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Low-Carb Diets Are Back in Fashion


(10-24-99: NEW YORK: [AP]) As general manager of Gallagher's Steak House in midtown Manhattan, Bryan Reidy has noticed an odd habit among some of his patrons in the past year or so.

"People are coming in, and they're just eating steak. They're not eating potatoes or bread," he said. Yet some are feasting on spinach lolling in heavy cream, a dish Reidy compares to candy.

"They eat prime beef steaks and creamed spinach, and insist they're on a diet. It blows me away."

Actually, it's a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, one that can include bacon and eggs for breakfast. Its advocates say the worst part of a cheeseburger is the bun.

Sound familiar? Longtime dieters may recognize it from the Stillman diet in the 1960s or the popular 1972 book, "The Diet Revolution" by Dr. Robert C. Atkins, for example.

But nowadays, it seems to be riding a renewed surge of popularity. "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" is a best seller. So is "Protein Power" by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, and other books are promoting low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets as well.

More and more people who call the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine in New York say their doctors recommended the center's diet, Atkins says.

To him, the key dietary villain in obesity is carbohydrates. They make susceptible people pump out too much insulin, which in turn encourages them to put on fat. By avoiding carbohydrates, a person stops that process and burns off body fat instead, he says.

Fat in foods can be a dieter's friend, Atkins says, in part because it quenches appetite and stops carbohydrate craving.

So his program encourages eating meats, eggs, butter and almost all cheeses, among other things. In the first two weeks, dieters drive their carbohydrate levels down by avoiding foods like fruit, milk, bread, pasta, grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Later on, as they lose weight, they can slowly add carbohydrates until they reach a satisfactory level.

Of course, food choices like that would knock the recommended food pyramid on its side. Wahida Karmally, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition expert at Columbia University, says the basic premise of such diets is just wrong.

People don't get fat because of carbohydrates, she says. The problem is they're eating too many calories. Diets like Atkins' can work simply because they often make people eat fewer calories, she said.

But she says such diets might be risky. They make kidneys work harder, and "we don't know the long-term effects of a diet that's very high in protein on kidney function," she said. Meanwhile, people with diabetes or kidney disease should avoid such programs, she says.

What's more, she said, fatty foods can raise cholesterol levels, and cutting back on things like whole-wheat bread, potatoes, vegetables and fruits can deprive a person of important nutrients.

Atkins says there's no study showing that people with normal kidney function have developed problems because of a high-protein diet. People with diabetes can follow his diet, and while "it takes a lot of kidney disease" to rule out the regular diet, he has used a low-protein version in those cases, he said.

Atkin said his diet makes "bad" cholesterol fall and "good" cholesterol rise, and a dieter who also takes the recommended nutritional supplements will be in fine shape for nutrients. And while most Atkins dieters do end up eating fewer calories than before, that's not why they lose weight, he says.

Meanwhile, back at the steak house, Reidy regarded the 400-odd slabs of meat on display by Gallagher's front door and wryly considered a plan.

"How about if I started marketing this?" he said. "Gallagher's recipe for losing weight."