Controversy continues to grow among doctors, dietitians, professors, scientists and even political leaders regarding the low-carbohydrate Atkins and South Beach diets. Questions have been asked about whether the diets are adequate for short-term and long-term health and weight loss. Despite a national craze over the diets, no answers have arisen as of yet, according to Laura Honeycutt, a registered dietitian for Dining Services.
But an even greater controversy has arisen from the debate over low-carbohydrate diets – the effects on the consumer market. Honeycutt said all that is seen in restaurant menus, magazine advertisements, grocery stores and elsewhere relating to the low-carbohydrate diets is due to a consumer-driven attitude, which amounts to dollar signs in producers’ eyes.
“It’s basically all wrong, but it’s working. It’s just genius how the [producers and advertisers] are doing it,” said Sarah Parvanta, a fourth-year broadcast journalism student who helped Honeycutt promote National Nutrition Month in March with the theme “Eat Smart, Stay Healthy.”
The women provided diet information to each of the four dining commons to promote awareness about the negative consequences of low-carbohydrate diets.
Part of the “genius” of producers and advertisers is that they make low-carbohydrate diets look like “dream diets,” according to Parvanta.
“They make you afraid of carbohydrates, and then make the diet look easy since you don’t have to eat the vegetables that most people don’t like anyway,” Parvanta said.
Through a prize drawing in which students wrote their names on paper and put the slips into either a “Pro-Carb” or “No-Carb” container, Honeycutt and Parvanta figured out what UMaine students think of the low-carbohydrate diets.
With 188 participants in the drawing, the women found that 91 percent of the students favored “Pro-Carb” and 9 percent favored the “No-Carb” option, according to Parvanta. With only a small portion of the campus participating, Honeycutt said she wonders whether those in favor of low-carbohydrate diets were unwilling to participate or if the survey is an accurate representation of UMaine students’ perspectives.
Despite the lack of “No-Carb” votes, there is evidence that plenty of low-carbohydrate dieters exist at UMaine, Honeycutt said.
The “low-carbohydrate craze” has taken hold nationwide in eateries in large cities to colleges, such as UMaine’s Memorial Union. Within the last several months, the Union has started offering low-carbohydrate whole-wheat wraps and bread at M.C. Fernald’s.
The low-carbohydrate 10-inch wraps are smaller than the original wraps and contain about seven net carbohydrates and about 140 calories per wrap. The larger wraps consist of about 46 carbohydrates and about 300 calories per wrap, according to Dining Services personnel.
It was not determined how many of the carbohydrates in the original wraps were net carbohydrates, as “net” is a term not promoted by the American Food and Drug Administration but one prompted by producers and media, according to Honeycutt.
Honeycutt said the example of eating smaller wraps defines why the low-carbohydrate diets work – decreasing calories lead to weight loss, not necessarily a decrease in a particular food group.
Dining Services added the low-carbohydrate items after receiving several requests to do so, according to personnel.
The Union is not the only food service location that has jumped on the bandwagon of the low-carbohydrate diet craze. It’s everywhere now, according to Honeycutt.
Governor’s Restaurant on Stillwater Avenue in Old Town changed its menu about one month ago to cater to its low-carbohydrate diet customers. The salad page in the menu now includes different types of salad greens and chicken, and the “Daily Specials” include one or two low-carbohydrate dishes that eliminate breads and starchy vegetables, like potatoes.
Governor’s owner Randy Wadleigh said he has noticed a decrease in the number of people eating their homemade dinner rolls. Starting about a year ago, sales of sausage, bacon and eggs have increased, he said. Customers have also been more conscientious of portion sizes, he said.
“It’s either a fad or it’s here to stay. I don’t think anyone has that figured out quite yet,” Wadleigh said.
It was in a “sink or swim” moment that Wadleigh said he had to change the menu and accommodate customers.
“I learned this a long time ago – if you don’t change, you die,” Wadleigh said. “You’ve got to change to what the current trends are and what people are interested in, so we’ve tried to do that.”
About two weeks ago the Chocolate Grille in Old Town also tried to get more in step with the low-carbohydrate craze.
According to the restaurant’s executive chef, Scott Murchison, the Chocolate Grille has added a tofu salad to its menu and a cauliflower au gratin vegetable option that has few carbohydrates. The changes came as a result of more customers ordering meat dishes without vegetables, he said.
“We’re doing these things really just to be accommodating to the Atkins Diet,” Murchison said.
The Chocolate Grille has also added a seafood medley dish that includes bean noodles as a pasta alternative. The ambition to provide an alternative resulted from fewer people ordering pasta, Murchison said.
“We’re just trying to be up to date with what’s going on,” Murchison said. “We try to be real creative with what’s going on with the culinary world, too, and also as times change with food preferences.”
However, Murchison said he still adheres to the idea of providing balanced meals to customers.
Still, the Chocolate Grille and other local restaurants are not in the business of always providing the healthiest food options, according to Murchison.
“In the restaurant industry, it’s hard to be terribly health conscious. We are surrounded by flavor and we celebrate that here,” Murchison said.
Celebration of food or not, Honeycutt said she stands firm that this craze is primarily consumer-driven.
“Businesses don’t want to go out of business, so they provide what consumers want. When people see that and [low-carbohydrate items] they think, ‘Oh that must be good,’ so they buy into it,” Honeycutt said.
Diet experts predict the low-carbohydrate craze will last about four years, according to information Honeycutt said she received at a recent diet conference.
Honeycutt and Parvanta said those on the Atkins Diet or South Beach Diet claim the diets’ books tell the truth that low-carbohydrate diets are not dangerous.
“If you read a book that’s trying to sell itself, then obviously it’s not going to say anything bad about it,” Parvanta said.
On the contrary, the American Dietetic Association and other health organizations that do not condone the low-carbohydrate diets have nothing to gain – especially money – by saying the diets are not healthy, Parvanta said.
Parvanta said it is not during the college years that the negative, long-term side effects of the diets will show themselves, but later in life.
“It’s what you do now that will determine if those effects are good or bad later on. All foods fit into a diet. It’s not about keeping things away. If you care about yourself and how you are going to be down the road, it shouldn’t be that hard,” Parvanta said. “It’s only going to hurt you. How can your body say ‘Thank you’ for that?”