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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But then there are people like Sherri Miller, 32, a full-time mother in Manhattan who tried the Atkins diet, lost 3 lbs. but quit when she tired of the fare. In fact, one of the tricks behind these diets, detractors say, is that by cutting out one major food group, like carbohydrates, people get bored quickly. "These diets work primarily by making people feel sick," says Dr. F. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, chief of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. "If you go on a strict high-protein diet, you feel nauseated and a little sick to your stomach after about four to five days, so you lose your appetite and eat less." By this theory an all-chocolate-and-cheese diet would work too, because eventually you'd find you can stomach only so many calories of Hershey's and Swiss each day. It would also be delicious.

Most of the other low-carb diets are less restrictive, lower-fat versions of the Atkins formula. Sugar Busters!, written by a mess of New Orleans doctors led by H. Leighton Steward, 64, vice chairman of Burlington Resources, advises avoiding white flour and refined sugars but allows you to eat cheese omelettes. "We think that if you eat the right kinds of carbohydrates, you won't get such a surge in blood sugar," says Steward. And while they don't advocate the heavy fats of Atkins, the diet still has a fair share of buttery goodness. Pam Hoffman, 33, a housewife in Metairie, La., knocked off 120 lbs. eating, among other things, ham, eggs and cream of broccoli soup. In Louisiana, of course, this might not be considered a high-fat diet.

The Zone's Sears is defensive about having his diet, which is lower in fats and proteins, grouped with Atkins'. "Any meal that you have to take potassium supplements, there's something wrong with that," he says of the high-protein diets. He advises eating a protein portion the size of your hand, lots of vegetables and water, and treating carbs and fat like condiments. (The goal: a 40-30-30 caloric ratio of carbs to protein to fat.) Yet his diet can be boring and requires an incredible attention to detail, like eating three olives or one macadamia nut. Still, the Zone has become so popular that it has spawned a gym for devotees in Hollywood and a catering service in Los Angeles, the Delivery Zone, which serves about 120 people a day. A similar service, Perfect Balance, has started in New York City and delivers to 1,200. Kristin Davis, who co-stars in HBO's Sex and the City, gets a delivery every day, and it has helped her lose 10 lbs. "I feel so much better that I'd be really shocked if there was a [health danger] that we didn't know about," she says. "It's more healthy than I would eat if I were left to my own choices. In that case, I probably wouldn't be eating a salad or fruit."

Like the Zone, Suzanne Somers' diet, which she calls Somersizing, avoids white flour and sugar, but it argues that the important thing is to combine foods in the right way. Her program (developed with endocrinologist Diana Schwarzbein, who has her own diet book) permits a meal combining protein and vegetables, but eating protein within three hours of eating carbohydrates is taboo. "The reason I used to be bloated was a gastric war between the protein and carbohydrates," says Somers. "Now I never have gas, I can proudly say. It's a great thing not to have gas." She adds that with her diet "you can even eat at McDonald's. I order two Big Macs but no buns." This is the kind of talk that men like. Men named Stocky. Stocky White, 37, the owner of a lodge in Livingston, Mont., lost nearly 50 lbs. on the Suzanne Somers diet. "It was awesome," he says, "and I've kept it off."

The next wave of fad diets base their low-carb logic on even stranger theories than insulin or food combining. Peter J. D'Adamo's book Eat Right 4 Your Type advocates diets tailored to your specific blood type. Type O's get to eat red meat. Type A's aren't as lucky; they're stuck with mostly vegetables and fruits. Type A's, however, get to keep using their arteries. D'Adamo sells vitamins for each body type and claims he has got the already skinny Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant and Andy Dick to buy into his logic.

Dr. Abravanel's Body Type Diet and Lifetime Nutrition Plan divides people into thyroids, adrenals, gonads or pituitaries, recommending different foods for each one. The big drawback of this diet is discovering that you are a gonad. Followers of the raw-foods diet eat only uncooked food; the Caveman Diet allows you to eat only what Stone Age people ate; and The Body Code, by Jay Cooper, divides dieters into warriors, nurturers, communicators and visionaries. Nurturers, in addition to eating lots of fruits and vegetables, no doubt do most of the cooking. More popular is Gwen Shamblin's The Weigh Down Diet, which advises using spirituality to avoid overeating and has sold more than 1.2 million copies to overweight Christians--a kind of What Would Jesus Eat? plan.

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