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Catering to the Atkins Craze

Restaurants, even fast-food chains, squeeze out the carbs

THURSDAY, Jan. 8, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- There once was a time -- say 2002 -- when cheeseburger fans who were trying to shed a few pounds would order their burger without cheese. Or mayonnaise. Or both.

These days, they have another option: Hold the bun, but pile on the mayo and cheese.

And remember when party guests would ask, "May I bring something, perhaps an appetizer?" Now they're likely to say, "I'll bring something with protein in it. Got to balance out all those carbs."

All of that was "B.A." -- or Before Atkins -- the hugely popular weight-loss plan popularized by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, who encouraged people to go very light on the carbs, and heavier on the proteins and fats, to lose weight.

If you've shopped or eaten out anytime in the past six months, you've probably noticed how the food industry is now catering to the Atkins crowd in a big way.

Many restaurants have created "low-carb" corners of their menus. Predictably, they include endless offerings of meat, although it's too soon to say if the mad cow scare will deflate that demand. But there are also bun-less burgers, pizzas made from whole wheat crusts, even low-carb cheesecakes.

Meanwhile, such high-carb staples as pasta and breads have become forgotten culinary cousins.

Even fast-food chains are catering to the high-protein, low-carb movement.

Carl's Jr., with outlets throughout the western United States, has just unveiled what it calls "The Low-Carb Six Dollar Burger." It's a bundle of beef wrapped in lettuce, with just six grams of carbohydrates, 55 fewer than the original "Six Dollar Burger," the company says.

Subway Restaurants has just introduced two low-carb wrap sandwiches. And some McDonald's outlets are promoting salads and low-fat sandwiches -- and exercise suggestions, to boot.

But will the trend last?

The Atkins diet -- and related high protein, low-carbohydrate plans -- has won unexpected respect in medical circles in recent months.

In May, the New England Journal of Medicine published two studies suggesting the Atkins diet is more effective than a traditional low-fat approach at helping people drop unwanted weight.

What's more, the Atkins plan doesn't boost cholesterol levels, as might be expected, the studies found.

"The results are very surprising and at the same time very preliminary," Gary Foster, clinical director of the University of Pennsylvania's Weight and Eating Disorders Program and leader of one of the studies, told HealthDay. "The take-home message is that this diet deserves further study."

Such findings are cold comfort to groups like the National Bread Leadership Council, which says 40 percent of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago.

But the industry group has just released some new research that should reassure members that things aren't as bad as they might fear.

The research found that 54 percent of Americans haven't changed their bread-consumption habits during the past year, and 6 percent are actually eating more bread. The survey also revealed that 41 percent of those questioned quit the Atkins diet because they missed their carbs too much to continue.

Shelby Weeda, president of King's Hawaiian Baking Company in Torrance, Calif., isn't prepared to surrender to the low-carb trend. "It's a passing fancy," says the food industry veteran, who adds that he has seen many popular diets come and go.

Besides, he says, his Hawaiian sweet breads are "an indulgent product" that people won't want to give up.

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, a dietitian and weight loss expert from Skokie, Ill., calls the food industry's budding alliance with the Atkins camp "marketing at its best."

In her review of the medical literature studies, Moag-Stahlberg says the majority of the research shows "no huge weight loss advantage long term" with a low-carb, high-protein plan.

Weight loss, she adds, is inextricably tied to caloric intake and expenditure -- an old refrain that many people trying to shed pounds are tired of hearing.

"Some people do have greater satiation on the high-protein diets and can stick to them," she says." But there is nothing magic about the protein."

Too many people, she adds, are looking for a magic weight-loss bullet.

So, when faced with the low-carb, high-protein blitz at supermarkets, fast food outlets, and restaurants, what should a consumer with weight to spare do?

"If you are going to go the high-protein route, be sure you are being careful about your protein choices," suggests Anne M. Fletcher, a Minnesota dietitian and author of the book Thin for Life.

That means not overloading on bacon and high-fat cheese, for instance, but healthier protein choices. Some veggie burgers, for instance, have 10 grams or more of protein per patty but are low in fat, she says.

Fletcher also recommends these other ways to control weight:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Pick whole-grain breads.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. You need them for fiber, vitamins and minerals.
  • Consider upping your water intake. "There's no scientific evidence that water is of value in weight loss," Fletcher says. "However, when you talk to people who have lost weight and kept it off, they will tell you they drink a lot of water."

More information

For nutrition tips, see the American Dietetic Association and the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

SOURCES: Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, R.D., Skokie, Ill., dietitian, and executive director, Action for Healthy Kids; Shelby Weeda, president, King's Hawaiian Baking Company, Torrance, Calif.; Anne M. Fletcher, R.D., Minnesota dietitian, and author, Thin for Life
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