Tag Archives: whole grains

Forget about low-carb, go smart carb.

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.

Food grains

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.

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When it comes to making good food choices, knowledge is power.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about making smart food choices and how the nutrition information we are provided with can complicate that process.

Making smart decisions about what you eat is an important step in losing weight, feeling better, and preventing and treating a host of health conditions. But doing so requires that you have the knowledge to make those healthy decisions. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good education in nutrition, forcing them to rely on information provided to them.

Some of this information comes from reputable sources and is based on research and experience. More often, though, nutrition information is provided by food manufacturers whose interests may not be consistent with providing smart recommendations. The end result is that consumers (that’s us) may not understand the information they get or know how to use it to make healthy choices.

A good example is the health claims about whole grains found on many food packages, including breakfast cereals. “A good source of whole grains,” is a common claim. Most people would reasonably interpret as a sign that the food inside is healthy, or at least is healthier than similar foods that don’t contain whole grains.

These types of claims are allowed by the FDA, but they refer only to what is in the food, not whether it is healthy or not. Many of the foods bearing this claim probably are healthy choices, but this isn’t always the case.

For example, Lucky Charms cereal contains whole grains. In fact, whole grains are the first ingredient, as the claim on the box indicates. Sounds good, right? But, when you read the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box you will find that the second ingredient is marshmallows! Does that sound like a healthy breakfast? (Hint: It’s not!)

Lucky_Charms package


This is the problem. If you are like most people, you won’t take the time to read the ingredients or the nutrition information on the back of the package. And even if you do, you may find that information to be confusing. Even if you wanted to make healthy choices, you might not have the knowledge to interpret and apply the available nutrition information.

This general lack of knowledge we have about nutrition has led to situations in which some foods are restricted or banned. Recently, the city of Berkeley, California voted to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in an effort to keep people from consuming too much sugar and too many calories.

This effort, and others like it, have contributed to a vigorous debate about personal choice and freedom for people to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink. One argument against these types of restrictions is that if people have the nutrition information about soda (or any other food) they can make informed choices.

This is a nice idea, but it simply isn’t fair to expect people to make good decisions if the information isn’t available or is not easy to understand. Worse, misleading information can lead to making bad decisions.

Help may be on the way. The FDA is working on a redesigned Nutrition Facts panel that should help us make better food choices. In particular, the amount of sugar added to foods will be listed. This change alone will help identify foods that may appear to be healthy, like Lucky Charms which contain whole grains, but are actually high in added sugar. Additional changes include more realistic serving sizes and better information about fat content.

It is unclear when the updated nutrition facts panel will be implemented. In the meantime, do your best to read labels and use common sense as your guide: The addition of marshmallows does not make any food any healthier, no matter how much whole grain it contains!