August 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm EDT | by Kevin M. Norris
Counting carbs?

Carbohydrates are an oft-misunderstood macro-nutrients. Fad diets, like the Atkins diet of the early ‘00s, should be avoided as they attempt to ‘trick’ the body and can be harmful to the liver.

There are three macro-nutrients or main types of food we consume – protein, fat and carbohydrates. I have written about two of the macro-nutrients (protein and fat) and have reserved the most misunderstood and neglected for last — carbohydrates. Anyone interested in healthful eating and living should know the facts and fiction about this crucial and oft-misunderstood nutrient.

Carbohydrates are our first source of energy and provide the fuel necessary to every function and important vitamins, minerals, fiber and a host of important phytonutrients or phytochemicals, essentially “nutrients from a plant.” They are plant-based micronutrients that contain protective disease-preventing compounds.

But not all carbohydrates are created equal or processed in our bodies in the same manner. And it’s important to know which carbohydrates we should eat to our hearts’ content and which we should avoid.

Generally avoiding white products is a good rule of thumb. While white products are easily digestible, they often have very little nutritional value, spike insulin levels potentially leading to diabetes and can pack on the pounds. White products to stay away from are white flour, which is refined and processed, sugar and too much salt. Remember, white flour is processed with limited nutritional value, sugar affects your insulin and energy levels and promotes weight gain and more than 2,300 milligrams of salt can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.

What’s more is that white products are often simple carbohydrates, which are often loaded with fat and sugar and will lead to weight gain and zap your energy shortly after consumption. They also tend to have a higher glycemic index, which I will discuss later.

So which carbohydrates are best? As a guideline, fruits, vegetable, 100 percent whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans. And remember to consume a variety as certain carbohydrates have various effects on the body.

This means avoid those fad diets that eliminate or substantially decrease carbohydrate consumption for weight loss goals — they simply don’t work. Any diet or eating strategy that stresses over-reduction or limitation of a macro-nutrient will rob your body of essential vitamins and nutrients.

As a general rule you want to get 50-60 percent of your calories from carbohydrates. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is co-published every five years since 1980 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA is an excellent source for nutritional information.

Generally speaking you want to get about half your calories from carbohydrates. So for a 2,000-calorie diet, you would consume 250 grams of carbohydrates. This number is calculated by dividing the number of calories by the number of grams in carbohydrates, which is four.

What about the low-carb or no-carb diet? The bottom line is that diets don’t work and they sacrifice vital nutrients and fiber. Weight gain or loss is quite simply attained through your calorie consumption — calories in and calories out. If you consume more than 3,500 calories per day without exhausting 3,500 calories, you will gain weight. And while again the types of carbohydrates you consume are important, you will still gain weight if you consume too much of any macro-nutrient.

Furthermore, when you severely decrease or attempt to eliminate carbohydrates from your nutrition plan, your body can go into what is called ketosis, a harmful and potentially life-threatening state that unnecessarily stresses the liver and causes destruction of muscle tissues. (Ketosis should not be confused with ketoacidosis, a dangerous and extreme condition associated with diabetes.)

Another consideration in carbohydrate consumption is the glycemic index, a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels and how it relates to diabetes. Generally speaking, lower GI foods are better for maintaining a healthy weight and high GI foods can lead to weight gain.

The glycemic index, while often a strong consideration, can fall short for solid nutritional guidance because the glycemic index only charts foods consumed by themselves and does not take into consideration the whole meal. The glycemic index becomes inaccurate when foods are consumed with other foods. Again, here is where calories in versus calories out should be the primary consideration.  Also not all foods with a low glycemic index are better than those with a high glycemic index. The glycemic index scale is based on 100 as it relates to insulin processing and for instance, table sugar rates about 65 on the index, whereas carrots are 95.

Not all carbs are not created equal. Any macro-nutrient in excess will lead to weight gain.



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