Atkins Mania is Just Wilting Away

December 12, 2004
Sunday Times (London)
by Dominic Rushe and Lois Rogers

THE celebrated Atkins diet is on the wane in America and experts predict Britain will soon follow as slimmers tire of its rigid regime. More than half the disciples of the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet have drifted away in America and there are indications of a big decline here.

At the height of the Atkins craze surveys indicated 2% of the British population was following the regime. Now nutritionists believe only diehards are still pursuing the method.

Bookshops report that British sales of the Atkins diet manual are less than a tenth of their peak a year ago, when more than 110,000 copies were bought in just one week.

The diet’s reputation was damaged by a Food Standards Agency (FSA) healthy eating campaign launched this autumn, which warned that people should be consuming much more carbohydrate.

“We never specifically mentioned the Atkins diet but we did say that a healthy diet includes carbohydrates,” said an FSA spokeswoman. “Starchy food should make up about a third of what people eat.”

The diet’s popularity has also suffered from revelations that its creator, Robert Atkins, a doctor who died of heart disease last year, actually weighed about 18 stone at the time of his death. In fact, the weight gain was caused by medical treatment.

Weight Watchers, Britain’s leading organisation for dieters, says members have abandoned the Atkins regime in droves, bored by the restrictions of a protein rich meat-based menu.

“It is not sustainable and lacks freedom,” a spokesman for the group said. “For lots of people it just doesn’t work.”

Nutritionists around the country tell the same story, with Atkins “rejects” beating a path to their door. “It works for a couple of weeks or maybe a bit longer,” said Pamela Hunt, a West Yorkshire dietician. “Then people realise they don’t actually want to eat like that for ever.”

Until now the growth in popularity of the Atkins method has seemed unstoppable. It is credited with recreating the figure of super-svelte actress Renee Zellweger, who emerged a mere slip of her former self within a few months on the Atkins diet, after gaining several stone for her role in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Jennifer Aniston, star of the television series Friends, and Nigella Lawson, the food writer, both endorsed the regime.

The diet also won scientific backing when researchers published a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, confirming the method was clinically proven to achieve short-term weight loss.

Mindful of the diet boredom effect Atkins Nutritionals, which runs the Atkins empire in America, has flooded the market with a vast range of 175 “low-carb” foods, including chocolate brownies, muffins and pancakes.

But figures published last week show that few people are buying them. Standard & Poor’s, an American credit rating agency, revealed that in one month Atkins Nutritionals wrote off £25m of unsold low-carb cereals, cakes and pasta ready-meals.

The firm’s monthly revenues plummeted from £44.5m to less than £15m as the number of Americans on the diet dropped from a peak of more than 9% of the population to less than 4% in a matter of months.

Stuart Fischer, a former associate medical director of the Atkins company, believes that all the low-carb spin-off foods have simply encouraged people to eat more.

“It is a universal truth of dieting that a calorie consumed has to go somewhere,” he said. “If it is not expended as energy, it simply gets stored. We used to offer diet books and counseling. Now there is a whole low-carb industry with foods like these Atkins power bars, that people think are weight-loss products.

“It’s obvious, really. If people are buying these things and not losing weight, they are going to be angry and not buy them again.”

In Britain Unilever UK Foods, who launched their low-carb range of ketchup, mayonnaise and pasta only three months ago, could also be affected.

A spokesman for the company said it was too early to give sales figures but he was quick to distance the firm’s products from Atkins.

He said: “They are aimed at a much broader section of the population who are moderating their carb intake.

“We believe up to one in five of the population want to cut their carbohydrate intake, but are not prepared to go on an all-out Atkins diet because they think its unhealthy, or find it difficult to follow successfully.”

Meanwhile, diet trendsetters have already moved on. You Are What You Eat, the new nutrition handbook by Dr Gillian McKeith, has sold 1.2m copies, and the weight loss enthusiasts are turning to the GI (glycaemic index) diet, as the next big thing.

GI is set to take off as the swear-by answer to beat the post-Christmas flab this year. Like Atkins it uses the notion of maintaining low blood sugar as a means of encouraging the body to break down stored fat for energy. Its unique selling point is a ranking of individual foods based on the effect they have on blood glucose (blood sugar) levels.

Yvonne Mustard, 35, a housewife from Accrington, Lancashire, is an early convert from Atkins to GI. She lost 10lb on the Atkins method, but a stone using the GI diet. “Eating bacon and eggs all the time on the Atkins diet did get boring, and it did give me headaches,” she said. “The GI diet promoted eating pasta and potatoes and that kind of thing. I think it is actually a lot healthier.”