As reported in the Los Angeles Times on December 20, some researchers are suggesting cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
Dietary fat has traditionally played the role of "public enemy No. 1" and consumption of carbohydrates has increased over the years with the help of a 30-year-old government-mandated message to cut fat.
Today individuals -- on average -- eat 250 to 300 grams of carbs a day, accounting for about 55 percent of their caloric intake; the most conservative recommendations say they should eat half that amount.
But the answer may not be to cut all carbs completely. Some health experts are urging the public not to paint all carbohydrates with the same negative brush.
"You just cannot lump all carbs into a single category," said Tom Griesel, coauthor (along with his sister Dian) of the forthcoming book "TurboCharged," which outlines a new approach to reducing body fat as the key to weight loss.
According to Tom Griesel, carbs like fruits and vegetables are in a class by themselves."This is because they are truly unrefined and contain fiber along with a high moisture content in their raw or lightly cooked state, and contain many readily available and usable nutrients. Because of this, they do not have the same insulin effect of any other refined or 'complex' carb."
He says eliminating or reducing fruits and vegetables from the diet is always a mistake because then people tend to gravitate towards "inferior types of carbs."
"Other types of carbs are the problem," said Dian Griesel, "and they are what should be eliminated or severely restricted in one's diet. Other than calories, they contain almost no nutritional value. This is why they are almost always fortified."
This group includes all sugar, particularly high fructose corn syrup; refined foods and drinks. Anything packaged, all grain products -- refined or unrefined -- can also be lumped in.
"All these are concentrated carbohydrates -- the most densely caloric of any 'foods' -- and even small quantities will cause blood sugar levels to rise to problematic levels and subsequently result in unhealthy insulin spikes," she said. "People do not realize that consuming even a small amount will have this effect."
Both authors note that our bodies cannot store much glycogen, and so this excess sugar is almost all stored as body fat. This happens even if we have way too much body fat already.
The presence of insulin makes fat burning -- using fat for energy -- impossible. So even small amounts of these "other carbs" at the very least keep people fat, and most likely fatter. Reducing the amount consumed is not the answer; eliminating them is.
"So we do not have a carbohydrate problem; we have a wrong kind of carbohydrate problem," Tom Griesel says. "This is a critical point to understand."
A separate problem, observes his sister, concerns the substitution of proteins and fats for the restricted or eliminated carbohydrates.
Although not as obvious, she says, too much protein is just as bad as not enough.
"You only need enough to take care of repair and maintenance of existing lean body mass (LBM) and possibly building new LBM," she said.
According to Dian Griesel, too much protein will either get used as fuel (although not efficiently) or get stored as fat. Plus, processing excess protein puts unnecessary stress on the body.
"There is an optimal amount of protein that is based on an individual's current LBM and activity levels which is generally about 10 percent of daily calories," she said.
The right fat
The Griesels say fat is the body's preferred energy source, drawn either from diet or available existing body fat. However, choosing the correct dietary fat is of utmost importance.
Most refined fats, vegetable oils, are problematic in anything other than small quantities.
Trans-fats, they say, are very bad and should be avoided entirely, because they cause major metabolic problems and may remain in the body for more than two years. Trans-fats are in almost all processed foods, including vegetable oils.
"The only healthy fats are the ones that come naturally in animal products like organic, wild or grass-fed meats; fish and eggs; and even dairy, along with nuts, olives, avocados," says Tom Griesel.
And as for oils, since there are no natural ones, they should be used sparingly as they are all refined.
When assessing the relative effects of fats vs. carbohydrates, it pays to carefully study what dietitians know about their effects on the body -- and choose our foods accordingly.