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CARBS… Evil or Not?

Is your head spinning from all the "low carb" hoopla?  It's everywhere these days…  "Low carb" specialty foods, "low carb" sections at the grocery stores, even restaurants and fast food chains are jumping on the bandwagon with "low carb" versions of popular meals.  So what's the truth about carbs?  Are they really evil?  Is this just another fad that will pass, similar to the low fat craze that hit in the 90's?

Although low-carb diets are nothing new and date back to the 17th century, this latest resurgence of low carb mania most likely stems from the fact that Americans are fatter than ever and the occurrence of type II diabetes and insulin resistance is on the rise at an astronomical rate.  People are looking for answers to their weight worries.  The low carb diet promoters blame the low-fat, high-carbohydrate recommendations for the current state of affairs.  Opponents to the low-carb phenomenon claim that out-of-control portions, high-fat foods, refined sugar, emotional eating, and lack of exercise are to blame.  Who's correct?  I always say, look at the facts and if necessary, take a moderate approach on the unknown aspects of an issue.

Manufacturers and those looking for ways to make a quick buck often take a little truth to the extreme.  In this case, it's all about high carbohydrate foods spiking blood glucose, resulting in a large insulin release.  This is typically followed by a cyclic roller coaster ride of low blood glucose, and hunger and cravings for carbohydrates that are usually followed by consumption of high carbohydrate foods once again.

Is this scenario fact?  Yes, if you're referring to highly refined, processed carbohydrates (i.e., white flour products), sugary foods and beverages (i.e., candy and soda), and starchy vegetables (i.e., mashed potatoes).  These items have a high glycemic load, meaning that they quickly release sugar into the bloodstream following digestion.  However, there is a way to have your carb and eat it too!  High fiber, low-processed carbohydrate foods, such as whole grains, usually have low glycemic loads and are packed with vitamins and minerals, making them healthy, nutritious food choices.  Other carbohydrate rich foods that fit these criteria are beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and non-starchy vegetables.

Another fact to consider is that we typically eat a combination of foods, not single food items.  When mixing various foods at one meal, the glycemic load of the whole meal is altered.  We know that fiber, fat and protein in a meal can slow the overall release of glucose into the blood, increasing satiety and blunting the response of insulin.  Therefore, eating healthy carbs in combination with healthy fats (such as olive oil) and good protein choices can improve your overall blood glucose control and insulin response.

So who's right in this heated debate?  Both sides have some factual, positive aspects, and the topic is worthy of a book-length discussion. However, these are some highlights of what we do know to be fact:
  • Plant foods (yes, plant foods are carbohydrates) contain hundreds of different phytochemicals that have been correlated with reducing the risk of many diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive diseases and problems (such as diverticulitis and constipation), and various cancers.  Therefore, a diet lacking in plant foods is missing the proven benefit of these items.

  • Low-carbohydrate diets can be detrimental to athletic performance by depleting glycogen stores (liver and muscle stores of glucose) and causing the early onset of fatigue during exercise.

  • The long-term effects of extremely low carbohydrate, animal-based diets on one's health are unknown and the efficacy of such diets has not been proven.

  • The ideal ratio of macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbohydrate, and fat) is debatable in professional circles at this time and is likely to change as more clinical trials are performed.

  • A large reason that low-carb diets can be effective for immediate, short-term weight loss is that they are typically low in calories and result in water loss.

  • Exercise is a proven way to decrease the risk of many diseases and to improve long-term weight loss and maintenance.

  • Diet modification to achieve better blood glucose control can be a good thing.  Attempting to achieve it by drastically increasing animal protein and decreasing high fiber, nutrient rich carbohydrates is not.

Remember, there are healthy ways to achieve better glucose/insulin control.  Some ways in which you can do this are by decreasing overly processed and refined carbohydrates, such as sodas, candy, refined sugary cereals and white breads/pasta in your diet.  Choose high fiber, nutrient rich carbohydrates and combine them with healthy fats and protein.  For instance, instead of a glass of apple juice, choose a whole apple with a slice of low-fat cheese or a few nuts for a snack.  Drizzle your favorite whole grain breads with herbed olive oil.  Top your baked potato with plain low-fat yogurt and lots of steamed vegetables.  Choose non-animal proteins, such as beans or tofu, for the mainstay of many of your meals.  Eat lots of non-starchy vegetables… most are filled with fiber and nutrients and have modest effects on blood glucose and insulin.  The options for eating healthy carbs are practically endless.  The key is to recognize that not all carbs are created (or manufactured) equally.

Keep your ears posted as new research is released about the ideal macronutrient composition of diets, but don't be too quick to jump on the "low carb" bandwagon.  Maybe someday a craze will hit that preaches, "Low processed and refined foods"!  That would be much closer to hitting the mark when it comes to eating healthy, losing weight and maintaining it lifelong.

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Our expert, Dr. Sharon E. Griffin, holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in the areas of exercise science/physiology.  She also holds a second M.S. degree in Nutrition and is a licensed nutritionist and an ACSM certified health and fitness instructor.

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