By Erin Palinski
It seems recently everywhere you look a low carbohydrate product is being sold or a new low carb diet advertised. What is causing this craze over carbohydrates? Are they truly the cause of weight gain like the advertisers would like us to believe, or are they just another passing fad? Let's take a closer look.
Carbohydrates are found in breads and grains as well as fruit, vegetables, and milk products. When we eat carbohydrates, the body stores them in the muscles and liver, which then converts them into glucose to fuel the brain. The common belief is carbohydrates make people overweight. Carbohydrates do make people gain weight, but then again, so does protein and fat if consumed in excess. It's all about the calories.
When we drastically restrict our carbohydrate intake, our body's main source of energy is depleted. Our body then must turn to protein and fat as energy sources. This leads to a state of "ketosis," which is a biochemical condition where the body produces ketones (fat fragments) at a higher rate than it releases glucose into the blood. Ketones are the result of the breakdown of fat, supporting the claims that a low carbohydrate diet results in the burning of fat.
However, ketones, although not the preferred energy source for the body, still provide 5 calories per gram to the body. This is higher than the 4 calories per gram provided by carbohydrate. The difference lies in the amount absorbed. Since carbohydrate is more easily absorbed than ketones, more will be converted to energy for the body to use and store. However at the end of the day, if 90% of carbohydrates and 70% of ketones consumed are converted to energy by the body, there is not a large difference in calorie savings.
So where are the weight loss claims coming from? Well, low carbohydrate diets have a diuretic effect on the body, meaning the body will loose large amounts of water. One gallon of water weighs eight pounds, so a large amount of weight can be lost following these plans, however it isn't all fat mass.
Also, when you restrict your intake of breads, grains, fruit, milk, yogurt, and vegetables, there is not a large amount of food left to choose from. People following low carbohydrate diets are actually restricting their total caloric intake without realizing it. Restricting calories, no matter what the source, results in weight loss.
Low carbohydrate diets also come with their share of negative side effects. They can raise cholesterol levels because many protein-rich and fatty foods contain saturated fats. Due to the drastic decrease in fiber intake, increase in blood pressure may result. Diets excessive in protein cause the body to eliminate calcium during urination, which can lead to osteoporosis and may also place a great strain on the kidneys.
In some people, low carb diets may also cause diarrhea, constipation and headaches. You may also feel sluggish and notice a decrease in mental acuity due to the decrease in glucose reaching the brain. Diabetics should be especially careful of low carb diets, as ketosis in diabetics can lead to serious side effects including coma and even death.
On the positive side, weight loss can be achieved and maintained, even without giving up your favorite carbohydrates. A calorie is a calorie, regardless of the food it comes from. The formula for weight control is simple: take in more calories than you expend and you gain weight; take in less calories than you expend and you lose weight. Eating a balanced diet and controlling your portions of foods from all food groups, including whole grain carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, milk, protein, and fat will help you lose weight and keep it off while staying healthy!
Erin Palinski, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT is a nationally recognized nutrition & fitness expert who regularly contributes to ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, News 12, Consumer Reports, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Women's World. She is the author of the forthcoming "Belly Fat Diet for Dummies" and is known as the dietitian who gives practical, realistic advice that allows you to start seeing results instantly and maintain results permanently! Erin is available for nutrition coaching and consultations via internet, phone, and in person at www.erinpalinski.com. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com