By Published on .

A chief characteristic of a pyramid is that the structure is identical on all sides. Thus, if one were to turn a pyramid on end, or flip-flop it any which way, it would appear exactly the same as it had before. Dr. Robert Atkins learned this the hard way. His aim was to alter the pyramid invented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to teach Americans the “healthy� way to eat.

Simplified, it placed fats and oils on top, at the point (use sparingly), carbohydrates on the bottom, at the wide base (the more complex the carb, the more one should eat). For more than three decades, Atkins tilted at this pyramid, arguing that carbohydrates, because they are the primary trigger for moving energy from the digestive tract to cells to be used for energy or stored, were making much of America fat. During that period, America did indeed grow fatter, remarkably so. And that USDA pyramid looks pretty much the same as it did when Atkins set out on his adventure.

Fittingly, six months after Atkins died at age 72 after striking his head in a fall on an icy sidewalk in New York City, the USDA pyramid looks as if it is starting to crumble. Although his medical practice shuttered forever on October 15, the company Atkins founded (and owned half of at the time of his death) is likely to generate more than $200 million in revenue this year. His most recent book, Atkins for Life, published in early 2003, remains on best-seller lists. His first, Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, has popped on and off those lists several times since it was first published in 1972. There have been 11 other books. And his last, Atkins Diabetes Revolution, is scheduled for publication next spring. His company, Atkins Nutritionals, doesn't divulge its own market research, but points to other studies that report some 25 million Americans are following the Atkins diet in one form or another, and that a third of the population is currently limiting its intake of carbohydrates.

This, of course, has not been lost on the food products industry. According to Mintel Consumer Intelligence, there have been nearly 400 new products introduced into the low-carb space during the past three years. Most of these have been in the energy bar/meal replacement, beverage and confectionary segments, where low-carb is often synonymous with sugar-free. Perhaps the most vibrant entry, however, has been in the beer business, where Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra has racked up a market share estimated at roughly 4 percent with an ad budget of $20 million in its first year out. Granted, Mich Ultra is as much a beer for the Gatorade crowd as it is for people who are watching their carbs. But at 2.6 grams per 12-oz. bottle, it has been enthusiastically embraced by Atkins acolytes. In response, Miller Lite, which had been the lowest carb beer before Ultra, has suddenly begun promoting itself as such. And Rolling Rock, a Pennsylvania beer long popular with college students is currently rolling out its low-carb offering.

And there is much more to come. Supermarkets in the Northeast are being fitted out for a new line of Weston Food's Arnold bread that is lower in carbohydrates than its traditional counterpart. Atkins products, including its low-carb ice cream, are starting to show up on supermarket shelves in addition to the health food/diet outlets that have traditionally carried the line. In the spring, the Blimpie sandwich chain will roll out an entire Atkins menu, including four sandwiches and two salads that contain fewer than 8.5 grams of carbohydrate. At fashionable eateries across Manhattan, polenta is out and bacon is in, according to The New York Times.

Atkins, indeed the entire low-carb category, is hitting critical mass. The current craze over all things low-carb is now being compared with the low-fat movement of a decade ago, which still holds sway with millions of consumers. The primary reason for this is the fact that, as a diet, Atkins works, and it promises what no other diet can: You can eat all you want of some very rich, satisfying foods, skip the carbs, and lose weight. (I am currently following the Atkins program for the second time. My first outing, in the mid-1990s, resulted in the loss of 50 pounds. But I went back to my usual eating habits thereafter, and regained 70 pounds. This time, I have lost 40 pounds since last spring, and I don't intend to return to my previous eating routine — ever.)

The diet's newfound popularity can be partly credited to a summer 2002 article in The New York Times Magazine which reported that mainstream science was beginning to notice that Dr. Atkins might have been on to something. Since then, a flurry of studies have been published in various academic and medical journals that give further credence to the notion that carbs, particularly those that have been highly refined, do indeed trigger a physiological response in which insulin rushes more fuel to the body's cells than is needed, which results in the storage of fat. The most recent study, directed by Penelope Green of the Harvard School of Public Health and presented to the American Association for the Study of Obesity in October 2003, found that people who eat an extra 300 calories per day on a low-carb diet lost as much weight as those on a standard, low-fat diet over the course of 12 weeks. Not only is the pyramid crumbling, one of the prime tenets of nutritional science appears shaky as well. A calorie may not be a calorie after all, which would bring into question the science behind virtually all other diets.

It would appear then that this low-carb thing has legs. But hold on. There are two primary factors that remain major obstacles to the continuation of the drive to lower carbohydrate intake, which can perhaps best be explained as pushback and politics. Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting services at the Global New Products Database of Mintel, says, “My feeling is that this isn't long term. It probably has a two- to three-year run.� Her reason? Well, she has two. She believes that comprehensive studies of the long-term effect of the Atkins diet have not yet been done, and she suspects that such studies will turn up negatives. She also believes that the low-carb craze is strictly a U.S. phenomenon (with some effect in Canada). Her reasoning is based on the vocal opposition to such diets in other parts of the world, orchestrated primarily by what she calls “activist groups,� and on the simple fact that in Italy they eat pasta, in Asia they eat rice, in the U.K. they eat potatoes, and in the developing world, high-protein, low-carb diets are simply not economically feasible.

Stephen B. Sondike, M.D. who serves on the Atkins Physician Council and is the director of the Nutrition, Exercise and Weight Management (NEW) Kids Program at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, allows Dornblaser's point on the activist groups. “People get angry. I really don't understand why,� says Sondike.

There are myriad interest groups who do fight Atkins and low-carb, high-protein diets with passion. The diet does not fit the “new-age� sensibility, so people supporting everything from animal rights to the end of world hunger to the relatively new category of eater known as vegans (basically militant vegetarians, who neither eat nor use any product derived from animals) line up and excoriate Atkins and its followers.

But Sondike believes the dieters will overcome. “There seems to be a metabolic advantage to the Atkins diet.� He adds, “I think, in general, it's healthy, as long as people don't take it too far.� He also thinks consumer products companies should get in the marketplace for the long haul. “I don't think it's a trend or a fad, because I believe the theories behind low-carb diets are becoming more mainstream science.�

But what about the legions of doctors and nutritionists who still say the diets are dangerous, if effective. “It hasn't really become a standard of care yet,� he says. “It is still considered to be experimental.� Sondike also says, “People give up their habits very reluctantly. But we have a whole new generation of physicians who are not tied to the old dogma.�

He's certain of one point, that one at the top of the pyramid. “The food pyramid has been sort of proven to be not useful,� he says.

Does that mean it's crumbling? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly appears that the Egyptians built theirs much better than the USDA did.

Most Popular