The Truth About Carbs

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By Kelly Senyei, Gourmet Live

For 10 straight weeks, Mark Haub survived on an 1,800-calorie-a-day portion-controlled diet consisting mainly of Twinkies, chips, snack cakes, sugary cereals, candy bars, and every other food you would find on a list of things to avoid when dieting. The result? He lost 27 pounds.

Haub, who is a professor of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, made national headlines with his junk food diet, and with his simple message of moderation to every dieter and non-dieter across the country.
And while Haub chose a unique approach to demonstrate this point, the underlying sentiment remains: Yes, even carbohydrates can and should be consumed as part of a balanced diet.

Carbs. The word alone is enough to repulse most fad dieting, treadmill-trekking, health-conscious consumers. Eat carbs and lose weight? That's impossible.

But if you're not eating carbs, then what are you eating? The answer is probably a high fat, protein-packed diet, arguably one of the most famous quick-slimming fads of the past 40 years. "People like to hear good news about their bad habits," says Dr. Michael Greger, a physician and author of Carbophobia: The Scary Truth Behind America's Low-Carb Craze. "Who doesn't want to be told that bacon is good for you? Or that you can eat all the bun-less cheeseburgers you want and not suffer the consequences?"

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The genesis of the anti-carb crusade and formal incarnation of this is the Atkins diet. Created by the late Dr. Robert Atkins, it was first introduced in 1972 and continues to be a popular option for those hoping to shed pounds in record time. Its phased approach to weight loss gets dieters hooked on the promise of losing "up to 15 pounds in the first two weeks," which includes an initial "induction" phase during which the dieter consumes just 20 grams of net carbs per day.

But it's important to understand what it means (and what type of effort it requires) to be restricted to the initial 20 grams of carbs a day.
The diets that advocate shunning carbs entirely are not only bad for your health, but are also impractical. Saying "no" to all forms of carbohydrates, both simple and complex, is where Atkins' 20-gram a day rule goes from seemingly reasonable to nearly impossible.

Carb counting aside, vegetables provide obvious health benefits in the form of vitamins and minerals. Even Haub, who consumed four meals a day worth of junk food, supplemented his vending machine diet with vegetable snacks. But the issue with a low-carb diet is not its reliance on vegetables, but its deferral to protein as the main source of nutrients. The single serving salad can be topped off with all of the blue cheese, bacon, turkey and eggs your heart desires, creating an imbalance of high fat, high calorie foods.

Deprivation of carbs in place of moderation results in binge eating, a habit that goes hand in hand with weight gain. And it's easy to blame our national obesity epidemic on simple and complex carbohydrates like breads, pastas, and cereals. The truth is, there is some merit to this claim. "Certainly these low-carb diets have a point in that the refining of carbohydrates isn't terrible for our health," Dr. Greger says. "That absolutely has a role to play in our obesity and diabetes epidemic. But there are good carbs, and there are bad carbs."

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Science tells us that we need the good carbs. Carbohydrates are the center of the human diet. Restricting them leads to an imbalance of two hormones, insulin and glucagon, which lead to low blood sugar levels, low energy, headaches, sugar cravings, caffeine cravings, mood swings, anxiety and depression. The craving is when the binging begins and the weight gain cycle kicks into gear.

Avoiding carbs not only leads to fluctuations in weight, but also to more serious and longer-term consequences like heart disease. "These [low-carb] diets tend to focus on animal foods, which are the only sources of saturated fat and cholesterol," says Dr. Greger. "Those are the number one determinants of one's LDL, or 'bad,' cholesterol. And that's the number one risk factor and the number one killer of both men and women every year."

This leaves us with one option: moderation. "The best diet is a diet of primarily unrpocessed plant foods tha's based around whole grains, fruits and vegetables," says Dr. Gerger. It is a diet that includes a balance of both simple and complex carbohydrates, as well as meat, poultry, eggs and fish ... and maybe even the occasional Twinkie.

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Photo Credit: istockphoto

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