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Dietitians Dish: Carbohydrates often misunderstood

Dec. 20, 2011 at 6:20 a.m.

Linda Crisp

By Linda Crisp

Carbohydrates often are talked about in a negative tone, as though foods containing carbohydrates were the source of all dietary problems. In my 34 years in the field of food and nutrition, I find that this is the most misunderstood and unappreciated source of nutrition.

Weight-loss diets often exclude carbs in favor of protein, leaving the impression that protein-containing foods are superior. The truth is that all three of the macronutrients in our diet - protein, carbohydrates and fats - have an important role, and when eaten in balanced amounts contribute to overall health.

Let's take a look at the wonders of carbs and the real reasons we should appreciate them and give them their rightful place in the Dietary Hall of Fame.

Energy: Body tissues, organs and muscles are working hard every day and rely on glucose (carbohydrate) for energy. The Dietary Reference Intakes recommend 130 grams of carbohydrates per day for basic energy needs of the body, like making the heart beat, moving the diaphragm for breathing and digesting food.

Fuel for muscles: Carbohydrates produce energy three times faster than fat, and gives the muscles what they need for intense activity to burn calories.

Fiber for fullness: Because carbohydrates are found in abundance in plant foods, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. The high fiber content in these foods fill us up and gives a feeling of fullness at meals, which helps with weight management.

Variety for successful weight loss: Because carbohydrates offer such a great variety, including fruit, milk products, grains, legumes and vegetables, it's easy to keep on track with healthy food choices. You'll never get bored, and you'll be able to stick with the program.

Decreased heart disease: Low-carb diets wind up being high in animal protein, cholesterol and saturated fat, which is just the kind of diet associated with heart disease.

Decreased cancer risk: Newest food research shows fruits and vegetables, which contain carbohydrates, also contain antioxidants and cancer fighting phytochemicals.

Healthy blood pressure: Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are chock full of minerals, such as potassium, calcium and magnesium, which are essential to good blood pressure.

Great taste: Last, but not least, is that carbohydrates taste great. Fruits and vegetables are fresh and sweet, grains are nutty and crunchy. Milk and yogurt are smooth and refreshing.

Remember to keep your carbs healthy and unadulterated by limiting buttery spreads, high-fat sauces, cheesy toppings and sugary sprinkles. Use herbs, lemon, lime, onion, garlic, spices, cilantro and parsley to add pizzazz to vegetables, fruits, potatoes, pasta and yogurt without adding unwanted calories.

Appropriate serving sizes are also important for carbohydrates. Most grains, starches and yogurt should be in serving sizes of 1/3 to 1/2 cup, while fresh fruit and milk servings are about 8 ounces each.

Enjoy healthy carbohydrates every day and reap the benefits to your health and happiness.

Linda Crisp is a registered and licensed dietitian who is a board certified specialist in oncology nutrition. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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