Fading trend turns tables on Atkins

Dieters are just as quick to shun low-carb fad as they were to embrace it

August 02, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin and Kim Hart | Kate Shatzkin and Kim Hart,SUN STAFF

To hear Atkins fan Leslie F. Miller tell it, the news that Atkins Nutritionals is filing for bankruptcy protection doesn't mean the low-carbohydrate regimen, once super-popular, doesn't work.

It just proves that people can't stick to a diet.

"I think dieters are fickle," said Miller, 42, a Northeast Baltimore resident whose York Road store, La Vida Lo-Carb, closed in 2004 after being open for less than a year. "I think the trend hit its tipping point and then fell off the cliff."

Selling low-carbohydrate products from pancake mix to ice cream emblazoned with a prominent red "A" for Atkins, the company that bore the name of the late diet doctor Robert C. Atkins was, not so long ago, itself blamed for the bankruptcies of pasta companies, the slowdown in bread-baking and a low-earnings report from Krispy Kreme.

But now the tables are turned. In a statement yesterday, Atkins Nutritionals said it had filed a prearranged reorganization plan under Chapter 11, shifting to "accommodate a smaller business."

The company, based in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., says it will focus on its nutritional bars and shakes, and on positioning the brand "more broadly for consumers who are concerned about health and wellness."

From the grapefruit diet to the blood-type diet to the low-fat craze, Americans have long been quick to embrace diet fads - and just as quick to shun them when temptation becomes too great. The popularity of low-carb diets surged in 2003, when word of mouth spread about success on the meat-and-eggs-rich Atkins diet. The previous summer, a New York Times Magazine cover story argued that the long-disparaged diet actually worked. Americans, increasingly obese, were hungry for new solutions.

Restaurants adjusted their menus. Wraps were in; potatoes were out.

By February 2004, at the peak of the craze, the NPD Group reported that about 27 million Americans, or about 9 percent of the population, was following Atkins or another kind of low-carb regimen. By last month, the figure had fallen to about 2 percent.

"We often mistake our willingness to try new things as a trend," said Harry Balzer, NPD's vice president. "It's a fad."

Mintel International, a Chicago research firm, found that the number of new low-carb products went up by 71 percent between 2003 and 2004, and since has declined by 57 percent.

"Like any diet cycle, we've cycled through Atkins, and we got fat again," said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel.

Mogelonsky said Atkins also was a victim of its own success, inspiring a slew of competing low-carb products from larger companies.

Mark Kantor, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland who has studied the effectiveness of weight-loss programs, said the recently issued national dietary guidelines, which emphasize whole grains, fruits and vegetables, put another nail in the craze's coffin.

Atkins, he said, seems to be suffering the same fate as any other diet - that none of them really works for the long term.

"There's no magic anything," Kantor said. "It's just the fact that you have to eat less food and exercise more."

"Avoiding carbohydrates is hard for people, by and large," said Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. "The reality that this is not `the miracle diet' set in."

Miller, the former store owner, experienced the roller coaster firsthand. "They get tired and they stop dieting," she said of her customers.

Rajiv Kakar, 36, tried the Atkins diet about a year ago but quit after three weeks of carb counting. Although the diet was very effective - the Baltimore sales representative lost about 15 pounds - it was difficult for him to stick to it.

"It works to lose a lot of weight in a short period of time, but it's not a sustainable long-term solution," Kakar said, after ordering a large Italian sub sandwich at Cafe Di Roma Ristorante on Eastern Avenue.

Carb extremists caused headaches for Nick Vaccaro, owner of Vaccaro's Pastry Shop in Little Italy. He saw a drop in sales at his five other locations across the region when the carb-counting craze took off. He introduced sugar-free biscotti and Italian ice to accommodate customers.

Now he hopes the "tail end" of the trend has arrived.

"In the '80s, it was considered bad to have caffeine, then it was the low-fat fad, and now you can't eat carbs. ... I hate these diets," Vaccaro said.

But Curtis Price, owner of the Rockville store Whoa That's Lo, says there's still demand for the low-carbohydrate foods he carries. Since he opened the store eight months ago, Atkins has scaled back its product offerings, getting rid of its frozen foods and baked-good mixes. But other competitors have moved in to fill the void. "As long as we have diabetes and obesity, people will need these products," he said.

Mogelonsky said Atkins Nutritionals may very well survive if it broadens its market to consumers generally interested in health and wellness. "The trouble is going to be shaking its low-carb image," she said.

Sun staff writer Tom Dunkel contributed to this article.

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