What is the difference between the Paleo and Atkins diets?

I was asked this just today and a lot of people have interest in it because it seems that people have a lot of knowledge regarding one of the diets and not the other and they don’t seem to understand the difference, of which there are some pretty significant differences. Many times the reasons that you choose one diet over another is due to either weight loss OR a choosing a healthier diet for the long-term. Fanatics of both diets claim that they can be chosen as long-term diets (and when I say diet, I am referring to the foods that you eat to live, not to specifically lose weight.) If you feel so inclined to go with either diet, and you have chronic health issues or take any medications chronically, then please speak with your HCP about your lifestyle change.

What is the Atkins diet?

The theory behind the Atkins “nutritional approach” (as Dr. Atkins liked to refer to it) is that most people are overweight because they eat too many carbohydrates (and fat); when the body needs energy, it is able to make energy from carbohydrates quicker to use immediately, thus leaving the fat that can also be used as energy to be stored for later use by the body.  If the amount of carbohydrates were decreased, the fats and proteins would be utilized as the primary source of energy and burn off, thus not being stored, so you won’t gain weight…and essentially lose weight.  There is a little more to it, in that when your body switches to a state of fat burning instead of carbohydrate burning for energy, you go into something called ketosis.  Ketosis is basically when the body goes into starvation mode, because you have no immediate use energy from carbs, and you start to break down fat stores and protein for energy: the ketones from the fat stores turn into energy. When this happens and they break down further, into acetone, and the body gets rid of it through the kidneys (peeing it out) and through your lungs (breathing it out). Your breath can have a very distinctive fruity smell and your pee can smell differently as well.  Now, this is one way to lose weight, but it does put a lot of strain on your body to work differently (on a cellular level) to burn that fat. Also, eating more fat means that you have more circulating fat and cholesterol, which is not very heart healthy. If you have any sort of problems with your kidneys, this is NOT the diet for you. And honestly, I do not think that a diet without any form of carbohydrates and so high in fat is healthy long-term. Remember that old adage: if it seems to good to be true, it probably is?

What is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo diet is different, in that it is a diet that is based on what Paleolithic humans ate. All in all, a “caveman” diet.  The diet focuses around eating fish, grass-fed animals, fruit, vegetables, fungi, roots, and nuts all the while excluding legumes, grains, dairy, sugars, processed oils, and salts. The idea behind it is that you are eating a clean diet without added processed foods, which I totally get, and I love the idea of it.  However, some zealots of the diet insist upon truly eating the “caveman” way, in that they can only eat local fruits, veg, etc. and if you live in a place like New England, that really limits you diet in the winter months if you can only eat what grows locally, and I fear that people would be missing vital nutrients necessary for their body to optimally function.  As this diet is becoming trendier, it is slightly easier to follow as some restaurants offer paleo friendly menus. But the modern-day equivalents are not the same as what they were, with the addition of GMOs; you are really limited in your diet. Just like any other diet trend, it can cause controversy, and this is a pretty low-calorie/fat diet that people in the paleolithic era most likely did live off of, but we have to remember that they died at an extremely young age, and were killed off by diseases/viruses that we are exposed to now daily, but our robust immune systems kill off.  I agree, that the likelihood of a chunky “caveman” was probably very low, but they lived a hunter/gatherer lifestyle like animals in the wild do.  Regardless of that, my biggest fear with the lack of dairy and legumes (all beans) is that women, especially, do not get enough calcium with this diet. On the other hand, if you like it, you are able to follow it, it works for you, I am not going to tell you not to try to eat healthier.

So, yes both diets are similar in that they cut out carbs in the form of breads, but with the Paleo diet you can eat root vegetables which, many times, are carbohydrates, and in a true Atkins you cannot (should not) eat carbs even in the form of fruits and vegetables.  I think that Atkins sounds like it would be a fun diet, eat tons of fatty foods and lose weight, but I eat so many fruits and vegetables, and when I am off my normal diet for a while, I crave straight up veggies (like I will eat a bowl of brussel sprouts or broccoli for dinner and not miss the protein a smidge!) And I like the theory of Paleo, in that we are taking our diet back to a very simple place, eating real food without anything refined or processed added, a truly clean diet, BUT I think that eating with the strictness of that diet is not sustainable and people will miss vitamins and nutrients that are necessary to live.  We live in a fast paced modern world, where the average Paleolithic era people wouldn’t be able to survive one week with their immune systems and caloric intake (not to mention their poor minds would be blown away with technology, but I digress).

If you want my advice?  Yes, cut down on your carbs (in the form of breads) and be cognizant of how much sugar you are eating, eat organically and GMO-free as much as you can, keep it up with the fish and grass-fed meats (if you so choose), and get in some daily exercise.  The thing about having a healthy diet, is about making healthy life choices, and if you change your lifestyle and way of thinking about food as fuel, you are more likely to be healthier and stick to that diet and lifestyle change.  The thing about diet? It’s all up to you, you make the choices of what you want to eat; eat clean, drink lots of water, and feel your body become happy and healthy.  Kick diet trends to the curb, and just be healthy!

Yours in Good Health