Nutrition advice tends to be complicated and contradictory, making simple answers to the question, “What should I eat?” anything but simple (but you still need to do it!). This is particularly true when it comes to carbohydrates. On one hand, current recommendations call for carbohydrates to be the major part of your diet. On the other hand, low-carbohydrate diets are at odds with these recommendations but are still very popular.
For example, the Atkins diet restricts all carbohydrates, including refined grains and sugars. The Paleolithic diet emphasizes minimally processed foods that may have been consumed by our ancient ancestors including lean meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables while restricting the consumption of grains and added sugars. Both have been shown to promote weight loss better than traditional low-fat diets.
Proponents of low-carbohydrate diets claim that restricting carbohydrates promotes fat loss and eating carbohydrates leads to fat storage and weight gain. It is also likely that people who follow low-carbohydrate diets find them easier to stick to than other diets, so they may actually end up eating fewer calories.
But the problem may not be carbohydrates in general, it might be eating too few of the right carbohydrates. Given that September is Whole Grains Month, this seems like a good time to explore the benefits of going smart-carb instead of low-carb. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Sources of carbohydrates include whole grains (such as whole wheat bread), refined grains (white bread), and sugars. Both refined grains and sugars tend to raise blood glucose rapidly, called the glycemic index, which leads to an increase in certain hormones, including insulin. Insulin stimulates the uptake of nutrients into cells, including the storage of fat in adipose tissue. This is one reason why carbohydrates are linked to fat gain and why restricting carbohydrates leads to fat loss.
But carbohydrates from whole grains don’t raise either blood glucose or insulin as much. This “low and slow” response has several benefits, including improved blood glucose regulation, lower triglycerides, and, potentially, reduced fat storage. For these reasons, complex carbohydrates from whole grains are called “good carbs,” in contrast to refined grains and sugars, known as “bad carbs.”
Considering that the typical American diet contains too much carbohydrate from sugars and refined grains and not enough whole grains, restricting carbohydrates may have some benefits. But there is another approach: be smart about your carbohydrate choices. Instead of cutting out all carbohydrates, focus on reducing refined grains and sugars and emphasizing whole grains.
You can meet this goal by limiting your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, and refined grains while increasing your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that are high in fiber. When comparing food labels, look for foods that contain whole grains (the first ingredient should be something like “whole wheat flour”) and higher levels of fiber. But be aware that some foods, like many breakfast cereals, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar. The best advice is to get the majority of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods.
Something to keep in mind is that although low-carbohydrate diets are associated with weight loss and good health, they are not the only way to achieve these benefits. Indeed, people who are considered to be fit and healthy have a wide range of eating patterns, from vegetarian and low-fat diets to extreme low-carbohydrate diets and everything in between. The one factor they have in common is that they are active. It may be that regular exercise is just as important as what you eat when it comes to promoting health.
Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
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