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More Businesses Catering to the Low-Carb Customer

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After happening upon LoCarb Outlet for the first time yesterday, Tom Hagar stocked up on low-carb pasta, soy chips and meal replacement bars.

The 33-year-old started the Atkins diet a year ago and now tries to limit his intake of carbohydrates. Since changing his eating habits, Hagar has lost 32 pounds.

"I've been doing this for 12 months," he said. "I love eating this way."

LoCarb Outlet, which opened in Bellevue about 2 1/2 months ago, is one of at least three specialty grocery stores to spring up in response to growing consumer demand for low-carb, high-protein foods. TLC Foods in Kirkland and Simply Low Carb in Burien also opened in the fall.

But such specialty stores -- which sell everything from low-carb cheesecake to pancake mix -- could face competition from major grocery store chains as they expand their selection of low-carb products. Top Foods, for instance, now makes low-carb bread in its in-store bakeries. And Larry's Markets tags grocery store shelves with orange labels to highlight low-carb products.

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source, noted Judy Simon, a clinic nutritionist at the University of Washington Medical Center and a registered dietitian. But if a person consumes fewer carbohydrates, the body will get its energy from stored fat, enabling the person to lose weight.

There's much debate over how healthy such eating habits really are. And there is no firm definition of "low-carb," which means that some food manufactures could manipulate labels.

Still, "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution" and "The South Beach Diet," which both tout reduced-carbohydrate diets, top The New York Times Best Seller lists. Some major food manufactures are starting to offer low-carb versions of their products, and even restaurant chains are tailoring their menus to offer more selection for carb-counting consumers.

Protein Planet, for instance, opened in downtown Seattle last January.

"It was absolutely impossible for me on a very limited amount of time to get something on the fly that was low-carb," co-founder David Grosvenor said. "Nobody catered to the low-carb diet. The best I could hope for would be get a hamburger or sandwich and throw the bread away."

The business serves "naked sandwiches" -- 6 and 10-ounce tubs of seasoned chicken and flank steak, basically the sandwich filling without the bread -- hard-boiled eggs and tofu. Menus for soups and smoothies list the number of carbohydrates, fat and protein in each. The store also carries a small selection of low-carb groceries.

TLC Foods, a Las Vegas-based franchise, opened its first store in Kirkland about 2 1/2 months ago. Franchise owner Jennifer Heuer launched the store after running two Curves exercise centers in the area; when her customers went shopping for specialty low-carb foods, the grocery stores were often out of the products, she said.

"This just kind of has it all in one spot."

LoCarb Outlet currently stocks about 1,000 different products. Owner John Hynd, who started the business after living a "low-carb lifestyle" for about five years, tests the products at home with his children.

"If you can't get a 3-year-old to eat a cookie, it's not coming into the store," he said.

Low-carb products typically cost more than non-specialty foods. An 8-ounce box of frosted flakes costs $5.99 at LoCarb Outlet, for instance. A 12-ounce box of pasta costs $3.49. And a 1-ounce bag of soy tortilla chips costs $1.79. But low-carb followers say that they eat less because the foods, which contain more protein, fill them up faster than other foods.

Although PCC Natural Markets has received a number of requests for low-carb products, most aren't "clean" enough to be sold in the stores because they use artificial ingredients, grocery merchandiser Stephanie Steiner said. The grocery stores currently offer low-carb bars and cookies. They plan to add low-carb bread next month.

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