These days, if you can take a carb out of it, dieters will buy it. And they're thrilled with the idea that they can eat steak, cheese and other high-fat foods and still lose weight –- if they avoid carbohydrates. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.
The low-carb diet sure sounded good to the Stella family of Norwalk, Conn.
George Stella, 44, is a chef. Four years ago, he was a very unhappy chef with a lot of health problems. At that time, George was at his heaviest –- 470 pounds -- and he knew he had to lose weight: "The back problems, the heart failure, I think it was like 37, with heart failure and the wheelchair."
His wife Rachel hit 205 pounds, his son Anthony topped out at 225 pounds, and his other son Christian says he weighed 300 pounds when he was only 15.
"I had resolved to be in a fat family. That's the way we are," says Rachel.
Then one day, a forgetful friend left a diet book at the Stellas' house. Rachel says she couldn't believe what she was reading: "I was like, 'George, if this works, this is the biggest joke in the world.'"
So the Stella family, like some 20 million Americans, began to follow the advice laid out some 30 years ago by the late diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins.
Recent scientific studies have shown that in the short term, Atkins and other low-carb diets are effective and safe.
But there are no long-term studies, and detractors say that eventually, this diet is bound to increase the risk for heart disease, kidney problems and even cancer. This may be why rumors surfaced when Dr. Atkins died last year from a fall. But the rumors that he'd had heart disease and had been obese are all lies, according to Dr. Stuart Trager of the Atkins Physicians Council.
"I think people would like him to have been wrong," says Trager.
At first, the Stellas doubted the low-carb diet.
"I decided I would test it big time, so I'm eating five pieces of prime rib, three main lobsters, 100 steamers dipped in butter," says George. "Next thing, you know, I dropped 5, I dropped 10, I dropped 15, my appetite started decreasing dramatically."
In 18 months, he'd dropped an astonishing 200 pounds. Rachel shed 75 pounds, and after watching his parents shrink, Christian got on board. He went from 300 pounds to 140 pounds.
In total, the Stellas lost 560 pounds – a feat that even an Atkins' critic finds impressive.
"I'm delighted for them, and I really offer them my heartfelt congratulations," says Dr. David Katz, Yale professor of preventive medicine.
However, Katz is convinced that the weight loss wasn't just from cutting carbs: "Most of our foods are in the carbohydrate class. If you cut carbs, you have to cut those foods, restrict choice, cut calories. And guess what? When you cut calories, you lose weight."
Dr. Katz promotes a truly balanced diet, equating the low-carb craze with the one that went before it: low fat.
"There was a time when low-fat diets produced weight loss, and they actually worked. What happened? Where did we go wrong? Well, we focused only on fat. Not on calories, not on portion control, and not on the overall quality of the diet," says Katz.
"Mark my words. Within a couple of years, people who go on low-carb diets, even the Atkins induction phase, probably won't lose any weight -- because you're not cutting calories."
While looking through low-carb goodies in a cart, Katz points out that a low-carb fudge brownie may appear healthy, but it isn't: "Looks very good, and you know, the first ingredient is the most abundant – partially hydrogenated oil. That's trans-fat."
How about a carb countdown dairy beverage? "[It has] 130 calories – 70 of which are from fat, most of them from saturated fat," says Katz.
But low-carb has become so popular that the sales of some foods not on the diet are slumping. Even orange juice is desperate to hop on the bandwagon.
And at least two Florida school systems now are offering students low-carb choices. But Dr. Katz thinks it's unhealthy for kids to be on the Atkins diet: "I think it would be a travesty if we start to putting kids on a diet from that deviates from what we know about long-term protection of health."
Atkins folks, however, say that any diet for children should be under a doctor's supervision.
Four years ago, when he was 15, Christian first went on the Atkins diet. Now, he says he has backed off a bit: "Last year, I went on to a more low calorie maintenance deal that's my own thing," he says. "It's not strictly low carb, it's not strictly low calorie. It's just what I think is healthy."
And now, his parents are parlaying their zeal into a low-carb cooking show on the Food Network -- an idea that was rejected only three years ago.