Carb Diets

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Have a hamburger, no bun. Order eggs and bacon, but no toast. Feast on prime rib, oysters, butter, cream cheese and beef jerky, but bypass the baked potato, the pasta and bagel.

Do this in a precise manner, and you will lose weight. You may even lower your cholesterol, clear up your skin and have more energy.

This is the basis of low-carbohydrate, high-protein dieting, and the current – but often criticized – weight-loss craze used by everyone from skinny starlets in Hollywood to the obese guy next door.

Outlined in diet books such as “Enter the Zone,” by Barry Sears, “The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet,” by Richard and Rachael Heller, and the popular “Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution,” by Robert C. Atkins, these programs have in common the same basic principle: Eat more protein and fewer carbohydrates and sugar.

When a person reduces carbohydrate consumption, the body’s blood-sugar levels decrease and cause the pancreas to produce less insulin. With less insulin to draw on, the body is forced to burn fat reserves for energy, resulting in a rapid weight loss, say low-carbohyrate advocates such as Dr. Atkins.

Eating more fat – a food category that formerly was taboo for many dieters – makes the body feel full, leading to fewer carbohydrate cravings, they say.

“On diets high in carbohydrates, carbohydrates become the body’s primary fuel,” says Dr. Atkins, a New York cardiologist. His book, an update of the original diet plan he formulated in the early 1970s, has been on the New York Times’ best-seller list for 192 weeks. “When fat is used as fuel, as it is on a low-carbohydrate diet, it gets mobilized. It does not accumulate, so weight and cholesterol drop,” he says.

This way of weight loss is in direct opposition to everything the low-fat generation of dieters has been taught. It also is in opposition to what most of the mainstream medical community believes about safe weight loss.

“People are always looking for a quick way to lose weight,” says Wahida Karmally, a nutrition research scientist at Columbia University and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “You will lose weight in the first week on these diets, but past that, they lack essential nutrients, and it is an unbalanced way of eating. It lacks fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Eating high-fat and high-cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease and tests the kidneys.”

Says Dr. Denise Bruner, an Arlington doctor and president of the American Society of Bariatric (controlled weight loss) Physicians: “Over the long term, these diets are nutritionally deficient. In the short-term, any diet will help you lose weight. The typical Atkins plan is about 1,400 calories per day. If you go to that after eating 2,500, you are going to lose weight. It is easy to say one thing is bad for you, such as sugar or fat, but that is not true.”

Dr. Bruner also says she is bothered by what she calls flimsy research behind the top low-carbohydrate plans. While the diet doctors fill many pages with scientific-sounding arguments, much of the research they are spouting is their own or is dated research that has been loosely interpreted, she says.

“The people who have written these books have never done the research,” she says. “There might be some real science there, but where is the data? Dr. Atkins doesn’t show why he is successful. He is presenting anecdotal evidence.”

In response to the popularity of the diets, more research is in the works. Earlier this year, doctors at Duke University studied 41 obese patients on a diet that included less than 20 grams of carbohydrates a day. In four months, participants lost an average of 21.3 pounds and showed a 6 percent drop in cholesterol and an almost 40 percent drop in triglycerides. The study did not find any potentially dangerous effects on liver and kidney function. The study is continuing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced it will be conducting its own tests of a low-carbohydrate diet vs. a low-fat diet.

Dr. Atkins is confident his plan will get an endorsement from the government and will aid an even bigger portion of the estimated 55 percent of Americans who are overweight. “If they do the diet correctly, it will change the basic eating patterns of Americans,” he says.

The Proof is on the Scale
So if low-carbohydrate eating gets a thumbs-down from many doctors and nutritionists and goes against everything the SnackWell’s generation has been taught, why is it so popular? Because it seems to work.

Beth Brooks, 35, had tried many diets, including low-fat, low-calorie, vegetarian and liquid only. The St. Louis, Mo., woman embarked on the Atkins program last year. She has lost 64 pounds and plans to lose 30 more. Ms. Brooks says she is a low- carb believer for life.

“Once I got the carbs out of my system, it was physically easy,” she says. “Once the weight began coming off and all my health problems began to disappear, I had to accept the fact that carbohydrates had been my problem all along. I had to manage it like most addicts manage their addictions.”

On a typical day, Ms. Brooks eats three or four eggs, 8 to 10 ounces of meat or chicken, a salad or dark green vegetable such as broccoli, and cheese and macadamia nuts for snacks. Ms. Brooks says she has “tons more energy,” sleeps better, has fewer skin problems and infrequent colds and no longer suffers from swings in blood sugar.

“All the eggs, meat and cheese and butter I consume have not detrimentally impacted my blood cholesterol levels,” she says. “In fact, my diet has actually improved that. My total cholesterol dropped from 280 to 198.” (Anything over 200 is considered high.)

Dawn Ceol, 36, of Centreville, is similarly convinced. After giving birth to twins last fall, she started the Atkins plan and dropped 26 pounds in about six months. Now training for a marathon, she has incorporated some carbohydrates back into her diet but has kept the weight off.

“In the beginning of eating [low-carbohydrate foods], I found it extremely hard,” she says. “Especially after growing up with the notion of low-fat is the way to lose weight. Here I am looking at all this bacon saying, `This is supposed to be a staple?’ I’m not really a ribs-and-meat kind of person, but I lost weight fairly quickly. I am a sugarholic, but eating that way got me off that cycle. Now that I am off the diet, I have sugar cravings again, but I do not fear the weight will come back.”

Indeed, low-carbohydrate skeptics say one can’t keep up a restrictive plan forever. When old habits return, so will the weight, they predict.

“Isn’t that true of all diets?” Dr. Atkins says. “If that is the most insightful statement of my detractors, it is indicative of how prejudiced they are.”

Fact or Fad?
In a way, low-carbohydrate diets are retro diets – a return to the “diet plate” of a hamburger patty and scoop of cottage cheese that mother would order.

By the 1980s, that thinking was replaced by low-fat creeds. Now the pendulum is back in favor of eggs and bacon.

“Dieting seems to go in cycles,” Dr. Bruner says. “First sugar was bad, then fat was bad, now carbs are bad. Every generation has to learn the same thing over and over again. There are no good food groups and no bad food groups. It is easy to say one thing is bad, but that is not true. Fruit is a food that is high in sugar, but fruit is very good for you. There seems to be a gimmick with most of these diets, but the bottom line, is if you don’t cut calories, you won’t lose weight.”