April 16, 2004 -- Wherever food is sold nowadays, you're bound to see the words "low carb" nearby. In the last few years, hundreds if not thousands of new food products have landed on grocery store shelves claiming low carbohydrate content, hoping to attract dieting Americans.
Now, the originator of the low-carb craze, Atkins Nutritionals Inc., is warning consumers to exercise caution when buying low-carb products. Atkins, which has its own low-carb line, suggests its rivals may not have your best interests in mind.
But some experts say the Atkins warning may simply be an effort to beat out the competition, rather than help consumers buy what's right.
Part of the problem is that the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such products, has not yet defined what low carb means. Food industry advocate group Grocery Manufacturers of America petitioned the FDA last February to establish clear guidelines for claims made by these types of food products, but the agency has yet to issue a response.
In the meantime, says, Atkins medical director Dr. Stuart Trager, any food product can be labeled as low carb. "But it still may have a net carb count that is significantly higher than what is appropriate for someone following a healthy controlled-carb weight loss or weight-maintenance program. … Besides that, a food can be low in total or net carbs and still be unhealthy."
In addition, Trager maintains competing products can contain additives, transfats and added sugars as replacements that offer no nutritional value. Atkins products doesn't contain any of these ingredients, but instead use fiber, fiber derivatives, and select starches and proteins to substitute for removed carbohydrates.
Commented Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics and registered dietitian at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, "It sounds like the Atkins folks are finding a little competition in the marketplace and they'd like to hedge it."
"It seems self-serving," says Elizabeth Ward, a nutrition consultant in Reading, Mass. "I don't see any mention of the proliferation of their own products or of the licensing agreements they have with countless other food companies to carry the Atkins logo."
Trager insists his warning is not about the competition."As industry leaders, we feel tremendous responsibility to make sure people following our strategy are going about it the right way," he says. "We are committed to advocating the principles that make this work and help people be successful."
Do Calories Count?
Many dietary experts agree with Trager that low carb doesn't automatically equate with healthy, although its a tempting assumption. But they have a different concern. Rather than replacement ingredients, these experts are worried about caloric content.
"If the food industry says 'low carb,' most consumers will assume they can eat it with impunity. They are wrong," says Dr. David L. Katz, director of Yale Prevention Research Center at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Experts say low-carb products, Atkins or otherwise, may not be as healthy as they seem because the overall calories you consume may be unchanged. And counting calories, they say, is the key to long-term weight loss.
"Most products reduce the starchy carbohydrate components of wheat flour, whole or otherwise, and substitute protein powder," says Madelyn H. Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh Weight Management Center. "This is fine, but the calories are equivalent. … There is no metabolic advantage."
Katz thinks Atkins issued the warning because it fears that by spawning a movement that emphasizes nothing besides carbs, it faces a calorie-packed backlash from competitor products in the future.
"They are afraid they are about to go the way of the low-fat trend," says Katz, referring to the low-fat, high-calorie snacks that proved a low-fat label didn't automatically guarantee weight loss.
Trager acknowledges Atkins food products may not decrease overall caloric content, but he insists the carb-cutting method leads to weight loss and has been scientifically proven.
Ayoob maintains that while some short-term studies have shown low-carb diets produce weight loss, it's more water weight being lost than fat — and he says it doesn't hold up long-term.
Are We Missing the Bigger Picture?
One expert says if the ultimate goal is to reduce health risks, then neither low-carb diets nor calorie counting is the answer.
"This [is] typical of the disingenuous junk science that plagues the subject of weight and health in America today," charges Paul F. Campos, professor of law at University of Colorado and author of The Obesity Myth, to be released next month.
In fact, Campos claims we're asking the wrong questions to begin with. After speaking with numerous experts for his book, Campos has come to believe American culture needs to ask how we can live more healthy overall, regardless of weight, rather than how to best lose pounds.
"We need to focus on lifestyle changes, whether or not they lead to weight loss," Campos says. "We need to figure out how to be healthy at every size. This is a much more rational conclusion based on the scientific evidence available."