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Your Gym's April Newsletter

YOUR GYM NEWS

April 3, 2004
Carbs ?

Questioning your carbs? The explosion of low-carbohydrate products and even special "Atkins-approved" menus at grocery stores and restaurants is enough to make even an Italian think twice about pasta. Nearly 30 million Americans are now counting their carbs thanks to the popularity of diets like Atkins, South Beach, and the Zone. But millions more are also becoming "carb aware" or even fearful of carbohydrates and cutting back on carbs -- not because they want to lose weight, but because they think it's the healthy thing to do. But are carbs something the average person should be concerned about? Low-Carb Doesn't Mean Low-Cal The rising popularity of low-carb products has manufacturers scrambling to meet the demand. In fact, more than 400 businesses recently gathered for the nation's first Low-Carb Summit in Denver to discuss ways to capitalize on the low-carb craze. But nutritionists say the marketing of low-carb products is way ahead of the science, and it's giving carbohydrates a bad reputation that they don't deserve. "Low-carb has become new fat-free and the new 'health' label," says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, "and it's just as inappropriate as it was to think of fat-free as a health label because it doesn't tell the whole picture." To add to the confusion, there is no legal definition of what "low-carb" means, according to the FDA. Any food or beverage product that says "low-carb" on the label is technically breaking the law, but the FDA has generally only issued a warning letter to offenders. Therefore, any definition of low-, reduced-, or net carb is entirely up to the manufacturer. Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, says that creates a buyer-beware system when it comes to products that tout themselves as low-carb. "Manufacturers are using this terminology, and it really doesn't mean anything," says Zelman. But one thing is clear: low-carb doesn't mean low calorie. Carbohydrates and protein each contain about 4 calories per gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram. That means a blue cheese-topped steak, one of the offerings on T.G.I. Friday's Atkins-Approved menu, is still going to pack more fat and calories than a grilled chicken sandwich from the regular menu. Ayoob says he is also concerned that the Atkins name has been sold and licensed and has become a brand. "I have some concerns when they come out saying this and that, and the truth is they have a huge monetary stake in their products and licenses doing well," says Ayoob. Although short-term studies have shown that low-carb diets may help people lose weight, the safety and effectiveness of these diets has not been proven over the long term. But experts say many long-term studies have shown that a diet high in saturated fats can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. In contrast, a well-rounded diet, such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, that includes carbohydrates as well as lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and a bounty of fruits and vegetables has been proven to help lower blood pressure and heart disease risks. "Weight management is one thing, and heart health is another thing," says Ayoob, who is also associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "What may help you to lose some weight may not be healthful for your heart." Nutritionists say the real issue isn't whether a food is low-carb, it's whether or not it's low-carb and high in saturated fat. Foods can be high in fat and be healthful, in moderation of course. For example, nuts are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants. But foods marketed as low-carb may often contain high levels of saturated fat and calories, which is why it's important to read the label when comparing low-carb vs. regular foods. "If a low-carb product is higher in saturated fat, and they're thinking that they're going to get healthier, they may be wrong," says Ayoob. Get Carb-Smart Zelman says that if people want to eat healthier, there are better ways than ordering a bunless burger. Instead, she says people should gradually adopt changes in their diets that will improve the quality of carbohydrates they're eating. Research shows Americans have increased their carb consumption in recent years, but Ayoob says they're not eating the right kind of carbohydrates. "They're not eating a lot more fruit. They're eating a lot more liquid calories, such as sweet juice-like drinks and sodas," says Ayoob. Rather than cutting carbs across the board, Ayoob and Zelman say a more healthful goal is to increase the "good" or complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and cut back on "bad" or simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and processed grains. Some steps to achieve that goal include: Limit candy, cookies, muffins, and sweetened drinks that are often not only high in sugar but also often high in artery-clogging trans fats. Trade a simple carbohydrate for a complex one whenever possible, such as switching from white to whole-grain wheat bread. Control portion sizes. If you're having pasta, load it up with a low-fat sauce and vegetables rather than making the pasta the centerpiece of the meal. Like any other trend, experts predict that the low-carb craze will eventually die out and go the way of the fat-free cookie. In the meantime, the same old boring nutritional advice applies: Eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods rather than eliminates entire food groups, and if you're trying to lose weight, cut the calories across the board. "We've gone to the extremes, and now we have to go to the more moderate area," says Ayoob. "It may be less sexy, but it's probably healthier" When it comes to health, we really are looking at overall diet." If you've been following the latest U.S. diet fads, that isn't what you'd expect. But the data come from an intensive, four-nation study of more than 4,000 men and women age 40 to 59. The study was based on food diaries kept by people in the U.S., U.K., Japan, and China. Study leader Linda Van Horn, PhD, of Northwestern University, presented the findings at the 44th American Heart Association Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, held this week in San Francisco. "Without exception, a high-complex-carbohydrate, high-vegetable-protein diet is associated with low body mass," Van Horn said in a news conference. "High-protein diets were associated with higher body weight." Don't be misled. The high-carb diet that's keeping the pounds off is full of high-fiber vegetables, not french fries. "The point we are trying to make is that what we consider desirable carbohydrates are complex, or high-fiber-containing carbohydrates: whole grains, fruits, and vegetables -- not doughnuts or even polished rice," Van Horn said. "We are looking at legumes and vegetables that offer fiber as well as protein. We're not talking about refined carbohydrates, commonly known as sugar." Not surprisingly, people who exercised more also tended to be less heavy. This was true even though they tended to consume more calories. What Are Americans Eating? In another conference presentation, Mayo Clinic researcher Randal J. Thomas, MD, reported the results of a study of what people in Olmstead County, Minn., are eating. The researchers polled 1,200 county residents every year from 1999 to 2003. From 1999 to 2000, they found, people's diets got better in terms of eating fewer high-fat foods and in daily cholesterol intake. But in 2001 and 2002, reported diets got worse and worse. The culprit? Thomas suspects it was the low-carb, high-fat diets that became increasingly popular in that time period. "We don't have specific data, but until 2001 there was a trend to improve, then a trend upward for fats and cholesterol. This correlates with popularity of these plans," Thomas said in a news conference. "It is pretty clear from marketing data that over the past two years there have been significant trends toward more fat intake in the diet. If that is true, there are rough times ahead in terms of disease risk." Thomas refused to name any specific diet plan. He said that decreasing calories and cutting back on simple carbohydrates is a great idea. But any plan that increases the amount of saturated fat in one's diet is "a problem," he said. Is It Dinner With No Meat? How do Americans feel about eating their veggies? Fairly guilty, suggest data reported by Stanford University researcher Alison Jane Rigby, PhD, MPH, RD. Rigby and colleagues analyzed data collected from nearly 7,000 Americans with an average age of 49. As one might expect, Americans love their meat. Only 29% felt they ate enough fruits and vegetables. And more than half of us say, "Dinner is not right without any meat." Well, that's not entirely true. Rigby found that while 65% of men don't feel right about a meatless dinner, only 43% of women endorse this opinion. And who's losing weight? Hint: It's not the big meat eaters. People who ate the amounts of fruits and vegetables recommended by the American Heart Association tended to be the thinnest. But Rigby doesn't advise people just to eat more vegetables if they want to lose weight. "In the U.S., portion size is main problem," she said in a news conference. "The other big issue is getting enough physical activity." So are carbs good or bad? Neither, says Robert H. Eckel, MD, of University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "Overall there are no good foods and bad foods," Eckel said in a news conference. "There is a limit on red meats but not an exclusion. When it comes to health, we really are looking at overall diet." -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- SOURCES: American Heart Association Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, San Francisco, 2004. American Heart Association news conference; participants: Robert H. Eckel, MD, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center; Randal J. Thomas, MD, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.; Deborah J. Toobert, PhD, Oregon Research Institute, Eugene, Ore.; Kristie J. Lancaster, PhD, RD, New York University, N.Y.; Alison Jane Rigby, PhD, MPH, RD, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Linda Van Horn, PhD, Northwestern University, Chicago.
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