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!”

NYC’s Most Popular Diets
From low-carb (Atkins) to high-maintenance (raw foods), there’s a diet for every taste. (December 16, 2002)

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.”

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.

Carb Panic