What You Need to Know about the Best Low Carb Diets for Weight Loss: Atkins, South Beach, Dukan, and Paleo

by Sergio Rivera

Harry S. Truman once said “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

My version of the quote goes this way: There is nothing new in the world of nutrition, except the history of diet that you do not know.

In the last 60 years, experts have been working on hundreds of diet programs. A few resemble one another like fruits from the same tree. Others impress with strokes of genius and eccentricity. Most of these programs disappoint, while some have stood the test of time.

All these realities make us ask a lot of questions. With the hundreds of diet programs out there, which one’s the best? What works, and what doesn’t?

In this article we’ll try to look into the most popular low-carb diet programs today: Atkins, South Beach, Dukan, and Paleo.

By the end of this article, you should have more knowledge of the history of low-carb diets. You should also gain better understanding of these programs, to aid you in deciding which ones are for you and which ones aren’t.

I will also be giving my thoughts about the programs as we go along. Do not take my opinions as absolute judgment though. My intent is to highlight certain features and recommend tweaks that might help these programs become more suitable for the average Joe.

Atkins: The First Low Carbohydrate Diet

Dr. Robert Atkins created the diet in the 1960s. Back then carbohydrate was rocket fuel, while fat was an oil slick that clogged your arteries and caused you heart problems.

Dr. Atkin’s timing was bad, but he had proof that his diet works. Using his own diet program, he lost weight that he had struggled to lose before. He even got the same results from his patients.

In Five Words: Avoid Refined Carbs and Sugars.

The Atkins Model: The Atkins Diet will make you count – a lot. Eat three meals and two snacks a day, with your daily carb intake not exceeding 20 grams in the first two weeks of the program.

Protein and fat intake have no limits, but you have to watch out for hidden sugars. Thus dieters on the Atkins diet had to learn practical skills like reading food labels and analyzing nutritional facts accurately.

The Atkins diet has four phases. You only eat nuts and seeds, meat, healthy fats, and foundation vegetables (most of which are green leafy veggies) during phase 1. After this phase, it’s all about avoiding sugars.

Phases 2 and 3 allow you to eat more food types – legumes, milk, starchy fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.

By phase 4, the only food item forbidden is sugar. If you gain back weight, you go back to eating as you did in phase 1 until you reach your ideal weight again.

Strengths: The carbohydrate restriction during phase 1 guarantees weight loss within two weeks. Although weight loss is relative to body size, experts claim that the average American can lose as much as 15 pounds during this phase.

The emphasis on foundation vegetables is another strength. Green leafy vegetables, after all, send your testosterone levels skyrocketing. This further speeds up fat loss in the first two weeks of the program, while protecting your lean muscle mass in the process.

Weaknesses: Counting carbohydrates, hunting down hidden sugars, and timing meals can be stressful. You do learn discipline from doing these things, but doing so calls for a lot of commitment.

The diet’s design loses effectiveness in the long run. Apart from the possible burnout, dairy products during phase 2 are estrogenic and won’t help you lose those man boobs.

Whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes from phases 2 through 4 may gain you back the weight you’ve lost (even more) during phase 1.

My Thoughts on the Atkins Diet: The approach is good, which is why most modern low carb diets use the Atkins as a template. The only issue with this diet, it seems, is it’s sustainability in helping you stay on your ideal weight.

If I were on the Atkins Diet, I would stay in phase 1 minus all the counting involved. I’ll also widen my food list to accommodate other low-starch vegetables and fruits.

I might invoke my right to a cheat meal every once in a while too. I guess that makes me less of a bore, and the Atkins diet more of a sustainable long-term diet approach.

South Beach: Atkins Designed to Protect the Heart

Designed by a cardiologist named Dr. Arthur Agatston, the diet’s purpose was to help patients recover from various heart ailments. How it became a diet for weight loss was a matter of serendipity.

Dr. Agatston first tried the diet on his ailing patients who had struggled with Atkins-inspired low-carbohydrate diets. When the patients lost weight in the process, the diet’s purpose changed. From being a heart-healthy diet, South Beach became a weight loss fad that everybody wanted to try.

In five words: Lower-fat higher-carb Atkins.

The South Beach Model: “The key to losing weight quickly and getting healthy isn’t cutting all carbohydrates and fats from your diet”, says Dr. Arthur Agatston. “It’s learning to choose the right carbs and the right fats.”

Taking the focus away from carbohydrate restriction, the South Beach Diet pays more attention to how certain foods affect blood sugar levels. This is where the term Glycemic Index (GI) comes into play.

GI is the measure of how fast certain carbohydrates enter the bloodstream and alter blood sugar levels. South Beach works by emphasizing low GI foods (e.g., fibrous fruits and vegetables) over high GI foods (e.g., refined carbs and sugars). 

The idea is that low GI foods make you full longer and do not spike your insulin levels. You eat less, and your body does not need to store excess blood sugar as fat.

South Beach Diet has three phases, and like Atkins, the restrictions fade away as you progress. The idea is that when you get to phase 3, you already have the skill in making healthy food choices. If your cravings return and your weight goes back up, you’ll have to go back to phase 1 or 2 and inch your way back to your ideal weight.

Strengths: Compared to the Atkins Diet, South Beach has simpler rules to follow. You’ll still lose around 15 pounds in two weeks, this time without counting carbs and meals. Just avoid high GI foods and you’re on your way to lose weight.

South Beach's emphasis on the kind of carbs you eat instead of how much carbs you eat is an upgrade of the Atkin's stance. Our bodies, after all, do not react to numbers alone. 50 grams of carbs from vegetables is way better than 10 grams of carbs from a chocolate chip cookie.

Dieters on the South Beach are bound to understand that not all carbs are bad. In fact the good ones will help you lose weight faster than if you were to go on a diet with a daily intake of 0 carbs, or carbs from unhealthy sources.

Weaknesses: Less restrictions mean more opportunities for you to deviate from the program. For instance, South Beach allows snacks and desserts, and there are no restrictions when it comes to dairy products and sweet treats. These factors may not make South Beach effective in the long run.

My Thoughts on the South Beach Diet: The premise that dieters ought to gain the knowledge and skills on healthy eating after phase 1 is sound. But phase 1 is only two weeks long. When cravings start to kick in after those two weeks, what’s the guarantee that you won’t go head over heels on your favorite high GI snack?

Now you might argue that zero restrictions is not the same as saying that unhealthy foods are OK. But there’s no sense in being in a position where you have to fight your cravings. Your psyche is stronger than you think, and there’s a big chance that you’ll give in to your urges once the smell of your favorite dessert fills the air.

Dukan Diet: The French Version of Atkins

Tagged as the ''the French medical solution to permanent weight loss'', the Dukan diet is a protein based dieting approach designed by French nutritionist and dietician Pierre Dukan.

The concept of the diet takes off from the dietary practices of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – how much they ate of the food from their surroundings.

The Dukan Diet sets off with two important rules: (1) eat as much as you want (2) from a list of 100 Dukan-approved foods.

In five words: Protein-based Atkins-like diet.

The Dukan Model: The Dukan Diet has similarities with the Atkins and South Beach diets. It takes on a low-carb stance like Atkins, and is intended to be heart-friendly like South Beach. Like both diets, Dukan works in phases, with a list of foods to guide dieters along the way.

Dukan’s first phase, which lasts for 10 days, imposes a strict all-protein diet. As you progress along the phases, fat and carb restrictions are lifted, provided that you eat according to the Dukan food list.

From phases 2 through 4, you will still need to go on an all-protein diet once a week for maintenance.

And you will have to consume oat bran in all of the phases. The Dukan Diet deprives you of so much fiber, which is why oat bran has to be a regular part of your diet.

Strengths:  A protein-based diet is not only filling, it’s also sumptuous. Can you imagine eating all the steak you desire minus the guilt?

The aggressive all-protein diet you will have in the first 10 days of the diet will guarantee weight loss – fast. Going high on protein also protects your lean muscle mass. Plus there’s no need for any counting, which makes Dukan Diet less stressful compared to Atkins.

Weaknesses: Going all-out on protein has its downsides – vitamin, mineral, and fiber deficiencies, high uric acid levels, and stressed out kidneys. In the first phase of the diet, there’s a good chance that you’ll be sluggish, constipated, and have dry mouth and bad breath.

Dukan advocates that you counter these downsides by emphasizing high water intake and supplementing with oat bran. That might solve the short-term issues yes, but I don’t think compromising your body like this would be good in the long run.

My Thoughts on the Dukan Diet: The first 10 days that you go on the Dukan Diet may be harsh, especially if you’ve never tried a diet program before. Results do come fast, however at the expense of some short-term health issues. High risk, high reward.

I don’t think the strengths of the program outweigh the downsides. I would rather go for healthier diets. Or maybe tweak the first phase to accommodate foundation vegetables and fat sources. This makes it look a lot like Atkins, which begs the question, why not just go with the Atkins Diet?

Whatever diet you chose, and however you tweak your diet to your liking, always prioritize your health. Putting your body in a compromised position, even just for 10 days, may come back to haunt you in the future.

The Paleolithic Diet: Bringing Back The Old-school

There are many sources to credit for the birth of the Paleo Diet. From 1975 to 1988, three major publications about Paleolithic Nutrition went into publication. The idea would lie dormant for years though.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several personalities turned the idea of Paleo Nutrition into a model fit for modern use. Thus discussions on how Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate, bloomed into a system based on Paleolithic principles that we can use in the modern day.

In Five Words: Just eat like a caveman.

The Paleo Model: 10,000 years ago, human beings never had problems with food choices. There was nothing else to eat but lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds. There were no grains, sugars, or dairy products. Processed foods weren’t a reality until the year 1809 A.D. – about 9,000 years after the Paleolithic period.

The Paleolithic human being may have had limited food choices, yet he was fit, muscular, and could endure the toughest of tasks. Hence the premise that if we ate as they did, then we would be tough, muscular, and agile like them. We would never have to worry about the myriad of health problems we suffer from in the modern day.

This premise would make up the core of the diet, with a loose system set-up around it to guide dieters.

The Paleo diet operates in phases, but unlike the previously mentioned diet plans, the idea is simpler. The number of non-Paleo meals (open meals) you can eat every week varies per phase. Phase 1 allows you to eat three open meals a week, phase 2 allows for 2 open meals, and phase 3 allows you to eat only one open meal a week.

Two rules to keep in mind: eat as much as you want only when you’re hungry, and stay away from non-Paleo foods for most of the week. The system gives you few restrictions and so much freedom, that it makes more sense to think of Paleo as a lifestyle, and not just a run-of-the-mill diet program.

Strengths: The Paleo Diet promises optimum health beyond weight loss. The food types you eat makes it impossible to overeat, hence the lower risk for obesity. Staying away from processed foods helps prevent diabetes, heart disease, and other modern diseases.

It’s simple, and the phases are practical for long term use. You start with three open meals a week during phase 1. When your get used to living life without your favorite sweets, you go higher up the notch and eat two cheat meals a week.

By the time you’re in the final phase, you won’t even think of the one-cheat-meal-a-week rule as punishment.

Weaknesses: You have to be always mindful of what you eat. Is this food Paleo? Am I eating grass-fed meat?

Most of us who are so used to using packaged food items and eating out will have to double their effort just to make sure that we're eating Paleo. Modern men may find it difficult to find Paleo foods in the city.

Another possible downside is nutrient deficiency, especially in the first few weeks of the Paleo diet plan. No dairy and grains may make you miss out on important nutrients. This is why experts recommend that you take 10 supplements when you are eating Paleo.

My Thoughts on the Paleo Diet: Simple and sustainable. The Paleo lifestyle gives you a wider array of foods to choose from, and it’s doesn’t make dieting all that hard for you.

The gradual progression from one phase to another helps novice dieters ease into the program. This balances the difficulty that most Paleo dieters will encounter during the first few weeks on the diet. 

The important thing about going Paleo is discipline. If you can curb your cravings, only eat when you are hungry, and stay away from processed foods, then you’re on your way to a lifetime of leanness and good health.

A Case for Low Carb Diets

These diets are not for everyone. A healthy individual, who is always aware of what and how much he or she eats, might stay in good shape even without the help of low carb diet programs.

The case is different for most of Americans though. Two in three Americans are overweight, and one of those two is most likely obese. Many may argue that low carb diets should be used as needed. But low carb diets are making a good case for themselves. Should we make low carb diets a cultural standard as opposed to being just an option?

Low carb diets offer to us a lesson about how we should be eating. The idea applies whether you are overweight, obese, or perfectly healthy. They are not absolute rules, but rather guides on how you should be eating. If one doesn’t seem appealing to you, then you are free to go and check out the other ones.

The principle behind low carb diets also allow you to create your own eating plan. If you like the idea of all four – Atkins, South Beach, Dukan, and Paleo – then there’s enough room for you to play around with different variations. Learn your way around each one of them first, and then decide which features are best for you.

I would, for instance, take phase 1 from Atkins, GI from South Beach, Dukan’s emphasis on lean proteins, and the versatility of a Paleo lifestyle. I would leave out practices like meal timing, calorie counting, and macronutrient prioritization. In my opinion, these practices aren’t the all-important features that make diets successful.

You might disagree and that’s OK. Diversity leads to the improvement of a craft. There’s a non-negotiable principle though, one that we have to both agree on: just eat healthy.

Your Thoughts?

Thinking about going on one of these diets? Which one seems most appealing to you?

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Tell me what you think in the comments section below.

Stay healthy!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Allan April 13, 2016 at 9:08 am

Thanks for a great article, what do you think of Dukans insistence on oat fiber? would wheat bran be just as good? I need to get a lot of weight off, low carbs may be the way to go, eating lots of beef and lamb appeals to me, I like your idea of taking the best of all 4, hope it works for me, I am a senior ( 70 years old )

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2 Tom March 13, 2017 at 8:54 pm

You aren’t really accurate in your description of the Dukan Diet. First, the all-protein phase is TWO TO TEN days … Not necessarily 10. Second, the rest of the weight-loss part of the diet alternates protein and protein/veggie days. Third, it’s probably worth pointing out that Dukan has two additional phases. The third phase is intended to stabilize weight once you’ve reached your goal, and lasts longer than the initial two passes. The fourth phase is for life, and is pretty simple.

I can’t speak to the other options.

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