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Low-carb on downslide; fewer are on the diet

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Cutting carbohydrates has been the hottest diet craze of the decade, but there are signs the trend is cooling.

The percentage of people who are following low-carb diets has dropped dramatically since January, according to new data from two market research firms.

Among the possible reasons: Overall dieting usually is down at this time of year, and interest in the Atkins' meat-lovers plan simply might be waning.

The latest data:

* Low-carb dieting peaked the last week of January, when 9.1% of people said they were on the program. By Nov. 17, only 3.6% were following the plan, according to the NPD Group, one of the country's leading market research firms. NPD interviews 1,000 people twice a month about dieting.

* Another monthly poll of 1,100 people from Opinion Dynamics Corp. shows that 11% to 12% of people from December 2003 through August said they were on a low-carb program such as the Atkins or South Beach diet. (The latter starts out low in carbs and then becomes moderate.) In October, the percentage dropped to 8%.

The number of people who are trying to lose weight declines at this time of year, but low-carb dieters dropped more than the overall percentage, says Harry Balzer, a vice president for NPD Group.

Larry Shiman of Opinion Dynamics says it will be interesting to see whether ''there's a comeback'' in the new year.

But Balzer believes that America's interest in this kind of dieting plan has peaked. About 13% of consumers say they are cautious about the foods they serve with carbohydrates, Balzer says. About 30% say the same about foods high in fat. And 10 years ago, at the peak of interest in reducing fat, about 50% of people said they were concerned about high-fat foods.

Carb counting will never be as popular as counting fat grams, Balzer says. Still, the low-carb diet will remain a force in dieting because ''it is on our radar screen, and some people have lost weight with it.''

Colette Heimowitz, director of nutrition information for the Atkins companies, says the diet already has stood the test of time. ''For 30 years, they've been saying it's a fad, and it's going away,'' she says. ''And it hasn't.''

Sales of low-carb products are ''hurting'' because there are so many on the market and because it's the holiday season, she says. ''We had a boom last year because we had a monopoly. Then lots of companies jumped into the market and now everyone with low-carb products is feeling the crunch.''

Heimowitz says the company's latest efforts are focused on helping people ''live a healthy low-carb lifestyle instead of using the diet for quick weight loss and then return to their bad habits.''

Other new data show that contrary to popular belief, January isn't the peak time for dieting.

About 28% of people said they were on a diet during the last week of January compared with about 30% the last week of March. About 20% said they were on a diet right before Thanksgiving, according to new NPD data.

The company averaged 10 years of figures from another database and found that overall 24.8% of people are dieting in January, 28.4% in February, 26.6% in March and 24.4% in December.

Balzer theorizes that people may get more serious about dieting in February and March because they realize that they are getting closer to summer when they're going to be wearing fewer clothes.

Plus, many people resolve to try to lose weight by becoming more active, but by March they realize that it's easier to cut 300 to 400 calories by dieting than it is to burn it off by running 3 miles. ''They figure, 'Why don't I just give up a few candy bars?' ''

People ditch dieting at this time of year probably because ''the temptations are too great.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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