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Atkins Company To Slim Itself Down

Bankruptcy filing marks end of 'low-carb' diet craze, some say

MONDAY, Aug. 1, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- News that the company that spawned the hugely popular Atkins diet has filed for bankruptcy protection signals the end of an era -- specifically the end of the "low-carb" era, several nutrition experts say.

"People have gotten tired of the low-carbohydrate trend," said Arlene Spark, associate professor of nutrition at Hunter College in New York City. "It had to run its course. Manufacturers were pumping air into low-carb bread, making smaller slices. There's a point at which the public catches on to that."

Rivals like the South Beach Diet may also have changed the mindset that a no-carb regimen was the best and quickest way to lose weight, added Cathy Nonas, director of the diabetes and obesity programs at North General Hospital in New York City. "It shed some light on the issue of controlling carbohydrates without being low."

The company founded by the late cardiologist Dr. Robert Atkins filed for chapter 11 protection in New York. A hearing on the filing by Atkins Nutritionals Inc. was scheduled for Aug. 1 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, company spokesman Richard Rothstein said Sunday.

While the company dates from 1989, the diet -- which promotes high protein and fat consumption and severely restricted carbohydrates -- debuted in the 1970s and has enjoyed varying degrees of popularity ever since.

At its height, the Atkins diet was wildly popular, and the Atkins name decorated protein bars, shakes, snack foods and other products in tens of thousands of stores across North America.

The trend also prompted other companies to begin marketing their own lines of low-carb foods.

There was no question that people lost weight on the diet -- at least in the beginning.

"You do lose a considerable amount of weight. It's not a great way to lose it," Spark said. "You lose very rapidly at the beginning. The first two weeks, if you can even stay on for two weeks, you lose an enormous amount of water."

But the regimen is tough to sustain, she said.

"If you ask people how they're doing six months later, they're not doing so well [in terms of weight loss]," Spark added.

Critics also worried that the emphasis on foods high in saturated fats -- such as red meat and cheese -- would harm heart health down the line.

But recent studies showed that the diet, at least in the short-term, lived up to its promise.

Low-carb dieters lost more weight at the end of six months than people on a low-fat diet. They also had lower levels of triglycerides -- blood fats that can raise the risk of heart attack or stroke -- and improved levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called "good" cholesterol, according to two studies published in the May 18, 2004, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

After a year, people on the low-carb diet had better triglyceride and HDL levels than those on a conventional low-fat diet, although weight loss was similar between the two groups, the studies found.

Nonas said, "In general, studies have shown that weight loss itself has an impact on metabolic profile. It [the Atkins diet] is not as evil as was once thought, although that's not to say, as a dietician, that I ever subscribed or condoned the idea of the Atkins diet. I still think that's not the way to go. But he definitely proved us wrong in terms of all our theoretical ideas of how bad it was."

But staunch critics said such short-term studies did not measure the potential long-term risk for heart disease, the nation's top killer. Without solid evidence, no one really knows whether the Atkins approach can produce lasting weight loss without damaging the heart, they contended.

"The public has been misled enough already," Dr. Robert H. Eckel, president of the American Heart Association, and a professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, told HealthDay in an interview last year.

The Atkins company itself may also have been a victim of the craze it helped spawn.

"If you look at the amount of protein bars on any given day in any given place, it's just huge," Nonas said. "Many companies are having the same problem because there's so much competition."

"Atkins initially wasn't selling anything but books -- no special food, no special instruction manuals," Spark added. "When they started seeing other companies branching out and selling diet foods, they realized there was much more money in that. That the foods were hooked up to something that truly was a trend, probably it was doomed from the beginning. Once the bubble burst, it was going to become problematic for them."

This may not have been the company that Atkins envisioned. And when he died after slipping and falling on an icy sidewalk in 2003, the company's initial focus may have been diluted even further, Nonas said.

"Dr. Atkins himself was quite an impressive guy who hung on stubbornly to one idea: saturated fat did not matter," Nonas said. "You really had to reduce the carbohydrates, and he did not give in at all even under tremendous pressure from the medical community."

"When he died, I think that his company tried to soften his stance a little," she continued. "If he had been alive, he might have been able to define his area as something completely extreme that did work for some people. He was a lone kind of speaker in that area that is no longer there."

Atkins Nutritionals will now be slimming down itself, refocusing on its "core nutrition bar and shake portfolio," said President and CEO Mark S. Rodriguez in a statement.

More information

Visit the American Dietetic Association for more on healthy eating and nutrition.

SOURCES: Arlene Spark, ED.D., RD, associate professor of nutrition, Hunter College, New York City; Cathy Nonas, M.S., R.D., director, diabetes and obesity programs, North General Hospital, New York City and author, Outwit Your Weight
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