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Carbohydrate Bashing: A Passionate Pastime

By Nancy Clark, MS, RD - author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

As a nutrition writer, I rarely get much feedback from my readers. But recently, I got bombarded with responses to an article I wrote about carbohydrates.

Dr. Atkins' fans turned out in force to bash carbohydrates and praise protein. Clearly, I failed to clarify the carbohydrate confusion that abounds among today's dieters. Here is further information about this complex topic.

Reader's comment: "The obesity epidemic coincided with the advent of the high carb, low fat American Diet. Plain and simple, obesity is caused by overconsumption of carbs ..."

My response: Obesity is a very complex problem, related not just to food but rather to a person's lifestyle. Hence, we need to look at the whole picture, not just carbs.

Exercise is one important part of the obesity picture. Our society lacks sidewalks for walking to school, paths for biking to work, safe neighborhoods for kids to play outside. We use too many escalators, too many ride-on lawn mowers, and watch too much TV. This abundance of inactivity in the American lifestyle has caught up with adults and kids alike.

Today's family lifestyle is also taking its toll. Working parents who are tired, stressed and lack time to cook wholesome meals appreciate the convenience of take-out meals and the comfort of mindless eating in front of the TV. Big portions add (momentary) pleasure; food can all too easily become a (fattening) de-stresser.

Reader's comment: "Most fat people believe they are overweight because they are weak-willed and eat chocolates. Actually, they are overweight because they eat pasta, rice and bread. These carbs create an insulin reaction that drives their blood sugar low and forces them to eat more ..."

My response: Most fat people are overweight because they eat more calories than they burn off. People who eat pasta, rice and potatoes are not destined to gain weight.

That is, if carbs caused obesity, then why are rice-eating Asians (who live in their native country) not fat? Because they get plenty of exercise in their daily lives! Why are pasta-eating marathoners not fat? Because they also get plenty of exercise.

Activity, not carbohydrate intake, makes a critical difference between obesity and health.

Reader's comment: "I have had success on the Atkins Diet and I NEVER could have lost fat with the low-fat approach. My blood sugar swings so wildly on a high carb diet that there was no way I could lose weight. That's biology ..."

My response: Yes, each person is metabolically unique and we need to honor and respect differences in reactions to foods. For example, some people are sensitive to caffeine and prefer to avoid evening coffee; others can drink coffee at night and sleep just fine. Some people can handle three beers; others get drunk on half a can. And some people can enjoy candy bars and soda pop; others feel a suger-surge followed by a "crash."

But does this mean that coffee, alcohol and sugars are evil? No.

Before anyone bashes the general category of "carbs," I recommend they separate carbs into positive and negative groupings:

  • Carbs with fiber whole-grain bread, bran cereal, oatmeal, apples, broccoli and other wholesome fruits, vegetables and unrefined grain foods are an important part of a balanced diet. They offer an assortment of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that protect your health. They rarely cause "sugar crashes."

  • Refined carbs, such as white flour and white sugar, are the main culprits that trigger a strong insulin response. Yet eating refined carbs with protein and fat buffers their insulin response. That is, if you put peanut butter (instead of jelly) on a piece of white toast, you'll get less of a rise in blood sugar. Hence, carb-bashers should look at the whole diet, not just a single food.

    Reader's comment: "Americans are fatter than ever because nutritionists have told them to eat more carbs and cut the fat. This makes logical sense, but in reality, doesn't work."

    My response: When the "cut the fat" movement started, the nutrition messages not only failed to acknowledge the benefits of dietary fat (satiety, flavor) but also put too little focus on the type of fat.

    Just as we need to look at the kinds of carbs we eat (fruits, vegetables and whole grains vs. refined sugar and flour), we also need to look at the kinds of fat we eat. We now know more about the health benefits of fats from plants (olive oil, canola oil, walnuts, flaxseed) and fish (tuna, swordfish, salmon, lox).

    These plant and fish oils are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, as compared to diets abundant with animal fats (greasy burgers, bacon, many fast food meals).

    Today's nutrition message should be "cut the bad fat": doughnuts, Big Macs, big cookies. But we can and should enjoy the enhanced flavor and satiety that comes with having some (health-protective) oils, seeds and nuts in the diet. Almonds and peanuts are no longer taboo.

    Reader's comment: "The Atkins Diet advocates eating protein at each meal. This gives a person a chance to control his appetite. My typical diet is eggs for breakfast, then chicken breast, salad and lots of steamed veggies. Low carb, low fat, high protein ..."

    My response: True. A high-protein diet need not be a high (saturated) fat diet. And if you balance the protein with colorful salads (topped with chick peas and kidney beans), abundant steamed vegetables, and fruit for dessert, you can consume muscle-fueling carbs that are unlikely to trigger the desire to eat "more."

    Yet my concern as a sports nutritionist is that serious athletes who avoid bread, rice, pasta and other dinner starches commonly fail to consume adequate carbs to fully fuel their muscles. This hurts their performance; they lack stamina and endurance.

    The good news is, most active people can metabolize carbs just fine. That is, when an athlete eats, let's say, jelly beans, the body quickly and easily transports that sugar into the muscles.

    But when an unfit person eats jelly beans, he or she requires more insulin to do the same job. This high amount of insulin triggers problems with hunger, food, weight, health.

    Hence exercising, not avoiding carbs, is the best weapon in the war against obesity.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, nutritionist at SportsMedicine Associates (617-739-2003) in Brookline MA.
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook

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