Comparing Diets: Paleo VS. Atkins

December 29, 2017


These days it seems that diet fads come and go as often as fashion trends. People are willing to try almost anything for a quick fix to their health and weight-related problems. The fault in this is that many of these diets are not sustainable long term, only resulting in malnutrition and weight gain rebounds. Amongst the pile of modern diet revelations fall the Atkins Diet, and the Paleo Diet. Although the Atkins diet appears similar to the Paleo Diet, the differences are important enough, especially when using them in a clinical setting. This is particularly true in regards to their key concepts and foods allowed, their potential health benefits and limitations in a therapeutic setting, as well as their suitability for different individuals and body types. The Atkins diet will be the first diet in focus, beginning with its nutrient proportions, key concepts, and main claims.

Key Concepts of the Atkins Diet

The Atkins diet is a popular diet, famous for its high-protein/high-fat, extreme low-carb approach with the main goal of quick weight loss. Compared to the standard American diet that has a macronutrient proportion of roughly 12% of its calories coming from protein, 42% from fats, and 46% from carbohydrates, the Atkins diet consists of roughly 30% of calories from protein, 60% from fat, and only 10% of calories from carbohydrates.  The main foods consumed in the diet consist of all forms of animal protein, generous amounts of fat, cream, butter, bacon, mayonnaise, and oils, small amounts of sweet fruits including citrus fruits, mainly non-starchy vegetables and small amounts of starchy fruits and vegetables, coffee, tea, and diet sodas are also allowed, as well as artificial sweeteners, and eight to ten glasses of water daily. In contrast, the diet forbids all foods containing sugar or white flour, refined grains including white rice, corn, whole grains, pasta, beans, legumes, sweet fruit juices, and in some cases alcohol. The premise of the diet is to achieve weight loss through an altered metabolic state, referred to as benign dietary ketosis. The process of ketosis occurs once the body’s main fuel sources, glucose and glycogen, have been depleted by drastically decreasing the consumption of carbohydrates. The body is forced into a switch in the main fuel source, from glucose and glycogen to ketone bodies which are incompletely burned fatty acids. This process also enables the body to spare muscle tissue, preventing the excess breakdown of proteins for fuel. The result is rapid weight loss, initially due mostly to water loss. This is because there are approximately three grams of water stored in one gram of glycogen, so as muscle and liver stores of glycogen are completely depleted, the water weight that it carries is entirely eliminated as well. After the initial stage of weight loss, the body relies additionally on the process of gluconeogenesis, where amino acids and fats are converted to glucose, and burned off as fuel. This results in subsequent fat reduction and further weight loss. Although the health benefits remain a subject of debate, many studies have displayed relevant pros and cons to the Atkins Diet.

Benefits and Limitations of the Atkins Diet

Along with any diet, come its benefits and limitations. The more obvious benefit to the Atkins diet is weight loss and the reduction of body fat.  Some studies have concluded that the Atkins diet helps prevent cardiovascular disease, lowering the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and increases the amount of the “good” HDL cholesterol, as well as improving insulin sensitivity. Low carb diets have also been shown to be beneficial for individuals with epilepsy, and even cancer, as cancer cells thrive on glucose. Nevertheless, many other studies actually show the opposite and claim that high-protein/high-fat diet, and low-carbohydrate diets actually increase the risk for cardiovascular-related disease, amongst many other health concerns. Some of the negative effects resulting from a high-protein/high-fat begin initially with their recommended macronutrient proportions. High intake of protein relative to carbohydrates must be balanced by a high intake of water, as well as adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. This is because high-protein diets are quite acidifying, and without adequate mineral supply, can cause minerals to be leached from the bones and teeth to act as buffers. This can lead to problems such as chronic bone demineralization and osteoporosis. Based on the foods allowed and prohibited, the Atkins diet is also fairly contractive, and warming; unsuitable for people living in hotter climates, and would eventually result in cravings for cooling carbohydrates. The break-down nature of the diet would also not be suitable for growing children. Likewise, high-protein diets put extra stress on the brain and kidneys as they have to work harder to eliminate increased levels of ammonia, a toxic by-product of protein metabolism of excess protein and amino acids. This process can further upset the body’s acid/base balance, and increase the risk of bone demineralization. Moreover, physiological effects such as dehydration, muscle wasting, dizziness, weakness, kidney damage, and liver damage, have all been reported negative side effects of prolonged ketosis. While not all people would suffer these ill effects following a diet constituting of the recommended foods and macronutrient proportions of the Atkins diet, some individuals are definitely more suited than others.

Atkins Vs Paleo

A diet similar to, but not equal to the Atkins diet includes the Paleolithic diet (Paleo Diet). Although Atkins and the Paleo Diet both include a higher amount of animal protein and a lower consumption of carbohydrates compared to most modern diets, Paleo is unlike Atkins because of its emphasis on whole foods, the encouragement of the consumption of plenty complex carbohydrates, and their emphasis on clean animal sources such as free range chicken and cattle. The diet, unlike the Atkins diet, prohibits feedlot raised cattle, processed foods, refined vegetable oils, refined sugar, added salt, grains, legumes, peanuts, and dairy. The Paleo Diet also prohibits artificial sweeteners and diet sodas, which the Atkins diet does not.* The Paleo Diet is basically a way of eating which best mimics our ancestor’s hunter-gatherer habits. The macronutrient proportions of the Paleo Diet are roughly 19-35% of calories coming from protein, 22-44% from carbohydrates, and 28-47% calories coming from fat. This is significantly higher to the Atkins diet which only allows approximately 10% of calories coming from carbohydrates. The consumption of fat is also slightly lower in the Paleo Diet, but the sources of these fats become much more important. Other key factors to the Paleo Diet include eating a large amount of fiber from non-starchy fruits and veg, eat a moderate amount of goods fats coming from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources compared to trans and certain saturated fatty acids, eat nearly equal amounts of omega 3 and 6, while being conscious of omega 3’s for their anti-inflammatory properties, as well as to eat foods with high potassium and low sodium content. The principles of food dynamics also do a nice job at putting forth the benefits as well as the limitations to this type of diet.

Benefits and Limitations of the Atkins Diet Compared to the Paleo Diet

Compared to the Atkins diet, the benefits of the Paleo Diet far exceed its perceived cons or limitations. Firstly, the Paleo Diet, unlike the Atkins diet, encourages a high consumption of non-starchy fruits and vegetables, eating foods rich in plant phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This results in a higher net alkaline diet than the Atkins diet, which can be quite acidifying due to its high consumption of lower quality protein and saturated fats. The Paleo and Atkins diet is the same, however, in their benefits of eating a higher percentage of calories from protein than the standard American diet.  Adequate protein intake supports a faster metabolic rate causing you to burn more calories, it aids in satisfying appetite so you feel less hungry and therefore avoiding unnecessary and excess calories, and it improves insulin sensitivity. These qualities are very beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, and can greatly benefit athletes for optimal muscle recovery. The differences, however, lies in the sources of protein the Atkins diet allows, as they allow all animal foods regardless of their quality, meaning that meat products that are full of saturated fat, salt, and nitrates are permitted. Therefore, the Paleo Diet alone has more benefits than the Atkins diet would long term. This is because the Paleo Diet emphasizes an increase in consumption of omega 3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory, aids in decreasing the bad LDL cholesterol while increasing the good HDL cholesterol, and encourages an increased consumption of omega 9 which is also associated with increases in HDL. These qualities make the diet beneficial for individuals with atherosclerosis, Type 2 diabetes, Hypertension, Heart disease, Dyslipidemia, Psychological Disorders and Obesity. The only real limitations to the Paleo Diet are that it is not suitable for vegetarians, and some critics argue that eating in a way that mimics our ancestors is nearly impossible in the modern world we live in. Additionally, due to the diet’s high fruit and vegetable content, the diet can be quite cooling and expansive and would be better suited for people living in hotter climates. The final criticism of the Paleo Diet lies in the principle of biochemical individuality, which was discussed regarding the Atkins diet prior. 


Upon review of the Atkins and Paleo Diet, it is reasonable to conclude that one of the main flaws of diet trends today, is that most special diets assume that one size fits all in terms of diet solutions. With the vast cultural differences, age differences, and climate differences around the world, it becomes far more challenging to assume this to be true. Although the Atkins diet and the Paleo Diet were similar in many ways, their differences became much more significant for the purpose of health implications. Most importantly, although both diets relied on a greater percentage of calories from protein compared to most modern diets, the Atkins diet was found to have many more negative consequences than the Paleo Diet, due to differences in the sources of included macronutrients and their effects.  The ketogenic state that the Atkins diet produces, causing the body to rely strictly on ketone bodies and amino acids for fuel was another very different and important factor in distinguishing between the diets and their health implications. For this reason, the Paleo Diet is much better suited for long-term use and should not put excess stress on the kidneys. Moreover, while controversies still exist at what the exact definition of a well-balanced diet is, it is becoming clearer that this ‘balance’ may be different for everyone.

#Paleo #Atkins #Diet #Nutrition #Health #WeightLoss

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