The age of skinny: Low-carb diets are the rage, with everyone from Premier Gordon Campbell to chef Karen Barnaby taking off weight
Saturday, March 27, 2004
The Vancouver Sun
The world has gone diet crazy. Barely a day goes by when you don't hear about the the Atkins, Zone or South Beach diets, or the controversy over whether Dr. Robert Atkins died bloated and fat and not svelte and healthy. A Google search of the Internet for "Atkins diet" turns up an astounding 3,230,000 hits in .16 seconds.
The Atkins, Zone and South Beach are examples of low carbohydrate diets, which preach avoiding high-carb foods like pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, and sugar in favour of high-protein foods like meat.
This seems to be enticing to people -- a recent study found that 30 per cent of Americans are trying to control the amount of carbohydrates they eat.
The food and drink industries have been quick to respond to the diet boom. Subway has a line of low-carb wrap sandwiches. Coors has a low-carb beer. Even McDonald's has a low-carb menu.
Locally, the fad has spawned a chain of low-carb stores, called the Low Carb Centre. Thirteen hundred people swept through the doors of the North Vancouver Low Carb Centre when it opened last July 8, and the company has expanded with outlets in Yaletown, Surrey and Coquitlam.
At the Low Carb Centre, you can get a low-carb version of most everything, from soy pasta to soy pretzels to sugarless barbeque, ketchup and mango curry sauce. There's low carb buckwheat pancake mix, low-carb light and flaky pie crust mix, even low-carb margarita, bloody mary and pina colada mix.
The Atkins diet worked for Premier Gordon Campbell, who lost 25 pounds (11.3 kilograms) in the last year. Other people have had even more dramatic results, like Shannon Keene of the Low Carb Centre, who lost 120 pounds (54.4 kg).
"It has worked tremendously well for me," said Keene, who had tried and failed to control her weight with other diets.
"With this diet I wasn't hungry, I felt satisfied, I wasn't having uncontrollable cravings. Because when you reduce the carbohydrates in your diet, it tends to take care of the cravings for the sugary carbohydrate foods."
Maybe so, but experts aren't convinced the wave of fad diets will work in the long-term. Typically, people who diet tend to fall off the diet wagon and then put back on the weight -- at which point they often go on another diet.
"The vast majority of people who lose weight on a diet will regain the weight, and sometimes actually gain more than they lost," said Gwen Chapman, a University of British Columbia professor of food, nutrition and health.
"Most diets, if you look a year or two later, the people are at least at the weight they were when they started the diet."
Author and media analyst Dr. Art Hister said dieters want instant gratification, but staying on a diet long-term requires discipline that is beyond most people.
"We want easy answers," said Hister. "We want quick fixes. We want a simple explanation that will take a simple manipulation in our lives to deal with all the problems that we've accumulated over the years, rather than put in the time and the effort to actually change our habits and the slow, meticulous work of actually adjusting your lifestyle.
"Nobody wants to do that -- they all want a quick answer. 'Give me a diet, I'm better in three weeks, I've lost a ton of weight and I'm going to live forever. And play the piano.'"
There's a simple reason so many people are on diets: The population is fatter than at any time in history.
In the States, two-thirds of the population is overweight. Americans have become so big, the standard size of seats at sports stadiums and on airplanes has been enlarged.
"Coffins are wider, stretchers are bigger," Hister said. "Apparently they can't make supersize stretchers fast enough in the States. Anything to do with wideness of the human form is in great demand."
Obesity is on track to become the number one cause of preventable deaths in the United States. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that diet and physical inactivity accounted for 400,000 deaths in the U.S. in the year 2000, just behind tobacco, which caused 435,000 deaths.
The tobacco industry has been hit hard by lawsuits. Worried that this could happen to fast food restaurants that serve junk food and/or big portions, the U.S. House of Representatives passed March 10 a bill called the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act.
The "Cheeseburger Act," as some call it, bans customers from suing restaurants that fed them food that may have helped to make them fat or have health problems.
Canadians are healthier than Americans, but 48 per cent of the population is rated overweight or obese, according to the body mass index, which measures a person's weight by their height. Twenty-nine per cent of Canadians are considered obese.
Meanwhile, media images constantly reinforce the belief that beautiful people are slim and trim. So a good proportion of the population is constantly fretting about losing weight, in order to measure up to that standard.
"Most people looking to diet, [do it] more for esthetic purposes, not for health purposes," said Scott Lear of the Healthy Heart Program at St. Paul's Hospital.
"That's a problem, because people are looking for short-term results. People who are overweight or obese didn't gain the weight in three or four months, they gained it over a number of years. An expectation to lose that in three or four months is just not realistic and it's not healthy."
The Atkins diet is renowned for helping people lose weight quickly, which is one reason it's become so popular. But Lear said losing weight too quickly may not be good for you.
"Over the short-term, people using the Atkins diet will lose weight, but the weight that they lose isn't necessarily fat loss," he explained.
"A lot of it is through water, and through energy stores in muscles. If somebody was actually active, they could not survive on the Atkins diet, because they wouldn't be getting the energy to continue to be active.
"If you're doing moderate or vigorous activity exercise, you use glycogen, which is stored in the muscle. On the Atkins diet, a lot of the initial weight loss comes from breaking down that glycogen and using it up.
"The glycogen is basically your carbohydrate energy stores, that are both in the muscle and the liver. For somebody who's running a few times a week, you're going to be using those energy stores more predominately.
"When you're on something like the Atkins diet, it's going to be hard for you, you're going to feel sluggish. If you were doing something like leisure walking, it's not going to be as much of a problem."
Hister went on the Atkins diet for a few days to see what all the fuss was about, and found that it did indeed result in a quick weight loss.
"It was interesting to me how quickly the weight came off," he recounts. "My son went on it at the same time as I did and he lost something like seven or eight pounds in 14 days, which is pretty impressive."
But Hister gave it up after only five days.
"It's the most bloody boring diet you'll ever eat," he said. "There's just so much protein and fat you want to eat. I couldn't do it. You miss too many things that you really enjoy eating."
This is the problem for many people. They lose weight while they're on the diet, but lose their resolve, go back to their normal eating habits and regain the weight.
"It's like an addiction," said Shirley Lamb, who has tried several diets over the years, including the Atkins.
"You lose the weight and think you're fine, so you stop doing all the things that helped you lose the weight and go back to doing all the things that you liked. It's a habit. You just gain the weight back again."
Lamb, 70, lost 60 pounds on the Atkins diet about three decades ago (she's fuzzy on dates). But she put it back on when she veered off the diet. Eventually, she realized she was never going to be "a skinny minnie," and went in an opposite direction, forming a support group for large women called Fat is a Feminist Issue (named after a book by Susie Orbach).
"All the role models are skinny and beautiful and look wonderful," she said. "But we come in all sizes: tall and short, wide and skinny, and wherever we land is where we land. It's genetics a lot of the time. Why not accept all of us?"
Unfortunately her weight started causing her health problems, so for the last year and a half the erstwhile "militant fat woman" has been on a diet. She's lost 90 pounds by cutting down on her portions and nixing high calorie food like butter and sweets, although she does have the odd cinnamon bun.
"This weight loss has been more a change of lifestyle than anything. I changed the way I eat. I eat a lot more vegetables, and I eat soups. Even when I go out to dinner, instead of having fish and chips, I'll have a piece of grilled fish and a salad. It tastes just as good.
"Every now and again I go bananas and have something. But I don't kick myself in the butt for that. I think it's okay."
Shannon Keene agrees that if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you've got to make some lifestyle changes.
"Everybody's looking for that magic pill, the [diet] where I can eat whatever I want and not exercise and lose weight," she said. "It took me 30 years to figure out there wasn't one.
"The trick is finding a way of eating that you can live with as a lifestyle. Because if you go on any diet, you may successfully lose weight. But if you can't do it as a lifestyle, as soon as you go off the plan your weight comes back on."
Television producer Jason Keel tried the Atkins diet a couple of times and lost weight, but found he couldn't stay with the plan and put the weight back on. He's now in Weight Watchers, and has lost 50 pounds since Christmas.
"I found the structure and the routine and the regimen of having to weigh in once a week [on Weight Watchers] really worked for me," he said.
"Those short-term, small goals were really motivating for me. It kept me focused and kept me from cheating. It teaches portion control and a balanced diet, which is really a good thing. I'm not convinced the Atkins diet is healthy."
But he understands why the Atkins diet is so popular.
"It just sounds great that you can eat butter, cheese, red meat and eggs, and as much of it as you want," he said. "A diet that works that you can keep gorging yourself on some foods sounds great, it sounds easy to people.
"That's why people do it: 'Here's a diet where I don't have to actually diet, and I can still lose weight.' It seems impossible, but it seems to work with a lot of people. I think that's why people are so interested in the high-protein, low-carb diets. You're cheating in a way -- you get to eat as much as you want. They think they can do it without a huge commitment, and without a lot of exercise."
UBC's Chapman said it is hard for most people to follow a strict diet for any length of time.
"If you set yourself up to try to eat only very specific foods at specific times in specific quantities, that's difficult," she said.
"It sets people up for failure. Then there are negative psychological effects, in terms of reduced self-esteem, reduced feelings of being able to be successful at what you're trying to do."
The Healthy Heart Program's Lear said another problem is someone's interpretation of a diet plan.
"In the Atkins diet, it says you should only have bacon once a week," he said.
"But people are just kind of reading the message they want to hear. 'Oh, high-fat and high-protein, I'm going to eat bacon regularly throughout the week.' So there's a bit of a disconnect between what's written in the book and what people follow."
Ultimately, our society's weight problem may be due to the modern, sedentary lifestyle. We sit at desks all day working at computers, we sit at home all night watching TV, we drive our cars to the store instead of walking.
"There's been a sharp, dramatic decline in the amount of activity and energy expenditure people burn off in the last 20, 30 or 50 years," Lear said.
"When we talk about obesity, it wasn't something that was really prevalent or an issue 50, 80 years ago, because we were burning off the calories that we were taking in at a good rate."
For proof, Hister points to a recent study of Amish farmers in Ontario, who don't use modern machinery like cars, trucks or even tractors.
"The Amish don't have much of a problem with weight or obesity, yet the Amish have a diet we would consider dreadful, loaded with fat, cholesterol, baked goods of all kinds," he said. "It's farm food.
"One guy in the group of researchers got the bright idea of pinning pedometers to the Amish to measure how many steps they take in a day. I believe that the North American average is something like 2,000 to 3,000 for North American adults. The Amish in this study, the women averaged about 14,000 steps a day and the men averaged about 18,000 steps a day. There you go -- that's the secret.
"Now, we're not ever going to get people to go back to the horse and buggy day and throw away their cell phones and start communicating by actually walking to their neighbour's house and talking to them.
"But really it is proof that what we've done is abandoned the lifestyles that kept us slim by accommodating all these labour-sparing devices in our lives. The price we're paying is, we're getting fatter."
Lear said it isn't likely that most people will head to the gym for two or three hours of exercise each day to burn calories like an Amish farmer. But he does think people concerned about their weight can do something about it with a realistic plan.
"The people who are the most successful in dieting are the ones who have a long-term vision, a long-term plan and realistic expectations," he states.
"A guideline for most people who are looking to lose weight is something like one kilogram or one to two pounds per week. The people who are the most successful are the ones who incorporate exercise or physical activity into that weight loss plan."
© The Vancouver Sun 2004