Mistakes People Make with Carbohydrates That Lead to Weight Gain

The poor carbohydrate! If it were a person, it would surely have an identity crisis by now. In the Seventies, it was portrayed in the weight loss/diet world as the devil itself. Carbohydrates were totally to blame for overweight problems. In the Eighties and Nineties, carbs exchanged their horns and tails for angelic halos. They could do no wrong. It was fat that was the bad guy. Now, carbohydrates are, once more, the favorite whipping boy of diet book bestsellers like The Zone, Dr. Atkins Diet, Protein Power and Sugar Busters which all blame carbohydrates for rising obesity levels.

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%) should come from these type of foods.

Unfortunately, many people misinterpret these recommendations, especially about the starchy and sugary carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables are not usually the problem. In fact, most people are not eating enough of them. So, in this article, the word carbohydrate will refer to starchy food like bread, pasta, rice and other grains.

In my line of work, I come across four basic mistakes people make about carbohydrates that cause them to gain weight. The first is the misguided idea that carbohydrates can be eaten in excess without having to worry about putting on weight. The second is not knowing how many servings they need or what a portion size really is. The third is not realizing that fat could be hiding in their carbohydrate choices. And the fourth mistake is not making a distinction between refined and unrefined carbohydrates.

Believing 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.

Eating too many servings and/or not knowing what a portion size is.
Very few people know how many servings of carbohydrates they should be eating, much less what makes up a serving size. The U.S. Food Pyramid, upon which all other ethnic food pyramids are based, says that we should be eating 6 to 11 servings of grain-based food. But people usually don't know how many servings are appropriate for them. They also don't read the fine print so they don't realize that the serving sizes are actually quite small. The Filipino Food Pyramid is more qualitative than quantitative (it states "eat most" for the grains/starch group and "eat more" for the fruits and vegetables) but it can also confuse people because they still have no clue how much exactly to eat.

So, people usually err on the higher end of the range and have more servings than they need. And even if they choose the right number of servings, their idea of a serving size is often way off the mark so, in effect, they are still eating too much.

How many servings of carbohydrates do you need?
One serving of cooked noodles, rice or cereal (oatmeal) is cup. But since very few of us make it a practice to carry a standard baking cup in our handbag or pocket, a visual or "eyeball" estimate is more realistic. A half-cup of rice or oatmeal looks like half a tennis ball while a half cup of noodles looks like a whole tennis ball (the noodles have more air space).

One serving is also equivalent to one slice of bread, one small bagel, one small hamburger roll, and one-ounce ready-to-eat cereal (eyeball estimate is also half a tennis ball).

My favorite nutritionist/ registered dietician, well-respected Sanirose Orbeta, told me over the phone that the one slice of bread mentioned by the creators of the U.S. Food pyramid was based on a typical American slice. In our Filipino setting, Orbeta says this is equivalent to two slices of our smaller-size bread or 3 small pan de sals or 2 medium pan de sals or 1 big pan de sal (monay style).

Six servings of carbohydrates are appropriate for a 1,600-calorie diet, nine servings for 2,200 calories and 11 servings for 2,800. How can you tell how many calories you need?

Orbeta recently told Jenina Alli of Prevention Magazine Philippines in the article "Snackin' Right, Pinoy Style" that the average built Filipino female needs about 1,900 calories while Filipino males need 2,100 calories to maintain their weight.

However, Orbeta says that Filipinas who need to lose weight should eat only 1,200 to 1,300 calories a day while Pinoy males should take 1,400 to 1,600 calories.

In practical terms, this means that if you are a female who needs to lose weight, you only need about four to five servings of carbohydrates a day. As an example, this is equivalent to 2 slices of bread at breakfast, 1 cup of rice at lunch, and 1 cup of rice at dinner (five servings).

If you are a male who needs to lose weight, you only need to add two more slices of bread or cup of rice to the example above to complete your six daily servings.

If your goal is to maintain your weight, adjust your number of carbohydrate servings accordingly. You will also need to make some adjustments if you do not fit into the "average Filipino build" for a male or female. Lessen the number of servings if you are exceptionally small or increase the number of servings if you are exceptionally big. Just remember to be conservative in your "adjustments". Don't use this as an excuse to eat more than you need.

Also, these recommendations may not apply to you if you are diabetic or insulin resistant. In this case, consult a registered dietician for the appropriate servings for you

Not realizing that there is "hidden fat" in some carbohydrate foods
Some people eat the right amount of servings and serving sizes but they don't realize that there is a lot of fat "hiding" in the carbohydrates they are eating. 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.

Not making a distinction between refined and unrefined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates are anything made with white flour or white sugar. Unrefined carbohydrates are food like whole wheat bread and brown or unpolished rice. 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. I can easily finish two cups of white rice but I can hardly go beyond one cup of brown rice without feeling like I have just swallowed a big stone.

If the majority of your starchy carbohydrates are from refined processed sources, 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.

Don't be afraid of eating carbohydrates
In spite of what the bestselling diet books are saying (remember that their popularity doesn't automatically mean they are right), there is no need to be afraid of eating carbohydrates. They are a necessary part of a balanced diet. Just keep in mind that anything eaten in excess will end up stored as body fat.

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