The Low-Carb Diet Craze


    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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    The medical evidence for many of these diets is flimsy, but you can find an expert somewhere to support almost every one. Though Atkins' high-fat regimen has drawn widespread criticism in the medical community, it has vocal adherents as well. Dennis Gage, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, immediately takes his patients off relatively nutrient-poor pastas and white breads. Like many of the diet gurus, he argues that naysayers are using outdated science. "Some of the registered dietitians trained the old-fashioned way, saying you have to have 50% carbohydrates. The government is always behind. The next update will probably correct that." And it's hard to dispute people like David Kirsch, a New York City celebrity fitness trainer and diet guru (among his clients: Ivana Trump), mostly because he's really big. Kirsch makes a lot of protein drinks and lectures strongly against processed foods. "I have converted most of my 300 clients into not eating bread," he says. "In the long haul, you can deal with not eating any bread."

    Still, the majority of dietitians and doctors remain wary of low-carb diets, favoring the traditional carb-heavy food pyramid with a reduction of calories and an increase in exercise. They aren't getting many book contracts. "Most Americans don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, and now you have diets like Atkins that say don't eat sweet potatoes, don't eat carrots, don't eat corn," says Franca Alphin, administrative director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center. "Those foods are so beneficial. It's really frustrating." The low-carb diets, they insist, eventually fail. "The more unusual a diet is, the more different from the standard of what people normally eat and find around them, the more apt they are to go off the diet and regain the weight," says Dr. Bruce Zimmerman, a vice president of the American Diabetes Association and an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic.

    For the traditionalists, there are the old reliable calorie-reduction diets, like Weight Watchers, which sees 600,000 unshapely bodies each week, and Jenny Craig, which caters to dieters at 600 centers around the country. Sure, unlike the other hot diet programs, these guys may have to pay their celebrities (Sarah Ferguson for Weight Watchers, Monica Lewinsky for Jenny Craig), but they get the approval of dietitians for free. Weight Watchers assigns points for each type of food, so people can sneak some fatty, sugar-filled food into their point allotment. But the program rewards eating vegetables, and especially fiber. "When you have a fad diet, you wind up trading one obsession for another," says Linda Webb Carilli, the company's general manager of corporate affairs. "High-protein diets are not good for women because they leach calcium."

    But as long as happy dieters and supportive doctors keep going on talk shows, people with eating problems aren't going to resist a diet that lets you eat pork rinds. Sam Panayotovich, 53, the Illinois state liquor commissioner, has been following a combination of Atkins and a 1979 local diet known as the whipped-cream-and-martini diet. The diet allows fondue, bourguignon, bearnaise, fried chicken, chunks of steak and enough alcohol for a buzz. He's lost 53 lbs. and kept it off for 11 months, a personal record. Like most Atkins adherents, the liquor commissioner talks about his diet with a mystical admiration. "When you talk about this diet, that you can drink and have a nice steak and lose weight, people look at you like you really have been drinking." And nothing cures a hangover better than a big, greasy bacon-and-eggs breakfast.

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