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Europeans Scoff at Low-Carb Diets

Continental low-carb? No thanks. We'll have slabs of black bread for breakfast, rigatoni with broccoli and hot pepper sauce for lunch and a plate of shrimp paella for supper.

While recipe books for diets like Atkins and South Beach are gospel for many in the United States, the American craze for low-carb versions of brownies, breads and pasta hasn't crossed the Atlantic to the Continent.

Only Britain, where junk-food habits and ample figures often mirror those of their American cousins, is turning into an island of low-carb fans.

"The Atkins Diet (search) craze that has gripped America will not result in Germans eating more sausage and less potatoes," said Dr. Volker Pudel, director of nutrition psychology and research at the University of Goettingen (search) in Germany.

"Just think about German breakfast. You cannot just have eggs without the bread, and you cannot eat butter without spreading it on bread. It just won't work in Germany, this diet," said Pudel in a telephone interview.

One reason for Europe's snub of low-carb diets like Atkins and South Beach might be need — or lack of it.

Europeans like to walk, even when they have no place to go.

An entire European family could make a picnic of canapes from the staggering high pile of cold cuts in just one New York deli sandwich. Italians return from abroad stunned by cherished U.S. dining habits like all-you-can eat restaurants and doggy bags for all you can't eat.

"To give up a plate of pasta for a diet is, in my view, blasphemy," said Andrea Pargallo, a bartender in Napoleone bar on Piazza Venezia, as he served customers their morning cappuccino and cornetto (brioche).

"The Mediterranean diet is the best in the world. Indeed, we don't have all so many obesity problems like our friends across the ocean," said Pargallo, 31.

He was referring to Italy's staple diet, praised by nutritionists and built heavily around grains like rice and pasta and fruit and vegetables.

In France, where natives walk dogs with one hand and clutch a white-flour baguette in the other, pharmacist Niama Wallah said she was unfamiliar with the cutting-carbs approach to weight loss.

"But with the level of obesity that you have in America, it doesn't surprise me that people are going to such lengths to diet," said Wallah, who runs a pharmacy off the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

With Europeans so loyal to their linguine and so faithful to their pommes frites, European food manufacturers and supermarket chains haven't been plunging into low-carb product lines.

"We don't have low-carbohydrate products," said Omer Pignatti, a spokesman for Conad, a chain of supermarkets in Italy. "There isn't any on the Italian market and we don't foresee any such initiatives."

Surveys seem to bear out his assessment.

"We've seen low-carb to be an entirely U.S. phenomenon," said Lynn Dornblaser, director of consulting services for London-based Mintel International Group (search), Ltd.

Dornblaser was among those presenting a country-by-country survey of low-carb products at a food industry meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., earlier this month.

In the United States, the number of new low-carb products ballooned from two in 1999 to 1,329 so far this year, the survey found.

Continental Europe saw few such products being introduced until this year, when a U.S.-based company which sells low-carb bagels, buns, cheesecakes and other products, began offering its fare via the Internet to Europe.

In Britain, new low-carb products sharply rose from five last year to 159 in 2004. Among the items are "no-bread" sandwiches sold by a popular sandwich chain, Pret à Manger.

"We did this very much in response to basically the low-carb fever that was sort of coming over here," Nellie Nichols, Pret à Manger's head of food, said of the product, which is sold in square boxes to resemble sandwiches. "They are going down very, very well."

"Carbs have become the devil's work, haven't they?" said Matt Hind, 25, a trainee lawyer buying his lunch in central London. "I think people are always looking for quick fixes when it comes to weight."

With obesity a matter for mounting concern in Britain, the tabloids there sprinkle their pages with names of celebrities going low-carb, including, reportedly, singer Robbie Williams, former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, actress Minnie Driver and food writer/celebrity chef Nigella Lawson.

Asked why low-carbs haven't caught on in most of Europe, Dornblaser, who works out of Mintel's Chicago office, said Europeans "have got a better understanding of portion control," as well as balance and variety in diet.

"In the U.S., rightly or wrongly, we like to have a magic pill."