updated 12/10/2003 5:14:03 PM ET 2003-12-10T22:14:03

Low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets adopted by millions of people hoping to lose weight have contributed to sharply rising egg prices, industry experts agree.

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Egg prices have spiked across the nation in recent weeks, reaching 20-year highs. Holiday baking and thinning chicken flocks are partly responsible, but protein-conscious dieters, including those on the popular if controversial Atkins diet, have created new demand.

"Proteins have gone through the roof, and eggs have gone along for the ride," said Tom Kruchten, a spokesman at the National Agricultural Statistics Service. "Eggs are a heck of a lot cheaper protein than beef."

In the past two months, egg prices have climbed to as much as $1.40 a dozen, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That price may be cheap compared with most grocery items, but some say the demand reflects a broader shift in thinking.

With high cholesterol and fat-filled yolks, eggs once suffered from a reputation as artery cloggers. But recent reports have shown they are healthier than previously thought.

Research published this year in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere found that people on the high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet lost twice as much weight over six months as those on standard low-fat diets.

"The egg is being held up as a model food today, whereas in the last 20 or 30 years, it has been dragged through the mud," said Don Bell, a professor at the University of California and consultant to United Egg Producers, a national cooperative of egg producers.

In Indiana, the fourth-largest egg-producing state behind Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania, October production was down about 1 percent from last year. Industry specialists agree that may contribute to rising costs.

Others have suggested the price increase may be linked to the holiday season, as family kitchens turn out extra pies, cookies and cakes.

But some experts say the record prices show eggs are acceptable again and not limited to the breakfast table.

"It's the perfect food, one of nature's perfect foods. And it packs a nutritional pound for its dollar," said Colette Heimowitz, a nutritionist and spokeswoman for Atkins Nutritionals Inc., started by Robert Atkins, the physician who created the most popular of the low-carb diets.

At O'Malia's Food Market in downtown Indianapolis, an announcement sounds over the intercom to inform shoppers of the store's low-carb, no-carb and high-protein products.

A sign above the egg cooler lists prices ranging from $1 a dozen to just below $2.

But price isn't an issue for Tobin Wilkerson, who said he wasn't sure whether to believe eggs are healthy. And he doesn't care.

"I eat eggs because I like eggs," Wilkerson said. "If the whole egg is healthier, it just means I can eat the whole egg."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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