Warning: You Can Still Gain Weight on a Low-Carb Diet

You know a diet has become a cultural phenomenon when it influences the business decisions of the food industry. The high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet was the reigning diet for the last ten years and its impact was obvious in the proliferation of thousands of low-fat products.

Well, times are a-changing and a major revolution is going on in the American food industry. And where America goes, the rest of the Westernized world is sure to follow.

Supermarket aisles that used to be devoted to low-fat food products have transformed into low-carb diet sections. In California (where else?) a stand-alone store carrying only low-carb products opened last month. It has plans to open 5,000 branches. Convenience store giant 7-11 has jumped on the low-carb bandwagon with nearly 50 low-carb products.

Restaurant chains like TGI Friday's and Chili's are now offering low-carb selections in their menus. Not to be outdone, Burger King has a bunless Whopper, Subway has a low-carb wrap, while Carl Jr. has a lettuce-wrapped burger.

Snack food manufacturers have also gotten the hint that low-fat is a thing of the past and low-carb is the way of the future. Low-carb chips, cookies, and brownies made their entrance last year. To wash it all down, you can buy low-carb beers like Michelob Ultra and the soon to be launched Coors Aspen Edge.

Bread and pasta makers have seen the handwriting on the wall and are either already offering or are developing low-carb bread, pasta, bagels, and doughnuts.

The low-carb phenomenon can be traced directly to the success and popularity of the Atkins diet, which was created by the late Dr. Robert Atkins in the 70's but which only became a household word in the last five years.

The original Atkins diet is composed mainly of meat and green leafy vegetables. But judging from the amount of money spent on low-carb products ($15 billion last year and up to $30 billion this year, according to LowCarbiz, a trade newsletter), people cannot take being deprived of bread and pasta for long and are in desperate search for carb substitutes so they can have their cake and eat it too.

How do you produce a low-carb product?
To reduce the carbohydrate content of a high-carbohydrate product like a muffin, manufacturers substitute flour made from almonds or soy for wheat flour and use a sugar substitute like Splenda, aspartame, or some other sweetener that has almost zero calories instead of sugars like fructose and glucose.

As to be expected, taste and texture are compromised while manufacturing expenses rise producing a product that may be low in carbohydrates but also low in taste and high in cost. What it may not be so low in is calories. When something is taken out, the substitute is not always lower in calories. This is what happened to many low-fat products. They were low in fat but high in carbohydrates and sugar. Low-carb products may be low in carbs but high in fat and protein.

Confusion over low-carb terms
A creative way to produce a low-carb product is to manipulate the definition of low-carb. Since this is all new territory, anything goes. Currently, there are no government regulations on the standardization of the term "low-carb".

Pick up any processed food product and the mandatory nutrition label behind will list the amount of "total carbohydrates" in grams. Many low-carb food manufacturers use a term called "net carbs", which can be much lower than the actual total carbohydrates. Net carbs is the amount derived after subtracting carbohydrate grams from fiber and sugar alcohols in the product. They reason that carbohydrates from fiber and sugar alcohols do not make blood sugar levels spike as quickly and as high as carbohydrates from starch and simple sugars like fructose and glucose and therefore, won't make you gain weight. So, a product could have a total carbohydrate count of 22 grams but will have only two net carb grams. Guess which figure is printed prominently in the front label? Naturally, the lower figure. Guess which product you are more likely to buy and consume more of if you are a low-carb dieter? Naturally, the product that claims to have fewer carbohydrates.

Meanwhile, you may be tempted to eat more than you should thinking you are only consuming two net carb grams (8 calories) instead of 22 grams (88 calories).

To add to the confusion, terms like effective carbs, fit carbs, impact carbs, and net-effective carbs are also used.

Whether this is manipulating the truth or not will only be settled after the government steps in to regulate this new industry.

How to gain weight on a low-carb diet
When the low-fat diet was king, people ate low-fat products with abandon believing they would not gain weight. Health authorities agree that this belief and behavior partly contributed to the rise in obesity levels and eventually triggered massive disillusionment with low-fat dieting.

With low-carb products now dominating the market, experts are predicting that people will begin to gain weight in spite of eating a low-carb diet or "low-carbing" (a verb that is gaining in usage) since they are paying little attention to the total amount of calories they are eating.

Actually, that prediction is already coming true. According to an article in USA Today by Nancy Hellmich, "Experts staffing the Atkins customer information service are getting calls and questions online from disappointed dieters who can't understand why they aren't losing weight. The problem: Dieters are eating too many of these new low-carb protein bars, muffins and brownie mixes, which are low in carbohydrates but often high in calories."

Hellmich reports that the clinic of Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of "The South Beach Diet" has its share of patients who "have gotten tripped up by eating too many low-carb, high-calorie products". Marie Almon, a registered dietician who works for Agatston, told Hellmich that "one woman on the diet was treating herself twice a day to a piece of low-carb cheesecake and she was wondering why she was gaining weight"

Calories still count
No matter which way you look at it and no matter which diet format you follow, whether low-fat or low-carb, when it comes to weight loss, calories still matter. So, when low-carb products start appearing on local supermarket shelves, don't say you weren't warned. Use your common sense and look at how many calories you will actually be eating.

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