Eat These Pork Chops and Call Me in the Morning

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It's hard to imagine a less threatening adversary than septuagenarian diet doc Robert Atkins. On the other hand, if you're Dean Ornish, who exists on an ultra-low-fat regimen that includes robust foods like carrots and lettuce, a gray-haired meat chomper probably looks pretty intimidating. Ornish and Atkins were together in Washington Thursday, joined by numerous other diet "gurus" for the government-sponsored "Great Nutrition Debate." Accusations of quackery were exchanged freely between the panelists, whose weight-loss prescriptions range from Atkins' all-protein pork-and-beef fest to John McDougall's Asian rice plan. The only thing anyone could agree on was that Americans need to lose weight.

We hardly needed these particular experts to tell us that the weight of the average American is ballooning out of control. "We talk incessantly about weight loss," says TIME medical contributor Dr. Ian Smith. "But obesity levels are going through the roof. We cling to the idea that there is a quick fix." Of course, there isn't, which is why most health experts view Atkins et al. with a healthy dose of skepticism. These diets are extreme, and almost no one is capable of sticking with a no-fat diet, or an all-protein diet or a diet with no sugar. And most likely, says Dr. Smith, that safety valve of human nature is a good thing, because no one should be on these programs for an extended period. "Generally, doctors are telling their patients not to go on these diets because there is no rigorous, peer-reviewed study showing any of these diets to be effective in the long term. We also have no idea what sort of major health risks these programs might cause." Anxious dieters will have to wait some time before any regimen gets an official stamp of approval, although government officials have indicated an interest in establishing some sort of oversight. But until that happens, doctors urge caution and common sense. And back in the land of quick weight loss, it's every diet guru for himself.