Health food fad: Chicken and beer?

There's a new diet guru in town. He's a military man with a weight-loss battle plan, a Southern gentleman with a secret recipe that supposedly melts away unwanted pounds. The man: Colonel Sanders. The diet wonder food: Kentucky Fried Chicken.

This is not a joke.

In recent weeks, television viewers have been treated to commercials touting the low-carbohydrate content of KFC products.

In one, a woman asks her husband if he recalls discussing the need to eat better. Then she hauls out a bucket of fried chicken.

In the second, a guy asks his friend for the secret to his weight loss. Exercise, perhaps? More salads? "Just chicken," the man replies.

Welcome to the latest chapter of our nation's infatuation with low-carb weight-loss plans such as the Atkins diet. Forget fat, never mind calories. The KFC commercials -- which follow on the heels of low-carb ads from Miller Lite -- rest on the notion that healthy eating boils down to this: Consume more protein and far fewer carbohydrates.

But has our carbophobia raced so completely out of control that people will embrace fried chicken and beer as diet aids?

Let's hope not. After all, the nutritional case against KFC is simple to make. According to the company's own Web site, the Colonel's extra-crispy chicken breast has 460 calories, a staggering 28 grams of fat and 45 percent of the maximum recommended daily cholesterol intake.

That single piece of chicken -- and how many people eat just one? -- also packs 40 percent of the recommended daily maximum intake of saturated fat, which has been closely linked to heart disease.

Does that sound like diet food?

It's easy to laugh at these KFC commercials. But the underlying problem is dire. Publicity surrounding the Atkins diet has persuaded millions of Americans to embrace what used to be considered the worst kind of eating habits. They've stopped trying to reduce their intake of fat and calories and instead shun carbohydrates while diving into a greasy tide of bacon, eggs and, yes, fried chicken.

As a nutrition researcher, I am very familiar with the evidence for and against the Atkins diet. Some individuals claim dramatic weight loss. But the scientific evidence shows that people on the Atkins diet lose about the same amount of weight as those on other diets.

The real trick with any weight-loss plan lies in keeping the pounds off. There is no good evidence about the long-term weight- management power of Atkins, although many dieters report difficulty in sticking with it for more than a few months.

Meanwhile, the thinnest people on Earth consume large amounts of carbohydrates: Asians dine on rice, noodles and vegetables.

Indeed, new research suggests that whole-grain foods (which are packed with carbs) are crucial to weight control. According to a new study published in this month's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women eating high-fiber whole-grain foods are 50 percent less likely to experience major weight gain over a 12-year period.

But this issue has another crucial dimension. A long list of scientific studies have linked regular meat intake to increased risk of a range of maladies, including heart disease, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, impaired kidney function, complications of diabetes and even osteoporosis.

In other words, meat-heavy diets kill.

Alternatives exist. Evidence strongly supports the ability of a low-fat vegetarian diet to help people lose weight. Plant-based diets built from fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can also reduce the risk of heart disease and several types of cancer.

Such eating patterns also pass another crucial trial: the common- sense test. After all, does anyone look at a bucket of fried chicken and honestly think "health food"?

Neal D. Barnard is the author of "Breaking the Food Seduction" and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health and research organization. This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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