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The fall of the atkins diet

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By Kate Santich

ORLANDO, Fla. - When Jody Gorran heard Atkins Nutritionals had filed for bankruptcy last month, the Delray Beach, Fla., businessman was practically giddy.

For 2 1/2 years, he had followed the Atkins diet religiously, shedding the 10 pounds he set out to lose and keeping it off, without any of the cravings or fatigue or headaches others had reported.

"I felt fine. I thought it was a wonderful diet - all the way up until I realized that it had given me heart disease and almost killed me," says Gorran, 54. "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

Last year, Gorran sued the company to put warning labels on its products. Doctors and other critics say the once wildly popular low-carbohydrate diet can produce dangerous cholesterol levels in those who are "fat-sensitive" - and that, for everyone, high levels of saturated fat and protein can increase the risk of gout, kidney and liver disease, osteoporosis and breast and colon cancer.

So it's no surprise that when Atkins filed for Chapter 11 - blaming $300 million in debt, dwindling demand and a glut of low-carb competition - doctors and dietitians were quick to pronounce the fad dead. Some even did a little figurative dancing on its grave.

Certainly the mighty had fallen.

As recently as 2003, low-carb products were being introduced at a head-spinning rate - that year, more than 3,000 of them hit the shelves. Major food manufacturers and restaurants were jumping aboard the bandwagon with predictions that low-carb fare would soon mushroom into a $15-billion to $25-billion-a-year industry. Suddenly there were low-carb cookies, low-carb candy, even low-carb bread and low-carb beer.

"Americans are infatuated with low-carbohydrate dieting," declared the International Food Information Council in late 2004 - just before the whole thing started its downhill slide.

Although studies showed the diet helped followers lose weight - and quickly - the Atkins dropout rate was high. Few managed to stay on the diet for an entire year, complaining that, eventually, even an unlimited amount of steak and eggs can become boring. Others suffered unpleasant side effects, from bad breath to constipation to dizziness and irregular heartbeats. Still others simply craved carbohydrates.

"Frankly, I would have expected the bankruptcy sooner," says Dr. Boyd Lyles, an internal-medicine specialist and director of the HeartHealth and Wellness Center in Dallas, where he has long been a vocal critic of the Atkins diet. "In the long run, people are not going to give up carbohydrates. If they manage to stay on (Atkins) long enough to achieve their target weight, they tend to feel like they've reached an end point, and they'll go back to eating normally. They can't just eliminate an entire food group."

Gorran is more succinct. "People have voted with their pocketbooks," he says. "They've realized the emperor has no clothes."

Well, maybe.

Yes, the low-carb trend is down, but it's not out. Atkins officials, who have yet to settle the lawsuit over warning labels, say they hope the company will emerge from bankruptcy later this year, and Atkins derivatives - such as the South Beach Diet - remain strong. In fact, given some tweaking, an updated image and a new name, low-carb may regroup as the "smart-carb" way of life.

Dan Fraser, a 51-year-old Orlando, Fla., real estate agent and paralegal, credits Atkins for his physical salvation.

Two years ago, he weighed 425 pounds and was taking medication for high blood pressure. His doctor advised him to have gastric bypass surgery. Instead, Fraser turned to the advice of Dr. Robert Atkins, the now-deceased cardiologist whose diet plan was experiencing a renaissance after an initial splash in the 1970s.

"I prayed about it," Fraser says. "I knew I had to do something. I knew I needed to get some of the bulk off before I could even be comfortable in the gym and on the machines."

He shed his first 100 pounds while feasting on all the meat and cheese he wanted - and his cholesterol dropped along with the weight. But when Fraser hit a plateau, he decided to modify the regimen and add exercise.

"I knew in the back of my mind that the high-fat content of the diet was a concern," he says. "So I kept the low-carb premise, but I cut out the high fat and added a lot more vegetables."

He also started working out, doing elliptical trainers, Stairmasters and spinning classes and lifting weights. He eats just enough carbohydrates, he says, to fuel his workouts. At 6-foot-1, he now weighs 230 pounds and still hopes to shed another 30 or 40.

"I'm on the right track," he says. "The principles of low-carb definitely work for me."

So why didn't they work for Gorran?

At his peak, the 5-foot, 7-inch owner of a solar-heating company weighed only 148 pounds. And according to his suit, a medical examination just a few months before he started Atkins showed a healthy cholesterol level of 146 and no discernible risk of heart disease. Still on the diet 2 1/2 years later and suffering skyrocketing cholesterol and chest pains, Gorran went to a cardiologist who found a 99-percent blockage in a major artery. In October 2003, Gorran underwent immediate heart surgery.

"Within 60 days of going off the diet and back onto a low-saturated-fat plan, my cholesterol was back at 146," he says. "I had assumed that with a 30-year history with the diet and 25,000 patients, Dr. Atkins had a body of evidence saying this was safe. In fact, it wasn't."

Amy Lanou, senior nutrition scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is handling Gorran's suit against Atkins Nutritionals, says there are several problems. First and foremost, people will react differently to the same diet. One in three on a low-carb, high-saturated-fat diet will develop a serious cholesterol problem - even if they are losing weight.

"What's surprising to me is that it doesn't happen to everyone," says Lanou. "But even for those people whose cholesterol doesn't go up, I still think that type of diet is not safe."

Among medical experts, she is far from alone. Most doctors, continue to warn that a diet high in saturated fat is unhealthy.

But whether consumers have turned away because of health reasons, a craving for sweets or a waning attention span isn't clear. There's no reliable measure of how many low-carb devotees still exist.

What is clear is that corporations no longer see easy money in it. Mainstream marketers such as PepsiCo, Unilever and Kraft have pulled some of their low-carb fare, and exclusively low-carb Keto Foods recently closed down altogether. But other food wholesalers, grocers and restaurants are staying the course.

Subway, for instance, still offers low-carb wraps, Chamberlin's health-food stores still carry a full line of low-carb foods, and some products once proclaimed as "low-carb" are now labeled "low-sugar"-though the ingredients are the same.

"It's not crazy, but it's still popular," says Kathy Chen, co-owner of Imperial Dynasty, a Longwood Chinese restaurant that added seven low-carb dishes to its menu last summer. "Every day, it's at least one or two customers."

One survey this year found that, among the nation's legion of dieters, low-carb plans remain the most popular option - and that among low-carb plans, Atkins is the top choice.

Even critics say the upside of the former Atkins fervor may be a greater understanding of good carbohydrates and bad.

"One positive thing that came out of this trend is that some people realized they might be sugar-addicted," says Tara Gidus, an Orlando-area dietitian and the national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "I'm all for people reducing carbohydrates, especially those from junk foods that have no nutritional value and leave you hungry an hour later. But I also want people to look at the quality of carbohydrates, so that they're getting the fruits, the vegetables, the whole grains, the beans that are good for us."

Lanou agrees. "I think the whole low-carb craze really brought attention to the fact that we eat way too many highly processed foods containing way too much sugar - the high-fructose corn syrup, the sucrose, the dextrose and the rest," she says.

Whether that knowledge will lead to a widespread permanent change in eating habits remains to be seen.

"Unfortunately," Lanou adds, "it doesn't seem to take all that long for the general public to forget why something isn't a good idea."


(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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