Forget everything you think you know about low-carb diets.
Turns out it’s OK to snack on fruit. Have a tortilla if you like.
More than 40 years after Dr. Robert Atkins riled the American Medical Association with his 1972 bestseller that advocated ditching grains for a diet based on protein and fat, his successor is shaking things up.
Atkins chief nutritionist Colette Heimowitz, who calls herself “the keeper of the diet” since the pioneering cardiologist’s 2003 death, has doubled carb intake on a new variation of the infamous bacon-and-eggs diet. Atkins 40, which refers to the new daily carbs target, calls for more veggies, less protein and allows dieters to experiment as they learn to “budget” their carbs.
Heimowitz believes federal dietary guidelines that emphasized less fat consumption have failed the American public, resulting in a decades-long sugar bender that’s led to obesity and carb intolerance, putting record numbers of Americans at risk for diabetes.
“People need to cut back,” she says.
Meanwhile, low-carb fans, ranging from Atkins purists to the Paleo crowd, must learn how to put some of the healthy carbs they’ve stripped out of their diets back in.
The American diet, Heimowitz now says, should be based on “overarching nutrition principles” that include low sugar, healthy fats, optimal (but not unlimited) protein and a modest level of healthy carbs.
No matter how you feel about low-carb diets, she says, “you have to think about carbs as part of the equation.”
Finding your carb-tolerance level
The new diet’s 40-carb limit is still much lower than what experts recommend for both the general public as well as people with diabetes. The National Institutes for Health says carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of daily calories, which translates to about 200 grams a day for a person who consumes 1,800 calories.
The American Diabetes Association, which in its 2008 guidelines recommended a daily intake of 130 carbs, no longer lists a target number, suggesting that it’s more important to make sure carb intake comes from quality whole foods such as vegetables, whole grains, fruits and dairy. The ADA instead provides a “starting point” of 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per meal, but emphasizes that can vary depending on how certain foods impact an individual’s blood sugar.
People with diabetes may be used to thinking of their carb-tolerance level in terms of their blood sugar, but Heimowitz believe everyone should figure out what level of carb intake helps them maintain a healthy weight. For the record, she says hers is 60 grams a day. If she wants to lose weight she cuts back to 40, which just happens to be the number in the revamped Atkins diet.
That’s twice as many carbs as the introductory protein-and-veggies phase of the original diet, which is still listed on the Atkins website as an option “for people who prefer those tight guardrails,” Heimowitz says.
Trouble is, most people never get past Phase I. And “the first phase of Atkins is not sustainable,” she says.
Most people who try Atkins yo-yo between Phase I and falling off the wagon into a sugar binge. They never get to the later stages where they learn how to add healthy carbs back into their diet, which explains why most of them they have no idea what their carb-tolerance level is.
“There is no one size fits all,” Heimowitz says.
Younger men who are physically active, for instance, can tolerate well over 100 carbs a day without gaining, she says. As for Heimowitz, “I’m menopausal, I sit at a computer all day, I can’t run anymore (thanks to too many miles on the New York City pavement),” so she now finds that she has to watch her intake more closely.
Proliferation of products makings counting carbs easier
You might think the public face of the original low-carb diet would be hesitant to be seen with anything resembling a carbohydrate on her plate. But if you ask Heimowitz when she last ate bread, she’s likely to respond, “Today. I had a low-carb Mission wrap with my salad.”
Carb counters today have more options than ever before, thanks to a confluence of diet trends creating a surge in the grain-free, high-protein market that analysts peg at up to $15 billion and growing. Atkins Nutritionals alone offers 68 products, from frozen meals to bars and candies, while supermarkets stock everything from Caveman Cookies to Carbquik Baking Mix.
Even when Heimowitz downshifts to 40 carbs for weight-loss purposes, she notes that she can still use her carbs however she likes, provided she gets her veggies in. She might order berries and cream for dessert, or snack on a cashew trail mix Atkins bar.
“I’m a sugar baby,” Heimowitz says unapologetically. “I like sweet.”
So what would Dr. Atkins say?
Heimowitz, who worked with Atkins at his Manhattan private practice before taking on a corporate role at Atkins Nutritionals, believes that Atkins 40 isn’t dramatically different from modifications the cardiologist made based on individual patients’ needs.
“You can do that in private practice,” she said. “But to the broader audience, that part of the message was too complicated to come across. People tended to get stuck in the sound bites, and all people ever talked about was Phase I.”
As “keeper of the diet,” Heimowitz considers herself personally responsible for its evolution.
“It’s my job to protect the integrity of the diet,” she says. Which doesn’t mean it can’t evolve, so long as it remains “scientifically viable, that it can be supported in science.”
The studies she looked at in developing Atkins 40 suggested that while a daily carb range of 20 to 40 grams is best for weight loss, some studies were showing that even at 100 carbs, “most people were still showing a better health profile.”
Like the ADA, Heimowitz says the key is aiming for the highest quality carbs possible. She designed Atkins 40 so that people not only have more options, but also get a better sense of which foods are most carbohydrate-dense.
“You can budget your carbs anyway you want,” Heimowitz says. Though when asked if that means you could have a doughnut, she suggested “a bite of a doughnut” would be a better fit.
“Again,” she said, “it’s all about budgeting.”