What do breads, cereals, fruits, juices, milk, yogurt, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, vegetables, soda and desserts all have in common? If you didn’t already guess it from the title, it’s Carbs. When asked what foods contain carbohydrates, bread, pasta and potatoes are the most commonly identified. Many people do not realize that carbs are actually found in almost our entire food supply with the exception of meats, cheeses and fats.
As Americans, we generally consume way too many carbs throughout the day. Most breakfast meals include toast, Poptarts, pancakes, biscuits or cereal followed by sandwiches, pizza, spaghetti and burger and fries for the rest of the day. These foods are also highly processed menu items that often contain preservatives and other added chemicals.
Do I feel that carbs are contributing to many of our current diseases and illnesses? Absolutely. Does that mean that in order to be healthy, one must cut out all carbs? Not at all. In fact, many athletes actually need to increase their carbohydrate intake to ensure optimal performance. Research has shown that vegetarians, who are known for having high-carb diets, tend to have reduced risks for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.1
Going “low-carb” is a very popular diet trend to lose weight. While consuming fewer carbohydrates can help decrease circulating levels of insulin, which in turn can help the body switch to a fat-burning mode, weight loss is typically more attributed (but not conclusive in all studies) to the combination of consuming fewer calories, better food choices, less processed foods and improved physical activity habits. Researchers in a 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that low-carb diets may give individuals a “metabolic advantage” meaning that more weight loss may be achieved per calories consumed (versus the same amount of calories consumed from a standard high-carb meal plan).2
This is a very controversial subject since these findings somewhat violate the laws of thermodynamics. Since there is no consensus on what low-carb actually is (for some studies it’s a mere 5% of total calories and for others it’s defined as 45% of total caloric intake), the term smart-carb has become more popular.
Today, research is investigating the health benefits of low-moderate carb meal plans:
- Following a “smart-carb” diet in addition to exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity and assist in weight reduction in women with polycystic ovary syndrome.
- A Duke University study found that obese individuals with type 2 diabetes who ate a low-carb diet versus a low-glycemic diet experienced greater weight reduction and greater reduction in HgbA1C. In this same study, most of the subjects (95.2%) in the low-carb group were able to reduce or eliminate their diabetic medications compared to only (62%) in the low-glycemic group.3
- There also appears to be some variation in low-carb meal plans. A group of Swedish subjects showed greater benefits in waist circumference reduction and improved blood sugar control when following a diet based of meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs and nuts (paleo diet) when compared to a subjects who followed the Mediterranean diet.4
- The obvious concern with consuming a low-carb diet is the increased fat intake and potential increased risk for heart disease. Fortunately, studies are confirming that higher fat intake when associated with a low-carb diet may not be as big of a problem as once thought.
Low-carb meal plans may not always be the best, but choosing smart-carb lifestyles such as the Mediterranean and Paleo lifestyles are much more suitable for day to day living. Here are a few ways to smarten up your carb choices.
- Nix pretzels, crackers, chips and granola bars and opt for healthier carb and non-carb snack food choices such as fruits, vegetables, yogurt and nuts.
- Vary up your breakfast meal. Swap sugar-sweetened cereal and refined white bread for a veggie omelet, turkey sausage frittata or fruit with Greek yogurt.
- Serve vegetables with a side of vegetables. Many people state that they always have to have a starch with their dinner meals. Why not swap the rice and pasta for vegetable starches such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash or spaghetti squash?
- If choosing grains, consider whole grain choices such as oatmeal, quinoa or wild rice.
Remember, limiting carbs is not the only way for improved health. The mere reduction of processed foods in one’s diet can have positive health effects.
- American Heart Association. Vegetarian Diets. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Vegetarian-Diets_UCM_306032_Article.jsp
- Westman, E., et. Al. (2007). Low-carbohydrate nutrition and metabolism. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(2), 276-284. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/2/276.full.pdf+html?sid=ac06d160-abd0-4ba6-8a19-8b5560469446
- Westman, E.C., Yancy, W,S, Jr., Mavropoulos, J.C., Marquart, M. and McDuffie, J.R. (2008).The effect of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-glycemic index diet on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes. Nutrition and Metabolism, 5, 36. http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/5/1/36
- Lindeberg, S., Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., et al. (2007). A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia,50(9):1795-1807.