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Americans seem to have had their fill of low-carb diet craze



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Jennifer Bebko has brought home low-carb peanut butter, Fudgsicles, pasta, bread and ice cream for herself and her husband to try.

But when she sneaked in the low-carb spaghetti sauce for dinner one night, that proved too much.

"My husband was like, 'Don't feed us that again,' " she said.

Judging by sales of low-carbohydrate food products, he's not the only one. The hottest diet trend of recent years has probably reached its peak, analysts say, although key parts of the low-carb lifestyle may be here to stay.

"There's a shakeout," said Iris Shaffer, executive director of the Low Carb Manufacturers Alliance.

Complaints about high prices and disappointing taste have slowed the sales growth of low-carb products. The government's proposed new dietary guidelines focus on cutting calories, not carbohydrates, to lose weight. Carb counters dwindle

Although low-carb diet books are still best sellers, casual dieters are starting to abandon the approach. The number of Americans who say they are trying to restrict their carb intake dropped from 32 percent in April to 21 percent in a recent study conducted for the manufacturers group.

"It's a craze," said Bebko, who dropped 17 pounds on a low-carb diet. She's tried just about everything: the low-carb Atkins and South Beach diets, the grapefruit diet, the Cleveland Clinic Diet, even the blood type diet.

Now Bebko, fitness director of the East Cobb YMCA, just eats smaller portions.

She has sampled low-carb versions of potato chips, pasta, ice cream and restaurant meals. She hasn't found many she likes or that she thinks are healthier than the regular version.

"You can tell the difference, just like diet soda," Bebko said.

In the past year, the country's largest food manufacturers rushed to turn out low-carb versions of everything from ketchup and pasta to potato chips. Sales of the products rose by 127 percent in the quarter ending April 10 compared to the previous quarter, according to ACNielsen, which collects food purchase data. Sales were still up in the most recent quarter, but at a much slower pace of 20 percent compared to the previous quarter.

During a July conference call with investors, Kellogg warned of a glut of low-carb products. Shelf space is hard to find, and so are windfall gains, said Gus Valen, chief executive officer of the Valen Group, a consulting firm for large food and beverage companies.

Manufacturers "are thinking twice about their pipelines of low-carb products and what they're going to do. Projects are getting pushed back," Valen said. "It's a very natural reaction to supply meeting demand."

Some manufacturers are starting to rethink how they present those products, Shaffer said. They are putting less emphasis on low-carb, a label many consumers associate with high price and poor taste, and instead are promoting products as lower in sugar or having other health benefits. License to overeat

Some say low-carb diets are hard to follow because they restrict so many favorite foods. Others question the long-term health effects. The Hartman Group, a consulting firm, recently warned that low-carb diets may fade much more quickly than it once believed, based on the eye-rolling and negative reactions it got when interviewers asked consumers about them.

Cynthia Knight of Grayson is one of those who have abandoned the low-carb lifestyle. She started following the Atkins Diet for convenience because her husband was on the plan. She began her days with a 300-calorie low-carb bar and had another for an afternoon snack. She ate cashews out of the container, like popcorn, and prepared big cheeseburgers for dinner. She gained 12 pounds in a year despite going to the gym five times a week.

"They don't stress portion sizes, they say eat to your fill," Knight said. "I think it gives you a license to overeat."

She consulted a nutritionist this winter and tried a more traditional diet. In a few weeks, she lost the extra weight. Her husband is still following Atkins.

The manufacturers study found a core group of committed low-carb dieters holding steady at 11 percent.

Although some low-carb foods are showing up on clearance shelves, others are selling well. Kraft plans to put the South Beach Diet trademark on some labels.

And sales of high-carbohydrate foods such as white bread and doughnuts haven't bounced back. Low-carb dieters who've lost weight, and those who've tried the diets, are still cautious about eating refined grains and sugary treats.

"The killer to the diet is the starches and rice, potatoes, bread and beer," said Don Chmiel of Dunwoody, who has lost 26 pounds in six weeks on the South Beach Diet. "If I go the rest of my life without those, I don't care." Juice, potato sales dip

The Florida Department of Citrus, looking at a 5 percent drop in orange juice consumption in the past three years, started an ad campaign in April touting the health benefits of juice.

So far, it hasn't worked: Sales were down 4 percent in June compared with last summer, says spokesman Andrew Meadows.

Trade groups for potatoes, pasta and even low-carb-friendly whole grains are trying similar health pitches to woo back consumers.

In April the NPD Group, a market research firm, surveyed 11,000 Americans about carbohydrate consumption. Of those who said they were on a low-carb diet, just one in four actually was restricting carbs as much as recommended.

What's happening, said Harry Balzer, a vice president of the NPD Group, is the American tendency to create a personalized version of popular diets: Follow the advice you like.

Linda Bigger of Atlanta cut back on carbohydrates and took off enough pounds to fit back into once-snug size 6 pants. She still watches carbs, but splurges occasionally on burgers and French fries, and picks cookies with the lower carb count --- so she can have two instead of one if she feels like it.

"I don't deprive myself," Bigger explained. "Life's too short."

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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