When Carole and Michael Middleton were spotted having shooting lessons on the Queen’s Scottish estate of Balmoral last October, the British media flew into a tizzy: surely news of a royal engagement could not be far behind? In fact, a rather more obvious clue may have popped up earlier, when Kate’s mother reportedly let slip to an interviewer that she was on a diet and pleased with the results. “I’ve been doing it four days and I’ve lost four pounds!” she was quoted as crowing.
While there was no official confirmation she was on a diet, the already slim 56-year-old former flight attendant had every reason to want to look her best—she was about to become the most scrutinized mother of the bride in modern British history. Her crash regimen of choice, according to British sources, was the Dukan diet, by French nutritionist Pierre Dukan. This was followed by a frenzy of unsubstantiated speculation that Kate herself might also be on the diet—despite her naturally thin physique.
The extreme low-carb plan, in the vein of Atkins, Montignac or South Beach, has swept Europe and Britain, where The Dukan Diet is currently the top-selling diet book in the country, sitting at number five on Amazon.co.uk. It has recently hopped the pond to Canada and the United States, where The Dukan Diet was published earlier this month. And in Britain, rarely does a week pass these days without some new Dukan story making headlines. Earlier this year, the nation learned that Jenni Murray, the host of Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4’s venerable morning show, had been on the diet since September and lost 40 lb. and counting. She has chronicled her journey in a bimonthly newspaper column, in which she recounted her struggle to give up chocolate and wine in favour of prawns and low-fat yogourt. “Any fantasies I may have had about a Frenchman being sympathetic toward the odd glass or three of wine were quickly dispelled,” she grumbled.
So what sets Dukan apart from other high-protein, low-carb eating plans? A few things, none of which are particularly palatable.
The plan works in four stages. First is the “Attack Phase,” in which dieters consume nothing but lean protein (lamb and bacon are out) and non-fat dairy products, for a minimum of five days straight. All meats must be grilled without oil, and salt is strongly discouraged. On the upside, there is no portion control, and participants are encouraged to eat as much as they want. Drinking at least 1.5 litres of water a day is also mandatory, in an attempt to flush out the kidneys.
Up next is the “Cruise Phase,” in which lean-protein-only days are alternated with lean protein and non-starchy vegetable days, which means you can treat yourself with a bit of steamed kale on the side of that poached chicken. This lasts until you reach your target weight (which Dukan, rather optimistically, calls “your True Weight”), with an average estimated loss of two pounds a week.
The “Consolidation Phase” that follows allows small portions of other food, such as cheese and bread, to be reintroduced, as well as two “celebration meals” a week in which sugar, fat and even a bit of alcohol are permissible. Lastly is the “Stabilization Phase”: dieters are encouraged to eat whatever they want except on Thursdays, when only lean protein is allowed. Three tablespoons of oat bran a day are also mandatory; escalators and elevators are verboten. This final phase is meant to last…for the rest of your life.
According to Dukan, he chose Thursday as protein day simply because it was easier to remember and maintain on a specific day, and “this weekly rhythm is one of the guarantees of the diet’s effectiveness.”
That the regimen works for short-term weight loss does not appear to be in question, but its extreme approach has sparked the disapproval of many registered dieticians. The National Agency for Food, Environment & Work Health Safety in France rated it as one of 15 imbalanced and potentially harmful diets. And the British Dietetic Association put it on a list of the five worst diets of 2011.
Nathalie Jones, a registered dietitian in Glasgow, says she often sees obese clients who come to her only after they’ve lost—and regained—large amounts of weight after undergoing such low-carb regimens. “Anything you do to lose weight needs to be maintainable, and cutting out carbohydrates is simply not realistic over the long term, since they are our bodies’ main source of fuel,” she says. As for Carole Middleton, Jones says that she understands Kate’s mum might be feeling the pressure to slim down prior to the big event. But as a dietician, she cannot give her blessing to Carole’s reported method. “She should have lost the weight slowly, over a long term, using a balanced diet and portion control. That would have given her the energy to enjoy herself on the day.”
Since becoming a fad in Britain, the Dukan diet has been linked to numerous celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez and the supermodel Gisele Bündchen—but none of the rumours have stuck, apart from the one concerning Mrs. Middleton. Pierre Dukan was apparently so pleased to hear that the mother of the royal bride liked his book that he reportedly sent her a signed copy. And when asked earlier this year why his diet was selling so well, the Frenchman gave credit where credit was due: “Because it works—and Carole Middleton.”