The Atkins and other low-carb diets claim to offer a quick fix that’s relatively painless and really works. You can start the day with bacon and eggs, enjoy juicy steaks with just a few green vegetables, and some say you can eat as much butter as you like, and lashings of cream — but you lose weight, and you never feel hungry.
So it’s no surprise that plenty of people have been sucked into the low-carb craze — and the food industry hasn’t been slow to cash in on the action.
Processed and pricey
In the Table we’ve listed some of the low-carb brands you’re most likely to find in the big supermarkets and compared them with the nearest conventional equivalent we could find. The following points stand out:
- Some products have only marginally less carbs than their conventional equivalent. There's no point in paying extra for them — unless you actually like them better.
- And these products aren’t necessarily compatible with a genuinely low-carb diet. The initial induction phase of the Atkins diet, for example, restricts you to 20 g of carbs per day. Yet some of the products give you this much, or more, in one hit. Foods as uncompromisingly carbohydrate as pasta don’t fit easily into a low-carb diet.
- Some misleadingly claim to be healthier generally. CARB OPTIONS says it’s “committed to providing great-tasting lower-carbohydrate food that helps support your healthy lifestyle”. The Atkins.com website has links to research material claiming health benefits for conditions as diverse as diabetes and depression. In reality there’s little evidence to back these claims.
- To add insult to injury, you can pay up to 500% more for some of these low-carb products.
Tricks of the trade
Manufacturers replace the sugars and starches that are normally in foods with something else that doesn’t count as ‘carbohydrate’ on the nutrition information panel to make ‘low-carb’ versions. Most substitute protein and dietary fibre, which is perfectly OK in principle. But you might be surprised by what’s revealed in the small print on the label.
- Dietary fibre isn’t always what you might think. Food manufacturers are now allowed to include the synthetic analogues maltodextrin and polydextrose within the term ‘dietary fibre’ (they have to be included in the list of ingredients on the label, but otherwise you wouldn’t know). These synthetic analogues have some of the same nutritional benefits as natural fibre, but they don’t come with the antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals that you get from fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
- Some low-carb products make themselves look more impressive by claiming a much smaller serve size than a conventional equivalent. RAGULETTO CARB OPTIONS Spirals says its serve size is only 50 g, whereas most other packets of pasta that we looked at had serve sizes of at least twice that amount. A serve of EMPOWER LOW CARB Chocolate is only a miserable 14.2 g, whereas CADBURY suggests that a serve of CADBURY Dairy Milk Chocolate is 30 g.
There's no evidence that low-carb diets are safe beyond about 12 months. They can put you at risk of heart disease and kidney problems, not to mention increasing your chances of developing osteoporosis.
You’re much better off trying to lose weight by exercising more and eating less — and sticking to a diet with plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegies, with lean meat and low-fat dairy products. (Check out our article on Healthy eating.)