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A change of diet

With millions of Americans going low-carb, health experts now are endorsing the move.

March 22, 2004|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

Veteran dieter Louise "Cookie" Witham never considered trying the Dr. Atkins' diet that promises followers they can eat plenty of steak, cheese, bacon and eggs and still lose weight -- provided they give up almost all carbohydrates.

Not only would she have had to cut out bread, pasta and potatoes, but also fruit and most vegetables. "It just never appealed to me, eating all that red meat and high fat," Witham said.

But last Thanksgiving, Witham's 29-year-old daughter, Erica, a physical trainer who has always been the thin one in the upstate New York family, brought home a copy of "The South Beach Diet" and urged her parents and two siblings to try it. They're now believers.

Word-of-mouth success stories such as the Withams' have quickly propelled "The South Beach Diet" to the top of the bestseller list -- with more than 5.5 million hardcover copies flying off shelves since its April release. Its popularity -- along with several other new diet book titles such as "The Good Carbohydrate Revolution," "Living the Low Carb Life" and a less-restrictive version of the Atkins diet that allows more of the so-called "good carbs" -- has helped push the low-carb craze mainstream.

More than three decades after Dr. Robert Atkins introduced his controversial, but intermittently popular, no-carb diet, Americans are changing how, and what, they eat.

Essentially a modified version of the high-protein Atkins diet, the eating plan developed by Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston seems healthier and more palatable for the long term, its supporters say, with unlimited quantities of nonstarchy vegetables and salad. Although it allows no fruit or whole grains in the first two weeks of the plan, small amounts are allowed afterward. The diet also allows reasonable portions of protein and fats, though it urges leaner meat cuts, reduced-fat cheeses and monounsaturated olive and other oils.

Since the Withams went on the diet Jan. 2, Cookie Witham, 53, has dropped 20 pounds; husband Steve, 60, has shed 18; daughter Christie, 32, has lost 26; and son Steve, 26, has sloughed off 45 pounds. Much to their surprise, the diet hasn't been hard and they no longer crave the foods they gave up.

"Everybody's happy," said Cookie Witham, who still intends to drop several dozen more pounds, as do her two children. "Though the weight is no longer falling off as fast, that's fine. We're learning to eat better."

Whether such diets are truly healthier and more effective than traditional diets remains to be seen. There has been little long-term research on them so far.

But the South Beach diet, in particular, is a step in the right direction, health experts say. It builds on Atkins' principles, and even with its limitations, is seemingly more health conscious and easier to follow for long periods.

"For the first time in a long time, one of the most popular weight-loss books is recommending a healthy diet," the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote in its January-February Nutrition Action newsletter.

Dr. Frank M. Sacks, a prominent professor at Harvard University's nutrition department, says he recommends the South Beach diet to people who ask him about it. "It's a lot better than Atkins for the low-carb approach, in that it doesn't emphasize such a continuing intake of meat and has many interesting, healthy recipes."

Whereas fats were seen as the primary enemy in America's battle of the bulge for the past two decades, carbs are now being branded as the main villain. White foods -- such as flour, rice, pasta and potatoes (which just a few years ago touted their "zero-fat" benefits) -- are now verboten.

Many nutritionists and health experts have been saying for years that Americans have been consuming far too many carbohydrates, particularly "high-glycemic" processed products containing an abundance of refined sugars, corn syrup and flours that cause an insulin rush and trigger hunger. But now a number of forces have joined the low-carb movement, pushing the low-fat emphasis aside. Many experts think it's more than just a fad. By endorsing the South Beach diet, the Center for Science in the Public Interest itself seems to be shifting direction, after long advocating that low-fat diets were the way to go.

"It's a cumulative effect," Sacks says. "I've had a lot of colleagues who strongly supported the standard, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets that now are gradually coming around to thinking that if people are not going to eat standard low-fat diets, then maybe a Mediterranean diet -- which, like South Beach, includes fish, poultry, lean meats, monounsaturated oils, lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains -- is the way to go."

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