Carb Crazed

Low Carb diets have become as popular as apple pie (although apple pie wouldn't be allowed!). Everywhere you go the message is "low carb, decrease your carbs, or no carbs". Unfortunately this message oversimplifies many of the healthy eating habits that nutrition experts have been teaching. The truth is, there are no quick fixes or easy answers when it comes to healthy eating, and one size never fits all.

The idea that carbohydrates are bad or unhealthy is a misunderstood message that has taken over our thoughts on good nutrition. Low carbohydrate promoters push the theory that carbohydrates are to blame for the nation's obesity problems. The truth is overeating and general lack of exercise are mostly to blame for the obesity epidemic. Think about it this way, if the theory was true that carbohydrates cause weight gain then every person including famous athletes who eat carbs regularly would be obese. It just doesn't add up.

The Truth About Carbs:

Proponents of low carb diets claim that when carbs raise blood sugar and insulin levels, the process can make our bodies store fat more readily. This is true, but did you know that all carbs are not created equal?

There are different kinds of carbohydrates: simple and complex as well as low glycemic and high glycemic. This is where most people fail to understand better carbohydrate choices. There are no bad food choices just those foods that should be eaten daily and those that should be eaten once in awhile.

Fruits and Vegetables:

While it is true that fruits and vegetables are made up primarily of carbohydrates, the majority of them have a low glycemic index (glycemic Index is a measure of how quickly a food increases the blood sugar). This is because fruits and vegetables contain fiber which naturally keeps blood sugars level. Fruits and vegetables are also the most important food groups in our fight against chronic diseases. They are loaded in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals which act like our own personal arsenal against chronic diseases. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research has compiled over 4000 studies and has concluded that eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day can decrease our cancer risk by 20%. Eliminating fruits and vegetables from your diet can lead to potentially serious health problems such as heart disease and cancer.

Whole Grains- The Important Difference:

Both whole grains and refined grains (sugar, white bread, pasta, etc) are high in carbohydrate but whole grains, found in foods like oats, barley, brown rice and whole wheat breads and cereals, contain all parts of the plant kernel thus keeping their important fiber content intact. Refined grains are stripped of these nutritious components during the milling process. Yes, it is true that eating large amounts of refined carbohydrates on a daily basis can drive sugar levels up quickly. However, the fiber in whole grains slows the rise in blood sugar and therefore the insulin response.

In fact, eating small amounts of whole, complex carbohydrates throughout the day can keep blood sugars at a more even level preventing insulin rises and weight gain. Research shows that people whose diets are high in whole grains and fiber decrease their risk of diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease.

Portion Control:

The flip side of the coin is that most people consume extremely large portion sizes of carbohydrates, eating more refined carbohydrates than the healthy complex carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. The answer, however, is not to give up all carbohydrates. It is not all or nothing as we learned from the low fat craze. We need to learn how to balance our diets to provide enough energy and nutrients that we get from all of our food groups throughout the day. By removing all carbohydrates from your diet you are setting yourself up for potential health problems not to mention bad breath (side effect of ketosis), hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and low energy levels.

Very low carbohydrate diets would not be of concern to health professionals and nutrition experts if they weren't so significantly low in important nutrients and so high in saturated fats. Recent studies have found that low carbohydrate diets are deficient in as many as 19 vitamins and minerals and as many as 11 micronutrients. According to Dr. Bruce Ames, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkley; vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as these can lead to DNA damage that can cause you to age prematurely and could lead to cancer and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. There is further evidence that these diets can lead to other diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. It is important to remember that these diets were developed for weight loss and not healthy eating guidelines.

Bottom Line:

Choose small amounts (½ cup to 1 cup) of whole grains with each meal. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day and you will be able to manage your weight and your health at the same time! People who have achieved lifelong weight loss have done so by making lifestyle changes such as eating a balanced diet and increasing their daily activity, not by following fad diets.

Most importantly, don't depend on fad diets to give you nutrition advice. They generally look at a small piece of the puzzle instead of looking at the whole picture. There is no need to increase your health risk to lose weight. Choose to eat a balanced diet and increase your activity so you can lose weight and maintain optimal health at the same time.

© Meri Raffetto, 2004

Meri Raffetto is a Registered Dietitian and a recognized professional in the area of nutrition and wellness. She has developed online weight management programs to help people get off of diets and get into way of life. For more information or to sign up for her free newsletter, visit http://www.reallivingnutrition.com

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