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How to Choose Carbohydrates

Low Carb at the Supermarket

Food manufacturers are always trying to jump on the latest fad diet craze by rolling out a new line of food guaranteed to be "low fat," or "low carb." The only problem is, this tiny aspect of a food's nutritional properties really doesn't tell you the information you need to make a healthy choice.

The Fat-free Fallacy

Nutrition and weight-management experts agree that keeping hunger under control is one of the keys to successful weight loss and maintenance. During the mid-1990s, at the height of the fat-free, processed-foods rage, dieters would often reach for these "diet" foods to help them stay on their weight-loss plan. Unfortunately, since those foods were usually high in sugar and refined flour, they caused unsuspecting dieters to experience roller coaster energy swings and increased hunger. Instead of being a weight-management solution, these products contributed to the weight-control problem. Even now, many dieters don't realize they need to be wary of fat-free products and to eat them only in moderation.

low-cal versus low-carb and fat-free
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
A fat-free donut may still
be high in calories.

What consumers also didn't realize -- or conveniently forgot -- was that "fat free" is not synonymous with "calorie free." Consumers behaved as if the fat-free products had put unlimited quantities of previously forbidden foods, such as cookies and ice cream and chips, back on the dieting menu. They could have their fat-free cake and eat it, too, believing that as long as it was fat free, they would be, too. And they didn't stop at eating just a couple of cookies; they ate the whole box. While patiently waiting for their favorite treat to be restocked on the grocer's shelves, dieters forgot about the one basic weight-loss premise that never changes: Too many calories in and not enough out = weight gain.

If these foods were fat free, why weren't they also calorie free? Why did some of the fat-free varieties pack even more calories than the original version? When manufacturers remove the fat, which adds flavor and mouthfeel to food, they must replace it with something to keep the food tasty. For sweets that replacement is sugar. While it's true that sugar is fat free, it still has lots of calories, so eating a gallon of fat-free ice cream will never help you lose that excess weight.
Carbs for Active People
When it comes to physical activity powered by muscle glycogen stores, there are many variables to consider, such as the size of the individual and intensity of the activity.

However, on average, we store enough carbohydrate for only 2 to 3 hours of physical exertion. As long as you eat consistently throughout the day with an eye toward variety and balance of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) and don't skimp on calories, you'll have plenty of fuel to get you through your daily workout. Unless you're participating in an ultra-endurance distance sporting event, you don't have to worry about running out of fuel completely!

Another reason many people overate fat-free foods is that often, no matter how hard they tried, manufacturers just couldn't match the flavor of the original version. People felt unsatisfied regardless of how much they ate. After polishing off a box of fat-free candies, it was typical for dieters to go searching for "the real thing" in order to feel satisfied. In the end people ate more calories than if they'd had a few of the originals in the first place. Fat-free foods have their place, but they're a weight-loss tool only if used properly. And they're definitely not the answer.

Carb Buyer Beware!

There are some foods now sporting a low-carb label that have always been naturally low in carbohydrate. Natural peanut butter (the kind without added sugar) is a good example. In general, nuts come by their low-carb title without any help from food manufacturers. Cashews have a bit more carbohydrate than other varieties, but when compared to other natural foods, such as honey, the carbohydrate content is minimal.

Many other foods also need no help from manufacturers to earn a low-carb title. These include lettuce; berries; cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower; protein foods such as lean meats, chicken, fish, cheese, and soy products; cantaloupe; honeydew melon; and tomatoes.

If you see a low-carb label on any of the products listed above, don't be fooled into thinking they're somehow more low-carb than they would be without the label. Eaten on their own (meaning not part of combination dishes where carbohydrates from other foods come into play), these are simply low-carb foods.

There are some foods naturally low in carbohydrate that become higher in carbs because of the way they are manufactured. Yogurt is a good example. Plain yogurt has little or no carbohydrate, only 15 grams in 8 ounces, and this is from naturally occurring milk sugar. However, many yogurt products contain added sugar, giving them unnaturally high carb counts. You should also realize that added sugar increases the calorie count as well as the total carbohydrate.

The Scoop on Low-carb Products

The fat-free craze of the 1990s didn't have quite the impact on obesity that was expected. Experts were correct in predicting the same outcome for low-carb and carb-free products.

How did manufacturers make foods low carb? It's all about the substitution of ingredients. The particular type of product dictates which substitute is used. Some substitutes include soy flour, xanthan gum, psyllium husk, and artificial sweeteners.

By using a flour, such as soy flour, that contains more protein or fiber than refined white flour does, manufacturers reduce the total carbohydrate in a product. Sometimes they substitute all the flour in a product, and sometimes they substitute only a portion of it.

Xanthan gum, a natural product, is used to replace gluten (a type of protein found in flour) and acts as a substitute binder in products that don't use flour. Baked goods require gluten for structure (breads require the most; cookies the least), and so low-carb products that contain less flour or no flour need a substitute to prevent them from crumbling or falling apart. For instance, a mixture of finely ground nuts and sweetener can stand in as a low-carb crust, but the final product will be crumbly and won't hold together well. Instead of adding flour, which also adds carbs, manufacturers of low-carb products add a small amount of xanthan gum.

High-fiber psyllium is sometimes added to low-carb foods to increase their fiber content. That helps reduce the amount of "net carbs" (the marketing term manufacturers use) because net carbs are calculated by deducting fiber from the amount of total carb. If a product has more fiber, it contains fewer net carbs and has less effect on blood sugar and weight gain.

The sugar replacers used in low-carb foods, such as the artificial sweetener Splenda or the sugar alcohols mannitol or sorbitol, add sweetness without the carbohydrate and calories from sugar.

All of these substitutions, used either alone or together, do produce a decrease in total carbohydrate. However, how substantial the reduction is varies from product to product. Sometimes the reduction is so small that it has a negligible effect.

Clearly fad diets that say, "Never eat carbs!" or, "Eat nothing but carbs!" have not done their homework. The type of carbs you eat or when you eat them can be vastly more important than the quantity. Now that you understand the effects that carbs have on your body, you can build the diet that is right for you.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.