Roots of the Atkins diet

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 13 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:132
  1. Timo Strandberg (timo.strandberg{at}, senior researcher
  1. Department of Medicine, Geriatric Clinic, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

    The Atkins and similar diets have gained wide popularity and led to scientific scrutiny of low carbohydrate diets for treating obesity. However, perceptive observations on carbohydrate-rich diets and obesity can be found as far back as the start of the 19th century. In his book Physiologie du Gout (Physiology of Taste) French lawyer, politician, and lay physician Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) eloquently sets the grounds for gastronomy, but in several chapters he also vividly describes obesity and its causes and prevention.

    In conversations with obese people Brillat-Savarin had observed their craving for flour, macaroni, rice, potatoes, bread, and sweet pastries. His idea was that the principal reason for obesity is too much starch and a flour-rich diet, especially when it is combined with sugar and fat. In accordance with his theory, neither carnivore species relying on a protein-rich diet nor vegetarians get obese unless they are fed with potatoes, grains, and flour. Furthermore, Brillat-Savarin recognises that obesity does not exist among wild tribes who need physical exercise to get their daily nutrition.

    Brillat-Savarin concludes that the main reasons for obesity are too much food and drink and sets three basic rules for obesity prevention—moderation at the dining table, not too much sleep, and plenty of exercise on foot and horseback. He also instructs his readers to avoid starch, sugar, and flour based foods and to prefer light meats, greens, root vegetables, cabbage, and fruit. If you like bread, Brillat-Savarin advises that you avoid the white type and eat rye or barley instead. As a Finn who enjoys dark, fibre-rich rye bread, I appreciated this statement. For drinking, he suggests water, coffee, tea, light white wines, and even strong liquor occasionally. Those who follow his advice should feel themselves fresh, charming, agile, vigorous, and full of pep.

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