The Low-Carb Craze

It’s good for some businesses, but is it good for you?

April, 2004

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.”


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.”


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.”




Eating Healthy Doesn’t Have to be Expensive

The high cost of eating healthy is “a load of bunk,” says Linda Giles, general manager of Weight Watchers in Hawaii.

Her grilled chicken Caesar salad at McDonald’s cost less than her friend’s order of chicken McNuggets and large fries, and it was healthier.

“It’s about making choices,” Giles says.

For example, a pint of Haagen-Daaz ice cream can cost nearly $5 – the price of buying a load of carrots, celery and onions on sale.

“The cost of buying a bag of chips is the same as buying a bag of apples,” says Amy Tousman, registered dietician at Straub Clinic & Hospital.

However, it’s also the convenience of fast and easy foods that lures the frugal customer, who often doesn’t have time to cook.

“Convenience plus income plus health concerns, now that’s an expensive combination,” counters Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Here are some affordable and healthful options to help you eat better without having to refinance your mortgage:

o Buy in bulk and divide food into small portions. Oats, for example, are cheaper when bought in bulk bins, because you’re not paying for expensive packaging. Meats and poultry can be bought in bulk, too, then separated into palm-size portions and stored in the freezer for use later.

o Realize bad-for-you foods, such as sugary cereals and ice cream, are expensive. Swap them for healthful foods.

o Use frozen or canned vegetables instead of fresh. “Sometimes you even get more nutrients from frozen vegetables,” Lanou says, “because fresh produce can sit for a week and lose their nutrients.” Canned tomatoes, which are cheaper and last longer than fresh ones, are actually better than fresh, because they contain more lycopene, an antioxidant chemical that protects against cancer and heart disease.

o Buy on sale or at farmer’s markets. In Chinatown there are good deals on fresh produce. Canned tuna (water-based only), tofu, peanut butter and beans, all high in protein, go on sale regularly. Oatmeal, which is high in soluble fiber, is inexpensive.

o Organic vegetables, soy cereal and even rice milks on sale at a natural foods store can cost less than their mainstream counterparts in large grocery stores.

o Find healthful ways to make homemade versions of your indulgences, such as macaroni and cheese without butter, or curry with ground turkey. “People just aren’t used to cooking or buying this way,” Giles says. “But it’s possible.”



The Skinny on Low Carbs

There are conflicting studies on whether low-carb dieting is healthy over time.

“It’s a little bit frightening to me, from a public health perspective,” says Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “It’s taking the American diet and making it 10 times worse … It’s really counterintuitive from a nutritionist standpoint.”

Low-carb diets have been linked to increased frequency of colon cancer, kidney stones, kidney disease and even osteoporosis, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The increased intake of animal protein and saturated fat has been linked to heart disease.

However, other reports say low-carb diets really aren’t as unhealthy as once believed.

New evidence shows that low-carb diets don’t increase heart-disease risk factors, at least in the short term, according to research by Duke University. Dieters in the Atkins-funded study lost an average of 20 pounds in six months, lowered cholesterol and saw improvements in cardiovascular risk factors.

“That confirms what those of us who have worked in the low-carb field have known all along,” says Karen Paris, a physician’s assistant with Partners in Integrative Medicine. “Low-carb eating is an effective way to lose weight and to maintain that weight loss.”

According to the American Dietetic Association, low-carb diets trigger short-term weight loss through a process called ketosis. But the question remains: Does the weight loss really last?

The National Weight Loss Registry, which holds information on the diets of more than 2,600 people, who have maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for a year or more, shows that less than 1 percent had followed a diet similar to the Atkins program. The rest followed a high-carb, low-fat plan.

“People need to be knowledgeable about the options,” says Amy Tousman, registered dietician with Straub Clinic & Hospital’s health education center. “They should be more concerned with the calories they’re consuming. You need to make sensible choices.”

Tousman says people tend to swap high-carb foods for substitutes high in calories and saturated fat.

“We’re always looking for a quick fix,” she says. “But people should look at the overall health of their diets, not just count carbs.”


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Catherine E. Toth