Waiter, Are There Carbs in My Soup?

November 13, 2002
Waiter, Are There Carbs in My Soup?


I’ll have the bacon appetizer, then the porterhouse for two with creamed spinach.”

“The pâté de campagne, then roast lamb with béarnaise and the cheese plate.”

“Lobster bisque, please, and the triple lamb chops.”

“Gimme three steaks and a Michelob Ultra.”

Not long ago, New York City waiters would have interpreted dinner orders like these as signs of impending excess: a let’s-throw-caution-to-the-wind celebration of a birthday, a bachelor party or a big deal. Not now. This is the new diet food.

New York City restaurants are being swarmed by a fat-seeking, protein-craving army. Local dieters are flocking to low-carbohydrate eating plans that prohibit all potatoes, pasta, bread and sugar, but seem to offer unlimited access to eggs, cheese, red meat and butter. It’s a tantalizing prospect: weight loss without any hunger or deprivation.

“These diets offer lots of small victories,” said Itamar Kubovy, a film director who has dropped 16 pounds in four months on the plan. “When I can go out and have a Caesar salad full of cheese and garlic and olive oil, I’m not exactly dying for the croutons.”
Since Dr. Robert C. Atkins published “Diet Revolution” in 1972, his low-carbohydrate, high-protein, fat-friendly program and its cousins (among them the Zone, Stillman, Sugar Busters and Protein Power) have come in and out of fashion. But recently the low-carb principles have been embraced with new fervor. “I’d say most of my customers and half of my staff are doing some version of Atkins,” said Reed Goldstein, general manager of Angelo & Maxie’s steakhouse on Park Avenue South. He added that the restaurant was doing a brisk business in Michelob Ultra, a beer rolled out by Anheuser-Busch that is specifically targeted to carb watchers.

Brian Bistrong, who took over the kitchen at Citarella in Midtown last July, said he had virtually eliminated starches from the elegant seafood-based menu. “My customers don’t want it on the plate,” he said, adding that carb-deprived diners can request side dishes of spaetzle or polenta.

The diets work on the principle that when the body is deprived of sufficient carbohydrates, which it generally converts to glucose and burns as fuel, it will turn to stores of fat to burn instead, a condition known as ketosis.

“Low carb is definitely the It diet of the moment,” agreed Lambeth Hochwald, a health writer in Manhattan.

It is also the most controversial. Among its sworn enemies are Dr. Dean Ornish, the guru of the high-fiber, low-fat crowd that Atkins has if not replaced then at least battered; Dr. Neil Barnard, president of the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine; the American Heart Association; the American Kidney Fund; and the American Dietetic Association. All cite the long-term health concerns of high-fat diets but concede that the short-term weight loss benefits are real.

As Dr. Ornish has succinctly put it, “Some people lose weight on fen-phen, or by smoking cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

New Yorkers, perhaps unsurprisingly, are grabbing at the quick fix. Eating out has always been a stumbling block for dieters. For the last 20 years, following the low-fat diet that most accepted as the logical (if joyless) approach to weight loss was nearly impossible in restaurants. As a token gesture toward health, customers requested “sauce on the side” or brown rice instead of white with their high-fat Chinese food. For the would-be slim, meals at bistros or steakhouses seemed out of the question.
“I eat out virtually every meal,” said Jud Ebersman, a real estate broker in Manhattan who has been on and off the Atkins plan for the last year and says he has lost 15 pounds. “And no diet has ever worked so well for me.” Mr. Ebersman said that as long as he refuses the breadbasket altogether and calls for the check instead of dessert it is surprisingly easy to eat out. “Classic French is the easiest, because you always know what’s in the sauces,” he said. “Indian is great; all that tandoori. Italian is boring because you always end up eating salad and grilled chicken. And if there’s a good way to eat Chinese, I can’t find it.”
“Sauces become very stressful,” said Sabine Heller, a marketing executive. Kitchen staples like onions, tomatoes and flour are among the ingredients that carb watchers must monitor vigilantly.
Ms. Heller points out that drinking in restaurants becomes a challenge. Beer and wine are high in carbohydrates, but hard liquor is permitted. “You feel a little self-conscious doing a shot of vodka in a nice restaurant when everyone else is having a glass of wine before dinner,” she said.

Most New York followers of Atkinslike plans quickly abandon the strict rules about counting carbohydrates and come up with their own ideas about what they can and can’t eat. Although no plan actually recommends unlimited meat, cheese and eggs, or absolutely prohibits fruits or vegetables, dieters say that the easiest way to stick to the low-carb diet is to cut out certain foods completely and indulge freely in others. And this is what makes eating out such a simple proposition.

“When I was on Atkins, it was easy,” said Jody Storch, a vice president of Peter Luger Steak House. “I had a steak and creamed spinach for lunch every single day.” And a year ago, she said, the restaurant bowed to demand and made a rare change to its menu, adding an appetizer of broiled bacon strips that had previously been known only to long-time regulars. “Now we serve over 400 pounds a week,” Ms. Storch said. “Low carbers love it here. They can even have dessert: a bowl of plain whipped cream.”

Low-carb dieters are eating enormous quantities of food, local restaurateurs, diners and dietitians agree. “Guys come in here and order one steak after another, boom, boom, boom,” said Mr. Goldstein of Angelo & Maxie’s. Jack Lamb, an owner of Jewel Bako, a popular sushi restaurant in the East Village, said, “You can always tell who the low-carb people are: they order miso soup and an awful lot of sashimi, more than you’d think a person would want.”

Dieters say that if you’re used to eating a lot of bagels, pasta, pizza and sandwiches, all staples of busy New York lives, you have to eat large amounts of protein- and fat-rich food to get the same feeling of fullness. A three-egg omelet for breakfast, bacon and a big lump of cheese for lunch, salad and pork chops for dinner, then a late-night snack of peanut butter is not an unusual day’s menu.

Feeling queasy? You’re not alone. “I was in a constant state of nausea the whole time I did Atkins,” said Elizabeth Bogner, a freelance editor who tried out the plan last month with her husband, Jesse. “I don’t think Dr. Atkins reckoned with appetites like ours,” she added. “We were having Flintstone-size pieces of meat with cream sauce every night.”

By and large, many New York women seem to find it difficult to stay on the diet. “Women are so used to the low-fat diet — I think it’s harder for us to eat all those eggs and steaks,” Ms. Storch of Peter Luger said.

“And the bad breath doesn’t help either,” said Ms. Hochwald, the health writer, referring to the “ketosis breath” many dieters experience. (Dr. Atkins recommends chewing parsley sprigs.)
How far will New Yorkers go to get thin while eating fat? Are low-carb diets magic, or madness?

“Yes, of course you can eat steak and foie gras and be thin,” said Raba Belkadi, an owner of Soho Steak on Thompson Street. “We have always known this in France. But not too much, yes? About eight ounces. This is what the models eat. They have a green salad and they are thin and beautiful.”