Experts: Low-Carb Craze on the Wane

Back to the bagel store, back to the bakery, back to burgers with buns.

Everything from low-carb soup to low-carb beer can now be found at the supermarket. But now that "Atkins salads" appear on diner menus and low-carb pasta can be ordered at Italian restaurants, the carb-shunning craze has tapered off, according to recent studies.

NPD Group (search), a market research firm that tracks foods trends, recently found that the number of people in the United States who say they are on low-carb diets like Atkins (search) and South Beach (search) crested in January at 9 percent, and has since leveled off at about 7 percent.

"The awareness has probably peaked," NPD vice president Harry Balzer said of the bread-bashing trend.

So what will happen to all the new low-carb cookies, ice creams and sodas?

While the 93 percent of Americans who are not on low-carb diets will likely sample the new foods out of curiosity, they probably won't become loyal customers, Balzer said.

"Consumption of low-carb products will probably increase, then go down a little in another year or two," he predicted.

But the people behind Atkins maintain that the low-carb lifestyle isn't going anywhere.

“Low-carb diets, like any weight-control plan, are likely to show seasonality," said Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and research for Atkins Nutritionals. "By January and February, the numbers could easily go back up again."

January-February is prime time for New Year's resolutions like "lose 10 pounds." But Balzer said March is actually the biggest dieting month, so seasonality doesn’t explain the drop in the NPD survey.

“In March, the major thing is about to happen and that’s June, when bathing suits are going on or something’s coming off," he said.

Other researchers have also found the low-carb trend to be on the wane. William Leach, a food industry analyst at Neuberger Berman, has data suggesting the days of "hold the bread basket" are almost over.

“We had an analyst come in who talked to 40 Wal-Marts. They seemed to think the trend has peaked," he said. "Bread consumption is back up, cereal is up. So many companies are coming on board — it’s too much for the consumer."

Indeed, Jerry Krell, once a hardcore South Beach adherent, now only loosely follows the diet.

"I like pasta on occasion — and I eat dark bread in the morning. But I switched more to low-sodium V8 as opposed to orange juice, which is high in sugar [and carbs]. And I don't eat junk food — I can't even keep ice cream in the house," said the Maryland resident.

Recent research has also shown that while low-carb diets work faster than low-fat diets, the weight-loss results are about the same over the long term.

Dieting stand-by Weight Watchers says recent studies confirm what the calorie-cutting company has believed all along — low-carb eating is a fad.

“I think that we are seeing that it will go the way of low-fat, and it will go out more quickly than low-fat did, because of the learning curve,” said Karen Miller-Kovach, chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International. "A low-carb diet is not sustainable for the long term."

Miller-Kovach, like many health experts, also bemoaned the fact that the Atkins phenomenon has gotten people to cut out some nutritious foods.

“To say a carb is a carb is a carb is really ridiculous — that apples are the same as jelly beans," she said. "Low-carb is really a high-fat diet — I don’t think too many people would say a high-fat diet is a good idea.”

But Atkins insists low-carb is a healthy option that is often misunderstood.

“People don’t understand, [the diet] does not cut out veggies and fruits. Once you hit your goal, your metabolism dictates what you can take in," said Heimowitz. "Plenty of whole grains are allowed in there. And even in the beginning, five servings a day of vegetables are allowed."

Most nutrition experts do not support going full-throttle Atkins, but they do say there are good lessons to be learned from the low-carb sensation.

“There are good carbs and there are not so good carbs," said New York City dietician Meg Corcoran. "Go for the beans, legumes, brown rice, sweet potatoes, barley. Cut way back on the processed and refined carbs."

Jerry Krell's wife, Marianne Krell, seems to have come to these conclusions. Also a former South Beach dieter, Krell now limits her intake of bread, sugar and pasta, but no longer eliminates any fruits and vegetables from her diet.

"We're not doing it long-term anymore," she said, referring to herself and her husband. "It's just too difficult to live that way when you want to eat out, when you're going to people's homes to eat."

But with so many companies providing low-carb versions of high-carb foods, consumers looking to modify their diets will have a lot of options to choose from — at least as long as the trend lasts.

“It’s starting to turn, but it might take a while to dwindle down to, 'Oh yeah, remember the Atkins diet,'" Leach said.