Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Carb?

Many people these days have “carbohydrate phobia”. I am not surprised because in the last ten years there has been an onslaught of diet books that blame carbohydrates for causing insulin resistance, which in turn they say causes obesity. Books like “The New Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution”, “Sugar Busters”, “Carbohydrate Addict”, “Protein Power” and “The Zone Diet” have all ganged up on the hapless carbohydrate. This is actually nothing new because in the Seventies the carbohydrate was the favourite whipping boy of the diet world. Fat was the reigning “bad guy” in the Eighties. In the Nineties, the pendulum has swung back to the carbohydrate being the scapegoat again. Hopefully, in the 21st century, the blame will fall where it rightly belongs – on too many calories coming in and not enough going out. That’s right, the real culprit of excess weight is eating more and moving less. Dr. Gerard Reaven agrees.

Reaven is a research endocrinologist whose studies are mentioned by many of the anti-carbohydrate books as proof that carbohydrates and insulin resistance are to blame for the rising levels of obesity. What is ironic is that Reaven does not agree with the anti-carb diet gurus.

In an interview with Nutrition Action Health Letter in 1996, Reaven said, “There are so many studies showing that if you decrease calories, people lose weight, and it doesn't matter if you do it by cutting fat, protein, or carbohydrate. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie."

He added, “Carbs don’t make you fat, and insulin doesn’t make you fat, as the books claim. Calories make you fat. It’s like a bankbook. It’s a matter of how much you put in and how much you take out. The more you eat and the fewer calories you burn up, the heavier you’ll get. The law of thermodynamics, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been repealed recently.”

Reaven does not believe that insulin resistance causes obesity. He says, “Years ago, we put people with different degrees of insulin resistance on dramatically different diets – in one study, carbohydrates were either 85 or 17 percent of the calories. The only thing that affected their weight was how many calories they ate. More recently, we’ve published long-term studies showing that weight gain is unrelated to how insulin-resistant people were when the studies began. And weight loss with low-calorie diets is also unrelated to the degree of insulin resistance. So there’s not one shred of evidence that insulin resistance causes obesity”.

He further explains, “If you think about it, the notion that insulin resistance causes obesity is unreasonable. Insulin resistance means that insulin isn’t acting correctly. So if you don’t have enough insulin or if your cells aren’t responding to insulin, you can’t deposit glucose into cells. If anything, you would lose weight.”

Weight loss research of many years still indicates that the safest, healthiest and most effective way to lose weight is to cut down on excess dietary fat while concentrating on grains, fruits and vegetables as the main component of the diet. The Food Pyramid was designed with these food groups at the bottom to symbolize that the majority of calories (55 to 60 percent) should come from these types of food.

Unfortunately, many people misinterpret these recommendations and find that they have grown fatter on a low-fat diet. Here are some of the mistakes they make.

They believe that fat-free means calorie free
Having been told that they need to cut down on excess fat in their diet, many people assume that since carbohydrates are virtually fat-free, they can eat as much of them as they want and not gain a pound. In other words, people often think that fat-free means calorie-free. Therefore, they rationalize that having that second or third serving of rice doesn’t count since rice is essentially devoid of fat. They also apply this line of reasoning to bread, pasta and all sorts of cookies, cakes, and crackers as long as they are advertised as being non-fat products. The end result is that they eat more than they need. What the body doesn’t need, it stores away for future use. That’s how a heaping bowl of pasta ends up as body fat around your abdomen, hips and thighs. Don’t blame the pasta per se; blame the amount of pasta you eat.

Not realizing that fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates too
The recommendation that 55 to 60 percent of one’s daily diet should be composed of carbohydrates makes many people think that the majority of the food they eat should be composed of rice, bread, pasta, cereal, and other bakery goods. Not true. They forget that fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates too. Only one- third of the 55 to 60 percent carbohydrate recommendation should come from starchy carbohydrates like rice. Two-thirds should be from fruits and vegetables.

Funnily enough, many high-protein diet advocates don’t realize this either. So you will hear them make statements like “I only eat protein, fruits and vegetables. I don’t eat carbohydrates.” Well, surprise, surprise, but they are eating carbs without their realizing it.

They don’t make a distinction between refined and unrefined carbohydrates
There is hardly any difference in calories between a refined carbohydrate like white rice and an unrefined carbohydrate like brown rice but there is a big difference in fiber content. Food that is high in fiber fills you up faster than food stripped of fiber. If the majority of your starchy carbohydrates are from refined processed sources like white bread, white pasta, and low-fat but high-sugar products you are probably eating more than you need and you are depriving yourself unnecessarily of the fiber, vitamins and minerals that have been stripped away. Not realizing that there is hidden fat in some carbohydrate foods. A good example is pasta with Alfredo sauce because this cream based sauce is loaded with fat. Fat is not automatically fattening in itself but since it contains more calories per gram (nine calories compared to four for protein or carbohydrates), small amounts can quickly build up to more calories than you need. Other examples of carbohydrate foods with hidden fats are croissants, doughnuts, French fries, and oil-popped popcorn. I remember one client who said she only had two small pan de sals for breakfast. She forgot to mention that sandwiched in between each pan de sal was one big slice of butter.

So just like the three little pigs did not have to be afraid of the big bad wolf, you don’t have to be afraid of carbohydrates. Eat the right kind (more fruits and vegetables, more unrefined carbs than refined) and in the right quantities and you won’t become the fourth little pig.


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