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Atkins Nutritionals announced that it was changing gears the day it emerged from Chapter 11 on Jan. 10, 2006. No longer was it in the business of "educating the population about the benefits of controlled carbohydrate nutrition." Instead, it now provides "great-tasting portable foods with a unique nutrition advantage to healthy, active men and women." Two new food bars were the first products to hit the market: Caramel Cookie Dough and Caramel Fudge Brownie. This from a company whose dieting influence was once so strong that major chains had to offer bunless hamburgers or risk losing business to competitors.

NPD Group estimates that up to 17 percent of Americans gave some version the low-carb Atkins diet a whirl during its heyday. When Atkins filed for bankruptcy, analysts said it signaled the end of the low-carb lifestyle era. Bagel makers, bakery cafe operators, pasta places and other restaurants with high-carb offerings cheered when Atkins hit the wall.

At this point, you’d have been tempted to write off the whole low-carb craze as another in the never-ending series of wacky diet fads. But then along comes a $2 million study documenting not only that the Atkins diet works, but that it works better than other popular diets. And few are doubting this study’s merits, since it was conducted by a professor at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, was funded by the National Institutes of Health and its results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. If you’re looking for the gold standard on diet research in this country, this is it.

The researchers’ methodology here was straightforward. They assigned 311 overweight women to follow one of four popular diet regimes, all detailed in best-selling diet books. They were:

• "Eat More, Weight Less," a low-fat diet from Dean Ornish;
• "Enter the Zone," by Barry Sears-low-carb, but not as low-carb as Atkins;
• "The LEARN Manual for Weight Management," a low-fat approach; and
• "Dr. Atkin’s New Diet Revolution," by Robert Atkins, a low-carb, high-protein regime.

The results: the women on the Atkins plan lost the most weight: 10.7 pounds over a 10-month period. LEARN subjects dropped 5.7 pounds, Ornish followers 4.8 pounds and Zone devotees lost 3.5 pounds.

"Many health professionals, including us, have either dismissed the value of very-low-carbohydate diets for weight loss or been very skeptical of them," said lead researcher Gardner, himself a vegetarian. "But it seems to be a viable alternative for dieters."

Is he saying it’s so viable that restaurant patrons will once again clamor for menu items that feature protein items like meat and cheese while foregoing breads, pasta, potatoes and other items high in carbohydrates? Not exactly. If Atkinsmania is to come back, restaurant operators are going to have to help out. The Atkins organization, now in the "portable foods" business, won’t be pushing it hot and heavy, as it did before. But still, a diet regime consisting of food people actually like to eat that now comes with a stamp of approval from the NIH-boy, if any fad diet could ever make a comeback, Atkins has to be the one.

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