(March 23) DENVER — After competing to lose weight on the Weight Watchers diet since January, Ray Meiggs and Kraig Knutzen unveiled their thinner bodies at the U.S. Potato Board’s annual meeting March 19-20.

Meiggs, who lost 15 pounds, compared with Knutzen’s 35 pounds, joked, “It’s not the pounds. It’s about presentation.”

But both men, as members of the board’s executive committee, were serious about the message they were trying to spread: that the potato is part of a healthy diet.

The Healthy Potato campaign was a major focus of the meeting. Put on the defensive by the low-carbohydrate diet trend and a potato price slump, members were eager to hear some positive information about their crop.

Meiggs, vice president of marketing and sales for John E. Ferebee Farming Inc., Camden, N.C., and Knutzen, manager of Knutzen Farms, Burlington, Wash., were both happy to provide testimony as to how well Weight Watchers’ partnership with the potato had gone.

MAYBE MORE TO COME

Linda McCashion, vice president of public relations for the board, said the partnership with Weight Watchers International Inc., Woodbury, N.Y., as part of the Pick of the Season promotion will end in May but that the board was looking into what future work could be done with the diet company.

McCashion discussed how the Healthy Potato ad and stories from such newspapers as The New York Times and USA Today came together in perfect timing in February for the industry to fight back. The board also distributed tapes, gave interviews and set up the Web site www.healthypotato.com to serve as a source for the media and consumers, McCashion said.

She also brought in registered dietitian Katherine Beals, associate professor of nutrition at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., to speak at the meeting. Beals acts as an adviser on scientific affairs and research programs for the board.

Beals said the low-carb diets had been hyped and that only a small percentage of the population followed the diet.

“But the media has blown it out of control and so much so that there is a lot of confusion now as to what diet we should be following. Even health professionals and scientists are somewhat confused,” she said.

SIMPLE EQUATION

Beals said that, when it comes to weight loss, the research consistently shows that it all comes down to the amount of calories in and calories out.

“If you eat more calories than you expend, you’re going to gain weight. And I think this will truly be the downfall of the low-carbohydrate diet,” she said.

Even as those in the industry face a tough year for sales and prices, the tone of the meeting was focused on diverting high energy to the Healthy Potato campaign.

New board member David Radtke, general manager at Mundorf Packing and San Luis Hills Farm Inc., Fort Garland, said he found the meeting atmosphere refreshing. He said he had gone to too many state meetings where the atmosphere was more doom and gloom.

Virginia Myers, owner of Mountain Valley Produce, Center, said the potato industry had been in a slump with all the focus on the negative. She said it was good to see positive thinking at the meeting.

“It makes you feel empowered,” she said.