Clearing the Name of Carbs

By: Caroline Sullivan, M.S., R.D./L.D.liva

Carbohydrates, popularly known as carbs, have become the perceived enemy of most weight-conscious Americans. Many come to nutrition counseling with an intense fear of carbohydrates believing that carbs are out to sabotage their nutritional goals. If you type “carbs” into an internet search engine, the result will yield you several sound sources of information. Good luck finding them, however, hidden among infinitely more websites containing “low-carb info,” “low-carb recipes,” or “low carb diet tools”.

The big question is: Why the widespread fear of such an important food group?

In 1972 Dr. Robert Atkins published an innovative book entitled: Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution”. After experiencing personal weight loss on a low-carb diet, and subsequently helping patients lose weight on the same diet, Dr. Atkins created a weight loss fad that would eventually sweep the nation. Although it took over three decades to peak in popularity, the Atkins Diet gained widespread notoriety in the late 1990s. At the height of its popularity one in eleven North-American adults were on the diet. On the heels of Atkins was another highly popular carbohydrate-limiting plan, the South Beach Diet. The diets’ popularity was blamed for unprecedented declines in the sales of carbohydrate-heavy foods like pasta and rice (sales were down 8.2 and 4.6 percent, respectively, in 2003). The scientific community saw the results and followed suit with studies investigating the efficacy of the diets. Did they really work? Were carbs really the enemy?
It is true – people have lost weight on low-carb diets. With the intense focus on carbohydrates, the most crucial aspect has been overlooked: These diets are not only low-carb, but more importantly low-calorie. The element of any diet that most directly affects weight loss isn’t the lack of carbs (or any other food group), but the lowering of caloric intake, as weight loss is the result of a calorie deficit (meaning that a person is burning more calories than they consume).

There are several other reasons why these diets cause weight loss:

1. These diets demand the elimination of 1 to 2 food groups (grains and fruits), decreasing the amount of food choices, thus leading to a lowered calorie intake.
2. Carbohydrate in the body is stored along with water molecules. If there are no carbs in a diet, the body will utilize its stores. When the stores are released, there is also a release of a large amount of water, resulting in weight loss.
3. Protein and fat are very hunger-satisfying. It is much more difficult to over-eat fat and protein than it is to over-eat carbohydrates, thus limiting calories.
Hundreds of studies have been published comparing the differences between low-carb diets and low calorie diets. A comprehensive presentation of their findings would require a doctoral thesis (an unpleasant undertaking, I suspect, for both this author and the reader!). There is one common thread, however: All of these studies have been short term and weight loss is more correlated with caloric intake rather than the types of foods eaten. There are many health benefits of carbohydrates and it would be detrimental to one’s health to cut out this food group completely. Eating complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and fruits are part of a healthy balanced diet. Read on to see the truth behind many popular beliefs and some health benefits of carbohydrates.
1. Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel of the entire body. A lack of carbohydrates will leave one feeling sluggish and fatigued. It is also what our brain loves to run on!
2. Carbohydrates and sugar do not cause obesity, diabetes, or high cholesterol. Diets high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat have shown a significant improvement in heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cholesterol levels.
3. Carbohydrates are not fattening. Breads and grains typically have 0-1 gram of fat per serving.
4. Whole grains, which are complex carbohydrates, are excellent sources of fiber, important for regularity, disease prevention, and it helps lower cholesterol.
5. Complex carbohydrates also provide many important nutrients: thiamin, folic acid, iron, riboflavin and niacin.
Are carbs really the enemy? We would never expect our cars to function properly on anything but fuel, so why do we expect our bodies to run efficiently without carbs? The benefit of having carbohydrates in our daily diet far exceeds the benefit of cutting them out completely – so eat up and enjoy!