MACLEAN’S | Your Health

Low-Carb Lament

LIANNE GEORGE January 17 2005
MACLEAN’S | Your Health

Low-Carb Lament

LIANNE GEORGE January 17 2005

NICOLE KUTNEY, a 31-year-old medical sales representative from London, Ont., committed to low-carb dieting three times. Each time she lost 30 pounds. And each time she gained them right back. “It works and it works fast,” she says of the regimen, “but it’s impossible to stick to it. It’s just too boring.” After weeks of protein-heavy meals, she’d find herself reconsidering low-fat plans like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. “At least they let you have a little cookie or a brownie every once in a while.”

Signs that the public’s enthusiasm for low-carb dieting is waning are everywhere. According to U.S. studies, up to 10 per cent of Americans have tried low-carb diets in recent years, but almost half have given them up. Books like Dr. Atkins’New Diet Revolution and The Zone, which monopolized bestseller lists for much of 2003, have quietly bowed out of the Top 10. And sales of the thousands of newly launched lowcarb food products have stalled. It appears that for a growing number of people, the diets heralded by celebrities as the key to boundless energy and a bodacious bod have proven to be a massive disappointment.


The philosophy behind Atkins and related diets is that, by lowering your intake of carbohydrate-rich foods such as breads and pastas, your body will begin to burn stored fat for energy—a process called ketosis. Studies have shown that this type of diet does indeed result in fast and often significant weight loss. But ever since the Atkins trend exploded in the late ’90s (the concept is actually 30 years old), health and nutrition experts have warned that it’s the dietary equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme.

“Ketosis is a toxic effect and that’s why you have the rapid weight loss, because your body is purging a lot of water to get the toxins out—up 10 pounds initially,” says Toronto food-trends expert Dana McCauley. “It’s not a meaningful weight loss, and it’s very hard on your body.” By cutting out an entire food group, experts warn, you’re forgoing essential nutrients such as fibre, iron, B vitamins and folic acid. What’s more, according to industry group Dietitians of Canada, low-carb dieters tend to eat high-fat, high-cholesterol foods, which in turn increases their risk of heart and kidney diseases, bone mineral loss, high blood pressure and gout—not to mention bad breath, constipation, fatigue and headaches.

Even the man hand-picked by Atkins Nutritionals—the licensed purveyor of Atkins-brand foods and supplements—to test its products doesn’t support low-carb plans. Dr. Thomas Wolever, a renowned expert in dietary carbohydrates at the University of Toronto, was asked to measure the glycemic impact of dozens of Atkins’ products to lend scientific validity to their labelling claims. “I have a lot of respect for the company because they want to make products that will do what they say they’re going to do,” says Wolever. But he adds: “I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy diet.” 

Health concerns aside, people are getting turned off by the heavy commitment and constraints demanded by many of the popular plans. Some of the most comforting and simple foods—including breads, pastas and even certain fruits and vegetables are largely off limits. Many dieters struggle with this, says Toronto dietician Rosie Schwartz, and even start to fetishize these foods. “It promotes sort of a binge mentality,” she says. “People think, I’m not going to eat carbs.’ So when they’ve eaten some potato chips or a piece of cake, they figure, ‘Well, I’ve blown it. Tomorrow I’ll go back to not eating carbs, so I’d better get them all in today.’”

Even stalwart supporters of low-carb acknowledge the diets aren’t for everyone. Karen Barnaby, a Vancouver chef, has been on a low-carb diet for five years and has lost 70 pounds. “I have energy all the time now,” says Barnaby, who recently published the cookbook Low Carb Gourmet. But she cautions: “I’d recommend it to people who are really serious about changing their health. You have to change your whole way of thinking about food and fuel.”


New reasons to love the ultimate carb

HAS THERE EVER been a food more gee-whiz wholesome, more packed with nutrients and fresh-from-the-oven goodness than bread? And yet ever since the low-carb trend took hold, bread has been the target of a commercial smear campaign. Atkins and South Beach advocates have heralded protein-rich foods as the savvy dieter’s weapons of choice. Bread, they warn, will make you fat. In 2003, U.S. bread consumption dropped by 2.5 per cent (the Canadian industry fared slightly better, down only one per cent), continuing a trend of several years.

Still, for bread lovers, the low-carb mania has produced an unexpected benefit. Breadmakers, forced to innovate in order to entice leery consumers, have introduced a slew of healthier, higher-quality varieties, which also happen to taste better.

“The low-carb movement really made people understand that not all carbohydrates are created equal,” says Amy Snider, a Toronto food consultant and author of the cookbook FiberBoost. While we haven’t stopped eating carbs, our consumption has shifted dramatically toward “good carbs,” such as whole wheat and organic breads.

Whereas even 10 years ago almost half of bread consumption was white bread, now it’s less than a third,” says Connie Morrison, vice-president of marketing for Canada Bread Co. Today’s consumers prefer loaves that look home-made, even rustic, filled with seeds and a variety of textures. They’re better educated about the health benefits of bread as a source of complex carbs, fibre, protein, B vitamins and iron. And they’re willing to spend a little more for it.

“When we started in 1993, our bread seemed very expensive,” says Linda Haynes, co-founder of Ace Bakery in Toronto, which now distributes its goods to supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. “But today, people care more about what they eat. They’re more willing to treat themselves, whether it’s to a nice wine, olive oil or a loaf of bread.” Stroll down your grocer’s baked-goods aisle and you’ll find a much broader selection than ever before, some of it delivered fresh from local artisan bakeries. There are breads made with unusual ingredients like spelt, flax and quinoa that offer both nutritional benefits (from extra protein to cholesterol-fighting powers) and unique taste. Many are organic, produced without refined sugars or bleached flours. Even mainstream brands now offer healthy lines, such as Dempster’s WholeGrains.

At the same time, cutting out all carbohydrates is waning as a long-term weight-loss strategy. A recent study found that, in moderation, eating whole grains may actually help ward off the pounds. Bread-“good” bread, that is-may not be your enemy after all. That slab of butter sitting next to it, however, is another story. L.G.


With dieter interest fading fast, it now appears the low-carb industry expanded much too fast. In the past two years, roughly 3,800 carbohydrate-reduced products arrived on the North American market. Thanks to brands like Carb Options and Carbsense, you can now find low-carb versions of everything from breads and cereals to candy bars, colas and beers. But the demand for these products has dropped from the early highs. In the second half of 2004, Atkins Nutritionals saw its sales drop 32 per cent, and it’s not alone: millions of dollars worth of goods are gathering dust in warehouses.

The problem, critics say, is that these products are relatively expensive—and many taste terrible. “A lot of them are pathetic because you’re just substituting high-carb food with low-carb imitation food,” says Barnaby. And with the explosion of low-carb snack foods, many are antithetical to weight loss. “People confuse low-carb with low-calorie,” says Schwartz. The reason those on low-carb diets lose so much weight is that there’s little to snack on that’s approved, she says. “As soon as you bring in low-carb tortillas, chips and muffins, the caloric intake increases and that’s the end of the weight loss.”

This year, Canada’s low-carb industry is in for another hit. Health Canada has been warning there is no scientific evidence to back low-carb label claims. By year’s end, Ottawa will introduce new food-labelling rules to restrict the use of the term “low-carb” on packaging. Manufacturers who don’t adapt their brands may have their goods pulled from the shelves. Meanwhile, Dietitians of Canada is urging people to return to a well-balanced diet and exercise, an old-fashioned approach that is unsexy—and entirely unmarketable.*


Don’t swallow the conventional wisdom

MYTH #1: All carbohydrates are evil. It’s true that sugar has no nutritional value and might therefore be considered a “bad carb.” But fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy carry good carbs that fuel muscles and help us think, as well as vital nutrients and the fibre necessary for proper digestive function. In fact, Health Canada recommends that people wishing to maintain a healthy weight get more than half their calories from carbohydrates.

MYTH #2: You can’t eat too much protein. Diets that are high in protein also tend to be high in cholesterol and saturated fats, which increase your risk of heart disease, kidney damage and bone-mineral loss. The diets’ flip side-low fibre intake-brings another charming side effect: constipation.

MYTH #3: Low-carb means low-calorie. Packaged foods labelled low-carb often have as many calories and fat as the regular versions (in addition to being more expensive). A Carb Options Chocolate Chip Brownie Bar, for example, contains 200 calories, almost as much as a Kit Kat. Also, makers of low-carb products often replace natural carbs with sweeteners like sorbitol, which, in large quantities, can cause digestive problems.

MYTH #4: You won’t get bored on this diet. For the diet to truly work, you need to stick to it-forever. Goodbye pasta, hello red meat. Forever. For many, low-carb eating is just too restrictive. A 2003 study found that after a year, four in 10 low-carb dieters had quit.

 MYTH #5 Weight that comes off stays off. Initial weight loss from low-carb dieting is mostly due to water loss and reduced calorie intake-thanks to the diet’s restrictive menu. But with all the “approved” low-carb snacks now available, you could eat loads of calories and gain the weight right back.    L.G.