Low-Carb Lament

January 17, 2005
by Lianne George

FEELING RESTRICTED, bored and worried about their health, dieters are losing the love for Atkins-style plans. Nicole Kutney, a 31-year-old medical sales representative from London, Ont., committed to low-carb dieting three times. Each time she lost 30 pounds. And each time she gained them right back. “It works and it works fast,” she says of the regimen, “but it’s impossible to stick to it. It’s just too boring.” After weeks of protein-heavy meals, she’d find herself reconsidering low-fat plans like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. “At least they let you have a little cookie or a brownie every once in a while.”

Signs that the public’s enthusiasm for low-carb dieting is waning are everywhere. According to U.S. studies, up to 10 per cent of Americans have tried low-carb diets in recent years, but almost half have given them up. Books like Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution and The Zone, which monopolized bestseller lists for much of 2003, have quietly bowed out of the Top 10. And sales of the thousands of newly launched low-carb food products have stalled. It appears that for a growing number of people, the diets heralded by celebrities as the key to boundless energy and a bodacious bod have proven to be a massive disappointment.

The philosophy behind Atkins and related diets is that, by lowering your intake of carbohydrate-rich foods such as breads and pastas, your body will begin to burn stored fat for energy – a process called ketosis. Studies have shown that this type of diet does indeed result in fast and often significant weight loss. But ever since the Atkins trend exploded in the late ‘90s (the concept is actually 30 years old), health and nutrition experts have warned that it’s the dietary equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme.

“Ketosis is a toxic effect and that’s why you have the rapid weight loss, because your body is purging a lot of water to get the toxins out – up 10 pounds initially,” says Toronto food-trends expert Dana McCauley. “It’s not a meaningful weight loss, and it’s very hard on your body.” By cutting out an entire food group, experts warn, you’re forgoing essential nutrients such as fibre, iron, B vitamins and folic acid. What’s more, according to industry group Dietitians of Canada, low-carb dieters tend to eat high-fat, high-cholesterol foods, which in turn increases their risk of heart and kidney diseases, bone mineral loss, high blood pressure and gout – not to mention bad breath, constipation, fatigue and headaches.

Even the man hand-picked by Atkins Nutritionals – the licensed purveyor of Atkins-brand foods and supplements – to test its products doesn’t support low-carb plans. Dr. Thomas Wolever, a renowned expert in dietary carbohydrates at the University of Toronto, was asked to measure the glycemic impact of dozens of Atkins’ products to lend scientific validity to their labelling claims. “I have a lot of respect for the company because they want to make products that will do what they say they’re going to do,” says Wolever. But he adds: “I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy diet.”

Health concerns aside, people are getting turned off by the heavy commitment and constraints demanded by many of the popular plans. Some of the most comforting and simple foods – including breads, pastas and even certain fruits and vegetables – are largely off limits. Many dieters struggle with this, says Toronto dietician Rosie Schwartz, and even start to fetishize these foods. “It promotes sort of a binge mentality,” she says. “People think, ‘I’m not going to eat carbs.’ So when they’ve eaten some potato chips or a piece of cake, they figure, ‘Well, I’ve blown it. Tomorrow I’ll go back to not eating carbs, so I’d better get them all in today.’”

Even stalwart supporters of low-carb acknowledge the diets aren’t for everyone. Karen Barnaby, a Vancouver chef, has been on a low-carb diet for five years and has lost 70 pounds. “I have energy all the time now,” says Barnaby, who recently published the cookbook Low Carb Gourmet. But she cautions: “I’d recommend it to people who are really serious about changing their health. You have to change your whole way of thinking about food and fuel.”

With dieter interest fading fast, it now appears the low-carb industry expanded much too fast. In the past two years, roughly 3,800 carbohydrate-reduced products arrived on the North American market. Thanks to brands like Carb Options and Carbsense, you can now find low-carb versions of everything from breads and cereals to candy bars, colas and beers. But the demand for these products has dropped from the early highs. In the second half of 2004, Atkins Nutritionals saw its sales drop 32 per cent, and it’s not alone: millions of dollars worth of goods are gathering dust in warehouses.

The problem, critics say, is that these products are relatively expensive – and many taste terrible. “A lot of them are pathetic because you’re just substituting high-carb food with low-carb imitation food,” says Barnaby. And with the explosion of low-carb snack foods, many are antithetical to weight loss. “People confuse low-carb with low-calorie,” says Schwartz. The reason those on low-carb diets lose so much weight is that there’s little to snack on that’s approved, she says. “As soon as you bring in low-carb tortillas, chips and muffins, the caloric intake increases and that’s the end of the weight loss.”

This year, Canada’s low-carb industry is in for another hit. Health Canada has been warning there is no scientific evidence to back low-carb label claims. By year’s end, Ottawa will introduce new food-labelling rules to restrict the use of the term “low-carb” on packaging. Manufacturers who don’t adapt their brands may have their goods pulled from the shelves. Meanwhile, Dietitians of Canada is urging people to return to a well-balanced diet and exercise, an old-fashioned approach that is unsexy – and entirely unmarketable.