For the thousands of people sticking to high-protein diets this past Thanksgiving weekend, dinner could have been reduced to just one course: turkey. No stuffing, no candied yams, mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie.
These popular high-protein regimes urge adherents to gobble up meat, cheese, nuts and other sources of protein while slashing such carbohydrates as breads, grains, fruits and vegetables.
High-protein diets are "really, really hot," says Katherine Tallmadge, a Washington, D.C., dietitian.
How hot? "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution," the leader of the pack, has been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for more than three years. Other titles, such as "Protein Power," "Sugar Busters!" and "The Zone," have topped the charts for weeks as well. Restaurants are catering to protein-seeking patrons; even Burger King reports that "having it your way" sometimes means a Whopper without the bun. And aside from Web sites, chat rooms and dinner-party discussions, high-protein is the talk at some fitness clubs.
So how did it get to this point? After all, for the last decade, every mainstream health authority has been counseling people to eat more carbohydrates and less protein--just the opposite of the high-protein or low-carb diets. Given this disparity, what does the scientific community think of these protein-padded regimes? And most important: Since nearly any diet that restricts consumption of some food will result in weight loss, do the protein plans keep the pounds off?
When it comes to social trends, the pendulum swings back and forth, and old ideas are recycled with new names. Dieting is no exception.
High-protein diets, which have gone in and out of fashion throughout the century, were most recently "in" in the late 1960s (e.g., the Stillman diet) and early 1970s, when physician Robert Atkins' first "diet revolution" book appeared.
In 1992, Atkins reissued his book, with minor changes, notably the addition of a significant roster of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements. Coincidentally, 1992 was the year the federal government introduced its Food Guide Pyramid, an eating plan with a bottom-heavy foundation recommending six to 11 daily servings of breads, cereal, rice and pasta.
Around the same time, the National Cancer Institute started its Five-a-Day campaign, a promotion aimed at getting Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables to cut their risk of developing cancer. Also during that period, nutrition experts were cautioning people to keep fats to no more than 30% of the calories in their diet. But something else happened, too. Americans got fatter than ever. A little more than half of the population is now considered overweight, according to government figures.
Low-fat eating has "been the dominant trend in dieting for the past decade, but its dominance hasn't, by and large, done a thing to take the pounds off," writes Atkins in "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution."
The protein proponents' philosophy began to catch on, even though the reasons for America's expanding waistline are more complex than the popularity of the all-you-can-eat pasta and olive-oil diet.
For one thing, despite all the low-fat hoopla, Americans are not eating less fat. From 1989 to 1995, daily fat consumption slightly increased, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And calories went up at even a faster pace, says the USDA.
While sedentary lifestyles, restaurant-portion sizes and the ubiquitousness of food in America are all partly to blame, there's also a grain of truth in the failure of low-fat dieting--at least the way many people interpreted it. "People didn't understand that cutting fat also meant cutting calories," says Tallmadge. "Low-fat doesn't work if you're eating half a box of Entenmann's fat-free cake or having a big scoop of low-fat frozen yogurt every day for a snack."
And that's apparently what many people were doing. The increase in calories from 1990 to 1995, according to the USDA, came largely from people eating more carbohydrates, often in the form of grain products and soft drinks.
The protein proponents, however, are not concerned about calories. They say they have other reasons to blame carbohydrates for the increasing girth of the nation.
The fundamental belief of Atkins and his bestseller colleagues is the notion that carbohydrates disrupt the balance of sugars and the natural hormone, insulin, that regulates them in the body, thus promoting fat storage and weight gain--a theory that the mainstream scientific community largely dismisses.
This hypothesis stems from a well-researched and accepted principle: When someone eats carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into simple sugars, or glucose. Then insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas, allows the circulating glucose to be used by the cells for energy. The more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin is required.