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Grab that pastry

Low-carb stores are struggling. Atkins dieters are mocked in ads. Has the protein craze run its course?

August 25, 2004|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

Up until about a month ago, Whist in Santa Monica offered what any reader of bestseller lists would assume to be the ultimate temptation in carbohydrate-crazed times: a high-protein tasting menu. For $65, South Beach followers and Atkins adherents could start with a Caprese salad, move on to Alaskan halibut followed by a grilled steak, then finish off with the cheese du jour. Dread potatoes and rice and sugar were never mentioned.

Today that menu is not to be had at Whist, in the Hotel Viceroy, according to General Manager Vincent Piro. Despite the Trebbiano balsamico, the three sea salts and all the farmers market flourishes, the heirloom tomatoes and pea tendrils and cremini mushrooms, patrons out for a self-indulgent meal just didn't bite.

And therein hangs a tale to gladden the heart of anyone who believes the most grating word in the English language is one with four letters: carb. The only thing more annoying is it making it plural and modifying it with "low" or "counting." Carb is trend-speak for sugar and starch, and it has been outshouting good sense in restaurants, fast-food chains, supermarket aisles and certainly on bestseller lists for longer than anyone who survived the fat-free frenzy that coincided with the expansion of American waistlines would have expected.

These days carb is sounding more like a whisper. South Beach and Atkins diet manuals may still sell like soy-powder hotcakes, but the vital signs are increasingly pointing toward a backlash against all protein, all the time.

Bucking the tide of low-carb beers and vodkas, Anheuser-Busch is running snide commercials mocking "Mr. Carb Fanatic," a character many of us know far too well. Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma recently issued a special release of XS: "extra-special, high-carb, anti-Atkins, fat-free beer." Valentino's, a pizzeria in Long Beach, is hung with a banner reading "Carbo Load Special ... Spaghetti or Ravioli Plus Garlic Bread $5.99" to attract pizza lovers who know it's nothing without the crust. In New York City, subway cars have been festooned with Grand Marnier ads asking: "Isn't there more to talk about than how many carbs you had today?" Citibank has banners up on streetlights in Manhattan touting the city's plethora of pizza joints and asking: "Low carbs? Fuhgeddaboutit."

Personally, I know more than my share of serial dieters, and I can't remember the last time anyone at my table, at home or in a restaurant, even mentioned the four-letter word. Bread, pasta and potatoes vanish from plates as quickly as salmon and beef. As one friend who has been on and off the Zone and every permutation of the protein diet since says: "My feeling about low-carb is that it's good for people who want to get fast results, but eventually everyone falls off the wagon. It's like everything else about America: It can't be sustained."

On Monday, investment advisor Gabriel Wisdom held forth on Marketplace on public radio on the surest sign a trend may have peaked: Stocks in companies hustling low-carbohydrate products are "showing a weakening pattern" while those selling breads and other Atkins-indicted foods have "started to show strength." Panera Bread, a prime example he cited, had a 31% increase in revenue in the second quarter of this year with a product line that could not be more carbohydrate-heavy. Coca-Cola's new C2 and Pepsi's Edge, by contrast, are low-carbohydrate drinks that are either "slow builders or closer to dead on arrival," he said.

"There are signs of cracks that could possibly lead to collapse," Wisdom said in an a telephone interview, during which he just happened to mention that at age 54, he is still at his high school weight despite (or thanks to) never indulging in low-carb mania.

Wisdom is in the investment prognostication business, but other analysts, as well as food company officials, have been noticing signs of carbohydrate burnout for some time. NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y., tracked carbohydrate consumption last spring and found that "virtually none of the 11,000 people we studied were cutting carbs to the degree that low-carb diets recommend." Of those who professed to be on the diets, only one in four was actually reducing carbohydrates significantly, it said in a release in April.

(The USDA is apparently still struggling over a revision of the food pyramid put into effect during the low-fat crusade in the 1990s, when carb had one more letter: O, before -loading. For now, though, one recommendation holds on government websites: six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta daily.)

The fad has peaked

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