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Carbs: Friends or Frenzy?
by Jessica Setnick, MS, RD/LD

The latest diet war has become a war of words: Carbs, net carbs, low carbs, no carbs, and carb + every prefix/suffix known to humans.  Everyone is talking about what these words mean.  Big picture, they mean that Americans need a hobby!  Instead of counting up invisible molecules in food, we should be knitting blankets for the homeless, finger-painting greeting cards, or learning a foreign language – anything but this constant, chronic obsession with nutrition.  I’m a nutritionist, and I’m telling you, America needs to relax!  But besides the fact that it’s tempting to focus on life at a micro level so that we don’t have to face the more globally significant (and stressful) issues, all this carb-counting and carb-phobia is raising a lot of carb-confusion.  Since it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, let me try to help.

Carbs – This one is easy; just a nickname for carbohydrates, the molecules built of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that in turn are the building blocks of food.  Although carbs are usually identified with foods of grain origin (bread, pasta, rice), sweets (cake, cookies, brownies), and starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn), in actuality, almost all natural foods contain some carbs.  While many of these carb-containing foods are referred to as “Carbs” themselves, there is no Carb food group.  Foods in every food group contain varying amounts of carbs, usually measured confusingly in grams.

Low-carb – There is no universal definition of low-carb eating, but it seems to be understood to mean “lower than what is usually recommended,” i.e. lower than 60% of someone’s total caloric intake.  Since almost all foods contain some carbs, the grand idea behind low-carb diets is simple – limit the foods you eat; lose weight.  Certain high-carb foods simply cannot fit into a low-carb diet, and other foods must be eaten only in small or (dare I type it?) reasonable portions.  It is the same principle that drove the low-fat diets of the ‘90’s.  It’s not the magic of eliminating carbs or the weight dangers that carbs supposedly cause.  Think about it – do you know anyone who doesn’t worry about carbs but yet is an appropriate weight?  I promise you, it’s not the carbs.  As with low-fat mania, here again we seek to eliminate most or all carbs instead of finding some boring, responsible, moderate middle ground.  And, as with low-fat, instead of looking for naturally balanced foods, our consumer culture provokes the creation of all kinds of carb-reduced Frankenfoods, created in an effort to feed a carb-crazed country.   What began as a cottage industry is now a multi-million dollar business, fueled by the fact that to eat carb-free, you must purchase and eat almost exclusively man-made products.  

Net carbs – This term, as yet unregulated by the FDA, legally means nothing.  It is generally being used to describe only the grams of carbs in a food that are believed to affect blood glucose.  Net carbs equals total carbs minus fiber and sugar alcohols, even though these are used by your body and do provide some calories.  If you don’t have diabetes, the only reason to use this calculation system is to fake yourself out and sneak some tasty treats onto your low-carb diet.  Can you see why low-carb eating is going to lose its power to cause weight loss, just like low-fat eating eventually did?

Carb-friendly – Now this one is really clever.  It means absolutely nothing, it’s just a marketing ploy.  I’m carb-friendly; I love English muffins.  Your lawn is carb-friendly; it’s a nice place to sit while you eat a sandwich.  I won’t name restaurant names, but I did see a “carb-friendly” menu item that made me want to cry: steak with bleu cheese on it.  As you know, I am a fan of all foods.  Eat steak with bleu cheese for dinner, lunch, or breakfast for all I care.  But don’t put it on your menu as an example of healthy eating.  Nice try.

Carb-phobic – This is what we are all in danger of becoming, if we don’t calm down about carbs.  We are going to raise another generation of children with eating disorders, believing that you can’t just eat and be well, you have to obsess to be normal.  Human bodies can’t live without carbs.  Our low-carb friends often end up scarfing down food on the weekend, at a party, or at home alone.

Bodies craves balance.  There is always something to be learned by making a change in our way of eating, but why do we always have to swing overboard before we see the damage we have caused?  I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better, so buckle yourself in for a carb-wild ride.

(Copyright Jessica Setnick, 2004)

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