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

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STEVE LISS FOR TIME
TOM AND BETSY SALES
WEIGHT LOSS: 85 lbs. combined. The Atkins acolytes are looking forward to a one-day Thanksgiving binge on mashed potatoes

The science behind these diets is less intuitive than the old fat-makes-you-fat theory and therefore easier to argue over. Each of the low-carb diets is a variation on the theme that cutting down on carbohydrates and thus decreasing blood-sugar levels will cause the pancreas to produce less of the energy catalyst insulin. With less insulin to draw on, the body is forced to burn fat reserves for energy, thus leading to a quick weight loss. Opponents argue that cause and effect have been reversed: excess insulin is caused not by too many carbs but by being too fat. The reason people lose weight on low-carb diets, they say, is simply that by cutting out carbs, these dieters are reducing their calorie intake. In response, Atkins throws out scientific terms like ketones (fat-burning by-products), while The Zone author Barry Sears talks about eicosanoids, which he claims are all-powerful hormones. Opponents use words like charlatan.

Perhaps the most appalled is Eat More, Weigh Less author Dr. Dean Ornish, one of the most respected of the low-fat, heart-healthy gurus and hence Atkins' natural enemy. "These books say you should eat healthy foods that won't provoke an insulin response, like bacon, as if insulin is the only mechanism that affects health," he says. "Most people eat so much sugar that when they stop eating it, they lose weight. But they're mortgaging their health in the process." Ornish, who has published studies in various medical journals, challenges the upstarts to do the same. "What's the evidence? None of these authors have ever published any data validating their claims."

The hottest of the low-carb authors, the Hellers, are not medical doctors, though they pose in lab coats on their books and refer to themselves as Dr. Rachael F. Heller and Dr. Richard F. Heller. They're probably just very proud of their Ph.D.s and happen to like hospital wear. The Hellers were propelled to stardom after a guest spot on Oprah in October. Winfrey, an adherent, originally planned to have them back this month, but the Hellers scored such good ratings that they were brought back a few days later. Last week the Hellers had books in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on best-seller list as well as the No. 10, 13, 23, 70 and 87 positions. This Oprah apparently has some pull.

Rachael Heller, who once weighed in at 320 lbs., speaks intensely about her childhood, recounting how she selected her baby-sitting gigs according to who had the best-stocked refrigerator and explaining a lunch-trading Ponzi scheme she invented in third grade to score extra sandwiches. Basically she blames her jones for carbs as the cause of her unhappy past. "They have actually located what they call the carbohydrate-craving gene, which is on chromosome number 11, close to the alcoholism gene and the cocaine-addiction gene," she says, before taking a brief talking break to join her husband in a mating dance that involves methodically removing the croutons from their chicken Caesar salad. Though her science may be suspect, her earnestness is not. During the meal, she leans over the table to confide details from her fat, ugly past. "I have stretch marks from my neck to my knees," she says sotto voce. Her husband tells her they are battle scars. They are in love in ways that even Codependent No More never imagined.

The Hellers' diet follows the basic plan of Atkins'--up with protein, down with carbohydrates--with one important concession: the Hellers allow one "reward meal" each day in which carbs are allowed. Atkins sees this as a betrayal of his science. In fact, Atkins sees most people as part of an intricate conspiracy against the truth of bacon. Twenty-seven years after publishing his trend-setting diet book, you'd think Atkins would be used to the critics by now. But sitting in his art-filled office last week in the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine, a seven-story alternative-medicine facility in midtown Manhattan, he was angry about the spanking he had received 20 min. earlier from the American Dietetic Association. "People in power have a tough time admitting they were wrong," he says. "The same problem exists with the American Heart Association." He is also disgusted by most other diets, which he considers either poor copies of his own or plain bad science. He has an enemies list that would impress Richard Nixon.

But there are many who love him. Tom and Betsy Sales, Atkins adherents in Chicago, have jointly lost 85 lbs. this year on meals like bacon and eggs without toast. Lots of their friends are on the diet, and local waiters have learned to expect bizarre requests. "At Bijan they do a baked brie that's out of this world. I asked to have the brie cheese with celery instead of bread," says Betsy, "and the waiter didn't even blink. And Dan O'Toole, a sales executive at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, shed 50 lbs. while eating fatty food. He says the diet gives him much more energy than he had in the past, though this may just be because he used to weigh 250 lbs.

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