Carbohydrates and the Battle of the Bulge

The battle of the bulge begins when weighing scales continuously reveal ascending readings, and there is a perennial rightward swing of the needle even as clothes get tighter. The verdict in tests and medical diagnosis is ‘overweight’. The list of reasons for this predicament is long, and the cause – a distinct love for food; and the remedy, difficult and unappealing.

It doesn’t help to be living in an era when being slim and thin is considered aesthetically appealing, and healthier too. Thus begins the search for treatments, therapies and weight loss techniques, which might help in reducing the bulge, painlessly and without intrusive treatments.

Going on a ‘diet’ is the easiest, and there is no dearth of ‘diets’ that promise quick weight loss, and amazing results of a slimmer, thinner you, in a matter of weeks. These dietary plans create a radical shift in consumption patterns and do not necessarily mean cutting intake of food drastically. They all push for a plan to eat right, limiting certain foods, cutting out some and increasing intake of nutritional ones. Thus, there is the Atkins diet, Ketogenic, Paleo, Dukan, Stillman, Hollywood diets and so on. Each tries to incorporate food combinations that have worked well for hundreds in their weight loss endeavors, and an equal number that have found no difference.

The diet battle has, of late been increasingly ending up at the doorstep of carbohydrates, with proponents professing the weight loss impact of a diet that has low or no carbohydrates. The “low carb” diet, as it is popularly called, limits the intake of carbohydrates and prescribes an increased consumption of protein-rich and fatty foods. This helps in reducing the production of insulin in the body and the use of the body’s reserves of fat and protein for energy.

Carbs typically form 40-60% of a normal diet. A diet that has less than 20% calories coming from carbs would be considered low-carb, and supposedly helpful in weight loss.

As in the case of all diets, the weight loss claims are disputed, with the added blame of whether such diets are healthy. While all dieticians concede that there is weight loss in the short term, the long term implications give reason for concern.

Carbs The Well of Energy

In Scientific terms, carbs are a group of organic compounds produced by plants, and include starches, sugars and cellulose. Carbs are the source of energy for the human body. They are converted into glucose by the digestive system. Carbs can be simple, as those found in natural products like milk, vegetables and fruits; or complex, as those found in whole grain cereals, bread and starchy vegetables, with a high fiber content as well.

Carbs provide energy to muscles and prevent protein being used as the energy source. The nervous system gets its fuel from carbs, and lesser amount of carbs can result in dizziness and weakness.  They also facilitate the fat metabolism.

The ample availability of processed foods that are also fattening, have become the preferred source of carbs. However, the best source of energy is the carbs that also provide nutrients like fiber, vitamins and antioxidants-these can be found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Refined grains and added sugars need to be avoided as ‘bad’ carbs.

Optimum Carb intake

The ideal daily intake of carbs varies from person to person depending on his metabolism and lifestyle. However, as the main energy source, carbs must form a bigger percentage of the total intake of food.

The Institute of Medicine in the U.S., recommends at least 130 carbs per day forming 45-65% of the total calorie intake. Variations have to be made depending on occupation and lifestyle, as people with sedentary lifestyles can consume less while athletes need to be on high carb diets.

Carbs and weight connection

The prevalent myth that carbs lead to weight gain, is not correct. It is only the ‘bad’ carbs coming from processed foods and refined grains with a high glycemic index, that cause weight gain, while whole grains and natural foods, fruits and vegetables do not. The non nutritive carbs come from white flour, white rice, refined sugar and highly processed foods that have no nutritive value left in them. It is these that add to the total calorie intake and lead to weight gain.

The spread of obesity as almost an epidemic and disturbing statistics revealing the forecasted population percentages heading towards obesity, has caused panic more due to the risk to health and the ability to lead a normal, disease free life. As dieticians and medical professionals have become more vocal about the need for weight loss, awareness about being overweight has increased tremendously. Most people try to lose weight on their own first, by cutting down on fatty foods and following the latest fad. As of now the low carb diet is a craze.

Low carb diets

The most famous low carb diet is the Atkins diet, developed by a well-known cardiologist Dr. Robert C. Atkins. He limited his patients’ intake of carbohydrates and sugar, so that fat is burned used for energy, to fuel physical activities. This reduces the craving for food and appetite levels also come down.

The popularity of such diets can be attributed to scientific studies indicating that weight gain occurs due to increased intake of carbohydrates. A 2012 study revealed that people who consumed low carb meals, burned 300 calories even while resting! Such effortless burning of calories would be the most envious weight loss program.! These claims have been verified in numerous studies conducted over a period of time, and it is only because the results have been confirmed that the diets continue to be tried and used to shed pounds and become slimmer and healthier.

Various low carb diets are being followed across the globe, all of which typically limit the intake of carbs to less than 20% of the total calorie intake, while increasing the intake of protein and fats. It is easy to limit sugar intakes, but impossible to cut carbs completely out of the human diet, and not advisable either, since they remain the main energy source.

The biggest advantage of flowing such a diet, is that people attempt to cut out refined and processed foods and resort to healthier eating habits. Thus, the ‘bad’ carbs are replaced by wholesome, nourishing foods.

This diet also helps to curb the desire to eat. Wanting to eat less, and decrease in appetite naturally translates in to favorable weight management. Insulin levels come down due to restrictions on carbs. This also helps improve metabolism, and initially all the water weight in the body drops. A decline in weight after this, gives the biggest impetus to continue on the low carb track.

Carbs are not so bad

All carbs are not bad and they are extremely healthy if the processed and refined ones can be avoided. The good carbs with a low glycemic index, coming from whole grains, unrefined foods, legumes, fruits and vegetables, hold the secret to good health, free from diseases and each system in the body working well. Good carbs keep the nervous system healthy and the brain functioning perfectly even in old age, the digestive system gets the much needed fiber, keeping diseases of the digestive tract at bay, muscles and limbs remain active without any sign of weakness, and the skin remain younger looking without wrinkles.

Thus the stigma of weight gain needs to be attached to the craze of eating refined, processed foods, that form the bad carb segment. These have a high glycemic index, low or no nutritive value and also lead to various deficiencies. Additionally, the increase in weight is partly due to the body’s inability to metabolize these carbs and not the carbs themselves. It becomes important then, to find ways of improving the body’s metabolism.

The Ideal Diet

The best diet that will keep deficiencies and disease away while prolonging a healthy life must include the following as part of daily meals:

·       Organic whole grains

·       Fresh fruits and vegetables

·       Beans, pulses, legumes

·       Dairy products like milk, yoghurt, cheese

·       Nuts and seeds

The battle of the bulge will continue for all those who love food and whose intake of calories is more than the calories they burn. It is wrong to blame just carbohydrates for this, when it is a wrong diet, wrong timing, and incorrect lifestyle that need to shoulder the blame. A healthy balanced diet with a balance of carbohydrates (40-45%), proteins and fats (30-35% each) which includes fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, whole grains and unrefined foods, combined with exercise and adequate sleep, can fight the weight battle successfully.




Carbs to avoid

The following broad categories of foods must be kept away:

·       Instant foods and instant grains

·       Refined flour and sugar

·       White rice

·       Processed snacks

·       White potatoes

·       Sweetened fruit juices

·       Baked desserts

·       Fast foods

·       Aerated drinks