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Carb Panic

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Meanwhile, people on Atkins also tend to come down with fairly severe verbal diarrhea.

"The funny thing about Atkins is, when people are on it, they want to talk about it—they end up talking about it a lot," says 47-year-old writer Michael Maren, who has lost twenty pounds on the plan. "I can't tell you how many conversations I've walked away from lately because I'm sick of the topic. It's funny: This past summer, my wife and I were supposed to go to lunch at Jason Epstein and Judy Miller's house in Sag Harbor. He loves Italian cooking, so there's usually some giant, amazing pasta thing. We were talking about it before we went to lunch, and my wife said, 'Listen, it's Jason Epstein. If he makes pasta, we'll eat it.' We get over there, and they're serving hamburgers. But nobody takes a bun. Turns out they were on it, too. Again, we spent half the lunch talking about Atkins."

"My problem with all these people who go on Atkins is that if they spent half the time working out that they spend talking about all this crap, they might actually shrink the collective bloat," says buff potter Jonathan Adler. "And I have too much exposure to the New Age raw-food advocates. I hate them. We had two come over for dinner the other night, and we were serving a nice pizza. They got here and they were like, 'That has wheat in it.' So we said, 'No, it's a tempeh crust.' "

Was it?

"No!" he shrieks. "Don't be ridiculous."

Indeed, while partygoers are picking apart appetizers to avoid ingesting the cracker under the carpaccio, the raw-food—or LiveFood, as they sometimes say—eaters are a growing presence in the city. This summer, a third Quintessence raw-food restaurant opened to serve expensive uncooked bits to Upper East Siders. "It makes me feel so much lighter and cleaner," says fashion designer John Bartlett. "I used to eat tons of carbs -- bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I felt very lethargic. I came across this book that was all about cleansing and raw foods and living in nature, and I took it with me to Italy. From there, I got connected with this yoga teacher who was doing a raw-food healing retreat at a place called the Tree of Life in Arizona. It truly changed my life forever. I'll never be able to go back to the New York stress diet I was on before! I'm not all raw now; I'm like 50 to 60 percent raw. I definitely try to have coconut water from young coconuts at least once a week." Who doesn't?

"If people spent half the time working out that they spend talking about Atkins, they might actually shrink the COLLECTIVE BLOAT," says Jonathan Adler.

Bartlett's fellow raw-food fan Donna Karan was recently pictured in Harper's Bazaar, sultry and svelte in a white jersey dress of her own design, beside the quote "I definitely feel nurtured by this food." Nurturing, sure; practical, not so much: Finding and arranging a daily supply of purely uncooked foods is no small project. In its specificity and complexity, the raw-food/LiveFood diet reminds me of the macrobiotic diet I followed for a summer in college when I had nothing better to do. It really does make you feel nurtured, amazing, whatever—it's like you're on some magic, healthy cocaine, and you become wildly energetic, superfocused, and suddenly everything seems more interesting. The only problem is that it requires you to make food your preoccupation, or somebody else's occupation—e.g., Gwyneth's or Madonna's chef or twig-tea brewer or seaweed seamstress. Between measuring the kombu and keeping track of what you can and can't combine with summer squash, you are left with little time to do anything else (except exercise).

But Atkins adherents would have you believe their method is as simple as can be. "Even if you travel, it's so easy—you can go to France, you can go to Greece—it's not like you have to take your prepackaged food with you," says Samantha Boardman. "You really don't have to pay attention; you pretty much know: Anything white you can't eat."

Erroll Jacobson-Sive, a 62-year-old consultant in the diamond business, has lost a cool 40 pounds since he started Atkins about a year ago. "It's extremely easy; you don't have to think," he says. "Your taste in steak just becomes very refined. You're supposed to test your urine with these sticks to see if you've achieved ketosis," a metabolic state in which your body burns fat instead of carbohydrates. "The trouble is, once you stray just a little bit, you're off. I found the subtlest things—like eating an onion—would take me out of ketosis. Any amount of carbohydrate was devastating me. Atkins says if you're not losing with the standard twenty grams of carbohydrate a day, then cut them out, which means eat only proteins. You can eat lighter things like fish and chicken, but not fruit. Not vegetables. If you cut out all the carbohydrates, you lose like a lunatic. I like that it gives you a sense of control—you can always get your little sticks out and go back on it."

Janet Meyers, a fortysomething director-producer, found the sticks similarly satisfying when she tried Atkins a while back. "I liked it. I especially liked dipping my hand in my own urine every morning to test if my body had achieved the all-powerful ketosis. Because of my personality and competitive nature, I would check like five times a day—that became my main recreational activity. It was this thing you could do besides weighing yourself all the time. But I actually didn't find the diet that easy to do. Suddenly, all those things you think you don't care about become important—like croutons. I never really achieved ketosis. I achieved sort-of-ketosis: My pee strips would come back reddish lavender instead of deep purple. It's like instead of getting into a really good Ivy, I only got into one of the smaller liberal-arts colleges that no one really wants to go to." Now she's on the Zone.

Ketosis can become just another way to rank ourselves, another opportunity for hierarchy in a city that can't get enough of it. "It's so troubling," says Kim France. "People think: That was the way I used to be, and this is so measurably different. It must be better."

But is it?

"The interesting thing is that if you look at the heart-healthy diets, they're completely the opposite," says Jacobson-Sive. "I bought the book, and I didn't know where to begin." The book he's referring to is by Dr. Dean Ornish, a Harvard-educated scientist and the most vocal and visible Atkins opponent on the diet scene today. "The Atkins diet is based on a half-truth," Ornish says. "People do eat way too many simple carbohydrates. But the goal is not to go from simple carbs to bacon. It's to go from simple carbs to complex carbs like fruits and vegetables. It's a great way to sell books to tell people they can eat ice cream and sausage and pork rinds, but research has shown that when you go on an Atkins diet, heart disease gets worse, bottom line. I was on TV last week with someone from Atkins who said, 'Oh, we don't support eating bacon and meat.' Give me a break! Every time you see a picture of Atkins, he's in front of a smorgasbord of bacon and sausage and Brie!"

It's tempting to think that Perricone would agree with Ornish, because he says, "The problem with Atkins is, he doesn't distinguish between bad fats and good fats. And I don't think people should go into ketosis, because ketones are pro-inflammatory—they are toxic cells—so ketosis isn't the best state to be in. But Atkins is still far superior to the other idiots who are ruining the health of America."

Ornish, Perricone says, is just such an idiot. "Dean Ornish and the other misinformation professors said these no-fat, low-fat diets would decrease our obesity and our heart disease. Look where that got us! As far as I'm concerned, we can line up the Dean Ornishes and send them to another country!"

"I've never heard of Dr. Perricone," Atkins (himself!) says wearily. "As for Dean Ornish, I don't think he has ever read my book, or if he has, he probably decided he shouldn't talk about it. He still goes around telling people that my diet is all fried pork rinds. It's true that I allow them, but it's not like that's what I'm telling people to eat! I'm hoping that people would change the proportions and stop doing what they're doing, but the most important thing about a diet is that it be suitable for life. Therefore, the enjoyment factor is so essential. So far, no one's come up with a diet that people can stay on: We are trying to do that." Atkins sighs. "The whole principle, the reason we restrict carbs, is so that fat becomes your source of energy. What the critics are really saying is, burning your fat is dangerous. Well, saying that if a person is 80 pounds overweight it's dangerous for him to lose fat is just about as stupid as it sounds.

"I'm on my way to dinner, and Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud are cooking," says Drew Nieporent. "Do I eat Mario's ravioli or Daniel's squab? Which is the bigger sin?"

"Dean Ornish is so determined to make me look bad," Atkins says finally. "He doesn't even know that fried pork rinds are actually very low in fat."

Ten days into researching this story, I am at my wit's end. How best to be virtuous, healthful, emaciated?

Restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who recently lost 100 pounds on a diet of his own invention, seems similarly confused. "I'm on my way to dinner, and Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud are cooking tonight," he says. "Now, my question is: Do I eat Mario's ravioli or Daniel's squab? The ravioli is starch, so I can't eat it without feeling guilty. But the squab is probably lacquered in honey and basted in butter. Which is the bigger sin? I'd love to believe in the Atkins regimen, but I'm like, I don't think so. What I always remember with Atkins is, don't put skim milk in your coffee; use heavy cream. What? The only thing that makes any sense is to drink green tea."

Faced with so much confusion, New Yorkers are making up their own weight-loss strategies. "I've lost 25 pounds in about four months on this made-up diet," says literary agent Esmond Harmsworth. "It's a combination of ideas from Canyon Ranch and my boyfriend's trainer. You have to start with a fairly big breakfast with some juice and complex carbohydrates. At lunch, I'd have mostly vegetables and fruits, grilled fish, no salad unless I had no dressing. And for dinner, no carbs at all under any circumstances, no fruit. The theory is, if you have carbs and fruit in the active part of the day you can burn them off, but they're absolutely not okay if you have them just before bed. The other point is, one day a week you can eat whatever you want."

As I write this, I am eating a raisin-nut roll. I don't feel logy or depressed or bloated or lethargic; I do not have cancer or diabetes or Alzheimer's; I am not fat. I do have a pimple, but that was true even before I bought this bread.

I call Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who is perhaps the most respected researcher of nutrition in this country and has spent more than $100 million testing the effects of fats and carbs on more than 300,000 subjects. "The evidence is getting stronger that going to a low-carbohydrate diet is a good way to control your weight," he says, "but eating large amounts of butter and steak is not healthy—that's where the Times coverage was inadequate." (Willet was a major source in the story.) "The main thing with Atkins is that it is very high in animal fats, and all else being equal, that will raise the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. But in terms of heart disease, weight loss is so beneficial that it does outweigh the adverse effects of eating animals. The thing is, there's a big window in between Atkins and the low-fat diet. It's not all or nothing."

This is starting to sound reasonable. "The fundamental problem with a low-fat diet for most people is that they can't stick to it," Willet continues. "For some people, if they're really active, a low-fat diet can work, but those people are rare, and even among them, many would have better blood biochemistry and still stay lean if they had more of the right fats, which is to say unsaturated, olive oil and so forth. You can envision the ideal, moderate diet if you just place yourself in Rome and walk down the piazza: You'll see dozens of different kinds of vegetables floating in olive oil, have a little fish, a glass of wine. And they usually give you just a little pasta. Most people will be better off—there are actual positive benefits -- eating some grain products."

I finish my roll and smile.


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