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Carb Panic

More and more New Yorkers are deserting their laborious low-fat regimens and gleefully dropping pounds while gorging on steak and bacon. What now strikes fear in their hearts: the bread basket. Welcome to a city in the throes of CARB PANIC


Illustration by Steve Brodner.  

If you are still living by the old-school logic of low fat, any day now you will find yourself at breakfast, staring out past your plate of colorful fruit salad and earth-tone wheat toast at a sea of people -- thin ones, seemingly reasonable ones -- whose plates are heaped with sausage links, fried eggs, shiny bacon, and all the other foods you've been dutifully avoiding for as long as you can remember. And you will notice when you raise your bread to your mouth that it is you who are regarded as strange and reckless and bound for fatness. To your horror, you will discover that the stigma once connected to greasy fried meats has somehow leapt off the other people's plates and made its way onto yours. You will pinch yourself in hopes of waking up, but this is no nightmare: This is breakfast as usual in a city in the midst of a carb panic.

"The moment the waiter comes to the table with bread, everyone is like No! before he can even put it on the plate," says socialite psychiatrist Samantha Boardman. "It's almost hostile to serve pasta these days because so many people are on Atkins." Boardman is herself so enamored of the aging, carb-hating Dr. Robert C. Atkins that she has considered leaving her Cornell medical-school residency to work for him. "I am a big follower of his," she says, "but you know who's even bigger is Alex Miller: She lost her baby weight in literally like one day! It's so socially acceptable to be on the diet."

"I just threw a cocktail party for fourteen people," says writer Winifred Gallagher, "and in the old days, I would have thought in terms of hors d'oeuvre like little quiches and other tiny fattening things that are delicious. People just don't eat those things anymore. I was at a big event recently with lots of traditional high-carb, delicious finger foods, and basically everyone just gravitated toward the shrimp. So for my party, I bought a whole lot of filet mignon and cut baguettes into fine slices with cheese. At the end of the party, there were pieces of baguette left over, but absolutely no filet."

Everywhere you go, it seems, someone -- everyone -- is passing on the bread, the pasta, the rice. "My mother lost about 60 pounds," says my friend Jordana Rosenberg. "We went out to Thai food and she ate this piece of searingly hot food -- she was crying at the table -- and everyone was screaming, Eat rice! Eat rice! She wouldn't do it. She refused to do it."

To the initiated, carbs are essentially imbued with evil powers. "My younger brother is always going on and off Atkins," laments Kim France, editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine. "He refers to Wheat Thins and bread as the white devil."

"People were doing Atkins even when they felt it was unhealthy, but now, out of the places I go for dinner often as a guest, probably three out of four never have carbohydrates anymore," says Joan Wallstein, a former assistant housing commissioner in her fifties. The turning point, she said, was a July 7 cover story in The New York Times Magazine titled "What If Fat Doesn't Make You Fat?," which argued that the long-embattled Atkins, the proponent of a diet that embraces protein and fat and eschews carbohydrates and sugar, may actually have had it right all along. That story promptly earned its author, Gary Taubes, a $700,000 book deal and set half of New York City throwing its baguettes out the window.

Plenty of people -- baby-boomers, by and large -- had been losing weight on Atkins for literally decades, but the going thinking was always that healthwise, Atkins was about one step above bulimia as a weight-loss strategy. Those who tried it, and got results, felt like they had made a Faustian pact. The minute the story came out, all those skinny beef-eaters seemed to jump out of the closet at once. Suddenly, being on Atkins wasn't some dirty secret, and bacon consumption became chic.

Of course, there has always been a group of New York women who are professionally thin and intake-obsessed (in fashion, society, publicity, etc.), but now regular people -- middle-aged men! -- can be found all over town discussing the effect of a baked potato on their thighs and moods.

"Atkins is very appealing to men because it's like steak as opposed to lettuce leaves, so Gore is on it and, I think, Paul Wolfowitz," says Emma Gilbey Keller, wife of Timesman Bill Keller. "I was going to join Weight Watchers -- I found out where to go and everything -- but my husband said he was going to do Atkins, so we decided to do it together. That story came out a week or two after I gave birth, and I was new to this world of being a big fat cow and having to wear flowing clothes. I've lost 32 pounds! Now I'm evangelical on the subject. I swear to God, I have so much energy, I'm never tired, and I just had a baby! Sadly, my baby got colic because I was eating so much dairy, so I had to go on soy, which was a real drag. Fortunately, she was okay.

"My younger brother is always going on and off Atkins," says Kim France. "He refers to Wheat Thins and bread as the WHITE DEVIL."

"Everyone I know is on it, and now we're much more concerned about sugar," Gilbey Keller continues in her buttery British accent, "because the whole problem with our country is that we Americans consume so much sugar! Are you on a weight-loss program?" she asks brightly.

I tell her that I am recovering from a rather fierce round of dysentery I contracted on a recent trip to Cambodia, so at the moment I'm not looking to lose any more weight.

"Oh," she exclaims, "lucky you!"

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