlled-carb program that will be enjoyable as well as flexible. To do that, however, you have to consciously keep your mind in the game.

1. Reasons Why Pre-Maintenance is a Good Idea

Waiting until you're 10 pounds from goal before you look at the pre-maintenance program is the way that most low carbers go about it. This practice can be dangerous for your health if you're tempted to give up on your low-carb diet before you get that close to goal.

Most low carbers take their high-fat eating style with them when they stop low carbing, and that habit can be a disaster.

A high-carb, high-fat diet will not only mess up your cardiac markers and blood cholesterol levels, but it will also quickly pack on the pounds.

Over the years, there have been several times that I needed to take a lengthy maintenance break. A maintenance break is extremely useful for those following a strict low-calorie, lower-fat, low-carb diet because it:
  • helps to reset your hormone levels
  • revs up your metabolism
  • stops the hunger
Hunger can go through the roof when your calories are low. As a result, I found pre-maintenance to be a useful tool in maintaining my current losses.

Moving to maintenance enabled me to move back into weight-loss mode when I was mentally able to handle another diet round, without gaining back any body fat.

Moving to pre-maintenance can also be valuable when unexpected emergencies arise.

Many stories given by those returning to a low-carb diet after having jumped off the wagon for weeks or months at a time reveal that family emergencies or having to travel for business were often at the heart of their problem.

Unfortunately, almost every single person that leaves and then returns to a ketogenic way of life has regained most, if not all of their weight, and many return weighing more than they did before.

I had this pop up in my own life as well.

It's a long story, but instead of returning to a mindless way of eating due to the trauma we were going through, I handled the stress in my life by:
  • focusing on nutrient-dense produce
  • getting adequate protein
  • returning minimal gluten-free grains and starches
The increase in carbs reduced the vertigo attacks brought on by the stress, so pre-maintenance made it easier for me to handle what was happening in our life without having to sacrifice my progress.

Another good reason to move into pre-maintenance is if you've reached a point where your weight loss has plateaued and you can't cope with eating fewer calories than you're already eating. Moving into a well-thought-out pre-maintenance plan can expand your current food choices while giving your body and mind a break.

Those extra food choices can make the rest of your life more tolerable. Plus, it will give your body time to adjust to your lower weight before you try to force it to give up more body fat.

After awhile, your body might decide it's okay to let a few more of those unwanted pounds go, but even if it doesn't, your time won't be wasted. You will have created an eating plan that enables you to maintain all of the hard work that has brought you to this point.

The alternative is to stop low carbing altogether, go back to your old, mindless style of eating, and re-create the body and lifestyle you had before.

Do you really want to do that?

If that's what you want to do, it's okay. It's a legitimate choice that many people make. Being overweight isn't as unhealthy as the media claims.

But for those who don't want to go back to what was, the pre-maintenance program offers another way to live.

Getting pregnant while on a low-carb diet can be problematic unless you raise your carbs high enough to leave ketosis and focus on healthy food choices. Although, Atkins Nutritionals (ANA) recommends you move to Atkins 40, Dr. Atkins never sanctioned such a drastic choice.

However, pregnancy doesn't mean that you need to eat a standard American diet. Eating 300 to 400 carbs per day isn't necessary for anyone and not realistic for most people unless you're quite athletic or earn a living doing physical labor.

The old Weight Watchers Exchange Program was based on the diabetic exchange program popular for treating Type 2 diabetics back in the 80s. It consisted of 120 to 150 carbs per day, depending on your gender and individual food choices. It was considered safe for most pregnant women.

Maintenance was only slightly higher than the exchange plan as most people chose to add back more carbs to their final diet, rather than fats.

Dr. Atkins always counseled women who got pregnant while eating low carb to move to maintenance. He never told them to quit low carbing all together.

2. The Rules of Pre-Maintenance

Grilled Salmon and Salad with Tomatoes, Red Cabbage, Carrots, Lemon
Rules and tips for the Atkins
Pre-Maintenance Plan (Phase 3)

There are only a few rules for pre-maintenance.

Keep in mind that you want to continue eating an adequate amount of protein. Protein will keep your metabolism revved up, give your body the amino acids it needs to make repairs, and prevent the body from using its muscles for fuel if your carbohydrate tolerance remains low.

While I realize that a lower protein low-carb diet is quite popular today, I've never been a fan of cutting down on protein. 

You'll also want to make sure that you keep your fats in line with know how many carbs you're adding back into your diet.

The more carbs you return to your pre-maintenance meal plan, the less fat you can eat on a daily basis. It is a combination of fats and carbs together that causes weight gain, and not just carbs alone.


Because when carbs and fats are eaten together at the same meal, the insulin required to process the glucose will store all of the fat you're eating.

I forgot all about that point when I gave up on low carb and moved to maintenance a few years ago. I'm sure it played a huge role in what happened to me.

Despite what most low carbers believe, dietary fats are almost always stored in your fat cells for later retrieval. They are not instantly turned into energy, unless your body cells have an immediate need for fats and pull them out of your bloodstream on their way to the liver.

Even if your metabolism is predominantly fat-burning rather than glucose-burning, most of the fat you eat finds it's way to the liver after meals. If your carbs are high, however, the body might not need those fats for energy later on, so they'll stay in your fat cells and begin to accumulate.

Up to 60 carbs per day is thought to be fine, even with a high-fat diet, without harming your arteries, but once you go over 60 carbs, you'll have to start reducing your fat intake to compensate.

This is also necessary to keep your calories in check.

How much reduction is needed will be individual, so experimentation plays a large role in creating the perfect maintenance plan for you.

Continue to count your carbs and be sure to eat 12 to 15 carbohydrates worth of vegetables. Those foundation vegetables are necessary on pre-maintenance and maintenance to get an adequate supply of nutrients and antioxidants. You don't want to chuck all of the good eating habits you've picked up.

Most low-carb vegetables also contain iron, which will be extremely important if you're displacing some of the protein you used to eat with additional carbs.

You'll also want to make sure you continue to drink plenty of water and keep salting your food if your carbohydrate allowance is below 60 grams a day.

The typical pre-maintenance advice is to start by adding 10 grams of carbohydrate per day to your diet. Unless you're very active, that's only going to refill your glycogen stores.

Return carbs back to your diet slowly -- super slowly -- giving your body a few days to adjust.

Adding 5 grams per day, or even less, is wise.

This is even  more important if you've been eating at very low-carb levels for a long time. The body will have adapted to the level of carbs you're eating, so your pre-maintenance level might be lower than you think.

In addition, you won't have the enzymes you need to process the additional carbs for a few days, so don't panic when you gain a couple of pounds.

If your glycogen stores are low, eating more carbs than the body is accustomed to will cause the body to store those carbs in your liver and muscles for future use.

This is perfectly normal.

It's the same glycogen and water weight you lost during Induction. It's not body fat.

The average capacity for glycogen storage is about 300 carbohydrates between your liver and muscles, which weighs about 5 to 8 pounds, or more, depending on how much lean body mass you have.

The body doesn't store glucose as body fat unless your glycogen stores are completely full and it can't stuff any more in there.

One good high-carb meal can fill your glycogen stores, however, so it's a good idea to add foods back one at a time and then watch carefully to see how your body reacts.

Although the Atkins Carbohydrate Ladder is divided into food groups, those groups can cloud the issues during pre-maintenance because food sensitivities don't always run in groups.

For example, oranges or watermelon might spark cravings or push up your blood glucose where cherries or apples might be fine. Different brands of dairy products can also affect you differently, depending on the type of milk used, the processing aids, and whether the manufacturer used additives in the milk.

Many low carbers are also gluten intolerant, and adding back foods haphazardly can cause severe food reactions, such as:
  • bloating
  • inflammation
  • diarrhea
  • weight gain
Gluten is found in many low-carb products, so you want to be very careful.

Keeping a food journal will help with that, as avoiding gluten takes more detective work than simply reading the ingredients on the package. The average low-carb diet is not gluten free, so I'll be talking about gluten and low-carb diets in future posts.

3. Coming Out of the "Low-Carb" Mindset

Woman Holding a Red Apple
Think Real Foods
Not Just Low-Carb Foods
This can be tricky.

Low carbers tend to demonize many healthy foods. Reversing that mindset can be difficult, especially if you have set up personal rules for your self as to what is or is not low carb.

Since the aim of pre-maintenance is to create a dietary regime that's right for you, the only rule regarding food choice is that your daily total fall within your personal carb tolerance. And even then, that can be a bit flexible if your metabolism can handle a more relaxed eating style.

For example, some people have good results with adding a piece of fruit or serving of brown rice back into their diet 2 or 3 times per week, rather than raising their daily carbs by 5 to 10 grams every single day.

You might order a sweet potato when you go out to dinner on the weekend or eat a bowl of oatmeal a couple of times during the week for breakfast and then stick to your best carbohydrate level for weight loss for the rest of your meals.

You might choose to use a staggered approach to keep the body from adapting to a particular carb level.

If your carbohydrate tolerance is low, this trick can be especially helpful in broadening your dietary choices. The way it works is that you bank or save up a few carbs that you can spend on higher carb foods another day.

If your limit is 45-net carbs, for example, you eat 20-net carbs for two days during the week and then splurge on the weekend by having either a 95-net carb meal when you go out to dinner or two 70-net carb days.

This last method takes advantage of the way the body stores glycogen and water.

While you might put on a pound or two, depending on how empty your glycogen stores are, you will use that glycogen back up on the days when you dip below your typical carbohydrate tolerance.

Obviously that won't work for everyone.

If you have blood glucose issues, you'll need a more consistent maintenance plan. Diabetics and pre-diabetics will need a more stable carbohydrate intake across all meals.

These are simply examples of how you can tweak the Atkins Diet to fit your tastes and lifestyle.

Pre-maintenance doesn't mean you have to continue eating the same boring foods you've been eating for Ongoing Weight Loss.

The idea is to find your personal carbohydrate tolerance for maintenance using the exact foods that you want to eat for the rest of your life, rather than following someone else's standards and beliefs regarding what you should eat.

There was a Low-Carb Friends thread a year or two ago where one of the low carbers discovered that corn tortillas didn't slow down her weight loss, provided she kept her daily carb count within her carbohydrate tolerance level for losing.

I have had the same experience. Corn tortillas do not affect my weight at all, provided I don't go over on carbs.

While there are low-carb flour tortillas on the market today, they are made with wheat protein, and the corn tortillas allowed her (and me) to continue abstaining from gluten.

4. Pre-Maintenance is a Trial and Error Process

The whole idea behind pre-maintenance is to figure out what you can and cannot eat.

Some people will be able to add back 10 or 20 carbs into their diet, or even more. Some people might only be able to add back 5. Others might not be able to add back any carbs at all, but they can raise their calories.

You might have reached a strong weight-loss plateau or drifted into a place where your body has decided it's done. It's not giving up any more fat. At least, for the moment.

Whatever your situation, you are not necessarily stuck at lower levels of the Atkins Carbohydrate Ladder.

While you can't push your carbohydrate tolerance beyond what it is, and probably shouldn't go faster than 5-net carbs per day, per week, this phase of the Atkins Diet is a testing phase where you figure out how you personally react to individual foods.

You can still experiment with reintroducing foods that belong to a higher rung of the ladder than you were using for weight loss.

Introduce healthy foods one at a time, in very small portions, so you can pay attention to how each food affects your mood, cravings, and weight.

Eliminate anything that drives you back into unquenchable cravings or causes you to gain weight, no matter what the carb level was.

Pre-maintenance isn't mindless eating. Mindless eating only results in disaster.

If you make a food mistake, swing back into Induction for a few days to nip the cravings or any weight gain in the bud.

But be careful with this.

You only want to go back to 20-net carbs long enough to get your hunger and cravings under control because Dr. Atkins said that if you do this too often, Induction can eventually stop working.

It's normal to feel a bit intimidated by this approach, especially if you came to the Atkins table with bold cravings set off by fruit or higher-than-normal glucose levels. The thing to remember is that there are really no standards for individuals, and the whole idea of normal is a myth.

For example:

My daughter-in-law is a diabetic. During the testing process when my son was checking her blood glucose reactions to various foods, he discovered that brown rice raised her blood glucose much higher than white rice did and that sugar substitutes were as bad as sugar for her.

That doesn't fit the norm, but it's the way her particular metabolic defect works.

Also, keep in mind that maintenance isn't just about the carbs.

There might be some foods you can't eat even though they fit into your daily carb allowance.

Those with continuing blood glucose issues -- and low carb diets don't solve all glucose problems -- you might have to limit which foods you eat as well as how you go about introducing new foods.

5. Proceed With Caution

Teacher, Smiling and Happy
Best Carbohydrate Level
Not Highest Amount

of Carbs You Can Eat
Weight loss and even maintenance isn't the only indicator of what's healthy for you to eat. Your:
  • energy level
  • feelings of well-being
  • mental clarity
  • digestion
  • bloating
  • water retention
are just as important as weight when it comes to determining your best carb level for maintenance.

Food sensitivities can surface as headaches or exhaustion. Neurological problems or cognitive issues are also common when reintroducing foods to the diet. In fact, in general, food sensitivities will manifest in overly-exaggerated reactions, making them easier to spot.

But don't depend on food reactions alone to determine what to keep and what to steer clear of.

Most people with gluten sensitivity do not have digestive issues like I have. They don't have any symptoms at all, which is why so few people know they are gluten intolerant.

The aim of pre-maintenance isn't to find the highest level of carbohydrates you can get away with.

The idea is to find a level that is comfortable, doesn't stimulate cravings, and doesn't tempt you to go back to your old eating habits. Maintenance needs to be sustainable or none of this is worth the effort.