At its peak, the Atkins plan was more than a diet: It was a lifestyle. Lured by the prospect of getting skinny while eating steak, Americans turned a regimen that emphasized protein and eliminated carbohydrates into the latest runaway diet craze.
But in the end, it was exactly that success that doomed Atkins to a fate like that of so many other get-thin-quick schemes that have come and gone, such as Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, Pritikin and the Zone.
As Atkins became a cultural phenomenon, hundreds of companies, large and small, swept in to capitalize on the program's popularity. They created and marketed far more low-carb products than there were dieters to eat them, including mass-market style versions of pasta, cakes, cookies, bagels and many other foods that had been forbidden on the strict, low-carb diet. Using sugar substitutes and offering new concepts such as "net carbs," this new, $3 billion-a-year industry was aimed squarely at the age-old pursuit of getting thin while eating whatever you want, which, of course, never works.
Among the biggest promoters was Atkins Nutritionals Inc., founded by Robert C. Atkins, widely recognized for popularizing the movement with his best-selling books. The company filed for bankruptcy protection on Sunday.
"The reality is, the people that were buying low-carb when it went way up, when this bubble was inflating, were not following an Atkins, ketogenic diet," said Alan Beyda, chief executive of J.A.M.B. Business Enterprises Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., a national distributor of low-carb and sugar-free foods. The true Atkins dieter, he said, had to eat less than 20 grams of carbohydrates a day to lose weight, but people increasingly bent those rules as the indulgent products proliferated.
Food-consumption surveys conducted last year by market research firm NPD Group Inc. showed that even Americans who were eating the fewest carbohydrates ate an average of 128 grams of carbohydrates a day.
"The public was saying, give me something that tastes better, give me something so that I can cheat. But they still want the same results," Beyda said.
When the diet stopped working, people stopped buying the products. It is exactly what happened in the 1980s when low-fat diets were all the rage and Snackwell's introduced its low-fat cookies. People ate whole boxes of cookies and then moaned that low-fat diets don't work.
Some diet experts and nutritionists had protested that the low-carb fad would pass, but manufacturers didn't listen. They were persuaded by the pitch that carbohydrates are bad because, when digested, they turn into sugar and are stored as fat. The number of independent retailers and chain stores offering nothing but low-carb products expanded furiously. Health food manufacturers became low-carb manufacturers and had instant success. Even big, mainstream supermarket chains and food makers rolled out low-carb alternatives to well-known products. There was Atkins Quick Quisine frozen pizza, Carbolite Pancake Mix, Entenmann's Low-Carb Crumb Cake.
Beyda said there were once 15 or 16 national distributors of low-carb products, but "I'm the only one left," he said. His best year was 2003, but by 2004 his business was cut in half. Now, it's one-sixth of what it was at its height.
Today, Atkins's frozen foods are gone from supermarket shelves, and the company no longer touts the "science" behind low-carb diets. In fact, the slide was so swift for Atkins that the company, which had expanded with an extensive line of frozen foods, was forced to throw away "millions and millions of dollars" worth of products that didn't sell, precipitating the filing for bankruptcy protection, said Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and nutrition information for Atkins Nutritionals.
"Demand dropped off, and that happened when we were in the height of our ramp-up," Heimowitz said. "We weren't the only ones that got stuck with inventory."
Now, Atkins is acknowledging that low-carb doesn't have much of a commercial future. Going forward, the company will focus instead on a nutritionally balanced line of snack and meal-replacement bars and shakes.
In February of last year, 9.1 percent of Americans said they were following a low-carb diet, according to NPD. This month, that number was 2.2 percent. Now, with no obvious alternative, many people are turning back to what has always been the most popular diet in the country: a diet of their own creation.
"My Diet -- that's the number one diet in America, and it's the easiest diet, because you make it up as you go," said Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD.
What's left among the low-carb defectors is a general awareness of carbohydrates and a limited attempt to curb consumption of some carbs, according to Lawrence Shiman, vice president of market research firm Opinion Dynamics Corp., which has been following the low-carb phenomenon. The South Beach Diet, for example, has been somewhat more resilient because of its modified approach to cutting carbohydrates.
What people seem to care most about now, Shiman said, is products that contain whole grains. But they don't care much about calories.
And that might help explain another trend experts say is a relic of the low-carb craze: Millions of Americans got a taste for red meat on the Atkins diet, and now they're partly credited with the surging popularity of hamburgers. With the bun.
Robert Atkins helped popularize the diet.