Gainesville goes low-carb

TGI Friday's General Manager Michael Jordan shows a low-carb Tuscan Spinach Dip. Many local businesses are offering low-carb, high protein foods to meet the dietary desires of Gainesville eaters.

MICHAEL WIEMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 12:00 a.m.
Not everyone in Gainesville is on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. But you wouldn't know it from the number of area establishments that now have "Atkins-approved" selections on their store shelves and menus.
Just ask Michael Jordan, the manager of TGI Friday's in Butler Plaza.
"We were inundated with requests for meals with no bread, no fries," Jordan said.
The answer, at Friday's, comes in the form of nine appetizers and entrees planned for those who have adopted a low-carb lifestyle. An order of buffalo wings, for example, adds up to just five net carbs. A New York strip steak topped with blue cheese and a side order of broccoli total six net carbs.
Jordan admits to being a convert to Atkins - he has been on the plan for four months and has lost 35 pounds.
Burger King now offers a bunless Whopper and Hardee's has its low-carb Thickburger. Michelob is marketing a low-carbohydrate beer to wash down the food of your choice.
Five minutes spent browsing the shelves of a local supermarket turns up Atkins-approved pancake mix and syrup, cappuccino shakes, cinnamon buns, snack chips and salad dressings. There's even a bread that boasts the Atkins "A" of approval.
Some have concerns Not everyone has stepped up to endorse the low-carb approach to eating, however.
Linda Bobroff is among those who urge caution. Bobroff is a professor and nutritionist with the department of family, youth and community sciences in UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
"Now you can label a triple cheeseburger with bacon as a healthy choice because you don't eat the bun," she said. "Are we all going crazy?"
One of the concerns that many health professionals have is the high level of saturated fat in many of these meal plans, Bobroff said.
Some fat is needed for good health, but the fats from meat, milk and milk products and many bakery products are particularly high in saturated fats, which have been linked to a greater risk of heart disease. Fat contains more than twice the number of calories of an equal amount of carbohydrates or protein, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bobroff cites a recent study that showed that people on a low-carb regimen could eat about 300 more calories a day and still lose weight, compared with those on a low-fat regimen.
"Those on the low-carb diet ate more chicken and fish," Bobroff said. "Not bacon and cheese sauce. That was a bit easier on the heart of a nutritionist, not to mention those reading about it."
A low-carb plan Dr. Robert Atkins, who died last year, is the guru of the low-carbohydrate diet revolution. The cardiac specialist published his guidebook in 1972 and more than 15 million copies have been sold. Millions have tried his diet plan.
Now Miami cardiologist Arthur Agatston has sold 5.5 million copies of his book, "South Beach Diet." Agatston says that his diet, which steers advocates away from processed carbohydrates and saturated fats, is not only effective for weight loss, but also healthier for the heart.
Both diets start with two weeks' restricted eating of foods that are high in protein - think meat, eggs, cheese - and low in carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are one of the body's key nutrients, along with protein and fat. Carbs are found in foods with lots of starch. In the body, the carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is burned to provide energy.
Of course, if the body doesn't have carbs to burn, it turns to fat for energy. And burning fat leads to weight loss.
The Atkins plan subtracts all carbohydrates such as fiber, glycerine and sugar alcohols, which either are not digested or do not substantially affect blood sugar to give a "net carb" figure - the number of carbohydrates those on the diet need to count.
The Atkins diet emphasizes meat, eggs and cheese while cutting out many types of bread, pasta, fruit and sugar. It is estimated that as much as 60 percent of the total calories may come from fat, with about a third of those in the form of saturated fat.
Saturated fat, found mostly in animal products, has been tagged as a culprit in clogging arteries, leading to heart disease. The American Heart Association suggests limiting saturated fat to about 10 percent of daily calories.
The South Beach diet also endorses a low-carb/high-protein approach to weight loss. It, too, gives white bread, rice and pasta a thumbs down.
Many dieters who have tried Atkins say they find the South Beach diet, which offers a wider number of protein choices, such as chicken and fish, more forgiving.
Drawing customers Shawn Keys, manager of one of Gainesville's Subway sandwich shops, says two new "Atkins-friendly" wraps have definitely drawn a lot more customers to Subway.
The chicken bacon ranch, at 480 calories, and turkey bacon melt, at 430, each weigh in at less than 11 grams of net carbs.
"It's gone over far better than anyone expected," Keys said. "We are going through them as fast as we can get them in the store."
Doug Nyland operates Bella Caffe, a coffee station at North Florida Regional Medical Center, where the offerings now include three Atkins specials - made with all natural ingredients.
For example, the 12-ounce Atkins-style low-carb latte is made with an ounce of espresso and "real dairy," Nyland said. The vanilla version adds a shot of sugar-free French vanilla syrup. The drinks contain no hydrogenated oils, zero carbohydrates and zero sugars, Nyland said.
"I can't give you a calorie count, but it is not a low-fat drink," he said. "No one could call it a 'skinny' latte."
He has been offering the Atkins choices for only a short period of time, but every week he has received more requests, Nyland said.
Low-carb dieters who find themselves at Shands at the University of Florida will discover that the hospital offers dietary options with lower carbohydrates and higher proteins, "within reasonable limits for our patients who are already following a normal diet," a hospital spokesman said this week.
Meals that are higher in carbohydrates and lower in fats and protein also can be prepared. Any dietary offerings are developed based on a patient's overall health status.
Clif Nelson, chef/owner of Paramount Grill, said he tries to offer at least one entree that is "totally Atkins-friendly." Right now, that's seared tuna over a tomato/basil/mozzarella salad.
"I understand this diet plan and think it makes a lot of sense," Nelson said. "We've become too used to eating processed foods that are full of sugars and starches and carbohydrates as fillers.
"People may think they are eating OK, but they are eating much worse than they ever thought," he added.
What about calories? As a nutritionist, Bobroff has another concern with the popular low-carb diets. She worries that in focusing on cutting out carbohydrates, people are likely to not get many of the foods and nutrients that are important for health, particularly fruits and vegetables.
"Certainly limiting that consumption, to me, seems a poor recommendation in terms of reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer," she said.
With any weight-loss plan, calories still count, Bobroff points out. Protein and fat still have calories.
"Our bodies are different in how we burn calories, but if we take in more than we are burning, we are going to gain weight," she warned. "You can't look at it as a simple formula."
Weight Watchers International is another diet behemoth, with 1.5 million people attending in-person meetings worldwide. The company also offers its own weight-loss-friendly products.
Those products are now labeled with a statement called "the truth about carbs."
It says, in part, that carbohydrate sources, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and milk products, provide essential ingredients for good nutrition, and that long-term weight loss requires a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Under the Weight Watchers plan, all foods have a point value and dieters have a certain range of points to eat within each day. No foods are off limits, but fattening foods will use up those points more quickly.
Nancy Cameron leads eight Weight Watchers groups in the Gainesville area. She said that she has seen members leave the plan to try the Atkins or South Beach diet, then return because Weight Watchers offers "a lifestyle that you can live with forever."
"It's about attaining a good balance of behavior modification, exercise and drinking water," Cameron said. "Any diet can offer a quick fix, but is it something you can do forever?"
Diane Chun can be reached at (352) 374-5041 or

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