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After the Fad: With Low-Carb on a Crash Diet, Can We Get Real About Weight Loss?

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D.

The signs are clear. Mountains of low-carb pasta are piling up in warehouses. Low-carb companies are slimming down their payrolls. And the creator of the South Beach Diet is scrambling to distance himself from the low-carb label.

The fad is going bad, according to pollsters, business analysts, and media outlets like the New York Times, which recently reported that the number of Americans following low-carb diets has dropped about 50 percent from a year ago.

As a nutritionist, I can’t pretend to be upset at seeing this boom go bust. Of the many unhealthy ways to lose weight, low-carbing is one of the worst. These high-fat, meat-heavy diets can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other serious medical problems.

But I also feel deep compassion for the disillusioned dieters who tried this fad—and discovered that carb-cutting didn’t live up to its bright and shiny reputation. Once again, a plan for a “quick and easy weight loss” has yielded slow and painful disappointment.

Can we talk? Failure is never easy to handle. But like most disillusionments, the end of the low-carb craze is an opportunity to chart a better course.

Tens of millions of Americans want desperately to lose weight—and they would be a lot healthier if they succeeded. So would our overburdened medical system, which is struggling to deal with tragically high levels of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments linked to obesity.

But fads will never help us achieve serious and sustainable weight loss. If Americans really want to slim down, we have to take a hard look at our fundamental habits—and make long-term changes.

That was underscored recently by new research examining obesity among immigrants to the United States. The study, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that obesity is relatively rare in the foreign-born but becomes much more common after just one year of U.S. residence. Essentially, the longer people live here, the more likely they are to be dangerously overweight.

A key part of the problem? As immigrants assimilate, they often move away from traditional diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber grains. And they fall under the spell of high-fat, high-calorie American foods like cheeseburgers and buffalo wings.

The implications are obvious, especially when other dietary research is factored in. Over and over, researchers have confirmed that people who maintain a healthy weight over the long term tend to eat a high-fiber, low-fat, plant-based diet.

Such eating habits have other benefits. Another recent study found that a vegetarian diet high in soluble fiber and soy protein lowered serum cholesterol concentrations about as effectively as statin drugs. That should be a call to action in a nation that loses 700,000 people a year to heart disease.

As 2005 dawns, we need to serve ourselves a hearty helping of tough love. Let’s end our dysfunctional affair with greasy burgers and artery-clogging chicken nuggets. Instead, we’ll embark on a rewarding long-term relationship with meals full of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

And we’ll say “no thanks” to any quick fix that comes along, from the next miracle weight-loss pill to the dairy industry’s recently discredited “milk your diet” campaign.

Real change won’t be quick or easy—and it won’t reap fat bushels of cash for diet entrepreneurs. But it will give ordinary Americans something they truly need: healthy, sustainable weight loss.

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of “Healthy Eating for Life for Children.”


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