updated 12/16/2003 9:42:33 PM ET 2003-12-17T02:42:33

Hardee's and Carl's Jr. fast-food chains consider it thinking outside the bun, capitalizing on America's low-carbohydrate craze, they're launching a bunless, lettuce-wrapped burger with just a handful of carbs.

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CKE Restaurants Inc., the chains' St. Louis-based corporate parent, has unveiled the new menu item as Americans gobble up ways to lop off carbs, in everything from beer to ketchup. Not coincidentally, the rollout precedes the traditional New Year's binge of post-holiday dieting.

But dietitians are weighing in, warning that whether it's the Hardee's low-carb Thickburger, with a third of a pound of beef, or its Carl's Jr. low-carb, half-pound Six Dollar Burger cousin, consumers should chew on this: it's still high in fat and calories.

"We know healthwise a certain amount of fat is essential, but consuming a greater percentage of your calories from fat is not a healthy approach," said Connie Diekman, chief of university nutrition at St. Louis' Washington University. "Just culling out some calories and putting in more fat isn't going to get you there. In terms of healthy eating, this is not a healthy direction."

The low-carb burger, she said, "is a great gimmick but not a great change in eating behavior."

Her advice: consider having a third-pound burger with a whole grain bun, which would provide vitamins, minerals, vital chemicals, energy from carbs "and a nice meal."

"Balance is the word that comes to mind," she said.

Ditto, says CKE spokeswoman Caroline Leakan.

"In many respects, our food is an indulgence," she said, suggesting the low-carb burgers have their place in a lifestyle that also includes regular exercise and a generally balanced diet. "For some, a low-carb plan is just what they need to kick-start their diet. We're offering them a choice."

For the record, she says, the low-carb Thickburger has about 420 calories, 32 grams of fat and 5 grams of carbs, compared with its original's 850 calories and 57 fat grams. The low-carb Six Dollar Burger has 490 calories, 37 grams of fat and 6 grams of carbs. The regular? About 960 calories, 62 fat grams and 61 carbohydrate grams.

The Atkins industry
Low-carb, high-protein diets have enjoyed a resurgence, with books such as "Atkins for Life" reversing decades of dietary advice and saying the way to lose weight is to cut out carbs in favor of more protein, including red meat.

Over the past year, several small studies have shown, to many experts' surprise, that the Atkins approach does work, at least in the short run. Dieters lose more than those on a standard American Heart Association plan without driving up cholesterol levels, as many feared would happen, and many doctors say they're encouraged that any significant weight loss means less risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

Now comes the low-carb versions of the Six Dollar Burger and Thickburger, in each case sans much of the carbs because iceburg lettuce replaces the bun, the amount of ketchup is reduced, and sweet pickles have given way to dill. Still, the burgers come with what the company calls a "full dose" of mustard, mayo, cheese, tomato and red onion.

Prices of both burgers will be identical to their conventional, same-sized mates. The low-carb Thickburger, on sale since Monday, costs about $2.89. The low-carb Six Dollar Burger, to go on sale Dec. 31, will fetch $3.95, joining a Six Dollar lineup already featuring everything from guacamole and bacon to chili cheese.

"If it becomes a hot thing, they'll all offer it. No one's going to get too far in front by themselves," says Roth Capital Partners analyst Tony Brenner, lukewarm to the low-carb burgers still bearing plenty of fat and calories. "If you skip the bun, on the margin it helps."

Restaurants increasingly have hustled to cast their food as healthy, with varied results.

For several weeks until last month, for example, Louisville, Ky.-based KFC aired a television commercials implying that fried chicken can be part of a diet for carb-counters. Another spot claimed two of KFC's original-recipe chicken breasts have less fat than a Burger King Whopper. The ad briefly flashed fine print saying that fried chicken is not low in fat, cholesterol or sodium, prompting a consumer group's complaints that the campaign was deceptive.

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

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