Low-carb Dieters Should Not Abandon Nutritional Balance

It’s a question of balance.


Going into this month’s examination of the low-carbohydrate diet craze — and it has become a craze, one that restaurants and food manufacturers have latched onto with a fervor — we expected that doctors and dieticians might scornfully downplay the popularity of diet plans such as Atkins and South Beach.

But they don’t — not completely, anyway, simply because medical evidence seems to suggest that the diets have some merit, and many of its adherents do lose weight (see cover story). The science that low-carb diets are based upon, which involve the body’s production of insulin and that agent’s fat-storing capabilities, is also generally accepted, at least in theory.

But doctors do have two concerns. One is that there is, as yet, no broad-based evidence that low-carb diets are effective and safe in the long term. In fact, one study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that there’s no real difference between the result of a low-carbohydrate plan and a traditional diet after one year.

The other concern is one of dietary balance, and this is the area at which dieticians are looking most carefully, even as dieters continue to lose weight by cutting out the bread, french fries, and alcohol. After all, carbohydrates aid in digestion, and they also contain cancer-preventing antioxidants, to name a couple of benefits.

But all diets, no matter what kinds of food they emphasize or restrict, must come back to reduced calorie intake, doctors say — and a little exercise to burn off those calories doesn’t hurt.

Barbara Struempler, a nutritionist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, is one professional who recognizes that low-carb dieters do often lose weight — but it’s mainly a function of carefully watching their food intake and lowering the number of calories they consume.

“People really need to realize how little food it takes to pack in the calories, and how hard it is to work those calories off,” she said. “Most people can eat 20 peanuts — a handful — in about 20 seconds. Those peanuts won’t fill you up and won’t satisfy you, but you’ve consumed 100 calories.

“It took only 20 seconds to consume those 100 calories,” she continued, “but you’ll have to walk a mile to burn them off — and that’s probably about 12 to 15 minutes for most people.”

The problem is, many people believe a diet can be a magic bullet to decrease their weight, and that they don’t need to adjust their activity in combination. That perception, combined with the low adherence rates common to most attempted diets, helps explains why so many Americans continue to be frustrated with their attempts to shed the excess pounds.

The super-sized meals now so popular at restaurants don’t help; instead, they help cultivate a culture of ‘more’ that can also creep into eating habits at home.
The low-carb craze aside, the traditional food pyramid promoted by the U.S. government, can be a more effective means of controlling weight, simply because it stresses balance.

As Struempler points out, if a dieter stays within the recommended serving sizes — say, a half-cup of soup or 3 ounces of lean chicken — he or she will lose weight, even though the daily diet includes about 30{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} fat, 10{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 15{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} protein, and 55{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 60{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} carbohydrates. The trick is stressing complex carbs, such as whole grains and fruits, over simple carbs, such as those found in candy and soft drinks.

A diet rich in carbs that actually works? Yes, it is possible — but only by watching calories and staying active. That’s not as glamorous as a quick-fix fad, but it’s a strategy that has stood the test of time.