The Low-Carb Craze
It’s good for some businesses, but is it good for you?
Reiko Uyehara lost 18 pounds in two weeks eating cheese omelets and slabs of meat. No carrots, no peas, no fruits at all.
The 40-year-old personnel-management specialist from Kaimuki has been using her own version of the trendy Atkins low-carb diet, for weeks at a time, over the past six years. Her goal: to lose weight as quickly as possible.
"I like the diet, because you see the results faster than on other diets," Uyehara says, holding her third cup of coffee for the morning. "But I don't like how restrictive it is, because I love to eat. And I love my carbs."
The low-carb diet isn't new. Versions of it have been around for years. However, there has been a resurgence in the past year, due to the diet's promise of quick weight loss to a nation struggling with its waistline.
Recent media attention on the nation's obesity epidemic has helped fuel the latest diet strategies. Books such as Dr. Phil McGraw's The Ultimate Weight Solution and Arthur Agatston's The South Beach Diet have topped national bestseller lists. Lately, grocery stores, even chain supermarkets, have stocked their shelves with low-carb foods, catering to the hungry demand of Americans who want to pare down - and fast. Nearly 65 percent of American adults - roughly 127 million - are overweight or obese, according to the American Obesity Association. Every year, obesity causes at least 300,000 deaths in the United States, and heath care costs for obesity-related conditions approach $100 billion annually. Extra weight increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, several types of cancer and other diseases.
Hawaii residents have also caught onto the trend. Obesity rates in the Islands have risen every year, according to national statistics, with about 17.6 percent of adults in Hawaii considered obese in 2001, a jump from 10.4 percent a decade earlier.
Local supermarkets and health food stores have been inundated with requests for low-carb foods in recent months, and managers and storeowners have been ordering low-carb options to meet the high demand.
"There's definitely more interest in low-carb," says Carol Lent, outreach and marketing coordinator for Down to Earth Natural Foods & Lifestyle, the largest vegetarian chain in the United States. "We've never been concerned about it before, because, you know, it's a fad diet. But our customers asked for it."
The natural food chain had never stocked low-carb products in its 27 years - until last year. Now all six stores - three on Oahu, three on Maui - carry everything from low-carb pancake mixes to energy bars to barbecue sauces.
The new low-carb additions to Down To Earth brought in less than $10,000 in sales last year, comprising less than 2 percent of the store's gross annual sales, Lent says. Soy and organic products still make up the majority of its total sales.
Chain grocers, such as Foodland Supermarket and Times Super Market, have also added more healthful options to their shelves. Three Times stores - Royal Kunia, Koolau Center and Kahala - now carry about 300 low-carb products.
"They're doing very well," says Ed Vargas, director of grocery purchasing at Times.
Times in Aiea will be the next to offer low-carb products, beginning in April. Because of its available space, Kunia, which began carrying low-carb products last November, has close to 400 items, all doing better than anticipated.
Though Vargas says it's too soon to tell how sales of these items will impact total annual profits, he figures they will make up a small percentage. However, they're selling like low-carb hotcakes. He reorders products weekly, and he expects to continue carrying low-carb items, as well as organic and natural foods, for a while.
"First we thought it was just a craze," he says, "but I think it will stick around."
GRAB THE GRAVY TRAIN
And it seems as though just about every American eatery is jumping on the low-carb craze. Burger joints, pizzerias, even breweries are unveiling low-carb versions of their products.
Burger King has jumped on the bunless burger trend, offering a breadless Whopper with just 3 grams of carbohydrates, compared with 52 for a regular Whopper. The company also has plans to offer salads loaded with steak, chicken and shrimp. Burger King, which posted $11.3 billion in systemwide sales in fiscal 2002, is trying to improve sales and reverse a 22 percent decline in customer traffic over the past six years.
Carl's Jr. dumped its bread, too, and TGI Friday's began serving a bunless cheeseburger in February.
Though McDonald's and Wendy's haven't joined the bunless burger bandwagon, both fast-food chains have revamped their entrée salads to entice the low-carb eater.
TGI Friday's has also added Atkins-friendly selections to its menu this year. The restaurant, the only casual dining eatery to be authorized to carry Atkins-approved dishes, offers eight entrees, including a sizzling New York steak topped with melted bleu cheese with 6 grams of carbs.
"It's really taking off," says Eldon Lee, assistant general manager at TGI Friday's on Ward Avenue. "We're offering familiar items that our guests know taste great that have been adapted to their nutritional needs. I have a good feeling this will stick around."
Among the more popular dishes are a sizzling chicken and cheese dish, with steamed broccoli (17 grams of carbs) and a wasabi tuna salad wrap (14 grams of carbs). Since the introduction of these Atkins-friendly selections in January, the restaurant has seen the new menu go from 8 percent of its net sales to as high as 30 percent on any given day. TGI Friday's plans to grow with the Atkins program, offering entrees that reflect any changes or upgrades to the diet.
Even beer has gone low-carb. Miller Lite has been running ads reminding customers it has always had just 3.2 grams of carbs. Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra and Rolling Rock's new Green Light have been the latest low-carb additions. And Coors recently announced the low-carb Aspen Edge, due out in March.
"This is the latest trend in dieting and marketing," says Karen Paris, a physician assistant with Partners in Integrative Medicine. Paris worked closely with the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who wrote the book on low-carb diets. "And this is a trend that is fast becoming a lifestyle for many health-conscious individuals."
WEIGHT, JUST A MINUTE
That lifestyle change has affected weight-loss services, which have seen more interest from members in low-carb diet plans.
"This is the new quick-fix," says Linda Giles, general manager for Weight Watchers in Hawaii. "People are looking for a simpler way to lose weight.
Weight Watchers, one of the nation's largest weight-loss services, will also address the low-carb demand this year. Its latest national ad will feature a variety of foods high in carbohydrates dancing across the screen to the theme song of "Welcome Back, Kotter." The message: "Your low-carb diet failed. But there's another way to do it."
"We're feeding into [the trend]," Giles says. "It comes down to business and the bottom line. It's all about marketing."
Nationally, Weight Watchers' profits have fallen, mostly due to added competition by other weight-loss programs, centers and services. Reported third-quarter net income was $11.5 million, or $0.10 per share, in 2003, compared to $36.8 million, or $0.34 per share, the year before.
The company has also seen a drop of about 5 percent in enrollment since January 2003.
Linda Huett, president and chief executive officer, said the company's U.S. attendance growth continues to be affected by "the media hype around low-carb diets."
Locally, Weight Watchers boasts about 5,000 active members. Eight years ago, it had just 100. But enrollment is being affected by more competition from other programs, such as Jenny Craig and LA Weight Loss Centers.
And while the latest low-carb craze has impacted companies such as Weight Watchers, which don't cater to this trend, they remain optimistic that, like other fad diets, this one, too, will go away.
"There is no one way to lose weight," says Giles, who managed to keep off 80 pounds for 11 years on a high-carb, low-fat diet. "It's about the journey and lifestyle change, not about cutting [foods] out. That's not life."
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