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Low-carb foods leading many dieters astray

USA Today, December 10, 2003
NANCI HELLMICH

An explosion of low-carb foods designed especially for people on Atkins-type diets is contributing to diet failure, nutritionists say.

Experts staffing the Atkins customer information service are getting calls and questions online from disappointed dieters who can't understand why they aren't losing weight.

The problem: Dieters are eating too many of these new low-carb protein bars, muffins and brownie mixes, which are low in carbohydrates but often high in calories.

The trend is similar to the problems dieters faced in the 1980s and 1990s: eating too much low-fat processed food and still piling on the calories.

The low-carb market is booming:

•More than 600 low-carb products were introduced this year, according to Productscan Online, a market research company in Naples, N.Y. Some of these foods are made with soy flour, almond flour, sugar substitute Splenda and sugar alcohols instead of ingredients like wheat flour and sugar.

•Product sales could exceed $15 billion this year, says Dean Rotbart, editor of LowCarbiz, a trade newsletter. In 2004, that number may reach $30 billion, he says.

The popularity is largely because of diets like Atkins, which slashes carbs (found in sweets, potatoes, pasta, some starchy vegetables and many fruits) and The South Beach Diet, which trims carbs for the first two weeks of the plan.

Millions of people have either tried or are following low-carb diets. Even more are watching their carbohydrates without following any particular program.

Atkins' customer-support team has received questions from dieters who were not losing weight on the diet because they were eating too many low-carb products and not following the program, says Colette Heimowitz, a nutritionist for the Atkins companies.

"They cannot sacrifice their vegetables for low-carb products. The products were formulated to make the lifestyle easier, not as a substitute for healthy eating habits."

Even patients in cardiologist Arthur Agatston's office in Miami Beach (author of The South Beach Diet) have gotten tripped up by eating too many low-carb, high-calorie products, says Marie Almon, a registered dietitian who works in his practice.

The products can be "diet sabotages," Almon says. Some people believe that if the products are low in carbs, they don't have any calories. But they do, she says.

One woman on the diet was treating herself twice a day to a piece of low-carb cheesecake instead of the low-fat cheese and celery stick the diet recommends. And she was wondering why she was gaining weight, Almon says.

Americans "have such a track record of doing this," says Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Penn State.

Dieters thought they could eat low-fat foods and not worry about calories, but they ate too many of them and got into trouble, she says. Now, people are cutting carbs, another strategy for losing weight, but they can eat too many of these processed foods and consume too many calories.

Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian in Ocean, N.J., who doesn't put clients on low-carb diets, says some people see it as more convenient to eat a low-carb protein bar than to eat a hamburger without a bun or a pizza without the crust.

She says some of the new products provide too many nibbling options. You can't "nosh on protein all day if you are relying on meat, tuna or hard-boiled eggs. Those aren't the foods that you can open your desk drawer and pick at."

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