As we begin a new year I see the marketing of nutrition and products relating to it become so confusing that even I, a seasoned dietitian working in the field over thirty years, am confused. The articles in magazines, such as what foods can cure cancer or to lose 20 pounds in ten days, often do not take into consideration side effects, even non-lethal ones. So to help cut through the confusion I am dedicating the next series of articles to the macronutrients: Proteins, Carbohydrates, Fats and Alcohol. I will review the research, marketing, politics and psychology regarding these nutrients.
Carbohydrates …today also known as Carbs:
I cannot believe that a young person today does not recognize the word carbohydrate. When you do an online search for information about carbohydrates, the main fuel for the human body, you have to get past all the diet pill ads and poorly researched information sites before you reach page two on a Google Search engine where the government agency, the CDC, (Centers for Disease Control) has a web page. How did we as a society get so twisted in our thinking that a moderate, healthy diet and plenty of exercise in the fresh air with some time off the internet/TV is not good enough to be healthy for life. Instead we eat on the run, stay up all hours of the night on multiplayer video games to socialize and eat stupid until we make ourselves sick. Oh, but I digress…let me introduce you to Nutrition 101.
What is considered a carbohydrate today?
Simple carbohydrates are sugars that the body quickly uses and complex carbohydrates are those that the body must break down into simple sugars
Foods that are simple carbohydrates are all forms of sugar and added sugars such as modified starches, corn syrup, malto dextrin, or molasses to name a few. Simple sugars can also be found in fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. Today’s “junk food” contains simple sugars.
Complex carbohydrates are made up of starches (simple sugars bound up in a chain) and fiber (soluble and insoluble) that offer many benefits to keep a body healthy. Complex carbs delay the uptake of sugar into the bloodstream, and help keep appetites moderated to slow down the intake of calories. Fiber, an indigestible part of a plant can be soluble, mixes with water, and forms a jelly-like substance that helps in the small intestine. Fiber can also be insoluble, cannot be broken down, and works in the large intestine until it exits the body as stool. Research has discovered that fiber, literally, brooms out the intestines of harmful bacteria. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates include fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
To be considered a whole grain the item must have some part of the bran, sperm or endosperm in its content. In a whole grain product the fiber must be listed within the first five ingredients on the nutrition label. When reading nutrition labels here are some definitions to note:
Refined grains-a processed grain when the nutrients are removed i.e. white flour
Enriched grains-the refined grains have iron and folic acid put back i.e. bread or rice
Fortified grains-refined grains that have other nutrients put back
Foods that contain items with these definitions are usually not considered whole grain despite what the advertising on the package tells you.
Finally, where is the politics on carbohydrates?
According to Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University who writes in her Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle
“Most reviews of the subject conclude that any diet will lead to weight loss if it cuts calories sufficiently.”
In other words there is still no definitive proof that a low carbohydrate diet will keep weight off long term any better than any other type of diet.
In my opinion, a healthy balance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes with lots of exercise is still the prudent way to approach a healthy lifestyle.
As far as the political scene, Dr. Nestle states in an article in the Atlantic, the hot topics for food policy in 2013 and predicts grassroots efforts of citizen groups to move the food political agenda and the push back from the food industry and big agriculture.