Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Not so fast, carb-lovers

To begin with, a confession of sorts: Atkins worked for me. I lost a lot of weight, and my blood-work showed a dramatic decrease in triglycerides and an increase in good cholesterol (HDL). Like many others, however, I eventually strayed from it, with the inevitable consequences.

No matter. Yesterday the Globe and Mail trumpeted: "Bankruptcy Signals End To Low-Carb Diet Mania," and today a Globe editorial cheerfully beats the same drum. It was just a fad, writes the editorialist: one can almost feel the relief, as if he or she can finally stop feeling guilty about the Cheetos and beer. The food choices are "limited" (untrue), "it deprives dieters of basic nutritional requirements" (untrue) and "it may raise their cholesterol if they stay on it too long" (untrue in my case, anyway).

A few facts: anyone who looks at low-carb cookbooks (Google for yourself) will not come away thinking that there is a limited range of choices available. Quite the contrary: the low-carb requirement seems to have stimulated the creativity of cooks everywhere, and in our house of gourmandise no one has ever been bored. In addition, the Atkins diet explicitly requires food supplements, readily available at pharmacies, to ensure that basic nutritional requirements are met.

The problem, says the writer, is that Atkins Nutritionals, the corporation that just went belly-up as it were, failed to recognize that the diet was a fad, and made a bad business decision to continue flooding the market with new products. But by mixing up the diet itself with the workings of capitalism, this commentator and others are missing the point. The diet is just fine, if you stick to it. But hawking a lot of over-priced products is not.

Because of the emphasis on protein, it's not cheap to put a household on Atkins, but it won’t break the bank either. And I don't mind paying a couple of bucks more for a case of low-carb beer, not to be confused with that fin-de-siècle abomination, light beer. What I object to is paying three dollars for an Advantage bar, or buying overly-expensive food supplements that bear the Atkins imprimatur.

What brought down the corporate house of cards was simple greed, in other words. If the good Dr. Atkins had stuck to recipes and dietary instructions, he would have done the world a service. But, true to the spirit of capitalism, he had to start a corporation and make himself and his successors first rich and then bankrupt by effectively pricing his diet out of reach. Certainly he made no claim that one had to buy those products to follow the diet, but that impression was almost certainly left in the minds of many. Getting into the food business was a bad idea from the get-go. It’s a bit a like a doctor discovering a cure for a disease and then marketing over-priced vaccines when you can get all you need on medicare.

Because Atkins Nutritionals has crashed to earth does not mean that the sound theory behind the diet has been debunked. The market is no test, contrary to what the pundits are implying, of the worth of a scientific hypothesis. Once upon a time, science had to be tested against the benchmark of faith, as the hapless Galileo found out. Now, it seems, it has to be tested against another kind of faith, promoted by neo-con hucksters and nourished by the far-right political Zeitgeist.

Like any diet, Atkins is easy to abandon, and I suspect, without having researched the matter, that no diet maintains more than a core following after a time. Only 1% of Americans, we are told, follow the diet now, as opposed to 5% a few months back when the headlines were full of it. But that's still a heck of a lot of people.

As for me, if I can only bring myself to face the prospect of the two-week induction phase, no coffee, no alcohol, 20g of carbs per day max, I'm going back to Atkins, but I'll prepare my own food, thanks. I'll lose the weight, and my blood work will improve dramatically--but I won't be much help to Atkins Nutritionals in its "repositioning" efforts.

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