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Americans' low-carb attempts fall short

Have carbohydrates indeed been banished from the American diet? Not a chance, says a leading food research group. Even the most fastidious low-carb eaters are still consuming more than twice as many carbs as recommended by popular low-carb diets.

With a national obsession blossoming about low-carb options, have carbohydrates indeed been banished from the American diet?

Not a chance, says a leading food research firm. Even the most fastidious low-carb eaters are still consuming as much as twice as many carbs as recommended by popular diets.

“What you say and what you do are not always the same,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group.

The average American adult swallows 210 grams of refined carbs (that’s total carbohydrates, minus dietary fiber, for those who’ve been buried under a pound of pasta) each day, according to NPD, which tracks U.S. eating habits. Even among the bottom 5 percent of carb consumers -– meaning 19 of every 20 people were eating more carbs than they were –- the average was still 145 grams for men and 109 grams for women, a combined average of 128 grams.

Low-carb diets like Atkins recommend as little as 20 grams of effective carbohydrates each day in early phases.

Certainly, though, the growing attraction of low-carb eating is apparent in NPD’s findings, even if people aren't sticking to the specifics of details outlined by people like diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins.

Millions have tried
Some 17 percent of the 11,000 respondents in NPD’s survey said they had tried low-carb eating at some point and 4 percent said they were currently on a high-protein, low-carb diet -– which would amount to some 10 million Americans. Research in 2003 by Harris Interactive for Novartis found that 32 million Americans were on a low-carb diet.

The Atkins’ diet and many other low-carb plans have gained enormous appeal because they suggest you can eat plenty of foods once considered too fatty –- everything from red meat to rich cheese -– so long as you trim back on carbohydrates. It is a message that has truly resonated in a nation now saddled with an obesity epidemic, with 31 percent of adults considered obese and another third overweight.

But even among the 4 percent currently dieting, Balzer said, three out of four respondents were outside that bottom 5-percent group, meaning most were getting more than 35 percent of their calories from carbs.

“We tend to modify all the diets to reflect what we want to do,” Balzer said. “This has given Americans a way of thinking about how they can lose weight while they still eat.”

Atkins Nutritionals won’t specify exact levels of net carb consumption for dieters who are trying to maintain their weight. But the company's nutritionists have suggested that from 60 to 120 grams of carbs would be appropriate long-term, depending on a consumer’s health. The high end, which approaches levels found by NPD, might be acceptable for a younger, healthy dieter.

“This is an opportunity for us to help people refine the message,” said Dr. Stuart Trager, chairman of the Atkins Physicians Council, which advises the company on its nutritional policies. “It’s possible that many people are early on the learning curve.”

'It's delivering'
But Balzer believes the low-carb craze is likely to be short-lived (“2004 is going to be the peak year for low carbs,” he says) and soon to be replaced with another diet strategy. He likens it to the nation’s obsession with low-fat options, which peaked in the 1990s before being replaced by a low-carb focus. That said, Balzer notes that food companies often require years to develop new products, which led to low-fat products on the shelves long after interest faded.

As such, the market for low-carb foods may be far broader than the number of people actually trying to cut back: Many of us may be chomping down on all those protein-rich, fiber-filled snack bars, but we’re not truly committed.

Trager dismisses the notion that low-carb is a fad. He sees a bright future not just in the products but in long-lasting lifestyle changes voluntarily chosen by adherents of Atkins and other plans. “Low-fat was prescribed but didn’t produce,” he said. “Low-carb was discovered by people and it’s delivering.”

However, Trager noted, use of low-carb products –- especially snacks -– by people who do not follow broader diet guidelines is unlikely to do much for weight loss.

Those products may stick around for a while, Balzer believes, if their taste and the reputed benefits continue to appeal to consumers. But the low-fat years provided some costly lessons to food makers about the quirks of America’s palate. Products like Nabisco’s SnackWells  continue to linger on shelves, but never matched dieters’ zeal for less fat.

A fading fad?
Already, the low-carb craze is simultaneously expanding and inviting a backlash.

Atkins offers numerous books by its namesake founder, Dr. Robert Atkins, who died last year, in addition to a growing product line of low-carb foods and snacks. The South Beach Diet, essentially a lower-fat version of Atkins by Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston, has garnered praise even from nutrition gadflies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

National chains like Subway and T.G.I. Friday’s have offered low-carb entrées, "low-carb" food labels are manifest and hardly an industry segment –- even pizza -– has gone untouched. Low-carb food stores have sprung up from coast to coast.

But a sort of cultural counterpoint has ensued, most visibly when reports this past winter claimed Atkins was overweight and had heart disease when he died. (His company and relatives vigorously countered those claims.)  And some nutritionists have assailed the Atkins plan for its tolerance of high-fat foods.

“If all of these claims that opponents make were true, people wouldn’t be trying it,” Trager said.

Perhaps the strangest of NPD’s findings is who’s eating the most carbs: adults who are at a proper weight or even underweight. By contrast, those eating fewer carbs report more health problems, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And though 40 percent of low-carbers -– the majority of which are middle-aged -- say they exercise regularly, they’re also 30 percent more likely to be obese.

It is, however, unclear which trend is leading to which: Are thinner people eating more carbs because they can (and fatter people eating fewer carbs because they’re more inspired to lose weight) or are their diets determining their weight? 

Balzer remains mystified. But he believes we may be reaching the end of our fondness for simple diet solutions, and are still consuming per capita as much as we ever have -- trying to modify our diet rather than simply eating less. It helps explain why the United States is consistently one of the top two nations in the world for calorie intake, at over 3,600 a day.

“If you really want to get Americans to eat healthy, the answer is very simple … tax food,” he said. Then he hesitated.

“I don’t like the word ‘tax’ … but you’ve got to make healthy foods less expensive.”