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Some Dieters Swear By It, But Others
Question Safety of Low-Carb Weight Loss


By Martha Hardcastle
for the Dayton Daily News

(10-19-99: Dayton, OH) With its foundation made of grains and topped with fat, the nutritional pyramid is sacred to many health-conscious people.

But there is another equally health-conscious community that would like to implode that pyramid. They believe that it is the carbohydrates in the standard American diet that make people fat and sick.

And despite the popularity of SnackWells and Lean Cuisine, low carbohydrate dieting is gaining popularity. On a recent bestseller list from Amazon.com, 12 of the top 25 nonfiction titles were diet related, and all advocated low carb plans. Doctor Atkins' New Diet Revolution, Protein Power by Michael R. Eads and The Carbohydrate Addicts' Diet: The Lifelong Solution to YoYo Dieting by Rachel F. Heller and Richard F. Heller have sold in the millions.

Low carb diets differ in their details, but they share some basics: refined carbohydrates and sugar are bad; protein is good; and animal fat is good (but not polyunsaturated fats like margarine). Certain low carb vegetables such as lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli are also cornerstones of most plans, and the use of dairy products vary by plan.

Many people are losing weight on low carb diets. They often lose between five and ten pounds a week, at least initially. They lose stubborn pounds that have resisted to traditional diets. And they can get a bit fanatical in their defense of a diet plan that turns traditional notions of sensible eating upside-down.

"I'm the healthiest I've been in my adult life - I have hard evidence that this is working for me," says Val Scott of Oakland CA, who posted her ode to low carb dieting to one of the many Internet newsgroups dedicated to the "eat meat and smile" lifestyle. "It seems to me that people are all for seeing fat people get thinner as long as they have to suffer to be thin - but let someone get thinner on delicious food they actually enjoy... and our Puritan society just cannot tolerate it."

But the low carb diets also inspired heated criticism, much of it coming from nutritionists and physicians who insist that the Atkins plan and its kin are unhealthy, even dangerous - especially if followed for long periods.

Karen Feldmeyer, a dietitian at Franciscan sports medicine, insists low carb is not the way to go.

"Carbohydrate is the only nutrient that is stored by the muscle," she said. "For a person to have a good amount of energy without fatigue, you need carbohydrates."

She says dieters are satiated with low carb because of the fat they consume. And she doesn't believe that fat should be eliminated, either.

"The problem with low-fat diets and why they fail people is because it's really about balance and portion control," she said. "You need to eat a meal in the morning that includes carbohydrate, protein and fat - a meal that will satisfy for three to four hours."

So for someone who has been starving on a plain bagel for breakfast and yogurt and raw carrots for lunch, low carb can have great appeal.

"Typically, people will not consume enough total calories in the morning and then they eat a light lunch," she said. "They are famished by dinnertime, and they overeat."

Feldmeyer knows people are losing weight on low carb diets. "You are going to lose lean body mass and water, though," she said. "Some people feel good for a period of time, but they have absolutely no energy. Once they start back eating carbohydrates, they are amazed how much better they feel, and they slim down."

Martha Grodrian, a registered dietitian at good Samaritan hospital, believes, "for adults without special situations like kidney disease and diabetes, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle," she said.

She too has seen evidence of problems with low carb diets.

"I had a woman yesterday who had been following Atkins, and her total cholesterol and her LDL - the bad cholesterol - had both gone up to a potentially dangerous level," Grodrian said. "We've had at least two diabetic patients who have followed the low carb high protein diets whose kidney function has declined after being on the diet, and now they have to be on special kidney diets.

"A very high protein diets stresses the kidneys," she said. "In Southeast Asia, where there is a high carbohydrate diet, there is a low incidence of obesity and diabetes. The people who lose 20 pounds and two weeks are usually losing fluid. Carbohydrates increase fluid retention."

Still, the low carb chorus will not be quieted. When confronted with years of studies that show high fat, high protein diets linked to high cholesterol, cancer and heart disease, they argue that those studies did not account for the refined carbohydrates were consumed alongside the fat and meat.

Many low carbers enjoy the shock value when they order triple bacon cheeseburgers with everything but the bun.

Another appeal of Atkins diets in particular is that no calorie counting is required. Dieters may eat until they are full. They eat all the meat they like: marbled steaks, prime rib, grilled tuna, rotisserie chickens complete with crispy skin. They can enjoy a tossed salad with shredded cheese and full fat blue cheese dressing.

But don't even think about a baked potato, garlic bread or croutons. Pasta is a thing of the past; many low carb order meatballs and salad at Italian restaurants. And often, exercise is not part of the daily regimen, despite studies that show exercise to be a key component to successful long-term weight control.

And for the diehard believers, low carb plan is not a "diet," it's a "WOE" or a "WOLF" - a "way of eating" and a "way of life forever."

Charles Yates of Germantown, Maryland, another online low carb proponent, is convinced many obese people fail at low-fat diets, because their metabolisms differ from those of thin people.

He believes the government favored food Pyramids is no help to fat people.

But most dietitians remain steadfastly opposed.

Karen Feldmeyer believes that the current low carb craze will run its course - again.

"It's going to bottom out, and it'll be something else - until someone else comes up with the next miracle," Feldmeyer said.