Carbohydrate Bashing: A
Passionate PastimeBy Nancy Clark, MS, RD - author of
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook
As a nutrition writer, I rarely get much
feedback from my readers. But recently, I got bombarded with responses to
an article I wrote about carbohydrates.
Dr. Atkins' fans turned out in force to bash
carbohydrates and praise protein. Clearly, I failed to clarify the carbohydrate
confusion that abounds among today's dieters. Here is further information about
this complex topic.
Reader's comment: "The obesity
epidemic coincided with the advent of the high carb, low fat American Diet.
Plain and simple, obesity is caused by overconsumption of carbs ..."
My response: Obesity is a very
complex problem, related not just to food but rather to a person's lifestyle.
Hence, we need to look at the whole picture, not just carbs.
Exercise is one important part of the
obesity picture. Our society lacks sidewalks for walking to school, paths for
biking to work, safe neighborhoods for kids to play outside. We use too many
escalators, too many ride-on lawn mowers, and watch too much TV. This abundance
of inactivity in the American lifestyle has caught up with adults and kids
Today's family lifestyle is also taking its
toll. Working parents who are tired, stressed and lack time to cook wholesome
meals appreciate the convenience of take-out meals and the comfort of mindless
eating in front of the TV. Big portions add (momentary) pleasure; food can all
too easily become a (fattening) de-stresser.
Reader's comment: "Most fat people
believe they are overweight because they are weak-willed and eat chocolates.
Actually, they are overweight because they eat pasta, rice and bread. These
carbs create an insulin reaction that drives their blood sugar low and forces
them to eat more ..."
My response: Most fat people are
overweight because they eat more calories than they burn off. People who eat
pasta, rice and potatoes are not destined to gain weight.
That is, if carbs caused obesity, then why
are rice-eating Asians (who live in their native country) not fat? Because they
get plenty of exercise in their daily lives! Why are pasta-eating marathoners
not fat? Because they also get plenty of exercise.
Activity, not carbohydrate intake, makes a
critical difference between obesity and health.
Reader's comment: "I have had
success on the Atkins Diet and I NEVER could have lost fat with the low-fat
approach. My blood sugar swings so wildly on a high carb diet that there was no
way I could lose weight. That's biology ..."
My response: Yes, each person is
metabolically unique and we need to honor and respect differences in reactions
to foods. For example, some people are sensitive to caffeine and prefer to
avoid evening coffee; others can drink coffee at night and sleep just fine.
Some people can handle three beers; others get drunk on half a can. And some
people can enjoy candy bars and soda pop; others feel a suger-surge followed by
But does this mean that coffee, alcohol and
sugars are evil? No.
Before anyone bashes the general category of
"carbs," I recommend they separate carbs into positive and negative
- Carbs with fiber whole-grain
bread, bran cereal, oatmeal, apples, broccoli and other wholesome fruits,
vegetables and unrefined grain foods are an important part of a balanced diet.
They offer an assortment of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that protect
your health. They rarely cause "sugar crashes."
- Refined carbs, such as white
flour and white sugar, are the main culprits that trigger a strong insulin
response. Yet eating refined carbs with protein and fat buffers their insulin
response. That is, if you put peanut butter (instead of jelly) on a piece of
white toast, you'll get less of a rise in blood sugar. Hence, carb-bashers
should look at the whole diet, not just a single food.
Reader's comment: "Americans
are fatter than ever because nutritionists have told them to eat more carbs and
cut the fat. This makes logical sense, but in reality, doesn't work."
My response: When the "cut the
fat" movement started, the nutrition messages not only failed to acknowledge
the benefits of dietary fat (satiety, flavor) but also put too little focus on
the type of fat.
Just as we need to look at the kinds of
carbs we eat (fruits, vegetables and whole grains vs. refined sugar and flour),
we also need to look at the kinds of fat we eat. We now know more about the
health benefits of fats from plants (olive oil, canola oil, walnuts, flaxseed)
and fish (tuna, swordfish, salmon, lox).
These plant and fish oils are associated
with a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, as compared to diets abundant
with animal fats (greasy burgers, bacon, many fast food meals).
Today's nutrition message should be "cut
the bad fat": doughnuts, Big Macs, big cookies. But we can and should enjoy the
enhanced flavor and satiety that comes with having some (health-protective)
oils, seeds and nuts in the diet. Almonds and peanuts are no longer taboo.
Reader's comment: "The Atkins
Diet advocates eating protein at each meal. This gives a person a chance to
control his appetite. My typical diet is eggs for breakfast, then chicken
breast, salad and lots of steamed veggies. Low carb, low fat, high protein
My response: True. A high-protein
diet need not be a high (saturated) fat diet. And if you balance the protein
with colorful salads (topped with chick peas and kidney beans), abundant
steamed vegetables, and fruit for dessert, you can consume muscle-fueling carbs
that are unlikely to trigger the desire to eat "more."
Yet my concern as a sports nutritionist
is that serious athletes who avoid bread, rice, pasta and other dinner starches
commonly fail to consume adequate carbs to fully fuel their muscles. This hurts
their performance; they lack stamina and endurance.
The good news is, most active people can
metabolize carbs just fine. That is, when an athlete eats, let's say, jelly
beans, the body quickly and easily transports that sugar into the muscles.
But when an unfit person eats jelly
beans, he or she requires more insulin to do the same job. This high amount of
insulin triggers problems with hunger, food, weight, health.
Hence exercising, not avoiding carbs, is
the best weapon in the war against obesity.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, nutritionist at
SportsMedicine Associates (617-739-2003) in Brookline MA.
Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook