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The Skinny on the Low Carb Craze
As you walk through your average grocery store, food products screaming, “Low Carb, 0 grams of Carbs” brightly line the aisles. With the latest “carbophobia” sweeping into our food supply, it is quite hard not to notice the latest fad diet. But what exactly is a carbohydrate? What is the real deal on low carbohydrate diets? And do they actually help you lose weight?
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient that provide energy needed for our body and brain to function properly. The National Academies Institute of Medicine recommends carbohydrates to contribute approximately 45-65% of an adults daily calories. The other macronutrients, protein and fat contribute between 10-25% and 20-35% respectively.
Carbohydrates are classified into two groups simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars, are glucose (found in most plant foods), fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (table sugar), and lactose (milk sugar). Complex carbohydrates, also known as complex starches, are found in grains (rice and wheat), legumes (beans, lentils, chick peas), and tubers (potatoes and yams). After consuming a carbohydrate-containing food, it is digested and absorbed into the body. The liver converts all forms of carbohydrates from the food into glucose for the body to use.
A low carbohydrate diet is considered a diet where carbohydrates are severely restricted. These low-carb diets consist of approximately 5-15% carbohydrates, 55-60% fat, and 30% protein, a substantial departure from the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine. In principle, when dietary carbohydrates are limited, appetite can be suppressed. With less available energy, the body then draws on stored fat for fuel. Additionally, high carbohydrate diets cause higher insulin levels which increase fat storage. Restricting carbohydrates can help to decrease these levels and therefore decrease fat storage as well.
But losing weight by cutting carbohydrates may not be as great as it sounds. One of the biggest problems with low carbohydrate diets is the lack of balance. When carbohydrates are significantly decreased from the diet, entire food groups (i.e. fruit, milk/yogurt, starches) can be eliminated, resulting in the loss of important nutrients. Supplementing with a multivitamin may not solve this problem either; there are many benefits of obtaining vitamins and minerals from real foods that are still unknown and can not be replicated into a pill.
With less available energy in a low carbohydrate diet, the body breaks down fat for fuel resulting in the production of ketones. Ketones are acids that can build up in the blood and potentially lead to dangerously high levels, known as ketoacidosis. The overproduction of ketones can upset the chemical balance of the blood and poison the body.
To lose weight healthfully it is not necessary to restrict carbohydrates so severely. The key is to make the majority of your carbohydrate intake complex starches and low in fat. Go for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat or whole grain starches, and low fat dairy products. Carbohydrates are necessary to achieve a well balanced diet, so do not be afraid.