Renowned chef Julia Childs once said she would rather have one spoonful of a dish made with real cream, cheese, and butter than a whole plateful of a concoction made with skim milk, low-fat cheese, and margarine.
Her statement also captures the theory behind the famous Atkins Diet, freeing dieters to enjoy foods that contain fats as long as they are high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
That means dieters can enjoy steak or lamb chops, but they must avoid bread, muffins, potatoes, and sugary desserts if they want to lose weight.
Julia captured the key principle of the diet, recognizing that when people are satiated, they eat less. A slice of a rib roast, served with a side of cauliflower in a cheddar sauce, makes a delicious meal that's also less likely to send you back to the refrigerator.
But instead of giving ourselves permission to eat Julia's meal, we dive into a gargantuan plate of pasta, thinking that we're eating right because it's low in fat.
There must be some reason that our nation, which is obsessed with low-fat foods, is getting fatter and fatter, with one in five obese. Are we being fed low-fat lies?
Atkins argued that pasta and other carbohydrates set off a chain reaction of cravings that result in excess calorie consumption.
Here's why: Carbohydrates contain sugars in various forms. Sugar is digested into glucose to turn the food into fuel, which is quickly released into the bloodstream to be either burned or stored.
Glucose in the bloodstream triggers the production of insulin, whose basic job is to store fat. A high-carbohydrate, high-sugar meal triggers a rush of insulin, but once the glucose is burned or stored, the blood-sugar level plummets, and we're suddenly hungry again — for more carbohydrates. We over-eat because our blood sugar is jumping up and down. Today, the average American gets one-third of his calories from sugar and even more from other carbohydrates.
Protein and fat don't trigger the insulin rush. The cravings are dissipated, and we don?t need to eat as much.
It only takes a look at sitcoms from before the '70s to see what we have done to ourselves. Jackie Gleason and Fred Mertz (from I Love Lucy) were notably obese, but virtually all of the other actors are thin. And they knew nothing of low-fat, skim foods.
Part of the problem with our obese society is that we're too rushed to cook. Grabbing a bucket of fried chicken with rolls and mashed potatoes on the way home from work or ordering a pizza surely helps a busy working mom feed her family.
But most fast food like these also are high-carb food. Carbohydrates are popular with food manufacturers and with consumers because there are more calories for the dollar.
A cup of pasta and a small steak both contain about 200 calories. But the pasta may cost less than a quarter at the store, while even a small steak can cost several dollars.
Many nutritionists are aggressively critical of the Atkins diet. For starters, it violates the U.S. government's Food Pyramid, which says people should eat 6 to 11 servings of carbohydrates a day and keep fat consumption to a minimum.
Critics say that all people eat on the Atkins diet is artery-clogging meat, butter, and cheese. They ignore that the diet also includes a long list of healthy vegetables like asparagus, beets, collard greens, green beans, and zucchini.
Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution has sold more than 10 million copies, so clearly it is touching a nerve. Several recent studies also have shown that test subjects on the diet lost 13 pounds compared to 4 pounds for those on a low-fat diet.
The satiatity factor is key. Listen to Julia: Eating a little of something rich and delicious that doesn't trigger excessive insulin production has given millions of people a tool to slim down.
The data on the Atkins diet also suggests that, contrary to expectations, subjects actually find their cholesterol stays level or even drops after they go on the diet.
It's crucial that we find the key to slowing the epidemic of obesity, which leads to diabetes, musculo-skeletal problems, and to the biggest killer — heart disease.
Dr. Atkins died last year in a fatal fall on the ice outside his office. But after decades of battles, his diet is gaining new respect and could help to slim our nation's waistline and reduce the serious threat of obesity-induced illnesses.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a not-for-profit research organization that focuses on individual freedom in health reform. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19080, Alexandria, VA 22320 or at firstname.lastname@example.org