Sunday, May 15, 2011

Almost Atkins

A few weeks ago, in my company’s café, I ran into a co-worker I hadn’t seen in quite a while. We were both juggling lunch plates in our hands, and after exchanging pleasantries, we started eying each other’s food choices.

I kept my assessment of her tofu and Asian noodle salad bowl to myself.

She, on the other hand, looked at my bacon-topped grass-fed beef patty and side of vegetables and smirked. “Atkins, huh?” she chuckled.

“Oh, no -- I’m not on Atkins,” I stammered. My co-worker furrowed her brow. “Well, you see, I’m on something called a Paleo Diet,” I added. I began reciting the Whole9 elevator pitch, but I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere fast. My co-worker smiled and nodded, but she clearly thought I was a freak.

Back at my desk, as I devoured my now-cold lunch, I got to thinking: Why didn’t I just tell her that I’m on the Atkins Diet? Wouldn’t it have been easier -- on both of us? Why the reluctance to be associated with Atkins?

More after the jump...

Certainly, in the public’s mind, there’s something a little skeevy about the Atkins Diet. Maybe it has to do with the widely-held misconception that Atkins dieters don't eat anything other than bacon, steak and eggs. (The latest iteration of the Atkins Diet actually advocates the consumption of “foundation vegetables” like leafy greens.) Perhaps the urban legends surrounding the circumstances of Dr. Robert Atkins’ death have contributed to the bad press. But frankly, the public’s skepticism about the Atkins Diet is primarily due to the belief that low-fat diets are best, and that eating meat will kill you. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks -- even if the Atkins’ “trick” has been around for decades.

When push comes to shove, the Paleo Diet actually has more in common with the Atkins Diet than with most other nutritional approaches. Both encourage the consumption of protein and fat, and both frown on eating sugar and other highly-processed carbs like refined pasta, cereal and bread. And just as with Paleo, whole grains and legumes are verboten in the initial “induction” phase of the Atkins Diet. Folks who follow the Atkins approach are much better off than those who are eating low-fat, high-carb diets. Indeed, for folks who are metabolically-deranged and overweight or obese from consuming loads of carbohydrates as part of the Standard American Diet, Atkins is a godsend. It's a great tool for weight loss.

But in the end, Paleo and Atkins aren't the same.

First of all, the Atkins Diet isn’t terribly concerned about food quality. According to Atkins, as longs as the stuff you’re eating is super-low in “net carbs,” it’s fine -- regardless of whether you’re eating pastured eggs or an “Atkins Advantage Caramel Fudge Brownie Bar," which is packed with artificial sweeteners, soy, dairy, and all sorts of unpronounceable chemicals.

Atkins’ focus is on weight loss (and maintenance) -- not an unworthy target, but not the end-all, be-all, either. It turns a blind eye to highly inflammatory ingredients and pseudo-foods, and doesn’t distinguish between good and bad fats, either.

And frankly, when people say they’re “on Atkins,” most of ‘em are talking about being on a crash diet -- one they don't intend to continue once they hit their "target weight." While the Atkins Diet is often used as a quick-hit weight loss diet (“I’m going low-carb for three weeks to get ready for my trip to Cabo!”), I’d like to think that most Paleo eaters are committing themselves to this nutritional approach in order to maximize their health, longevity, and performance. Indeed, many of us aren’t even all that interested in weight loss.

(I, for one, am in the process of trying to gain weight. While Paleo eating is typically a lower-carb affair given the lack of grains, sugar, legumes and the like, I’m happy to be munching on starchy carbs without weighing or measuring any of my food.)

In the end, those are the reasons why I don’t want folks mistaking my approach to nutrition for the Atkins Diet. I happen to care about food quality. And I’m not on a quick-hit weight-loss diet. Call me a Paleo snob, but I’m in this for life, so I'd rather not fill up on weird lab-created Frankenfoods just 'cause they're low-carb.