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Carb Panic


Illustration by Steve Brodner.  

The 30-plus-year-old promise of Atkins is that you can shed fat—lots of it -- by eating it; that you can slim down while you enjoy bounty, abundance, pig-outs. Consider the description of the foods you can eat while you "do" Atkins in his latest book: "mounds of seeds and nuts, platters of fish, a lobster in drawn butter, well-seasoned fish, turkey and duck and certainly a juicy steak . . . fresh green salads drenched in healthy olive-oil-based dressing overflowing their bowls." But his Dionysian-feast scene goes dark and stormy when flour and sugar enter the picture. "The typical modern American diet—or, as I sometimes call it, the high-sugar horrors—makes you fat," he writes scarily. "Those foods are bad for your health, bad for your energy level, bad for your mental state, bad for your figure. Bad for your career prospects, bad for your sex life, bad for your digestion, bad for your blood chemistry, bad for your heart." Yikes. And it's not enough to simply give up pastry: Atkins claims that the body can't really tell the difference between simple (croissant) and complex (brown rice) carbohydrates, and that what really matters, weight-loss-wise, is a food's "glycemic load," or sugar content. Consequently, bananas are a major no-no.

Plenty of protein and fat (!) is the answer. "Your compulsions hold no terrors for me," he soothes, "and soon they won't for you. When you pass that refrigerator, open it, have some chicken salad or a slice of pot roast." And, perhaps, a nice side of Hollandaise sauce.

Nicholas Perricone, a dermatologist and former assistant professor at Yale, has made a career and garnered a celebrity following based on a reasonably similar high-protein diet—or "prescription," as he's fond of calling it—notable for its emphasis on salmon and its added promise of good skin: a "face-lift in your fridge." Like Atkins, whom Perricone called a "hero" when I spoke with him, Perricone's basic premise is that the consumption of the white devil causes a dramatic spike in insulin. This, in turn, causes inflammation (and hunger), which over time increases the risk of all sorts of bad things, like Alzheimer's, cancer, acne, and fatness.

Maria Verel started the Perricone diet not long after she landed her job as Diane Sawyer's makeup artist on Good Morning America. "I was getting up at 3:30 every morning, at work by 5, and then working usually a full day at another shoot. I was just working so many hours. I'm not a meat eater, so the only thing keeping me going was carbs. I'd grab a bagel or a sandwich, and I just became more and more tired. I found myself in the ever-expanding world of carbohydrates," she says ominously. "I was very bloated and tired, and my brain felt really sluggish, the bags under my eyes were getting worse and worse—I couldn't figure out why."

I ask her if it might have had something to do with working fourteen-hour days that began at 3:30 in the morning. "I thought about that, but it was mostly about the bagels," says Verel.

"When you eat bread, you go into a sedated brain fog," she continues. "So I went cold turkey. I started snacking on nuts, on cheese. The main thing I learned from Dr. Perricone was, don't let your insulin spike, don't let your blood sugar drop. I love bread—I love, love, love it!—but it starts the carb roller coaster. I was just down South with the show, and I had a bowl of cheese grits. They were awesome," she says with an almost frightening intensity. "They were amazing." She regains her composure. "But then I had to sleep for, like, the rest of the day."

Atkins and Perricone claim that everything would have been all right if we had just stuck to our caveman roots and restricted ourselves to fishing and hunting instead of evolving into agrarians and messing around with wheat. As if things weren't bad enough after we started harvesting grains in the Fertile Crescent, sometime in the early eighties we got it in our fool heads that we should eat less fat. "I have seen the ravages of the low-fat, no-fat diet craze, and they are alarming," Perricone warns, preacher-man-style, in his book. He goes on to describe a seemingly benign breakfast of juice, cereal with skim milk and banana slices, a bran muffin, and coffee, which, it turns out, "will store body fat more quickly than eating [a] candy bar! After you have eaten such a meal . . . you will not only be fat, wrinkled, and fatigued, you will also be in a bad mood."

I head to pick up some lunch. I find myself passing by the troughs of sandwiches and scones at the midtown Mangia with a sense of haste and hostility. I turn to the protein-only area, but the sliced, bleeding steaks, hunks of chicken breast in tarragon mayonnaise, and other bits of creamily adorned meat seem just as revolting as ever. I settle on soup. Unfortunately, it is tomato-Parmesan today: The Parmesan is suddenly no problem, what with its being fat and all, but tomatoes are actually pretty high in carbs, according to Atkins's handy carbohydrate-gram counter. Tomatoes are really insidious, red white-devil bombs, and now I have no idea what I can possibly eat for lunch.

Then I remember something: I am not on Atkins. I am, at the moment, sort of puny, and can eat tomatoes or bananas or even bagels. But it is fun being this thin—everyone treats me like I've accomplished so much. And if I eat like a normal person, in no time at all I will look like a normal person. I buy some beef.

'In July, I went to Paris for business with an editor friend of mine from Harper's Bazaar," says public-relations executive Jodi Balkan. "It was the sales—the Paris sales—and she bought so much, and I couldn't buy anything! How sad is that? I bought shoes. But now the fates collide. I had never, ever considered staying on Atkins, because you always felt there was something innately wrong with it. Well, the article in the Times changed my thinking—the greatest story ever. That and the sales in Paris changed my thinking. I told my editor friend, 'As soon as we get home, I'm starting Atkins.' I saw her a few weeks later at a friend's baby shower, and I was fifteen pounds lighter! Now I've lost 22 pounds. I am going to do this for life! I will never be the carb fool I was before—but I'm not real, real strict."

I ask if she ever eats, say, a roll.

"I'll have a handroll once in a while, yes."

"Not sushi," I tell her. "I mean a roll roll. A real roll."

She literally gasps. "Oh, God, no. Oh, God. No."

There is, however, one small problem with the greatest story ever. Many of the doctors who were quoted in the piece have protested that they were misrepresented, and that they are in no way ready to endorse Atkins, because people on it tend to eat so much saturated fat—which is (still) linked to heart disease and various forms of cancer. John Farquhar, a professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University's Center for Research in Disease Prevention, called the Times article "a disaster" in the Center for Science in the Public Interest's November Nutrition Action Health Letter, and went on to say that he was "greatly offended at how Gary Taubes tricked us all into coming across as supporters of the Atkins." His former Stanford colleague Gerald Reaven was also quoted as saying he was "horrified" by the piece. "I think the problem with the diet is not a short-term problem; it's more a long-term problem," says Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, who was also a source in that story. "Despite what Taubes wrote, there is a lot of data that indicates that a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol increases the risks for cardiovascular disease. You'd hate to advise such a diet."

A number of health experts and dieters report that in addition to their concerns about cumulative long-term health consequences, a problem with Atkins is that without any fruits or whole grains or cereal in your diet, things can get a little stopped up downstairs. "The secret to Atkins is Fibercon," says one happy (and regular) protein eater. "Everyone I know gets hemorrhoids or at least constipation while they're on it."

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