Good Riddance to Atkins - It Cost Me My Health

August 2, 2005
Evening Standard (London)
by Andrew Hanson

Almost from the beginning I had felt odd, very ‘dried out’, no matter how much water I drank, and I had started to get bad headaches. But the end was the worst - I was bedridden with flu, as ill as I can ever remember being, and it is my belief that the Atkins diet all but destroyed my health. I had lost nearly four stone in six weeks but it wasn’t worth it. My body had been damaged so much it couldn’t fight off the flu.

My wife, Louise, had encouraged me to follow the regime with her. At 6ft 1in and 17 stone, I knew I was at least four stone overweight. She wasn’t overweight but I think she wanted me to stick to it, so she did it with me. We bought the book but I couldn’t bear its evangelical tone and I couldn’t be bothered to read more than a few chapters. I knew the diet would work, though - there had been lots of publicity surrounding it - and I just wanted to know how to do it.

As I child I had been podgy but when I grew up I was slim and sporty. In my mid-twenties, I gave up smoking and put on some weight, but then I exercised it off. In the past few years, however, the weight has steadily piled on. I have two children - they are seven and four - and although they keep me running around a lot, I work long hours at my architect’s firm, Hanson Cribb. It’s a largely sedentary job (and sometimes, when I’m working hard, I lose track of time and end up snacking), and stress has always made me put weight on.

I had been feeling fat, unfit and unhealthy for years so, eventually, I decided to do something about it. I had never really been on a diet before but Atkins seemed easy - all I had to do was cut out carbohydrates and eat lots of protein. It also seemed like the perfect diet for blokes - bacon and eggs for breakfast every day and all the meat you can eat.

Each day I started with bacon and eggs and in the evening, my wife, who now helps me run my business, would make us a meat-heavy meal with some of the Atkins-allowed vegetables (all starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, are banned). Lunch was difficult, even though the diet was such a huge phenomenon that lots of other people were on it. I would go into a sandwich shop and hear fellow dieters ordering ‘everything in the sandwich apart from the bread’, and I remember thinking how ridiculous this sounded. I ended up eating slices of cheese and cold meats for lunch.

If we had friends round for dinner at our Notting Hill home - my wife’s a great cook - we’d tend to invite those who were on the diet as well, so it wouldn’t be awkward, and if we were invited to a dinner party, Louise would phone ahead and warn them we were on the regime. Going to restaurants could be difficult. I’d usually just order steak, and leave everything else on the plate, and you’re not allowed more than the odd glass of wine. I wouldn’t have said I particularly enjoyed eating carbohydrates, but I started to crave bread and pasta.

But I stuck to the diet strictly and the weight loss was dramatic and immediate. On the day I started the diet, I lost two pounds and then the weight seemed to drop off me at the rate of a pound a day. Physically, I felt awful - the headaches were becoming worse, and other side effects included constipation, bad breath and the feeling of always being dehydrated - but psychologically, it was a huge boost. I couldn’t believe how much weight I was losing.

I told myself that it didn’t matter that I had suddenly developed insomnia and that my skin was starting to suffer, when I was losing weight so quickly and looking better every day. I felt constantly ill, but my self-esteem rocketed. People started commenting on how much weight I was losing and that made me feel even better.

I knew the diet was unhealthy - all that fat was obviously not good for you - and I had read about the dangers, that all the fat in the diet puts you at risk of a heart attack and the lack of fibre in the diet is not good for digestion. It bothered me that the diet had been linked to kidney problems because I am prone to kidney stones, but I ignored it because I had been so seduced by the weight loss.

Six weeks into the diet, I went to a conference in Manchester and on the train on the way back, I started feeling very ill. I had stomach pains and was shaky. By the time I got home, I had a horrendous bout of flu and I couldn’t move for a week. It was a really busy time at work and I had people coming round for me to look over contracts and sign things.

By this time, I had lost almost two stone in six weeks and I’m convinced the diet had made my body susceptible to illness by lowering my immune system. When I finally dragged myself out of bed, I had lost another stone and a half in just one week.

By then, I didn’t care about the weight; after feeling worse than I can ever remember feeling, I just wanted to get better. I was convinced the Atkins diet was to blame and I couldn’t wait to eat a big bowl of pasta.

Now, a year on and a wiser 44, I have put all of the weight I lost back on and I’m trying to lose it again by exercising and eating sensibly. I don’t think I would ever go back on the Atkins diet, at least not for as long as I did before. I can see how attractive it is as a quick fix - we’re so used to getting things immediately, who wants to do endless exercise and healthy eating when it takes so long to see results? - but I don’t want to put myself through that again. And I think it’s put me off bacon and eggs for life.