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Couch to Camino: Andrea Smith tackles the Atkins diet in her bid to complete the Camino


Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

So after explaining why I'm walking 115km of the Camino Way for charity in September to my, quite frankly, incredulous family and friends, the time has come to stop talking about it and start the hard work. I decided to visit my doctor in advance of pounding the pavements, secretly hoping that he'd find some kind of reason to excuse me on medical grounds and let me off the hook.

He did all of the usual tests and then phoned me with the results. The great news is that despite being the laziest, fattest person in history, the results indicated that like Mary Poppins, I was practically perfect in every way, just a bit low in iron. Who isn't, sez you?

As I mentioned last week, I'd like to drop a couple of stone to make it easier to do the walk, so the time has come to put the crisps and chocolate away and embrace my inner Gillian McKeith. I have decided to try out different eating plans every week, just to keep it interesting and see if they work, so to kick off, my diet strategy this week was along the Atkins lines.

According to the late Dr Robert Atkins, we eat way too many carbohydrates in the form of white flour and refined sugar, and most of the packaged foods we eat such as pasta, bread and cereal are rich in carbohydrates.

While a typical diet reduces calories, most are still high in carbohydrates, so many people constantly cycle between sugar "highs," where excess sugar is stored as fat in the body and "lows," where you feel tired and hungry and crave more carbs and sugar.

On Atkins, you stick to meat, fish, cheese, butter, eggs and nuts, because fans swear that the no-carb lark is just the ticket both for dropping the pounds and stopping the cravings. The core principle of the diet centres around the idea that your metabolism can use two different types of fuel for energy, so your body either draws the sugar from carbohydrates, or if carbs are limited, it's forced to burn its stored fat for fuel. And as a girl who's not short of a bit of stored flab to burn, that sounds like just the plan for me.

Obviously there's a considerable amount of controversy over this programme, because while everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Kim Kardashian and Mary Coughlan has sung its praises in the past, the medical community is divided on how healthy an approach like this can be, especially in the long run.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go for a couple of weeks, because let's face it, it couldn't be worse than my existing diet, which hasn't exactly been glittering with healthy choices in the past.

Incidentally, the man behind the plan, the late cardiologist, Dr Robert Atkins, had a heart attack in April 2002, and many of his critics viewed it as proof of the inherent dangers of the high levels of saturated fat associated with the diet. His own cardiologist, Dr Patrick Fratellone, has since explained in numerous interviews that the heart attack was not caused by poor diet, but by cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart weakness, caused in his case by a virus.

The science behind the Atkins principles has been proven by over 80 clinical studies, although it is considered controversial, partly because of the restrictions on fruits and vegetables in the early weight-loss stages.

Unlike most conventional diets, you're not required to watch the amount of calories you eat, and you eat foods that would be considered coIn fact, you can eat any amount of the accepted foods on the Atkins diet once your daily carb intake stays under 20g, although in fairness, there is only so much of chewing on meat like a cavegirl that my body can take.

I barely eat meat on a general basis, free-range chicken aside, but on this plan you can enjoy steak, bacon and all the rest of it.

The other slight problem is the cheese, which I love, because I appear to have developed a late-onset intolerance to dairy or lactose - I intend to get tested this month to check it out for sure.

I have been plagued with psoriasis over the last couple of years, and the latter in particular drives me mad in the form of madly itchy palms and soles of my feet. I've finally copped that it gets much worse when I eat cheese or ice cream, so I'm going to eschew dairy for a while too to see if it makes a difference, even though it's gonna break my cheddar-loving heart.

Incidentally, one of the side effects of Atkins is bad breath, so it's probably just as well I have nobody to kiss these days!

So in preparation for my diet, I ate everything in the house over the weekend and enjoyed every single mouthful. Then I went shopping and got the rather dull supplies in, so my fridge and cupboards are currently sparkling with virtue with nary a carb lurking in any corner.

I started the diet last Monday, and soon got into a groove of having the same thing every day. I'm a martyr like that, as due to my terrible lack of willpower, I'm much better sticking to something very restrictive rather than having a choice.

I got up at 5.30am every day because I had a busy week, and brought the six dogs up to walk around the park. At that hour, we had it to ourselves, so they ran around the place and had fun. Due to having so many of them, some of whom are house angels and street devils, I have to go at times where there is less risk of meeting other people and dogs.

We did our usual half-hour trot around the perimeter, and the poor dogs were totally confused and delighted when I turned around and did the whole thing in reverse.

Then I came home and made a breakfast of smoked salmon and eggs, so as you can see it was a real hardship. I had to go into town for work on two mornings, so while there, I had grilled bacon, egg and sausage in a cafe. I had chicken Caesar salad for dinner practically every day, and dumped out the croutons and replaced them with peanuts.

It was weird, because as the week went on, I definitely lost the sugar cravings and hunger pangs, so I can confirm that this part is definitely true.

And you know, even though it was very restrictive, I didn't really mind it at all. The best part was that I lost 7lb, which was a good start towards slimming one of my four chins, although the first week in any diet is always the best so I won't expect things to keep up at that pace.

Tune in next week to see if my breath has caused the dogs to leave home, and if any of you fancy doing the Camino with us, there are a couple of places available.

For information on Walk the Camino see therisefoundation.ie.

Health & Living