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. But what can you eat on the Atkins diet, specifically?
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.
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If you're considering giving it a try, you may be wondering what you can eat on the Atkins diet — as well as the program's forbidden foods. Here's what you need to know.
Talk to your doctor before starting this or any other weight-loss program to make sure it's the right one for you, per the Mayo Clinic.
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. The main difference between those plans is how many carbs you can take in during the first phase.
So when it comes to the Atkins diet, how many carbs can you eat per day? 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, including how many carbs you can eat on Atkins during each phase:
- Phase 1 (Induction): You'll only be allowed 20 grams of net carbs per day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This phase lasts two 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 can help you lose weight if you typically eat a high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, and may 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.
If you're wondering whether the Atkins diet is bad for you, note that you may experience some temporary side effects, including headache, tiredness and GI distress, per the Mayo Clinic. Another potential adverse effect of very-low-carbohydrate diets is that they limit your intake of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, namely, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Long-term restriction of carbs can also up your risk for the following conditions, according to a July 2022 article in StatPearls:
- Heart problems
- Kidney problems
- Lipid abnormalities
Low carbohydrate intake was also linked to higher mortality rates compared to moderate carbohydrate intake, per an August 2018 study in The Lancet. This may have to do with which foods you decide to eat in lieu of carbs — for instance, opting to nosh on red meat that's high in saturated fat may not support your wellbeing as well as plant-based sources of protein like nuts and whole grains.
The takeaway: Low-carb diets are typically not advisable for long-term use. Check with your doctor about whether a program like Atkins is safe for you, and instead consider swapping out processed carbs (like baked goods and white bread) for more nutritious alternatives like brown rice, whole-grain bread, and quinoa.
The Atkins diet isn't recommended for people on diabetes medicine or for those with severe kidney disease, per the Mayo Clinic. It also isn't advised for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
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. Here's a list of Atkins foods to avoid during some or all of the time you follow the eating plan:
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.
Here's an Atkins phase 1 list of foods to avoid or limit:
- Grains, such as barley, quinoa, bulgur and couscous
- Breakfast cereals
- Baked goods such as cookies and cakes
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.
Popcorn on a Diet
Popcorn is a favorite snack for many. But because it's a whole grain, it can be difficult to determine if you can eat it while following a low-carb diet like Atkins or Keto.
Per the Atkins website, microwave popcorn is keto-friendly when you're in phase two or three of the diet. How about toppings, though — can you eat buttered popcorn on keto plans like Atkins? According to the site, buttered popcorn is keto-friendly (you could also swap in olive oil or grated cheese).
But what about different popcorn brands — for instance, is Skinny Pop popcorn keto-friendly? As long as you don't pick a flavor with added sugars, this is a solid low-carb snacking choice.
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.
What about no-carb candy, though? While you can eat candy on Atkins, this may not be the best use of your carbs in the long run, as the Atkins website recommends that you get most of your carbs in the form of nutritious, low-carbohydrate vegetables.
Still, the brand does manufacture several types of Atkins sweets, which usually substitute artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols (like maltitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, isomalt, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and lactitol) for sugar, according to Yale New Haven Health.
These ingredients come from plant products and occur naturally in some foods. Compared to regular sugar, they're much lower in calories and don't cause sharp spikes in your blood sugar.
However, Atkins candy (and other diet candies) containing sugar alcohol can lead to digestive issues like bloating and diarrhea, according to Yale New Haven Health. Atkins sweets are made with maltitol, a sugar alcohol, and should not be eaten in excess of one serving per day.
Foods You Can Eat on the Atkins Diet
Now you know which foods to avoid. But what can you eat on the Atkins diet?
While the induction phase of the program 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. Here's an Atkins diet food list to consider:
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 food list. 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 to incorporate into Atkins phase one snacks 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. That includes nut butter — indeed, you can eat peanut butter on low-carb diets like Atkins and Keto.
Peanut Butter Carbs
Peanut butter is a carbohydrate food. And it's due to the carbohydrates in peanuts that you only start to incorporate it during phase two of the Atkins diet.
Per the brand's website, there are 3 grams of net carbs two tablespoons of natural peanut butter (in other words, peanut butter is still relatively low in carbs). Just be sure to opt for butters that don't contain added sugars.
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, because your body will burn off the alcohol before fat, per the Atkins website.
In phase two and beyond, you can have alcoholic beverages, but you'll 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 (like bourbon, gin, tequila, rum or vodka).
- 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?"
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- USDA: "Grapes"
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- 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"
- Yale New Haven Health: "Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately?"
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- Atkins: "Atkins 20®, Phase 3: Maintaining Your Weight After Dieting"
- Atkins: "27 Easy Low Carb Snack Ideas"
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- The Lancet: "Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis"