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Dietitians Dish: Carbs play important role

By By Lindsay Adams
Feb. 26, 2013 at midnight
Updated Feb. 25, 2013 at 8:26 p.m.

Lindsay Adams

With the popularity of carbohydrate-excluding diets, such as the Atkins diet, carbohydrates have received much criticism in the past few years. These diets often emphasize protein sources and suggest that carbohydrates lead to weight gain.

Truthfully, although there are some unhealthy sources of carbohydrates that should be limited, carbs do play an important role in our diet. Unless eaten in excess, carbs will not contribute to weight gain more than any other nutrient that is eaten in excess, research has demonstrated. Weight loss seen with these low carbohydrate diets is related to an overall reduction in caloric intake.

Carbohydrates can be broken down into two categories: complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include starches (bread, cereal, rice, pasta, beans, peas, potatoes, corn, etc.), fruits, milk and yogurt. Examples of simple carbohydrates include refined starches, soda, juice, sweets and desserts.

So what exactly do carbohydrates do for us? First of all, carbs are an important source of energy. The Dietary Reference Intake recommends 130 grams of carbohydrates per day to support the basic energy needs of the body such as making the heart beat, movements required for breathing and digesting foods - pretty important bodily functions.

Some foods that contain carbohydrates, such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, fruits and vegetables, contain high amounts of fiber. Fiber helps us feel full for long periods of time, which can promote weight management. High-fiber diets are also linked to decreased heart disease, prevention of some types of cancer and promotion of regular bowel functions.

When it comes to choosing carbs, your best choices are typically whole grains, starchy vegetables that contain high amounts of fiber (beans, sweet potato), fruits, milk and yogurt. Whole grains still have the whole kernel attached, which includes the bran, germ and endosperm. This is the part of the grain that contains fiber and other healthy vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B and E.

To determine if a food is whole grain, the first ingredient on the ingredient list should be some type of whole grain flour. If the first ingredient is "wheat flour," the bread is wheat bread, but it is not considered whole wheat bread. Also note that the kernel is removed from the oats and rice to the instant versions - therefore, when purchasing oats or rice, purchase the long cooking version to assure whole grain content.

On a regular basis, try to avoid the simple carbs: refined starches, sweets, desserts, soda, juice and other high-sugar beverages. Refined starches are the antithesis to whole grains - they are the grains from which the kernel has been removed through processing, thus decreasing fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Examples include white bread, white rice, white pasta and non-whole grain cereals and crackers. These simple carbohydrates can sabotage weight loss as they are high in carbohydrates and calories but do not have the "filling" effect you will receive from actually eating a piece of fruit or other high-fiber carbohydrates.

Adequate carbohydrate intake is also beneficial for athletic performance. Carbohydrates produce energy three times faster than fat and give the muscles the energy they need for intense activity that allow us to burn calories. For individuals who participate in very intense exercise such as marathon running, additional carbohydrates may be needed.

Always remember that appropriate portion sizes are key to maintaining good health and appropriate weight; too much of even a good thing can be bad. Most grains, starches and fruit should be consumed in servings sizes of 1/3 to 1/2 cup, and milk servings are about 8 ounces each. Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, may have different needs for carbohydrate intake and should discuss their diet with their doctor or dietitian.

So choose wisely and try not to overindulge but enjoy your carbs.

Lindsay Adams is a registered and licensed dietitian at DeTar Health care Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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