“How did you manage to get the Atkins Diet to work so well?”
They knew that I had lost over 100 pounds following a low-carb diet, and they were confused. After having done Atkins by the book, it wasn't delivering on its promises, so they wanted to know the secret of what I had done.
Why did Atkins work for me, and not for them?
Up to that point in my weight-loss journey, I had never been open about what I actually did to lose the weight because it didn't fall in line with the beliefs of the low-carb community. Low-carb advocates and experts are big on theory, especially the Insulin Hypothesis, and I prefer to live my life based on facts and guided by personal experience.
I put together a 9-part series about how to tweak a low-carb diet, which went into some of the things that I did to shed the pounds in 2007, but it wasn't as thorough or highly detailed as it should have been. Nor did that series of posts include what I did to originally lose 40 pounds in 1975. I'm going to correct that with this first post.
Before, I addressed some of the common questions I was receiving, but I was reluctant to travel too far away from the low-carb herd.
Today, I no longer care what the low-carb community thinks. I don't need to fit in. I would rather share exactly what I did, than try to whitewash it in a more pleasing color. The truth about weight maintenance, what it takes to get there and what you have to do to stay there, isn't pretty.
Losing the weight is one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life, but since so many of you are struggling to make a low-carb diet work, I am going to lift up the curtain and show you exactly how I lost over 100 pounds tweaking the Atkins Diet.
First, a Bit of History
I wasn't a fat child.
Although, I carried a few extra pounds, I couldn't really be called overweight. In high school, for example, I weighed 107 on a large 4-foot 11-3/4 inch frame, instead of 98 pounds.
By today's standards, 107 would be considered healthy. Most medical professionals recommend you weigh about 10 pounds more than the old life-insurance tables suggest.
Figuring out ideal weight back then was easy. If you were 5-feet tall, the chart said you should weigh 100 pounds. Men should weigh 110. For every inch above 5-feet, you added 5 pounds. For men, you add 6 or 7, depending on your build.
Unfortunately, when I was around 15 or 16, someone important to me called me fat, so I started playing the weight-loss game.
I had a little babysitting money, so I bought a couple of how-to-diet magazines and learned about calories and balanced food intake, but it was difficult to implement due to how we ate when I was growing up. Mom wasn't a big meat eater. She had digestive issues (probably celiac disease) and mostly served vegetarian-type meals that were high in carbs and sugar.
Since I couldn't follow the meal plans published in the magazines, I picked up a calorie counter and tried restricting calories instead. I experimented with the 1200 calories per day recommended in the magazines, but with mostly high-calorie foods to choose from, it was hard to feel satisfied.
Ordinarily, a low-calorie diet consists of:
- lean proteins
- lots of fruits and vegetables
- a few starchy foods
- and minimal fat
On a typical day, mom served Cornflakes or Cheerios and cinnamon-toast for breakfast. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a day-old Hostess cupcake was lunch. For dinner, we got potatoes or rice with canned vegetables.
Snacks were more homemade bread or a homemade chocolate chip cookie. Dairy was as rare as fresh produce, so milk was reserved for cereal only, and we only saw cheese if mom's family was coming to visit.
Mom did cook a chuck roast for Sunday dinner, but the roasts were small back then, so we got maybe 2 or 3 ounces of meat at most.
After trying to curtail my calories, I would lose a few pounds, pig out on homemade bread with peanut butter and honey, gain it back, and then start restricting calories again. One time, I tried calling the extra sandwich a snack, but that left me with no calories for dinner, so by morning, I was starving and loaded up on double portions of cold cereal and toast.
At 18, I had an emergency appendectomy.
In those days, you were given glucose feedings during and after surgery, rather than a saline solution, so I came out of the experience a few pounds heavier. I don't remember exactly how much I weighed back then. I just remember wearing a size 12 drill team uniform, modified to fit my height.
That summer, I went to stay with my aunt and uncle in Utah. They sat me down and softly recommended I do a relaxed Weight Watchers diet. My uncle was on Weight Watchers at the time, so they thought it would be a good idea for me to eat in a similar way.
The Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan was a 1500 calorie, well-balanced diet. Carbohydrate content was about 120 to 150 carbs, for women, depending on the type of fruit you ate. But I didn't count exchanges. I simply mimicked what my uncle was eating, minus the white, fluffy bread.
Mostly, my meals consisted of:
- meat, poultry, fish, and eggs
- salads and vegetables
- home-canned fruit
The weight came off easily and without hunger. If I was hungry, I made myself a salad for a snack.
I got down to 125 pounds by the time I went home, which I managed to maintain until I started dating my now-ex. He loved going out to eat every single day, and sometimes, more than once, so it didn't take long before I started packing on the pounds again.
Fast food hadn't moved into the super-sizing marketing trick it is today, but shedding the “you have to eat everything on your plate” mindset that I was raised with wasn't an option. The behavior was automatic. And my ex loved Mexican and Chinese. Restaurant portions have always been larger than what I'd eat at home.
Most of the time, I didn't even realize that I was cleaning my plate to avoid feeling guilty. I just automatically ate everything because I assumed that was what I was supposed to do.
By the time I got married, I weighed 140 pounds.
My First Low-Carb Diet
My first low-carb diet wasn't Atkins.
It was a diet designed by my now-ex's doctor. He didn't call it low carb. He called it a crash diet. It was designed to get the weight off fast.
When my ex and I went into his office for the blood tests we needed for the wedding license, he told me flat out that I was too fat, and I needed to go on this crash diet he had. At the time, he guaranteed that I would lose 5 pounds a week, or more. He promised me I could be back at goal weight within 8 weeks, or even less.
The diet was simple:
- 2 pound carton of cottage cheese
- 1 pound of fresh vegetables, steamed
Looking at the diet today, it's easy to see that it was basically a low-carb diet. Cottage cheese was 8 total carbs a cup (32 carbs) and 1 pound of vegetables measured about 2 cups (10 to 20 carbs), which is why it worked so well.
I lasted exactly one week.
By the end of the week, I was so sick of cottage cheese, I didn't eat it again for several months.
My Atkins Diet Conversion Story
I am a yo-yo dieter with several health challenges, such as:
- bronchial asthma
- multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)
- vestibular dysfunction and vertigo
- idopathic neuropathy
- sensory issues and dysfunctions
- self-diagnosed celiac disease
- Graves' Disease
- pre-diabetes (only happens if glutened or thyroid goes hyper)
My first experience with the Atkins Diet wasn't in 2007, when I started this blog. My first involvement with Dr. Atkins' work goes back to 1975. In 1975, I was:
- 19 years old
- recently married
- 40 pounds overweight
Within only a few short pages, I was hooked on the low-carb theory.
Much of what the doctor talked about fit my never-ending weight-loss profile, and since I was looking for something I could live with long-term, I was ripe for tossing the calories away and grabbing onto this revolutionary process called low carb.
What never dawned on me was that the reason why low-calorie diets left me hungry was not because there was something wrong with restricting calories. It was the design. Since Mom served few protein sources and plenty of starchy foods, instead of produce, the body was starving for nutrition.
In general, low-calorie diets are low in protein and high in bulk to fool the tummy into thinking you've eaten more than you have. But you don't have to construct them that way.
If you give your body solid nutrition by eating adequate protein and nutrient-dense foods, low-calorie diets won't make you hungry. But I didn't learn that lesson until later on, after I went on the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Plan.
I found the Atkins Diet to be the easiest diet I'd ever tried so far. Within 6 weeks, after carefully following the program, level by level, I was sitting at goal weight, thoroughly convinced that low carb was magic.
But I had no idea what to do next.
After Reaching Goal Weight, I Lost My Job
Throughout the diet, I was working for a small company newsletter addressing envelopes to prospective customers. Once I had hit goal, I lost my job.
The owner of the company walked in on me during my lunch break and caught me looking through the Want Ads. I was making something like $1.65 an hour, and hubby felt I should be making more than that.
The owner told me that once you decide to leave a company, your work goes down hill, so I was out. “Today's your last day,” she said. “Don't bother coming back.”
As if that wasn't bad enough, she told me I had been looking terrible lately and needed to get my health checked out. She insisted that I wasn't big-company material, that my work was sub-par, so I was wasting my time looking for a better job.
I should just stay home and get my health and marriage in order before I think about doing something else.
It was the oddest exit interview I've ever had.
Hubby wasn't supportive of low carb, especially after he lost his own job a few days later for not being able to keep his mouth shut. Although, he had insisted that Atkins cost us no more than we were already spending, with no income, and only one of us qualifying for unemployment benefits, there was no money for low-carb groceries.
I didn't think about moving to a calorie-controlled weight management plan. As easy as the pounds came off with the Atkins Diet, I believed that carbohydrate was the bad guy and calories had gotten a bad rap for decades. I also wasn't willing to spend those difficult weeks in a mostly fasted state.
How I Did Atkins 1972 – The Details
|I Often Cooked the Chicken|
Leg Quarters in a Skillet
with Seasoning Salt, Garlic, Pepper
The weight came off quickly and easily, not slowing down even after hitting goal weight. I returned carbs to the diet, as recommended, so by week 6, I was up to about 45 carbs a day. The ketone-testing strips were still turning dark purple. Theoretically, I should have continued to add carbs back, but I didn't do that. Instead, I stayed at Level 6.
If you're wondering what I ate to lose weight that quickly, here's how I implemented Atkins 72:
Unlike the later edition of the Atkins Diet, the very first 72 edition was more strict. Dr. Atkins told you exactly what to add back at each level, and when. The 72 version I have today (published by Bantam) doesn't do that. It's far more lenient, so I'm going to share what the original diet was since that's the one I used to ditch those 40 pounds.
The ketone testing strips never got any lighter for me, so I moved on to each new level at the end of the week. This is exactly what I ate:
Level 1: meat, poultry, eggs, up to 4 ounces of cheddar cheese, 2 cups salad (lettuce, cucumber, celery, radishes) with Italian Dressing only. Spices didn't have to be counted as long as they didn't contain any sugar. Although meat wasn't restricted, I mostly ate chicken, fish, and hamburgers, along with bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Level 2: 1 cup cottage cheese, added to Level 1. I divided it in half and ate ½ cup of cottage cheese for lunch and dinner to take the place of potatoes or rice. The amount of meat and cheese I ate went down a bit.
Level 3: ½ cup cooked vegetables, with a pat of butter, added to Levels 1 and 2. A pat of butter at that time was about 1-1/2 teaspoons. My ex didn't like vegetables, so I wasn't inventive with them. I mainly ate canned green beans, frozen broccoli, green onions, or bell peppers.
Level 4: 1 ounce salted nuts, added to Levels 1, 2, and 3. I didn't eat snacks. Snacking wasn't considered normal in the 70s. Snacks were only to tide you over until dinner if you were too hungry to wait. I added the ounce of nuts to my lunch, and cut down on the meat and cheese a bit more.
Level 5: 8 whole strawberries added to Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. I normally ate the strawberries at dinner, for dessert, so I wouldn't feel deprived.
Level 6: ½ cup more vegetables, with another pat of butter, added to Levels 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. This meant I was now allowed 1 cup of steamed vegetables per day, and butter went up to about a tablespoon. Meat went down.
By this time, my meat portion had shrunk to a chicken leg quarter or small fish fillet. A typical burger patty was less than 4 ounces then. I wasn't eating more than a couple of ounces of cheese. I never cut cheese into sticks and just ate it like that. If I was having cheese, it went into an omelet or on top of my salad or burger.
Sausage was not allowed on Atkins 72. In those days, it had carbohydrate fillers, Atkins said. Breakfast was bacon and eggs or a cheese and bacon omelet every day. Once I reached level 6, I would put green onions and bell peppers into my omelet, as well. Occasionally, I'd add a bit of chopped green chilies.
Lunch was a salad with meat, cheese, and regular Italian dressing.
I got hired as a word processor (fancy name for a typist) for the Policy and Procedures department at the main headquarters for Ralph M. Parsons, one of the world's largest engineering and construction companies.
When I bought lunch at work, I would eat either a large chef-type salad or order a beef-dip sandwich or plate of pastrami without the bread. This worked well since I was on maintenance and meat came with no restrictions.
My ex was into Italian Dressing, so the restriction on salad dressing to just oil-and-vinegar varieties fit into our lifestyle seamlessly.
Sugar substitutes sucked. There's no nice way to say it.
I made a crustless cheesecake once. The recipe in the back of the original Atkins book was made with cottage cheese creamed in the blender, instead of cream cheese, and then baked in the oven.
I couldn't gag it down due to the saccharine.
Although cream cheese is relatively low in carbs, Atkins limited saturated fats to those found in nature. Butter was the only exception because it's made from heavy cream. Cream cheese, shortening, coconut oil, and lard were not allowed. Mayonnaise was fine, since it's made with oil and an egg.
Cyclamate had been yanked from the market by then, due to its effect on animals, so I started buying D-Zerta gelatin and made that for dessert instead. Although, it tasted funny, the same as Tab (what passed for diet soda in those days), it was more tolerable than the cheesecake.
I can't remember if I put a spoonful of whipped cream on top of the gelatin or not. I probably did.
I didn't drink coffee or even tea back then, so I had no need for the 4 teaspoons of heavy cream allowed on the plan unless I had the gelatin. I just drank water and an occasional diet soda.
I also did not use the Atkins Revolution Rolls. This was only because I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of how eggs could be turned into bread. Since the original rolls were made with eggs, cottage cheese, and a little cream of tartar, I don't think they would have hindered the results I got.
Today's Reflections on Atkins 72
The real reason why the weight fell off was because I was eating a whole-foods diet that was low in saturated fats and calories.
Despite what you might hear today about not fearing fat, Atkins 72 was not a high-fat diet. Here is his quote about fat as published in the 1984 version of the Atkins diet, found in Dr. Atkins' Nutrition Breakthrough: How to Treat Your Medical Condition Without Drugs, page 268:
“Millions of dieters simply called it the Atkins Diet. It was a very low carbohydrate reducing diet (not a high-fat diet, as many of my nonreading critics asserted. This is the diet I have used for virtually all of my patients . . .”
Salad and vegetables were the only place where you needed any extra fat. Most of the fat you ate came from the meat, eggs, and cheese.
Some people might say that the weight fell off because I was young and had never been on a low-carb diet before. My previous dieting experiences were not extensive, and with insulin low, there was nothing to hinder fat loss. However, in the early days, Atkins didn't preach the Insulin Hypothesis. He talked about the health benefits you get from low insulin levels instead.
This first-time-only idea is known as the One Golden Shot Theory.
What is the One Golden Shot Theory?
The One Golden Shot Theory says that the very first time you do Atkins, or any low-carb diet, you will have remarkable results. The weight will come off quickly and effortlessly. If you stop doing low carb, return to your old eating style, and somewhere in the future decide to come back, your second or third or fourth attempt at low carb won't be as successful as you were the very first time.
According to the theory, further down the road, you're likely to find yourself in the severely resistant to weight loss category where fat comes off at a snail's pace, if at all.
At one time, I believed this was true.
In fact, I probably have posts on this blog or comments made where I have said something similar. Today, I have a different perspective.
After watching how people implement a low-carb diet the second or third or fourth time around, and looking at my own behavior and results from returning to Atkins four times, most of the people who come back to a low-carb lifestyle are honestly not as strict as they were the very first time.
If you do exactly what you did the very first time, you'll get the same results, but few people do what they did before.
If you take a close look at what I ate in 1975, you'll see what I mean. There are very strong differences between how I ate then and how people try to implement Atkins 72 today. Even those doing hard-core Atkins 72 do not stick to the original diet.
American culture has taken us into a super-sized eating style where people no longer understand what a real serving size looks like. Chickens are bigger, standard hamburger patties are bigger, and roasts and chops are bigger now, too.
According to the Atkins book I quoted above, higher fat was 75 grams of fat and high carb was only 170 grams in the 80s. Likewise, low-carb culture has traveled from consuming fats as found in nature to the latest craze of eating tablespoons of coconut oil off a spoon or mixing it with butter and adding it to your coffee.
While there is nothing wrong with doing these things if you have a solid reason for doing them, they were not a part of the original Atkins Diet, so they can't be expected to work as well as the original diet worked.
In 1975, we couldn't afford to buy high-end steaks, so I ate mostly:
- dark meat chicken, with the skin
- sometimes just the back
- cheap white fish (cod) and canned tuna packed in oil
- cheap ground beef
- chuck steaks or roasts
- pork chops or ribs, if they were on sale
- lots of bacon and eggs
- London Broil
- Filet mignon
- Top Sirloin
Today, Choice has become the new standard, with Standard grade no where in site, so it's highly likely that one of the main reasons why low carb never works the same way twice is because you are not doing what you did before.
Instead, you're doing something that's more in keeping with the times. The calorie content of food, its fat content, the chemicals and preservatives added, as well as the serving size you're using have all dramatically changed.
In addition, most overweight individuals, including myself, unconsciously lean toward making higher calorie, higher fat food choices, by nature, because they just taste better to us.
What Went Wrong?
At goal, weight management was far more difficult than I thought it would be.
The original Atkins Diet talked about a single spoonful of potato salad being the kiss of death, but there really wasn't a structured maintenance plan in 1972. While the book gave a few helpful tips, I wasn't creative enough to figure out how to keep from getting bored, within the context of a strict food budget, so eventually, I slipped back into my old food habits.
Looking back at the book I have right now:
Atkins simply told you to add back 5 carbs per day, per week, until the weight stopped coming off, and then stick to that carbohydrate level for life, but I didn't understand the value in doing it that way.
I thought I could do it on my own, without having to confine myself to a diet of meat, vegetables, strawberries, and cottage cheese. I thought that choosing low-carb foods most of the time would be enough.
Like so many other dieters, I was blind to how the brain defends your fat stores after you've lost weight. Instead of creating a working plan, I simply ate low-carb foods as much as possible, and carbs when there wasn't another option.
At least, that's what I told myself.
Part 2: Can You Do the Atkins Diet While Pregnant (How I Lost 20 Pounds on Atkins Maintenance)
Part 3: My Second Attempt at the Atkins Diet (an in-depth look at Atkins 92, how Dr. Atkins really felt about deducting fiber, how I did the diet, and how quickly the weight came off that second time.)
Part 4: How to Hold Onto Your Weight Loss When Challenges Arise (Life never stays calm for very long, so when my ex ran off with someone he met over the internet, I moved to maintenance to help me get through those trying times. This post details what I did and how well it worked.)
Part 5: How Vertigo Affected My Low-Carb Lifestyle (Circumstances are often beyond our control, so in Part 5, I talk about how being struck with vertigo changed my life.)
Part 6: The Shocking Evolution of the Atkins Diet (Returning to Atkins in 2007 was quite a shock for me. Not only had the low-carb climate changed, but so had the diet. This is what happened for the first 2 months on Atkins 2002.)
Part 7: Is Your Self Work Determined by the Size of Your Jeans? (Before you can even think about tweaking the Atkins Diet, you need to learn how to ditch your feelings of insecurity and inferiority that being overweight often brings.)
Part 8: What to Do if the Atkins Diet Doesn't Work for You (This post begins to show exactly what I did to tweak the Atkins Diet. Includes a 2002 Menu from the book to support my perspective.)
Part 9: What I Had to Do to Ditch over 100 Pounds (This post explains how I created the PSMF Diet I used, what I ate, and how you can tweak your own diet to get it to work better.)
Part 10: Are You Getting Enough Protein to Avoid Starvation? (If you're not losing weight on your low-carb diet, and it's time to do some tweaking, bringing your protein intake up to a moderate level is step one. This post includes a lengthy list of protein serving sizes with pictures to help you make sure that you're eating enough.)