Atkins Goes Lean: the Dukan Diet Hits the U.S.

“Wow, you guys really know how to do a queue,” said the handsome man standing behind me. I looked down at the Tupperware box of prawns in my hands.

Moments later as I struggled to wipe off the prawn juice that I had just spilled down my arm before the doorman could see and decide I was insane, it struck me that I might be taking this a little far.

I was standing in a ridiculously long line outside a trendy New York biergarten on the first day of spring, waiting to buy an entry ticket to look at beer I couldn’t drink and smell sausages I couldn’t eat.

On my second day following the newest European slimming fad, the Dukan Diet, the severe restrictions were already starting to impinge on my life.

The diet operates on the same principle as the Atkins diet: Only protein and dairy can be eaten, meaning the body stops retaining water and resulting in rapid weight loss. However, unlike Atkins, Dukan imposes severe restrictions on fat content: only the leanest meats can be eaten, and only dairy with less than 2 percent fat is allowed. While this eliminates cholesterol concerns, it also severely limits options, making the plan much harder to follow.

A craze that swept Europe in 2010, Dukan is the newest go-to for celebrity slimmers. Interest peaked when it was revealed Kate Middleton and her mother followed the diet in the run-up to April’s royal wedding.

On April 19, the Dukan Diet hit the U.S. The system comprises a basic book or an enhanced package including personal coaching via a website, www.dukandiet.com. Membership is priced individually depending on weight loss needs. Weigh-ins and measurements must be logged daily, as well as specific details of any lapses.

The diet is divided into four phases. The Attack phase, imposed for two to five days depending upon how much weight the individual wants to lose, is pure protein consumption. Unlimited quantities of lean protein and fat-free dairy are allowed. This results in rapid weight loss as high as 10 pounds, although 2 to 3 pounds is the average.

During Attack, I was surprised to find I did not miss other foods. Perhaps the novelty of finding new surf-and-turf-and-air combinations was enough to keep me interested; roast chicken topped with prawns and lean ham on the side became a favorite.

At this stage the 1-2-pound loss seen daily provides ample motivation to persevere. More of a problem was my persistently dry mouth and furry tongue, which required far more water than the recommended daily two-liter allowance to keep at bay.

In the Cruise phase, certain vegetables are introduced, but only every other day. This lasts until the client reaches “true weight,” which the system calculates according to questions about weight history and body mass index. The weight loss slows down with the reintroduction of non-starchy vegetables that cause water retention.

For Consolidation, brown carbohydrates are gradually introduced. In Stabilization, all foods can be eaten in healthy amounts.

Oat bran, the only carbohydrate allowed in the first two phases, is an essential part of the diet. Despite research into the benefits of oat bran for weight loss, there is no scientific evidence of its efficacy. The program also relies heavily on artificial sweeteners and diet products, which have been linked with significant health problems.

The most common side effects include severe constipation punctuated by severe bouts of diarrhea, a dry mouth and white coating on the tongue, and constant thirst.

I experienced all these, as well as continuous exhaustion from the lack of carbohydrates. I became lethargic, negative and very antisocial. The combination of being too tired to go out, and knowing that if I did I would be unable to eat most of the things on my plate, transformed me into a virtual hermit. On my last day of following the plan, I went out to dinner to celebrate. I had one illicit spoonful of forbidden rice, and was shocked by the harsh pangs of guilt I felt for the rest of the evening.

As a normal person at a healthy weight, I lost 12 pounds in 10 days.

While results can be rapid, the smallest slip can result in an immediate gain. Having personally lost 90 pounds through portion control and exercise in the past year , I have learned the hard way that weight doesn’t stay off without an investment of effort. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 93 percent of people who lose weight regain it, and the most successful at maintaining are those who lose slowly.

Registered dietitian Tara Miller has serious reservations about the diet’s long-term effectiveness. “The initial loss may be of motivational benefit, but you’re likely to feel so miserable from lacking so many nutrients that it won’t be conducive to maintaining a good attitude for dieting,” she says.

Furthermore, Miller says the problem with diets that restrict some food groups but allow unlimited quantities of others is that they don’t teach good life habits. “By not talking about portion control, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of eating well and being healthy. The main thing to focus on is behavior change.”

Having followed the plan for 10 days, I can’t imagine how a person could stick to the entire program, which requires five days of Consolidation dieting per pound lost. With enough willpower, Dukan can evidently be life-changing. As for me, another day without bread might send me over the edge; I suppose I just don’t have the makings of a true Dukanier. On the plus side, I’ll always have cookies.