What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Diets, Carbs, and Fat

Posted: April 5, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Laurie Meamber, assistant professor of marketing in the School of Management, is interested in topics related to sociological, technological, and cultural aspects of daily life that influence marketing and consumption practices.

About the marketing strategies of companies and restaurants using the Atkins diet to promote their products, Meamber says that in order to understand shifts in consumer behavior, one has to consider underlying value shifts about what is desirable.

“Consumer researchers studying American values have identified the relationship between sensual gratification and abstinence as being associated with dieting behavior,” she says. “On the sensual gratification side, we like to indulge ourselves–for example, with high-fat, good-tasting products. When we consume in this way, we often feel guilt because dieting, by definition, usually is associated with controlling and restricting our consumption.

“In the case of the Atkins diet craze, it seems that consumers are responding positively because, while carbohydrates are restricted, they can indulge themselves in highly sensual, good-tasting items that were off limits in diets of years past–namely protein and fat. Initial results indicate that consumers are losing weight on these low-carb diets, thus fueling changes in the food industry to give consumers low-carb options such as offering bunless burgers at fast-food restaurants. What remains to be seen are the long-term health effects of the diet, which will determine whether the low-carb diets become a long-term trend in terms of eating behavior or remain a fad like other diets of the past.”

Lisa Pawloski, assistant professor of nutrition in the College of Nursing and Health Science, is also concerned about the long-term effects of low-carb, high-protein diets. “Atkins claimed that this is a diet for life, yet with the millions of dollars that he earned, he never conducted a study that examined the impact of the diet on health,” she says. “We know this diet does produce weight loss, and how it produces weight loss is of some controversy. Most nutritionists believe it is because it decreases total caloric intake.”

The diet is probably more popular now, she adds, because Americans have been eating too many carbohydrates, just as they have been eating too much food. “Americans were told from the USDA Food Guide Pyramid to load up on carbs and cut back on fat. Thus, we have seen some interesting dietary trends in which Americans have been eating less fat, yet getting fatter. This paradox has been great ammunition to fuel support for the Atkins diet.”

Pawloski believes there are health risks in long-term strict use of the Atkins diet. “Studies have shown that high-protein diets increase your risk of bone and kidney disease in addition to chronic illnesses such as diabetes if that protein intake is in the form of foods with high saturated fat, like steak,” she says. While a few studies have shown effective weight loss and the lowering of cholesterol in the short term, she explains, most people who lose weight also lower their cholesterol no matter what kind of diet they choose. “I think that for people who can use this as a short-term diet, lose weight, and then keep that weight off, this might be an option, though not the best option,” she says. “What we don’t know is if a person can keep that weight loss after using such a diet. Maintaining weight is critical to prevention of chronic illnesses, and I’m not so sure how long a person can be on this diet and not go back to his or her old habits after not being able to consume bread and pastries for so long.

“We have just heard about a greater crisis of obesity in the United States and how it may result in greater consequences than tobacco smoking. I think we really need to get serious about changing our overall dietary behaviors and stop thinking about quick fixes and fad diets. It allows for more gradual changes, and I believe it is much less painful that way. You can still have your cake and eat it, too–just not as much.”

Provost Peter Stearns explores the meaning of fat and anti-fat in modern Western society in his book, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern World. The book covers fat’s transformation from a symbol of health and well-being to a sign of moral, psychological, and physical disorder.

“Many countries, including the United States, are involved in a historic change whereby unparalleled food abundance is accompanied by more sedentary work, leisure, and travel,” Stearns says. “That’s the basic context, but the follow-up question is why American weight gains outstrip international trends. The answer is an unusually aggressive food industry; unusually counterproductive attitudes about diet (too much moralism, too many expectations of miracle results); an unwillingness to discipline children’s eating; and, recently, an increased pace of work that justifies quick snacking as relief.”

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