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What's behind the curb-your-carbs craze?

By Christy Oglesby
CNN

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(CNN) -- The latest diet dictionary spells evil "C-A-R-B."

That's the mini-moniker for carbohydrates, compounds found in a group of foods on the least-wanted list in many current weight-loss diet programs.

The latest diet trend of reducing carb consumption gives proteins a place of prominence, has burgers going bunless and eggs rebounding from their cholesterol-tainted reputation.

Coca-Cola recently launched C2, a low-carb version of its flagship beverage. Salad dressings tout carbohydrate reduction and beer billboards boast low-carb content.

Even wine-makers are in on the trend. Instead of requesting a glass of vintage chardonnay, imbibers can order a goblet of Brown-Forman's One.6 -- the wine's name which also proclaims its carbohydrate content.

The science behind the weight loss method is to cut back on carbohydrates that give the body glucose for fuel, and instead, force it to burn fat for energy.

There's dispute among health care providers and nutritionists whether cutting carbs is a good or bad thing. But they seem to agree on some basic facts: Obesity is becoming a national epidemic. Low-carb diets are increasingly popular. And all carbs are not created equal.

About Atkins

The Atkins Diet has become nearly synonymous with low-carbohydrate eating. The late Dr. Robert Atkins introduced his plan for improving health and fitness more than 30 years ago. It again became popular after the 2001 republication of "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution."

And lately, the South Beach Diet, another low-carb diet plan, has been a reader favorite, remaining on The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.

While Atkins popularized low-carb eating, the ideology had been around for a couple of centuries -- as a no-starch (another carbohydrate alias) regimen in 1864 and the high-fat, low-starch diet of Dr. Herman Taller in 1961.

Dr. Stuart Trager, medical director at Atkins Nutritionals Inc., says the low-carbohydrate lifestyle offers an alternative to people who cannot follow traditional weight-loss plans.

Everybody agrees the traditional "eat less, exercise more" diet works -- if you can do it, Trager said. But many people don't have the wherewithal and time, he said.

"For many people, controlling the amount of carbohydrates is easier and more palatable then counting calories," Trager said. "Atkins has never been about no carbs. It's about choosing the right carbs in the right amount."

Also, Trager said, the weight-conscious should look to whole grains and foods such as oats, barley and fresh fruits and vegetables in choosing carbs to consume. The carbohydrate culprits are the highly refined, sugar-added, calorie-laden kind that on-the-go lifestyles force people to eat, he said.

Carb confusion

Over the years, research results have shown benefits of low-carb diets and disadvantages, leaving a confusing array of information debated by experts and devoured by consumers.

Most recently, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that over six months, dieters in a low-carb plan lost more weight than participants in a low-fat regimen. But in the same journal, other research showed that after a year, both the low-carb and low-fat groups had lost about the same amount of weight.

It's understandable people lose weight on low-carb diets, according to Elisa Zied, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Any diet that limits your food choices will help you lose weight," said Zied, a registered dietitian and certified nutritionist.

And weight loss, even a modest amount, can improve health and reduce the risk of obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, doctors say.

Moderation, moderation, moderation

While low-carb diet supporters say it's best to force the body to use fat as a fuel source, many nutritionists continue to teach that carbohydrates should be the principal energy supply for the body.

People who have diabetes should carefully monitor their carbohydrate intake, but for others, Zied said, carbs are an important foundation of a healthy diet.

Glucose (from carbohydrates) "basically feeds your central nervous system, which includes your brain," Zied said.

"Carbohydrates from foods provide a variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, when you are talking about less refined sources such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They also provide an abundance of fiber and fiber keeps your gastrointestinal system healthy."

Zied said she agrees with low-carb supporters that nutrient-deficient, highly processed carbohydrates such as cakes, potato chips, cookies and sweetened drinks have played a role in the nation's obesity problem and diseases caused by being overweight.

But even those indulgences have a place in a healthy diet -- if eaten in moderation.

"Not all carbs are created equal," Zied said. "While I don't support eliminating or drastically reducing your carbohydrate consumption, I do appreciate that it is important for people to watch their portions of carbohydrate-rich foods and make healthier selections within that category of food."


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