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Alternatives to Atkins

There's an interesting letter in this week's Spike magazine, responding to an article a few weeks back by Ross Edwards Marks extolling the virtues of the Atkins Diet. I have watched in amazement as the Atkins diet has become so popular and even respectable, even though it greatly restricts what you can eat and the long-term effects are unknown.

Many years ago, I read a book called "Dine Out and Lose Weight: The French Way to Healthy Eating" by Michel Montignac after it was recommended in a newspaper. The book was rather badly translated from the French original, but I nevertheless found it useful, and, as the letter in Spike points out, it is a less drastic alternative to Atkins.

Atkins requires you to cut out carbohydrates and eat more of everything else. That means avoiding the staple foods such as rice, bread, noodles, pasta, and potatoes, and eating more meat, cheese and eggs. This runs totally counter to the orthodox approach, characterised by the ubiquitous food triangle telling us that we should eat more carbohydrates and cut down on meat and particularly fat.

I was quite intrigued by Atkins when I first read about it, but I have become more cynical since it was adopted by the food industry, which now offers a range of products which are Atkins-friendly. Hence you may not need to cut out pasta completely because you can buy special pasta-substitutes with a lower carbohydrate index, but they are much more expensive (surprise, surprise).

One thing I like about M. Montignac is that he argues that it is processed food that is one of the biggest problems, so there's no danger of his method being endorsed by the large food companies. It's a long time since I read the book (and I don't have it anymore), but I recall that his argument is that there are good and bad carbohydrates, and that we get fat by eating carbohydrates and protein/fat together. His theory is that this is all somehow related to the way that the pancreas works.

There are obvious similarities between the two approaches. If you followed Montignac you would probably also cut out carbohydrates with your main meal, but you are free to eat them separately or in another meal. The science underlying both ideas must be similar, though I don't claim to understand this aspect.

Some aspects of the Montignac approach seem to be widely accepted - for example the idea that it is best to eat fruit on an empty stomach a short time before you eat your main meal. There's also an element of common sense - when you think about the impact on the body of stuffing yourself full of a combination of different foods is it any wonder that it creates problems.

Atkins seems to be an "all or nothing" diet. When you start, the body takes a while to adapt and it causes some unpleasant (but temporary) side-effects. Once the transformation has taken place you can relax what you eat a little, but not very much. Perhaps this helps some people since it gives them more of an incentive to carry on, but it also makes it inflexible.

Montignac, on the other hand, seems a lot more practical. It does involve re-thinking what you eat, but usually by making relatively minor adjustments, sometimes just to the timing and the combinations. In one sense it is more difficult, in that you have to think about what you eat (whereas Atkins is very simple), but this is also one of the benefits. If it all achieves is to encourage you to cut down on processed and over-cooked food then that has to a good thing. Worth a look.

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