“I flunked,” Marybeth Wagner jokes as she checks out the nutrition facts on a bag of her favorite cookies, Pepperidge Farms’ Double-Chocolate Milanos, finding that they contain more than 20 grams of fat per serving—far more than the three grams or less she’s shooting for. Wagner and her two daughters are checking the nutrition facts on butter, cereal, crackers, meats and more as part of a supermarket tour, hosted by Rita Smith, a registered dietician at Martha Jefferson Hospital. Disappointed, Wagner puts the cookies back on the shelf, moving on to the next aisle on the tour, saying, “That will be my biggest adjustment.”
In the cereal aisle, 9-year-old Gabby Barnes, after examining the sugar content in her favorite cereal, solemnly says, “Mom, Frosted Flakes go bye bye.” But only minutes later she finds another brightly colored box of cereal with less sugar.
To successfully navigate the grocery store, you must be part skeptic, part Sherlock Holmes, examining labels, comparing serving size and dismissing sketchy product claims. If cereal bars don’t actually contain real fruit, why are pictures of fruit plastered all over the package? And if expensive low-sugar cookies are as healthy as they claim to be, why are they as loaded with saturated fat as Oreo cookies?
At the end of Smith’s supermarket tour, she is asked about the trendy Atkins diet. She nods disapprovingly. “Have you ever talked to someone who used Atkins one year later?” she asks. “They usually gain all the weight back, because after they lose it they go back to their old eating habits, never learning how to make permanent changes.”
Smith, who remembers when Atkins was first introduced in the early ’70s, says she’s surprised to see the trend back in fashion, saying, “It’s taken on a life of its own.”
“A life of its own” might be an understatement, judging from McDonald’s new low-carb Happy Meal and bunless burgers. Removing the bun from a 600-calorie Big Mac does not suddenly transform it into a healthy meal. But try telling that to food manufacturers like Coke, Kellogg’s and Coors, who are tripping over themselves to profit from low-carb products before the trend fades. Coca-Cola’s answer to the low-carb trend is a new soft drink, called C-2, that will have half the calories, carbs and sugar of regular Coke. Hershey’s has introduced a low-carb candy bar, Coor’s has introduced a low-carb beer and even Kellogg’s is jumping on the bandwagon with a new low-carb version of Special K cereal and low-carb Keebler cookies.
Low-carb diets, like mini-skirts and leg-warmers, return to trendiness every few decades [see sidebar]. This time around, however, the low-carb, mass-media, cross-marketing, product-licensing promotional madness is harder to ignore than a supermodel in a barely there dress. Low-carb products are nauseatingly popular and nearly unavoidable in the grocery store.
Proof that the trend has reached a peak is the existence of Carbiz Magazine, an online publication devoted to the low-carb industry, which debuted less than a year ago. Laurie Kuntz, CEO of Carbiz Magazine, says, “Twenty-eight percent of Americans are controlling their carb intake and another 20 percent are considering the trend.” She points to the more than 1,300 low-carb food items currently on the market, like Hain-Celestial’s new CarbFit product line, specifically formulated in response to the low-carb trend, as further proof that low-carb has taken hold in America.
Yet the take-home message from the low-carb buzz is the common misconception that all carbs are bad. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies should know. They have been setting our Recommended Dietary Allowances for years, and in 2002, said, “The lowest specific amount of carbohydrate that people should consume each day is 130 grams to maintain normal levels of glucose in the brain. To give you an idea of how much that is, a slice of bread contains about 15 grams of carbohydrates, while a glass of skim milk contains 12 grams. This recommendation is based on the minimum amount of carbohydrates needed to produce enough glucose for the brain to function properly.” That’s right—your brain.
And if you’re athletic or exercising frequently, you might need more than the minimum. According to Erin Szablowski, a registered dietician and food and diet coach at Atlantic Coast Athletic Center, “Carbohydrates or grains are the best supplement before and after exercise.”
Before you toss your good sense out with the bun, consider a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine that compared high-protein, low-carb diet plans to low-fat, high-carb diet plans. In the first six months, low-carb dieters were losing more weight than their high-carb counterparts. But by the end of one year, the weight lost by each of the two groups was nearly identical.
The low-carb frenzy has even prompted the Atkins company to weigh in with a word of warning. In a statement last month, the company encouraged consumers to look at new low-carb foods “with a critical eye,” saying that by “just lowering your carbs with many of the new food products that are hitting the market without correctly following a healthy low-carb lifestyle, you could easily get in trouble.” This unprecedented warning could be a genuine attempt to help consumers make informed decisions, but for a company that makes an estimated $500 million to $750 million a year selling low-carb food products, nutrition bars and books, it could also be a thinly veiled attempt to bring consumers, who might replace Atkins products with any number of new low-carb products, back into the Atkins fold.
Lest you get the idea that Atkins is in the business of nutrition education, consider the company’s recent decision to enter into a licensing agreement with George Weston Foods, a carb-heavy company that produces baked goods like Arnold bread, Boboli pizza dough and sugary sweet Entemanns pastries. The Atkins logo appears on Arnold brand “Carb Counting” wheat bread, along with a new “Net Carb” logo. The “Net Carb” logo is a food industry creation that would make disgraced Tyco bigwig Dennis Kozlowski proud, involving a questionable equation designed to mask the actual amount of carbs and sugars in food products.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue guidelines for what constitutes a “low-carb” product. In the absence of any ruling, food companies, even bread makers, can boldly advertise their product as “low carb” on the label without meeting any regulatory standard.
Wendy Vigdor-Hess, a local dietician and nutrition counselor, is skeptical of the low-carb diet craze. “Now, you pick up a jar of mayonnaise and it says ‘no carbs’ on the label—but it never had any carbs,” says Vigdor-Hess, calling labels like these “false advertising.”
Susan Del Gobbo, a registered dietician and manager of outpatient nutrition services at UVA’s Nutrition Counseling Center, says, “In no way would I recommend eliminating carbs completely.” Instead, she says, “every meal can include some nutritious carbohydrates, including vegetables, fruit and whole grains.” The Atkins diet, Del Gobbo says, “is an extreme approach,” adding, “it’s not a wise idea to eat a lot of meats, butter and rich creamy foods.”
The real deal
Entire diet crazes, countless books and more than a few careers have been based solely on excluding certain foods from our diet. What then, in this age of en vogue food deprivation, should we be eating? The answer, it seems, is quite simple. “We all need the basics of nutrition: protein, carbohydrates and fats. All of these components help to fuel our bodies like gas does a car,” says Vigdor-Hess.
If you believe the Madison Avenue-created hype, there’s a secret to good nutrition, weight loss and vitality that only a select few are privy to. But don’t worry if you’re not so blessed as to be among the select few. They’ve created clubs to join, food products to buy and books to read, so that, for a price, you too can know the “secrets” of nutrition. The last thing advertisers want you to know is that there is no secret, and that a little education, a little common sense and a dose of thoughtful choices in the grocery store are all most people need to satisfy their own nutritional goals.
ACAC’s Szablowski compares learning good nutrition to learning how to ride a bike. “Once you learn to ride the bike, you can ride it through an obstacle course,” she says. But fad diets “are like going down a hill at full speed without knowing how to use the bike.” Her point, echoed by every nutritionist I spoke with, is that trendy diets are unnecessary as long as you learn what your body’s nutritional needs are, set goals for yourself and follow those lessons throughout your life.
Ultimately, the choices you make about food are personal choices. “Each person is an individual with specific nutritional needs making it difficult to make a recommendation for everyone to benefit [from],” says Vigdor-Hess.
According to Vigdor-Hess, the best plans are individualized, “with easy tips for incorporating healthful foods into their routine while still receiving the joys of eating, socializing and daily life activities.”
Developing healthy eating habits [see sidebar] may not be as fashionable as Atkins or South Beach diets, but it can be good for your wallet. Learning good nutrition allows you to pick and choose among all the products in the grocery store, without limiting you to certain diet brands or expensive new products. Szablowski says, “You can walk into any store, it doesn’t matter where you shop.”
Part of the appeal of fad diets like Atkins and South Beach is that they do the thinking for you. Even the simplest guides, like the Food Pyramid, can still leave you with difficult choices. For instance, the current Food Pyramid emphasizes cereal-based foods. As Del Gobbo points out, “Frosted Flakes could qualify as a cereal-based food, but they are full of sugar and not whole grain.” If you’re following the Food Pyramid guidelines, Del Gobbo says, it’s easy to make “consistently poor nutrient choices.”
A simpler approach, suggests Del Gobbo, is to view your diet as you would a meal—by what’s on your plate. According to Del Gobbo, a plate should have “two thirds or more plant foods and one third or less animal foods.” Plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, “protect us from disease and are also naturally low in calories,” says Del Gobbo.
Rita Smith concurs, “No matter what the fraction, the majority of your plate should be vegetables.”
Here in Charlottesville, you might ask yourself, “What would TJ do?” Our favorite founding father, Thomas Jefferson, had a few things to say on the subject of nutrition.
“Look at Thomas Jefferson,” says Smith. “He lived to 83 and he has written about eating a primarily vegetarian diet, with meats served only as a condiment.”
Whether you agree with Jefferson or with Dr. Atkins, Del Gobbo reminds us, “Eating should be pleasurable, comforting and nurturing.”
Lost in time
Dieting fads through the ages
In 1961, Jean Nidetch started a women’s weight-loss support group called Weight Watchers in Queens, New York. The company now has millions of followers and operates in 30 countries.
In 1964, for just $1, you could buy Robert Cameron’s pamphlet The Drinking Man’s Diet, a self-proclaimed “no-willpower diet for teetotalers and women too” that promotes a low-carb diet consisting mostly of meats and, of course, alcohol. Cameron turned the original pamphlet into a small book and by 1966 had made millions in sales. A new edition of The Drinking Man’s Diet was issued in 2001.
In 1967, Dr. Irwin Stillman wrote The Doctor’s Quick Weight Loss Diet, which emphasizes lean protein, low carbs and plenty of water. However, the low-carb plan has some unpleasant side effects, including constipation, that caused Stillman’s diet to fall out of fashion.
In 1972, Dr. Robert Atkins first introduced his low-carb Diet Revolution to an unfriendly audience, including critics in the American Medical Association and other health organizations. Atkins was forced to testify in front of Congress and his diet received negative publicity, eventually leading to its decline and replacement with fashionable low-fat diets and more moderate low-carb plans.
In 1973, short-shorts aficionado Richard Simmons became famous for his sassy fitness advice and emotional support for overweight Americans. After overcoming his own weight problem, Simmons sold his weight-loss plan—focused on low-fat eating and exercise—in the form of popular exercise videos such as Sweatin’ to the Oldies, Dance Your Pants Off and Disco Sweat.
In 1978, Dr. Herman Tarnower, a New York cardiologist, wrote The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, a high-protein, low-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet that gained popularity for being less restrictive than Atkins.
In 1979, Dr. Nathan Pritikin introduced the Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, a trendy low-fat, high-fiber diet based on his observational research and studies as a practicing physician.
In 1981, actress Judy Mazel introduced the Beverly Hills Diet, a fruit-only diet that includes consuming mostly pineapples, mangoes and papayas. Many followers developed serious side-effects, such as diarrhea, after several days on the diet.
Also in 1981, millions consumed a steady diet of low-calorie liquid protein drinks on the Cambridge Diet, which was banned following the death of several people on the diet who suffered fatal heart attacks.
In 1985, Jenny Craig brought her Australian weight loss program and counseling centers to the United States.
In 1987, the extremely low-calorie Rotation Diet was introduced. The diet lost followers who found it difficult to keep up with the diet’s strict and ever-changing calorie limit.
In 1988, liquid diets were all the rage and the Optifast diet plan received critical attention after Oprah Winfrey successfully lost weight, but fell out of favor after she soon gained all the weight back.
In 1991, Robert Pritikin, son of Dr. Nathan Pritikin, published The Pritikin Weight Loss Breakthrough, and opened several treatment centers in Florida in an attempt to reinvigorate his father’s weight-loss program.
In 1994 , Dr. Dean Ornish introduced a low-fat, vegetarian diet, the first veggie diet to go mainstream, in his book Eat More, Weigh Less.
In 1995, Barry Sears wrote The Zone, featuring a low-fat, low-sugar, high-protein diet, that was soon followed by several other best-selling Zone diet books. Sears started selling Zone food products to accompany his book and in doing so intensified a cross-marketing diet trend that was started by Weight Watchers and is still followed today.
In 1996, Judy Mazel gave her fruity diet another try with The New Beverly Hills Diet.
In 1996, Michael Eades jumped on the Zone bandwagon, with his own high-protein, low-carb diet plan called Protein Power.
In 1997, diet pill Fen-Phen (fenfluramine-phentermine) was recalled after more than 20 percent of takers experienced heart problems.
In 1998, Klaus Oberbeil’s book Lose Weight with Apple Vinegar advised using healthy doses of vinegar on foods, claiming it could help “burn” fat.
Also in 1998, Dr. Bob Arnot introduced his Revolutionary Weight Control Program, in which he compares sugar-heavy foods to illicit drugs and eliminates nearly all starches from his diet plan. He was widely viewed as an extremist.
In 2001, Rachel and Richard Heller took their cues from Arnot and wrote a series of diet books for the carbohydrate addict.
Also in 2001, a mass-market paperback of the Atkins’ diet, only slightly revised from 1972, was released and encouraged followers to replace carbs with full-fat dairy products, steaks, bacon and eggs.
In 2002, the Eat Right for Your Type Encyclopedia was released, which uses evolutionary history to determine what types of foods are appropriate for your blood type.
In 2003, Dr. Arthur Agatston introduced the best-selling South Beach Diet as a low-fat, low-carb diet administered in three phases.—K.W.
Tipping the scales
A few general pointers on how to eat healthierToday’s most popular diets are about doing without. Strip your diet of carbs! Avoid bad fats! Restrict your sugar! Don’t look at that Krispy Kreme! Finding the truth behind the low-carb hype entails learning which sources of protein, carbohydrates and fats are beneficial and healthy.
For instance, a lean source of protein for vegetarians can come from soy products and other meat substitutes, like veggie burgers. For meat eaters, ground turkey breast and chicken can often replace red meat. Even fats, once thought to be evil in all forms, have a role in healthy diets, such as substituting olive or canola oil for corn or palm oil. And carbohydrates, the important food source everyone loves to hate, can be healthfully consumed in whole grains and vegetables.
Small changes, even in the foods you snack on, can often make a big difference. “Choose popcorn that doesn’t contain large amounts of saturated or transfatty acids,” says Susan Del Gobbo, a registered dietician at UVA’s Nutrition Counseling Center. For example, brands like Orville Redenbacher “Smart Pop” and Healthy Choice have less hydrogenated oils and make a healthier snack than brands containing trans-fats or partially hydrogenated oils.
If you have a sweet tooth, “my recommendation is to use more natural sugars like honey, agave, or brown rice syrup and slowly replace the artificial ones,” says nutritionist Wendy Vigdor-Hess. “Everyone can benefit from reduction of and eventual omission of artificial sweeteners as well as adding healthy fats in the form of omega-3 oils such as flax seeds or quality flax oil or quality fish oil.”
Del Gobbo also suggests substituting nuts and seeds that “are high in omega-3 fatty acids” like walnuts, in place of processed snack foods, in part because “omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.” Similarly, Erin Szablowski of ACAC suggests “making your own trail mix with almonds or walnuts and dried cranberries,” and, smiling, adds, “but without the carob chips or candies.”—K.W.