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The Lowdown on Low Carbs

By Shanida Smith, Ivanhoe Health Correspondent

Reported May 17, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- Last October, I reconnected with my best friend Chantel Hall who lost several pounds on the Atkins diet. She explained how carb counting works and what she could and couldn't eat. It sounded simple enough, I didn't have to give up cheese, and some of the restaurants I frequent, including Ruby Tuesday's and TGI Friday's, had low-carb menus. Four months later, after following the Atkins plan I read online, I was 21 pounds lighter.

Stories of weight loss success like mine have propelled Atkins and other low carbohydrate diets such as the South Beach and Zone diets into the national spotlight. Research giant ACNielsen found more than 17 percent of the 10,000 U.S. households surveyed reported that someone in their home is currently on a low-carb diet. Opinion Dynamics Corp., another research company, surveyed 1,800 people and found 11 percent of U.S. adults follow a low-carb diet, 20 percent have tried one and 19 percent (about 24 million Americans) may try one in the next two years. Low-carb popularity continues to soar amid a growing debate on whether low-carb diets are healthy long term and for whom they are healthy.

One in 12 Americans has diabetes, a common complication of weight problems. In addition, two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, and a third are clinically obese. Though there's a large need for effective weight loss plans, low-carb diets may not be best for particular groups.

Low-carb regimes may trigger birth defects and childhood cancers, according to Gideon Koren, director of the Motherisk program at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. Bread, pasta, breakfast cereals and orange juice, restricted on low-carb diets, are key sources of folic acid essential to the development of fetuses.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say complex carbs, such as potatoes, rice, whole grain breads, lentils, beans and pasta, are best for stabilizing mood. So if you are already prone to mood changes, a low-carb diet may make you cranky. Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., a research scientist in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, says low-carb diets can inhibit the synthesis of brain serotonin, which is made after the consumption of carbohydrate foods. "Many people eat carbs as a form of self medication because, as we discovered years ago, the resulting increase in brain serotonin improves mood. We call these people carbohydrate cravers and without carbs, they tend to feel very grumpy, angry and even anxious. They experience symptoms similar to PMS," she says. This means double the trouble for women especially because they generally have lower serotonin levels than men.

The growing number of overweight U.S. children has especially thrust their weight loss into the debate. The American Dietetic Association does not recommend low-carb diets for children at all. Julie Upton, R.D., an ADA spokesperson, says, "Children should be getting half of the daily calories from carbohydrates." Several scientists caution that low-carb diets lack critical nutrients children need for their physical and intellectual development, which comes from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

In contrast, Mary Vernon, M.D., a member of the Atkins Physicians Council, says children can successfully go on low-carb diets under supervision. "There are many more nutrients in chicken and salad than in fries and coke," she adds. Jonny Bowden, C.N., C.N.S., author of "Living the Low Carb Life: Choosing the Diet that's Right for You: from Atkins to the Zone," says, "Children eat way, way too many processed foods and high sugar junk: fruit juice drinks, sodas, fries, snack foods, cereals, pastas, breads, cakes, etc. A lower carb diet, one rich in vegetables, fruits, protein fat and fiber and lighter on the processed carbs, is a huge improvement over their usual diet."

Some thin adults who want to lose a few pounds may want to proceed with caution, too. Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, says, "Low carb diets work if -- and only if -- they reduce calorie intake. Diets are about calories. Skinny people are best off eating a balanced diet." On the contrary, Dr. Vernon says skinny people can tailor their low-carb diet to their individual needs. She adds, "Everybody needs different levels of carbs. If you follow the Atkins Nutritional Approach, you will find your body's nutritional balance." The American Dietetic Association recommends thin people steer clear of low-carb diets altogether.

Many experts agree that the most effective weight loss occurs with an individualized diet plan tailored for you by a health professional. In a recent study led by Dena Bravata, M.D., from Stanford University, researchers found no evidence that low-carb diets were more effective than others. The only factors they found that led to success were less calories overall and a long-term commitment. Back-to-back studies in the New England Journal of Medicine show participants on the Atkins-style low-carb diets lost the most weight out of others on traditional low-fat diets but investigators conclude more research needs to be done before giving low-carb diets the thumbs up. Studies released continue to make a case for both sides of the debate.

This article was reported by Ivanhoe.com, who offers Medical Alerts by e-mail every day of the week. To subscribe, go to: http://www.naturallyherbs.com/alerts.shtml.


 

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