Questions about the recommended carbohydrate content of diets continues to swirl. Are carbs good, bad or indifferent? Should they form the basis of your diet, as the government's Food Pyramid suggests, or should they be relegated to the fringes. Are there good carbs and bad carbs? Is the term "net carbs" misleading? Who should you believe - the government or the diet gurus?
It's important to understand the difference between programs geared toward weight loss and those intended to maintain a healthy weight. There are still major differences among the mavens, but there are also large areas of agreement. For example, the health benefits of drinking plenty of water and exercising regularly are undisputed.
Most programs urge you to avoid products with added sugar, refined flours, or hydrogenated oils and any heavily processed foods.
Even so, there's a confusing amount of contradictory advice. The latest research severely challenges the government's recommended grain-based diet, along with the once widely-accepted nutritional wisdom of the low-calorie, low-fat diet endorsed by the likes of the American Heart Association.
The government's guidelines, updated in 2000, are presented in the form of a pyramid, the foundation based on a recommended six to 11 servings of grain-based foods daily. The layers then offer fruits and vegetables as the next-best ingredients, with limited amounts of proteins, fats and oils.
Its recommended total carb intake is 300 grams daily for people on a 2,000 calorie diet with 25 grams fiber, which would result in 275 net carbs. On a 2,500-calorie diet, it allows for 375 grams carbs and 30 grams fiber, for a count of 345 net carbs. It recommends choosing whole grains and minimally processed foods that are high in fiber. And it emphasizes the importance of limiting portion sizes. When it comes to fats, it makes saturated fats the least desirable.
"In" foods and beverages: High-fiber pasta, bread, bagels, cereals and grains; fruits, vegetables, reduced-fat and fat-free dairy, soy, lean meat.
"Out" foods and beverages: Oils, fats, sweets.
By contrast, two of the country's most popular weight-loss programs share in the medically-backed philosophy that the sugar content in carbohydrates is responsible for insulin malfunction, or "insulin resistance syndrome." This causes cravings that result in overeating starchy foods which, in turn, leads to weight gain.
Both the Atkins Diet, developed by Dr. Robert C. Atkins, and The South Beach Diet, developed by Dr. Arthur Agatson, advocate the severe restriction of carbohydrate intake - and the complete avoidance of breads, rice and pasta -for the first two weeks in order to create healthy blood sugar levels. From this point, as dieters move toward a weight-maintenance diet, the two doctor-nutritionists diverge on the position of carbohydrates and fat in the diet.
The Atkins Nutritional Approach: The phenomenally popular weight-loss program devised by Atkins points to carbohydrate consumption, particularly from refined grains, as the major culprit in the obesity epidemic.
There are four phases to the Atkins diet: a minimum 2-week (up to several months) induction phase in which carbohydrates are severely restricted (20 grams net carbs daily or 10 percent calories from specific vegetable sources) but there is almost unlimited access to high-protein, high-fat foods, such as red meats, eggs and full-fat dairy.
In the second phase, when weight loss is still desired, the dieter increases the net carb intake gradually on a weekly basis until weight loss ceases. At this point, "The Atkins Essentials" notes: "You should have discovered your own personal carbohydrate threshold" or the number of daily grams of net carbs you can consume and still lose weight. For most people, this falls between 40 and 60 grams of net carbs daily.
The gradual addition of carbs continues through the third - or pre-maintenance - phase.
The fourth stage, or lifetime maintenance, suggests that most people can maintain their ideal weight on a diet that includes between 45 and 100 grams net carbs daily.
"In" foods and beverages: Steak, bacon, full-fat cheese, butter, cream, eggs, lettuce, celery, nuts, asparagus, cauliflower, most vegetables, olives, avocado, water, decaffeinated drinks, diet sodas, artificial sweeteners; multi-vitamin supplement without iron. Limited foods: Whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables.
"Out" foods and beverages: Many fruits, breads, bagels, pastas, flour, sugar, milk, yogurt, starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes), margarine, cottage cheese, reduced-fat and low-calorie foods, sodas, coffee, alcohol, fruit juices.
The South Beach Diet started as heart-healthy eating for cardiologist Agatson's patients and evolved into a three-stage weight loss and maintenance plan for all. Like the Atkins plan, it starts with a total prohibition on grains, fruits, and a strictly limited carbohydrate intake for two weeks. While Atkins cautions consumers to find their own "carbohydrate threshold," South Beach uses the glycemic index for foods to guide consumers in their choices of "good carbs."
The second phase, geared to gradual weight loss, allows the re-introduction of some favorite foods.
The third phase, lifetime maintenance, does not prohibit any foods. It even allows alcohol consumption. Agatson also diverges from Atkins on the subject of fats. While Atkins condones the consumption of saturated fats, Agatson recommends the use of the more heart-friendly mono- or poly-unsaturated fats.
"In" foods and beverages: Eggs; whole-grain or high-fiber foods; lean meats, chicken, fish, cheese, vegetables, salads, low-fat dairy, coffee and tea, wine, artificial sweeteners, mono or polyunsaturated fats, nuts, some fruits.
"Out" foods and beverages: White flour, sugar, baked potatoes, bananas, fruit juices.
Prue Salasky can be reached at 247-4784 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org