Millions of Americans have lost an untold amount of weight by sticking to Dr. Robert Atkins' high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.
Now, food companies and retailers are hoping for similar happy results by focusing on products that fit the Atkins plan. But some of those sales gains are coming at the expense of companies whose foods aren't compatible with Atkins.
The winners include the makers and sellers of meat snacks such as beef jerky that have few or no carbohydrates. But bread bakers and the makers of the once-trendy high-carbohydrate energy bars are feeling the pinch as more and more Americans turn to the Atkins plan.
"Beef jerky sales have gone through the roof, with industry sales up 20 percent on top of 17 percent last year," said Kenneth Fries, category manager for snacks at 7-Eleven Inc. "Meat-snack makers are making better product flavors and using better cuts of meat, and making it easier to carry in tubes and in chunks."
Demand is being fueled by recent studies that have rehabilitated the reputation of the Atkins diet, once derided by the medical establishment as too dependent on fatty foods to be of any health benefit.
Two studies published last month found that heart health improved in some people who followed low-carbohydrate diets for six months or a year.
Those reports are expected to boost popularity of the Atkins diet, which about 25.4 million people, or 12.7 percent of U.S. adults, say they have tried, according to the National Marketing Institute.
Food industry experts credit the Atkins plan with the rise in U.S. beef consumption since 1999 and the drop in sales of flour-based foods. Retailers such as Dallas-based 7-Eleven and Eckerd Corp. are ready to cash in.
7-Eleven is stocking Atkins-approved products and has moved meat snacks such as Slim Jims and Pemmican Beef Jerky to prominent locations, advertising them with 3-foot displays. And Eckerd, which seldom stocked such products several years ago, is "doing very well" with them now, said Jack F. Morris, Dallas regional operations manager.
Low-carbohydrate dieting is changing the beverage aisles, too. Debbie Wildrich, a 7-Eleven beverage category manager, said industry forecasts predict bottled water sales will outpace soft drink sales in the next five to 10 years.
"People are looking for drinks that don't take on added sugar," Wildrich said. This summer, the chain expects to begin stocking a low-carb soft drink, she added.
Sales of energy and meal replacement bars also are flat or down, but high-protein and low-carbohydrate bars are doing "extremely well," Fries said. "I don't see these trends stopping in 2003 or 2004," he said.
Atkins, who died in April of head injuries suffered in a fall on an icy Manhattan sidewalk, first popularized the diet 31 years ago.
The Atkins boom worries companies that depend on carbohydrates - such as pasta, tortilla and bread makers.
Pasta consumption is still growing, but hardly at the same rate as in the 1980s, when carbohydrate-loading became popular, according to American Italian Pasta Co., the largest U.S. pasta maker.
"Our industry would be growing faster if not for the Atkins diet," said Tim Webster, president and chief executive of the company, based in Kansas City, Mo. "I've seen no other diet's effect be as substantial."
The Tortilla Industry Association addressed the threat head-on in a May seminar titled: "An Industry in Crisis: The High-protein, Low-carb Diet and Its Effects on the Tortilla Industry."
Wheat flour consumption started dropping after 1997, when U.S. consumption hit a peak of 147 pounds a person. Last year, that figure fell to 139 pounds, said Judi Adams, president of the Wheat Foods Council in Parker, Colo.
"Everything is hitting the industry all at one time, " she said.
Milling & Baking News Executive Editor Josh Sosland said the flour industry was "in the middle of a hurricane."
The industry is responding with low-sugar breads and low-carb pastas, but that's not the answer, Sosland said.
The bread industry needs to remind people "it's making the staff of life, feeding Americans folic acid and doing more to prevent birth defects than the March of Dimes," Sosland added.
The beef industry, on the other hand, is celebrating.
After declining steadily in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the industry saw consecutive quarters of increased demand during the last half of 1998. Beef sales have gone up in 12 of the last 14 quarters.
U.S. per capita consumption of beef last year was 64.4 pounds, up from 62.9 pounds in 2001.