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Carb Supporters Rejoice as Atkins Goes Belly Up

Pasta makers and potato farmers are happy to see the weight-loss firm's bankruptcy filing.

August 02, 2005|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

In Boise, staff members of the Idaho Potato Commission gave one another gleeful high-fives when they heard the news. In Houston, the folks at the U.S. Rice Producers' Assn. declared "good riddance." And fruit farmers in California's Central Valley said they were "happy to see them go."

Across the nation, producers of carbohydrate-laden food exulted at the decision by Atkins Nutritionals Inc., the Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based designer of the once-popular low-carbohydrate weight-loss program, to file for bankruptcy protection.

The company said it planned to reorganize and focus mainly on selling nutrition bars and shakes. But analysts and nutritionists said Atkins' bankruptcy filing effectively signaled the demise of the low-carb lifestyle and an era when tens of millions of Americans embraced high-protein diets rich in meat and cheese while eschewing carbohydrates and sugars in grains, fruits and vegetables.

"It just proves that what Atkins was trying to do was just too extreme," said Jeff Yankellow, a South San Francisco baking instructor and winner of the World Cup of Baking in Paris in April. "Bread has survived as a nutritional food for thousands of years, and Atkins isn't going to kill it."

In court papers, the company indicated that it was a victim of fierce competition from large food companies such as Unilever, Kraft Foods Inc. and General Mills Inc., which in the last few years rolled out their own lines of low-carb food.

When the diet was at its peak, fast-food chain Carl's Jr. pushed its lettuce-wrapped Low Carb Six Dollar Burger, Round Table Pizza developed a low-carb crust, Kraft came out with low-carb Oreos and Frito-Lay pitched low-carb Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos. Many companies, even winemakers, changed their packaging to tout the low-carb content of their products.

The diet was first outlined in a book, "Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution," developed by weight-loss guru Dr. Robert C. Atkins in 1972. Atkins claimed that his diet prompted "ketosis," a metabolic state in which fat is burned more efficiently. Atkins died two years ago after falling and hitting his head on a New York sidewalk.

His books have sold more than 20 million copies in more than 20 languages. Apart from the book, Atkins Nutritionals peddles chocolate shakes and energy bars on its website.

Many Americans -- and dieters across the world -- loved the program's decadent appeal. No longer would they have to obsess about cutting high-fat foods for so-called lean cuisine. They could feast on meat and fats without guilt if they followed the Atkins diet. Pork rinds, prime rib and Camembert cheese were in; oranges, whole wheat bread and pasta were out.

Dieters who stuck to the regimen said they lost weight rapidly even as nutritionists warned about the negative long-term effects of eating high-fat foods.

The counterintuitive nature of the diet caught the public's imagination, said Barbara Rolls, a professor of nutritional science at Pennsylvania State University. "It just flew in the face of what we thought we knew," Rolls said.

But that didn't stop millions of Americans from embracing Atkins' principles. Up to 17% of the population reports having tried a low-carb diet at some point, according to NPD Group, a market research firm that tracks Americans' eating habits.

While the Atkins diet helped fuel demand for beef, chicken, cheese and other foods rich in proteins, the producers of carbohydrate-laden foods, even those regarded as healthful by nutritionists, saw sales fall.

Hurt by plunging demand for French fries, hash browns and baked potatoes, Idaho farmers have slashed their production by about 13% since 2002, said Frank Muir, chief executive of the Idaho Potato Commission.

"We have been working for years to send the message that the Atkins diet is wrong," Muir said, adding that a medium-size potato has only 100 calories and is rich in vitamin C and potassium.

Many large companies complained that they were casualties of the low-carb diet craze.

Executives at Interstate Bakeries Corp., whose cream-filled Twinkies have found a spot in the lunch boxes of American schoolchildren since the 1930s, said the low-carb trend contributed to its bankruptcy filing in September. A few months earlier, New World Pasta Co. -- maker of the Ronzoni and Creamette brands -- also filed for bankruptcy protection, saying it was hurt by the popularity of Atkins and similar diets. Even onetime Wall Street darling Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. blamed Atkins for its financial troubles, which now appear to be a result of accounting rather than eating irregularities.

Like other diet fads, Atkins and the low-carb craze could not be sustained. NPD said the fad peaked early last year, when about 9% of the population reported that they were adhering to a low-carb regimen. By the end of last year, less than 4% reported following the diet, the firm said.

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