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From Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 16 February 2005 Issue

Jane Snow

Go ahead, have some pasta. Atkins is out. Carbs are in.

America's fling with high-protein diets is finally waning, according to a Mintel market research report that found introductions of low-carbohydrate foods had slowed to a trickle by the end of 2004.

The coup de gras was delivered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Jan. 12, when it released new dietary guidelines confirming the importance of high-carbohydrate grains and debunking the idea that a particular combination of nutrients can make people thin. The only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

The eating plan recommended by the committee of scientists who revised the dietary guidelines is, as in previous guidelines, carbohydrate-based. About 45 percent to 50 percent of the calories consumed in a day by most adults should come from carbohydrates, the committee concluded.

So listen up, high-protein dieters: Carbs do not make you fat. They do not cause diabetes. They are not bad for you, as Atkins and other best-selling diet-book authors would have you believe.

In fact, research suggests some types of carbohydrate-rich foods may help you stay lean, think better and lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

``Long term, the studies show that people who keep off weight are people who eat a high-carbohydrate diet,'' said Joanne Slavin, a professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota who was asked to review the latest research on carbohydrates and whole grains for the dietary guidelines committee.

Low-carbohydrate diets may help obese people lower blood triglyceride levels, and in a short-term study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, reducing carbohydrates was shown to suppress the appetite and raise HDL (``good'' cholesterol) levels. However, no long-term studies have been conducted on the safety or effectiveness of the diets.

Most nutrition experts believe that eliminating or drastically reducing carbohydrates is a grave mistake. Carbohydrates are essential nutrients for the function of the brain and central nervous system, and are the most efficient energy source for the body.

``People who eat carbs feel better all day long,'' said Donna Skoda, a registered dietitian and director of community health programs for the Summit County Health Department.

The catch is that not all carbs are created equal. While candy bars and oat bran are both high-carbohydrate foods, they are not equally nutritious. Figuring out which carbs to eat and which to pass up can be confusing.

A theory popularized by some diet books is that eliminating carbohydrates that have a high glycemic rating will help curb hunger and help people lose weight.

The glycemic index rates carbohydrate-rich foods on how quickly they raise blood sugar levels. When blood sugar spikes, the pancreas releases insulin to corral the glucose and store it in the cells, where it eventually becomes fat if more calories are consumed than are expended.

The glycemic index may be a valuable tool for diabetics, but research is still in the early stages, Slavin said. There is no evidence that eating high-glycemic foods causes people to gain weight, she said. Any food eaten in excess, whether it's a steak or a bowl of pasta, will be stored in the body as fat.

``People want a way to evaluate carbohydrates, which is why (the glycemic index diet) is popular,'' Slavin said. ``Do not use the glycemic index to improve your diet, because you're not going to improve it.''

Slavin pointed out that Frosted Flakes have a lower glycemic score than regular corn flakes, but that doesn't mean they're more nutritious.

High-glycemic foods do not cause adult-onset diabetes, either, as some diet books claim. Obesity, not carbohydrates, causes adult-onset diabetes, Skoda said.

If the glycemic index is no help in sorting out carbohydrates, what about the standard categories of simple and complex carbohydrates? These categories can help untangle some of the confusion but not all of it.

Simple carbohydrates are found in candy, cakes, soda pop and other sugary foods. These carbohydrates are made up of just two or three molecules, and are easily converted to glucose by the body. Glucose is what the muscles use for energy.

Most complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to convert to glucose, so they make you feel full longer. They are found in such foods as bread, pasta, potatoes and beans.

Not all simple carbs are bad, though, nor are all complex carbs good. Such nutritious foods as fruits, some vegetables and milk technically are simple carbohydrates. And white bread is a complex carbohydrate, although it provides a fraction of the nutrition of whole-grain bread.

A better way to choose carbohydrates is by whether the foods are whole or processed, Slavin suggested. People should go for whole-grain breads, brown rice, whole-grain cereals, fresh or frozen vegetables and whole fruits. These foods are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.

The new dietary guidelines recommend that at least 3 ounces of grains -- or half of a day's recommended intake of six to 11 servings -- be whole grains. A slice of bread is about one ounce.

Whole-grain foods have significantly more fiber than refined grains. A one-half cup serving of brown rice has 3.4 grams of fiber compared to 0.1 gram in a serving of white rice, for example. A high-fiber diet may help prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

``The risk of coronary artery disease has been shown to be reduced by about 26 percent with regular consumption of whole grains,'' Skoda said.

Researchers also have evidence that a high-fiber diet can help prevent breast and colon cancers, and possibly cancer of the pancreas, stomach, rectum, uterus, mouth, throat, liver and thyroid, Skoda said.

To reap the health benefits, the National Cancer Institute recommends consuming 20 to 30 grams or more of fiber a day. Meat, the mainstay of high-protein diets, contains no fiber.

Shoppers will soon have an easier time identifying whole-grain foods in stores. Beginning this week, products rich in whole grains will be allowed to carry a whole-grain stamp designed by Oldways Preservation Trust in partnership with grain-food manufacturers. Oldways, a nonprofit Boston food issues think tank, campaigned for a prominent role for whole grains in the new dietary guidelines, Oldways president Dun Gifford said.

The stamps will designate whether a product contains 100 percent whole grains, is an excellent source of whole grains (16 grams per serving) or a good source (8 grams).

Gifford predicts that a flood of new whole-grain products will hit the market in the wake of the new dietary guidelines.

``There will be double or triple the number of products on the shelves that are whole grain,'' Gifford said.

If so, eating healthfully is about to get a whole lot easier.

Return to Animals in Print 16 February 2005 Issue
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