WASHINGTON - Interested in following the government's new advice on what to eat? Advocates of the South Beach and Atkins diets want you to give their approaches a try, saying they're not all that different from the official recommendations.
However, both popular low-carb diets omit the government's top recommendation: Count calories.
Atkins and South Beach both insist that people eliminate most carbohydrates - pasta, bread, rice and even fruit - in the initial phases of their diets.
But that's just for the first two weeks. After that, it's all about choosing "good" carbohydrates: veggies, some fruits and whole grains. And that is what the new guidelines advise.
"I think the government really got it right this time," Arthur Agatston, the cardiologist who created the South Beach diet, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The public has been so confused, with the initial lowfat message, and the plain low-carb message," he said. "Now they really should be getting a single message of good carbs, good fats, lean protein and fiber."
A good-carb diet, not a low-carb one, is how Agatston describes South Beach.
People surfing the Atkins Web site will find a new article on how the program fits the dietary guidelines.
"The Atkins maintenance program, once people achieve their goal weight, is very consistent with the recommendations," said nutritionist Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and research for Atkins Nutritionals.
Even in the strictest phase of Atkins, she said, some of the new government recommendations can apply. For example, in the first two weeks, people on Atkins are supposed to eat 4 cups of salad a day. The new government recommendation is 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day.
The virtue of Atkins or South Beach, however, was not the message intended by those developing the government guidelines.
Their top recommendation for losing weight was to cut calories, advice you won't find in either diet plan.
"That's the No. 1 message, calories count, and then when you're counting calories, get the most nutrition for those calories you're consuming," said Eric Hentges, director of the Agriculture Department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. "I'd be cautious with the idea that there would be some sort of endorsement. There will not be."
The guidelines are being used to update the Agriculture Department's familiar food guide pyramid, which is due out this spring.
The panel of scientists and doctors who developed the 41 recommendations in the guidelines took a neutral position on whether people should follow popular diets.
"I don't think there are enough long-term studies showing if there is any side effect to being on these diets long-term," said committee member Theresa Nicklas, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "The bottom line is that calories are what really count."
Yet on the day the government unveiled the guidelines, the low-carb diets got an unexpected boost from departing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, one of two Cabinet officials who oversaw creation of the new guidelines.
At a news conference, Veneman said people should look beyond the first two weeks of Atkins, South Beach and other diets at their plans for maintaining weight loss.
"They're very consistent in many ways with the dietary guidelines," she said. "Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, eat whole grains, keep fat low. And more and more, you see these very consistent messages coming also out of a lot of the popular diet programs."
Low-carbohydrate diets are notorious for those first two weeks, which are designed to curb food cravings by stabilizing blood sugar. They require eliminating food that many people say they can't live without: bread, pasta and rice and sugars like those in candy and alcohol and even fruit.
There are many differences in the two approaches, but in each, people are allowed to slowly add carbohydrates back into their diets.
Not brownies and fettucini alfredo, though. The catch is that people must choose "good" carbohydrates - whole-wheat toast instead of a croissant, or non-instant oatmeal over corn flakes.
Some think enthusiasm for the diets has peaked. Harry Balzer, who analyzes food trends for NPD Group, a marketing firm, said its surveys show that people who say they are on low-carb diets has dropped by more than half in the past year.
By far the most popular diet is "my own diet," Balzer said, adding that his research shows that about one in four Americans view themselves as being on a diet.
"People take bits and pieces of a diet and incorporate it into their lifestyle," he said. "Not everybody grabs an entire diet and says I'm going to change immediately forever."
On the Net:
Dietary Guidelines: http://www.healthierus.gov
South Beach Diet: http://www.southbeachdiet.com
Atkins Nutritionals: http://atkins.com