The Atkins diet is a popular low-carb eating program that originated in the 1960s, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because this diet restricts carbohydrates, you'll need to scrupulously track what you eat so you don't exceed your daily limit.
The flip-side to restricting carbs: Unlike many other diets that require you to count calories, or curtail eating high-fat foods, under the Atkins diet you can eat fats, as well as protein, per the Cleveland Clinic.
If you're considering this diet, you may be wondering what foods you can eat — as well as the forbidden foods on the Atkins diet. Here's what you need to know.
How the Atkins Diet Works
There are a few variations of the diet, including the Atkins 20, Atkins 40 and Atkins 100, according to the Atkins website — a main difference between those plans is how many carbs you can take in during the first phase.
In general, this diet plan involves four phases: the first phase, known as induction, restricts carbohydrates the most, while subsequent phases allow the gradual reintroduction of carbohydrates, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Note: While carbs are limited under the Atkins diet, note that you'll be counting net carbs (not total carbs), per the Mayo Clinic — that means you'll subtract out the fiber content of foods from the total carb count.
Here's what to expect during each of the four stages of the Atkins diet:
- Phase 1 (Induction): You'll only be allowed 20 grams of net carbs per day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This phase lasts 2 weeks or more, per the Mayo Clinic. During this phase, you can anticipate losing weight.
- Phase 2 (Balancing): During this less restrictive phase, you can incorporate more nutrient-rich carbs, according to the Mayo Clinic. That said, your daily carb intake is limited to 30 net carbs, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Phase 3 (Pre-Maintenance): You'll continue to add back more foods, with 10 more net carbs allowed each week you're in this phase, per the Mayo Clinic. You'll remain in the pre-maintenance phase until you reach your target weight.
- Phase 4 (Maintenance): Once you're at your goal weight, your aim will be to stay at it, limiting carbs to 120 per day, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Following a low-carb diet — such as Atkins — will help you lose weight, and can also help prevent type 2 diabetes and lower your risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. That said, you may experience some temporary side effects, including headache, tiredness and GI distress.
Foods You Cannot Eat on the Atkins Diet
While many foods are completely off-limits during early phases of the Atkins diet, some are permitted in later, less restrictive phases.
During the early phases — induction and balancing — of the Atkins diet, you won't be able to eat foods made with grains and flour. The carbs in these foods are simply too high, considering the diet's limitations on carb intake.
For instance, a slice of white bread has 14.3 grams of carbohydrates and 0.8 grams of fiber, according to the USDA — that means it has 13.5 net carbs. A cup of corn flakes contains 21 grams of carbohydrates and only 0.8 grams of fiber, per the USDA. Eating that bowl of cereal means taking in around 20 net carbs. That's a whole day's worth of carbs if you're in the first phase of the Atkins 20 diet.
If you're on the Atkins diet, you'll avoid or limit the following foods during early phases:
- Grains, such as barley, quinoa, bulgur and couscous
- Breakfast cereals
- Baked goods such as cookies and cakes
But whole grains — such as barley, kasha and quinoa — can be added back into your diet in the third phase, according to the Atkins food guide. Refined grains will remain off-limits.
Fruits are high in sugar and carbohydrates, and are excluded during the first phases of the Atkins diet, according to the Atkins food guide.
The fiber can vary greatly depending on the specific fruit. A medium apple provides 25.1 grams carbohydrates and 4.4 grams of fiber, per the USDA, while a cup of grapes contains 15.8 grams carbohydrates and 0.8 grams fiber, according to the USDA.
During phase two, you can add some low-carb, high-fiber fruits, such as berries, cantaloupe and honeydew, according to the Atkins food guide. In phase three, and continuing into phase four, you can enjoy even more fruits, including apples, grapefruit, oranges, peaches, and grapes.
Any foods containing added sugar, which can be listed as sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose, maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list, are not allowed in the first phase of the Atkins diet.
This includes all desserts, such as pies, cakes and cookies, as well as candies and soft drinks.
Foods You Can Eat on the Atkins Diet
While the induction phase of the Atkins diet drastically limits carbs, there are still many foods you can eat. And, as you progress through the phases, you'll get more and more options.
Non-starchy vegetables have a low carbohydrate content and need to be eaten in large quantities to obtain the required fiber, nutrients and antioxidants needed by your body.
You'll eat what are deemed "foundational vegetables" in the Atkins diet — these veggies are nutrient-dense and high in fiber, which helps keep the net carbs low.
During the induction phase, for instance, you can eat greens (including bok choy, turnip greens and lettuce), as well as zucchini, cucumber, cauliflower, green beans and many more options, per the Atkins website.
Beginning in phase 3, you can add starchy vegetables (think: potatoes, corn and carrots) back into your meals, according to the Atkins website.
Protein-rich foods constitute a key component of the Atkins diet. During the first phase of the Atkins diet, you should have three 4- to 6-ounce servings of protein per day, according to the Atkins website.
According to the diet's website, good sources of protein include:
- Fish: salmon, flounder, sardines and cod
- Cheese: Stick to just 3 to 4 ounces per day since this form of protein contains carbs
- Poultry: This includes chicken, duck and turkey
- Shellfish: Limit oysters and mussels, which are higher in carbs
- Meat: Watch for sugar in processed meats such as bacon
Fat, along with protein, is important to keep Atkins dieters satiated and prevent hunger between meals. Some fats you can incorporate beginning in the induction phase include butter, mayonnaise, olive oil and vegetable oil.
Beginning in phase two, you can also have nuts and seeds.
Drinking Alcohol on the Atkins Diet
During the first phase of the Atkins diet, alcohol is off-limits, according to the Atkins food guide. Drinking alcohol can interfere with your weight loss efforts, since your body will burn off the alcohol before fat, per the Atkins website.
In phase two and beyond, you can have alcoholic beverages — but will need to count the carbs in your wine and cocktails as you would any other carbohydrate-containing food or beverage and figure them into your daily total.
The Atkins website recommends you stick with a small glass of wine or spirits such as rye, Scotch, vodka or gin. Don't mix spirits with juice, regular tonic water or soda, which all contain additional carbs.
Instead, drink it neat or on the rocks; have a twist of lemon or a mixer like seltzer. If you find that imbibing stalls your weight loss, stop drinking alcohol.
Amount of Carbs in Popular Alcoholic Drinks
Consider your choices carefully if you do drink alcohol — it's possible to drink on a low-carb diet, so long as you stick with the lower-carb options.
Here are the carbs in several alcohol beverages:
- Hard alcohol: An ounce of vodka contains no carbs, per the USDA — that's true for other hard alcohol, too. (bourbon, gin, tequila, rum or vodka): 0 grams of carbs
- 5-ounce glass of pinot noir wine: 3.4 grams of carbs, according to the USDA; carbs may vary depending on the variety of wine.
- Beer: Light beer has 5.8 grams of carbs, per the USDA, while a regular beer will have about twice as much (12.6 grams), according to the USDA
- Cocktails: Mixers like juice or soda contain carbs, and using cocktail mixes also ups the carbs — three ounces of pina colada mix has 35 grams of carbs, according to the USDA, for example.
- Mayo Clinic: "Atkins Diet: What's behind the claims?"
- Cleveland Clinic: " HEALTH LIBRARY FAT: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Overview HEALTH & WELLNESS TIPS Fitness, health and wellness tips sent to you weekly Your email address SUBMIT January 5, 2021 / Weight Loss What Is the Atkins Diet, and Is It Healthy?"
- Atkins: "COMPARE LOW CARB DIET PLANS: ATKINS 20®, ATKINS 40® & ATKINS 100™"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Nutrition for Weight Loss: Is a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Right for Me?"
- Atkins Food Guide: "Let's go low carb"
- USDA: "Apples"
- USDA: "Grapes"
- Atkins: "Atkins 20®, Phase 3 List of Low Carb Foods for Weight Loss"
- Atkins: "https://www.atkins.com/how-it-works/atkins-20/phase-1/low-carb-foods"
- Atkins: "Q: Can I drink alcohol now that I am in Phase 2?"
- USDA: "Vodka"
- USDA: "Pinot Noir"
- USDA: "Light Beer"
- USDA: "Beer"
- USDA: "American Beverage Corporation - Pina Colada Mix Pina"
- USDA: "White Bread"
- USDA: "Cereal Corn Flakes"