Do you remember the game of Telephone? One person whispers something into someone's ear, then that person whispers it to the next person in line, and on and on. The last person states aloud what he heard, then the person who began the round reveals what he originally said--and everyone laughs because invariably the messages are as dissimilar as "nuclear power reactor" and "naked pictures of Brad Pitt."
In a sense, that's what's happened with the "Zone" diet, based on Barry Sears' best-selling book, "Enter the Zone," (HarperCollins, 1995) in which he argues that America's excessive obesity rates can be traced to the consumption of too many carbohydrates.
Though the plan is infinitely more complicated (and not all that low in carbohydrates, with 40% of your calories still coming from carbs), it has been followed by a glut of even more extreme protein diets. Now the message has been Telephoned into what I call "the Chicken Breast Diet" because that's all people think they can eat.
What's frustrating is that the message has become that all carbohydrates are bad and all protein is good, which is about as nonsensical as saying that, because rain causes flooding, only sunshine is good.
The point is, we need a balance of nutrients--carbohydrates, proteins and fats--in our diets. They are the body's fuel, the only nutrients that can be metabolized for energy, with carbohydrates and fats as the primary energy sources. Protein is converted to energy only when the other two sources are unavailable; its more important function is the building and repairing of body tissues.
That's why people on sustained high-protein, low-calorie diets lose muscle mass, because when there is an inadequate consumption of carbohydrates and calories, the body is forced to select protein for fuel. When that happens, the protein is then unavailable for its primary function, resulting in not only lost muscle mass but an inability to rebuild that loss.
While the body can most readily convert carbohydrates into energy, all carbs are not created equal. Simple carbohydrates--found in refined sugar sources like juices, sodas and jelly beans--get into your bloodstream quickly and are metabolized quickly. Complex carbs--found in fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals--contain fiber and are digested and metabolized more slowly. Most diets ask us to avoid the simple carbohydrates.
On the Zone and its imitators, you're asked to forgo even the nutrient-dense carbohydrates like potatoes, brown rice, bread, corn, carrots, pastas, bananas and cereal. Barry Sears once said that he prefers ice cream to carrots as a snack.
Certainly there are those of us (like myself) who require more energy for our lifestyles and get more calories in the form of carbohydrates. I make space in my diet for both simple and complex carbohydrates, and balance them with both protein and fat. And I make sure I eat every three to four hours. That's what works best for me.
Maybe my metabolism is like that of Mexico's Tarahumara Indians, who live in the high plateaus of the Sierra Madre mountains. The Tarahumara follow a low-fat, high-carb diet whose primary foods are corn, beans, vegetables and fruits--all complex carbohydrates. And yet, they have virtually no heart disease, low body fat and excellent cholesterol levels. They are also among the world's best ultra-distance runners.
Some people, however, are better off with higher protein amounts and lower carbohydrates in their diet.
So how much protein, carbohydrates and fat should you be eating? The United States Dietary Guidelines suggest that the largest part of your diet's calories (58%) should be coming from complex carbohydrates, with the rest divided between protein and fat.
The truth is some people don't metabolize carbohydrates effectively and store them as fat. If you're already on a high-carbohydrate diet and are eating and exercising in a way that should promote weight loss, but you haven't seen results, or you don't feel energetic and healthy, then try adding more protein and subtracting some carbs, keeping each meal a balance of all the nutrients.
Keep track of how you feel. Are you content after eating, or are you still searching the cupboard for something? When you find the mix that gives you the most pleasure, the greatest satisfaction and has you feeling your most fit, you will have identified your optimum balance of carbohydrates and protein. And you won't have to play a game of Telephone that begins with chicken breast and ends in frustration.
Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.