Atkins Diet Popular, But Others Work Too _

Cascade County Attorney Brant Light has been increasingly frustrated by his bulk. "I’ve been on so many diets," said Light. "I was so big." So Light and his wife, Noella, followed the lead of millions of other Americans and started the popular Atkins low-carbohydrate diet. Six months later, Light is 70 pounds lighter at 214 pounds. He’d like to shed 30 more pounds to get back to high school weight, but he’s happy with his progress. With nearly two-thirds of American adults classified as overweight or obese, it’s no wonder that many are turning to diets. There are dozens out there — from old standbys such as Weight Watchers, to New-Age plans based on blood types and Zodiac signs. Dietitians — who usually promote lifestyle changes over fads — may wince, but desperate dieters are turning to pills, shakes, powders, whatever they think will take weight off quickly. By far the fastest growing, however, are Atkins and other low-carb diets that strictly limit sugar, flour, pasta, rice and other carbs. Two of the top five advice books on the New York Times Bestseller List are the low-carb "The South Beach Diet" and "Atkins for Life." Even multinational food giant Unilever, maker of Slim.Fast diet drinks and bars, said last month that its sales were down. That was due, in part, to dieting changes caused by Atkins, according to a Unilever spokesman. In Light’s case, he was turned on to Atkins by Deputy County Attorney Joel Thompson, one of four members of the Tribune’s Weight Loss Team. The team is spending the year trying to lose weight. Now half a dozen staffers in the county attorney’s office are on the Atkins bandwagon. Mateo Jara of Great Falls used the Atkins diet to shed 83 pounds from July to November 2002. "I have easily been able to maintain my weight and have not gained a pound back," he said. Jara continues on the Atkins plan, which he calls "a breeze to follow," and exercises to keep fit. In its early or "induction" phase, the Atkins diet only allows 20 carbs per day. That means most meals and snacks are meat, vegetables, cheese or eggs. Carbs are slowly added back into the diet, but even in the maintenance stage carb-heavy foods are limited. Some people see South Beach as a less-radical variation of the high-protein Atkins diet, popularized by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. "It’s easy to follow," said Dr. John Jacobson, a semi-retired gastroenterologist in Butte. Jacobson got interested last year in the South Beach program, created by a Florida cardiologist, Arthur Agatston. "A friend of mine made a vow at his 49th birthday that he would lose 50 pounds," Jacobson related. A year later, the weight was gone. Ten days after starting the diet himself, Jacobson was down five pounds. For the first two weeks or so, Jacobson is avoiding complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and croutons. Such food quickly hits the bloodstream and gets stored as fat "in a more aggressive fashion" than whole-grain and other healthier food, he said. Instead of eating some cookies at the office, Jacobson now may snack on cherry tomatoes with cottage cheese, or a mozarella cheese stick. The medical community gives mixed reviews to such diets. Great Falls Clinic dietitian Sandy Hackford objects to diets that eliminate or severely restrict entire food groups — such as the near-ban on carbohydrates and fruit by Atkins, or diets that zero in on minor parts of the whole picture. "They’ve taken a tiny little fact and just blown it out of proportion," she said. But she acknowledges that some people have an easier time with diets that tell them what to eat each day. "It gives them a focus," Hackford said. Dietitian Marni Stevens says structured diets such as Atkins and Weight Watchers can be effective. "It causes people to think about what they’re eating, and that’s a good thing," Stevens said. Even the Atkins diet causes people to eat fewer calories, which a number of dietitians point to as a reason for its success. "You’re simply eating less food," said Stevens. More needs to be known about what Atkins does to calcium in the body, and its effect on the liver, she said. The Atkins program recommends its dieters take a calcium supplement. People who take Atkins seriously may fare OK, she said. "It’s not giving you a free pass to pig out on portions and fats," she said. "It doesn’t mean you can go out and eat a pound of bacon." Great Falls internist Robert Wynia once recommended a low-fat American Diabetes Association diet for patients who had already lost weight through a liquid diet. More often than not, they’d gain the weight back. Now Wynia suggests patients use the Atkins diet. In the last six months, at least a dozen patients have had excellent results, Wynia said. "They lost weight and their blood pressure improved," he said. "As far as I’m concerned, this is a better program." And a few patients who were pre-diabetic actually moved back into the normal range using Atkins. Wynia cautioned people who have Type I diabetes to not use the diet. And he acknowledged that not all patients succeed on the diet. "The ones that have failed were the ones who couldn’t quite hack it," he said, adding that they might need more help in sticking to any diet plan. Even so, Atkins is mainly anti-carbohydrate, so followers need only count the amount of carbohydrates in such food as potatoes, cereal and pasta. Counting carbs, Wynia said, "is much easier than counting calories." It’s hard to find even-handed advice about many diets because most authors, weight-loss firms and vitamin companies have a strong financial interest in promoting their products. Many of the diets now on the market don’t really help people who want to be healthier, says dietitian Hackford. "Diets have beginnings and ends," Hackford said. "What we want is a healthy lifestyle that is just forever and ever." By RICHARD ECKE