Top Diets 2004: Atkins Diet

Doing the Atkins Diet - as often as it takes

Executive wine-and-food editor Thomas Head distrusts skinny chefs and skinny restaurant critics.

If I were a disciplined person, I'd keep my checkbook balanced and my weight constant. In the less-than-perfect world I live in, these goals are achieved occasionally. Every so often my pants get too tight.

The people who are most successful at weight control, a fat-doctor once told me, are those who set a small weight-gain limit for themselves–four or five pounds–and begin dieting the minute they reach that limit. That sounds good in theory, but I'm more likely to surface from my annual task of eating for the 100 Very Best Restaurants cover story to find that four or five pounds have become 20, at which point I want to do something drastic about it.

I've tried a Jenny Craig program, obsessive exercise, a five-week fast under a doctor's supervision, and most recently–and most successfully–the Atkins diet, based on the work of Dr. Robert Atkins, who may or may not have died with clogged arteries.

The Atkins diet begins with a two-week "induction phase" that limits the dieter to 20 grams of carbohydrates a day and proceeds to a "maintenance phase" during which one can add five grams of carbohydrate per week until a level is reached at which the diet no longer causes weight loss. I generally stick with the induction phase for five or six weeks, or as long as I can stand it.

For me, dieting is complicated by two factors: I like to eat, and I do it for a living. In my job as a restaurant reviewer, I have to sample the range of a restaurant's cooking, not just the low-calorie dishes. I've often tried to convince myself that I could just taste the food on my plate, not actually eat it, but faced with something good, I want to eat it all, and I enjoy every last bite.

I've used the Atkins diet, or my version of it, on several occasions to lose 20 or 25 pounds. Critics of low-carbohydrate diets say that people almost always gain the weight back. I do gain it back, but it generally takes a year or more. With my job, it's hard to make the permanent diet changes necessary to maintain my ideal weight.

Ifirst learned about low-carbohydrate/ high-protein diets when a physician cousin tried one a couple of decades ago and lost a good bit of weight. I tried it myself when I realized that I could eat most of the items on the menu of one of my favorite off-duty restaurants, the Palm, and still lose weight. The Atkins diet for me became the Palm diet.

I could enjoy my favorite dishes–the mayonnaise-bound shrimp or lobster salad; giant lobsters dipped in melted butter; the terrific New York strip, cooked medium rare. While waiting for my meal, I would nibble on the radishes and pickles. I had to remember to ask the waiter not to bring the Palm fries, which I find irresistible, but if they weren't there, I didn't miss them. Skipping dessert has never been a problem for me.

I found the diet pretty well suited to eating at other kinds of restaurants, too. I made a point to order one item of protein that would fill me up–a steak, a chop, a piece of fish–and then simply taste the things around it. A taste of pasta, rice, or potatoes can easily be accommodated within the 20-gram-a-day carbohydrate limit of the induction phase. Certain kinds of restaurants I just avoided, particularly Mexican (I can't resist the chips) and Chinese (too much sugar).

I found that eating at home was even easier, provided I kept certain things in stock–salami for snacks, bacon and eggs, cheese, canned tuna, vegetables like asparagus and cauliflower, a ham in the fridge, rotisserie chicken from the market. On the occasions when the desire for something sweet strikes, I find it can be satisfied by (should a restaurant critic admit this?) a container of sugar-free Jell-O.

I missed bread. I also missed the crunch of high-carb foods like potato chips, corn chips, and crackers.

The induction phase prohibits coffee, tea, and alcohol. I ignored the caffeine ban and continued drinking coffee, with no slow-down in weight loss that I could perceive.

On the alcohol, I played around with compromises. Beer is full of carbohydrates and out of the question. Dry table wine contains about 4.3 grams of carbohydrate per 3.5-ounce glass, so it's permissible in limited quantities. Hard liquor contains only trace amounts of carbohydrates, so it is permissible, but according to the Atkins Web site, it is metabolized differently from other high-calorie foods. The calories from alcohol must be burned off before your weight loss can continue, so drinking slows the process. Given that, and the fact that I seem to exercise less control over what I eat when I've had a drink, I've been most successful at losing weight when I've stopped drinking.

There have always been questions about the health effects of the Atkins diet. What effect does a diet high in fat have on blood cholesterol? Is a high-protein diet likely to result in kidney damage? I'm not, and probably never could be, an Atkins lifer. I go on the Atkins diet for a month or six weeks once a year to lose 20 or 25 pounds. I take vitamins and don't worry much about the health consequences. I figure the health benefits of not carrying around those extra pounds makes the risks worthwhile.