The Low-Carb Diet Craze

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TED THAI FOR TIME

SAY YES TO BACON: Robert Atkins, who's been touting low-carb diets since the '70s, has a feast on the eve of his 69th birthday

CATRINA GENOVESE FOR TIME; FOOD: ZABEL MASHEJIAN
SAY NO TO PASTA: The Hellers, in seven diet books, try to break people's addiction to carbohydrates. They mostly lay off too

A diet is more than a fad. In fact, it's more than a diet--when skinny people are on it. Yet there they are, jogging into Noah's Bagels in Santa Monica, Calif., proudly ordering bagels with the innards scooped out, disposed like toxic waste and replaced with full-fat cream cheese. In Chicago restaurants, the unpaunched are gorging on porterhouse steaks but banishing the baked potato back to Idaho. And Jennifer Aniston has been publicly chastised by her former trainer, who thinks Aniston's low-carb, high-protein diet is too extreme. When even the scrawniest cast members from Friends are on a diet, something is happening.

What's happening is a boom in low-carb diets, the weight-loss schemes that allow you to eat all the protein you want--steak, eggs, even fatty bacon--so long as you cut way down on carbohydrates like bread, pasta and soda. The fat-embracing diets, like so many other fads that we shouldn't have invited back, are from the '70s, when high-protein plans like the Scarsdale Diet and Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution made fondue hip. Now the low-carb diets are back and bigger than ever. Low-carb-diet books will clog the top four spots in next Sunday's New York Times paperback best-seller list for advice and how-to books. Dr. Robert Atkins, at 69 still the reigning guru of the movement, is back on the charts with Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution. Other low-carb diet books jamming the shelves include The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet and a plateful of spin-offs by Rachael and Richard Heller, Protein Power by Drs. Michael and Mary Eades, Sugar Busters!, The Zone and Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Foods. Some probably bought the Somers book for the color picture of her licking a butterflied-lamb-slicked finger, but it still became a No. 1 best seller, something her poetry collection (despite Johnny Carson's best efforts) never did. Even bread-loving France has had a best-selling high-protein diet book, Eat Yourself Slim by Michel Montignac, and Poland has the Optimal Nourishment plan. Russia would have one too if it had meat.

It's not hard to find people talking about these diets, because the only thing people like to talk about more than eating is not eating. Jan Rowell, 52, a technical writer in West Linn, Ore., went on the Hellers' diet and knocked off 105 lbs., getting down to 140. "I could have lost this much eating low fat," she says. "But the times I dieted that way before, it was always a struggle. With these diets, you just feel miraculously free of the craving and the drive to eat." The weight-beleaguered Cathy confronted the low-carb diet craze in her comic strip last week, uncharacteristically stifling an "Aack!" through five days of her co-workers' cheeseburger-eating braggadocio. Demand for beef in 1999 is projected to rise 1.6% over last year, and for pork 2.3%. Having it your way now includes having a plate, fork and knife included with a bunless Whopper at Burger King. Celebrities and everyday folks alike are bragging about the bacon and eggs they downed for breakfast, followed by a midday repast of pork rinds. In return for this unlimited meat, all the new diets ask is that you lay off the penne and rice. Who wouldn't like a diet that works at a Vegas buffet?

Turns out most mainstream doctors and professional dietitians. They're attacking these latest fad diets on CNN and making Leeza seem like the McLaughlin Group. Last week 9,000 of them met in Atlanta for a conference of the American Dietetic Association, and even though the organization hadn't scheduled any Atkins talk for its seminars, it blasted low-carb diets as "a nightmare." JoAnn Hattner, a clinical nutritionist at the UCSF Stanford University Medical Center who attended the conference, worries about the high levels of protein and fat in many of these diets, as well as their lack of fiber. "Removing fiber causes constipation, fluid dehydration, weakness and nausea. It's a great strain on the kidneys," she says. Keith Ayoob, a professor of nutrition at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, warns about other "very unpleasant side effects--sometimes really bad breath."

But millions of people are willing to risk halitosis, or worse long-range health effects, to get rid of their obesity. The U.S. is by far the fattest country in the world, with 54% of the population overweight. If Americans didn't travel overseas, they'd think 200 lbs. was normal. They eat 7% more calories than they did 20 years ago. Even the nation's children, the ones so hyperactive they need Ritalin, are pudgy; 25% of them are overweight. To combat this, Americans, in lieu of exercise, spend $33 billion a year on the diet industry.

Carb paranoia struck when people discovered that all the fat-free food they loaded up on during the last diet craze was making them fat. Diet plans like the Pritikin Program of the early '80s and Susan Powter's Stop the Insanity! in 1993 caused a run on processed low-fat food like SnackWell's and frozen yogurt. But those treats, it turned out, were chock-full of sugar and a whole mess of calories. Result: you gained weight. The reaction in recent years has been to eliminate sugar by dropping carbohydrates from the menu altogether. So instead of the 1994 book Butter Busters, we now have Sugar Busters! and a series of the most guy-embraced diets ever, regimens with Henry VIII as a role model and beef jerky as a food group.

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