February 12, 2009

Carb is a four-letter word

I'm annoyed.

(I used to be Merry, but that has changed.)

I've been dutifully reading the scientific literature, trying to skim the healthiest cream off of the milk of human research. There are a lot of studies out there talking about the virtues and vices of a "low-carb" diet.

I thought this study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center was great news when I first read it: Low-carb burns more excess liver fat than low-calorie diet. I mean, not having excess liver fat is a very good thing. Forget vodka, you can get cirrhosis just by being overweight. But what do they mean by low-carb?
Should I give up pasta?

But wait, there's more!

Another study claims that a low-carb diet can affect the dieter's cognition skills. Turns out in this study the research subjects could either adopt a "a low-carb diet or a macronutrient balanced diet recommended by the American Dietetic Association." So does that imply the low-carb diet was not macronutrient balanced? I imagine it would get more so as the study progressed, if the subjects had problems with their cognition skills.
Should I give up carrots? They're carbs!

But weight, there's less!

A third study contends that "a very low-carb diet" is the best way for men to lose weight and keep it off.

And this professor from the University of Virginia says "Pshaw!" (Yeah, I'm paraphrasing.) According to him, "... for long-term weight maintenance, a high-carb, low-fat diet is still the best bet."

Okay, they're just doing this to drive me crazy, right? It must be a plot.

What are carbs exactly?

Bear with me here. To explain why I'm confused, I need to review the story so far.

I understand the basics thusly: your body gets nutrients from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

So far so good. Then the plot thickens. Carbs can also be unrefined or refined. To me, being refined means drinking your tea with your pinkie sticking out, but to a carbohydrist (yes, I know it's not a real word, but it sounds good), refined means processed. The fiber has been stripped out, which also means the loss of any vitamins or minerals that were there.

This much, I could grasp. Then they threw in the Glycemic Index. Now I have to start worrying about how the carb is going to affect my blood sugar level.

When they introduced the GI concept, I started to get fed up with carbs and all their issues. And then the nutritionists unleashed the concept of Glycemic Load, and I wanted to scream.

Luckily, the Merck website has a pretty good definition of Glycemic Load: "A food, such as carrots, bananas, watermelon, or whole-wheat bread, may have a high glycemic index but contain relatively little carbohydrate and thus have a low glycemic load. Such foods have little effect on the blood sugar level."

Okay, I guess I can accept that. So long as they stop right there, thankyouverymuch. Enough classifications of these damn carbs.

Einstein, Solomon, and Angelina Jolie?

So what was the point of all that? Where does that leave us?

Where that leaves me is confused. When you read a study that claims a "low-carb" diet gives you the IQ of Einstein, the figure of Angelina Jolie, and the wisdom of Solomon, what kind of carb are they talking about?

Carrots are carbs, apples are carbs, lettuce, kale, daikon radishes... all carbs! Am I supposed to give them up?

All these different classifications of carbohydrates -- they're not all absorbed into the digestive system at the same rate, they're treated differently if you have a fatty liver or if you are of the male persuasion -- so why are they all lumped together in the scientific literature?

Does this confuse anyone else? Or should I go have a pizza in the hope that it will improve my cognitive skills?


  1. I had a friend who was hospitalized because he turned his liver to foie gras through eating crap- and he wasn't even overweight. Anyhow, the doctors recommended a very mixed diet, and they justified it because they hought low carb diets set up ketosis, and they weren't happy about ketosis. I'm afraid that's where I stopped listening, because everything else sounded Xhosa to me.

  2. I'll say - Go for the pizza! (just kidding)

  3. I misread the title. I thought you said "Crab" is a four letter word. I thought you had a lot of courage for posting such a thing on the Crabby's blog! Sorry to say I love pizza and I love crab so I won't be giving up either.

  4. yep.
    I read that as CRAB is a 4 letter word too. thought you were breaking up the team...

  5. I think they're viewing CARB from a chemical perspective. The other stuff (protein/fat) just keeps you feeling full longer because they are a few steps further away (chemically) from glucose.

    The whole argument is CRAP, anyway. What matters for weight loss is calories.

    BTW - have you ever eaten foie gras? I got suckered into it on a business trip once. I wasn't impressed...

  6. A carb is definitely not a carb, although it is a four-letter word. There must be a way to differentiate between high-quality carbs – fruits and non-starchy vegetables – and crap carbs – we all know what those are (don't we?). Lumping all carbs together is good for the packaged food industry; they can claim their 100-calorie bag of cookies is the same as eating a large apple.

  7. Although I'm a huge advocate of low carb, I always think that a lot this just boils down to something that makes even more sense to me... don't eat processed crap. "Bad" carbs are almost always processed carbs, and "good" carbs are the way that they came off the tree or the vine or whatever.

    I misread the title, too. ;-)

  8. Low carb according to some research I wrote about on my bulimia page, also alledgedly causes bulimia!

  9. What gets me is the "low-carb high-fiber" stuff. How much fiber do you find in fats and proteins? So all we're talking about here is ratio.
    Yes, it does seems to boil down to "don't eat processed crap".

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  10. Oh dear. This - what you wrote - is exactly how I got orthorexic. I swear it IS a conspiracy.

  11. Aw, give up Crabby? That would hurt her feelings!

    Where I get confused is when they start applying the Glycemic stuff to unrefined unprocessed foods. A baked potato sans butter, sour cream or bacon bits, is still bad for me? Don't get that.

    And if those studies said "low-processed-carb" diet, I'd be happy as a clam. Just referring to them as "low-carb" suggests they do away with vegetables altogether.

  12. Now my head hurts!!

    When I think carbs, I think sugar. If they don't seem like sugar, I don't worry about them. Really, in my opinion, being at a stable, healthy weight is where it's at. All of these diets, with the goal of losing weight you don't want in the first place, are probably far from optimal.

    CARB-CRAB Priceless, Miz!

  13. Misread the title too.

    I understand your frustration completely, and agree with everyone else who said that it boils down to don't eat processed stuff.

  14. But why don't the studies specify what they mean by "low carb"? You'd think scientists would be more precise.
    Or at least, I think they should be.
    Another illusion bites the dust.
    Any study that suggests I should cut back on vegetables makes me look askance.

  15. What I've been taking from all these studies is:

    Eat real food in moderation.

    Get plenty of exercise.

    Get lots of sleep.

    Live long and prosper... (oh, wait...)

  16. I agree with Nina and gang - it all comes down to eat whole foods and not processed crap. A baked potatoe is *not* bad for you. French fries and potato chips? Uh, not so good for you, eh?

    I do a modified South Beach. It's saved me from Type II diabetes.

  17. Crab is indeed a four letter word! But fortunately, Merry seems to put up with me, thank goodness.

    I agree that the "Low Carb" label makes little sense unless you specify what kind of carbs are at issue. And I think any diet that restricts healthy produce is kinda nutty, unless maybe you are diabetic and really, really have to be sensitive to the sugars in certain fruits and veggies.

    But I remember friends being on Atkins and shunning fruit and carrots and all kinds of healthy food because of the sugar in it. But they'd put butter on their steak and subsist almost entirely on saturated fats. Never made sense to me. (I know it's changed since then).

    I'm in the same camp as most people here--it's refined carbs that are a problem, not so much the unrefined ones.

    I do remember reading that people have very individual responses to low carb diets; for some people, really focusing on the glycemic index/glycemic load stuff is helpful; for other people, not so much.

    I'm a "not so much." But I do try to avoid eating big servings of sugary or starchy things in isolation; I usually try to combine with a bit of protein & fiber & fat.

  18. Oh my god. This is such a confusing issue for me, too! I think it's because I read too much. And a number of different individuals whose work I respect say completely opposite things about carbs.

    I mean, no one's cheering "Rah, rah, go sugar! Time to mainline some crystals." But on the other hand, it seems like none of my sources agree on the subject of carbohydrates. GAH!

  19. Rethink the simple vs complex and the good vs bad and all that glycemic index stuff.

    Finally those 3 semesters of organic chem have come in handy. I've seen the light.

    Remember those pop beads that we girlie-type boomers used to play with? We started out with individual beads and made lovely necklaces and bracelets.

    The tiniest carb is a sugar called GLUCOSE. Each individual bead is a glucose molecule.

    Put 2 or 3 or so beads together and you have some other sugars, the so-called simple carbs..

    String lots of the beads together and you have a starch, the so-called complex carbs.

    Now when we eat carbs, the digestive juices chomp that necklace (starch) back into the single pop beads (glucose).

    This is how that potatoe sans butter can be called a "bad" carb. It has a so-called high glycemic index because it quickly gets broken down into glucose. After all, starch is just a long string of those glucose molecules and the enzymes pop those beads apart pretty much all at once.

    Then that princess-of-a sugar GLUCOSE,jumps into your blood stream, travels throughout your body, supplying the preferred kind of energy for every single one of your cells, from the tip of your head right down to your pinkies. BLOOD SUGAR IS NOT A BAD THING--JUST TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE OF IT.

    Say you take in more carbs that you can use at any given momemt. Your amazing body,not wanting to be wasteful or anything, turns the glucose into a storage form for later use: some becomes glycogen for an easily and quickly available source of energy.

    And some of that unused glucose becomes... you guessed it, stored as fat.

    The moral of the story, as others have said, is calories. Don't take in more than you plan to use.

    The good and bad carb business is, just as others have said is also simple: don't eat junk.

    The glycemic index? Forget about it! Unless it give you joy to do all that work, and if that work is getting you where you want to go. I COULD rant re: the glycemic index, but don't worry, I won't.

    "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much". MP

    And have fun and move.. preferably at the same time.

  20. I didn't know about the glycemic load thing. But I try to follow a loose glycemic index. But not a strict one, because as you said, that would just make me crazy tearing my hair out trying to figure out what I can and can't eat. So when I'm at home, I eat low-GI foods (more or less) that aren't refined (except the occasional white flour or sugar). When I go out, I get whatever I want (more or less).

    I misread the title too. But they're done studies where the first and last letter of a word are the same and the middle letters are mixed up, and people correct it in their heads. Since we're all using to reading Crab...

    "Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

  21. Basically everything in moderation. Should you completely eliminate any food group from your diet..no! The reason why they say to avoid high glycemic fruits and vegetables is b/c they are higher and sugar and as a result will spike your blood sugar, making you hungry again quickly. Limit simple carbs and eat more complex. But I do love those processed, simple carbs!

  22. Oh goodness. This is making my head hurt.

    Could it be simply that we need to avoid overly processed foods and just stick to the foods in their most natural, wholesome form?

  23. useful acticle. Bookmark for this

  24. I used to be confused, but now i figure if it's a veggie or fruit it's good. If it's white bread or regular pasta it's not so good. French fries and cheeseburgers or fried chicken - probably not the best for you!

    You still need carbs. Carrots, fruit, etc. have vitamines and minerals that are good for you. Whole grains? Yes! It's the "crap" food that's bad.

    Hardest part? Giving up the "crap" food! lol. But, is anyone else FREAKED out by the liver thing...especially aishchai's friend (the first post). Ugh.

  25. I think that all carbs are not created equally. Fruit carbs cannot be as bad for you as chocolate carbs

  26. I think any study that concludes that food (regardless of what that food is) is bad for you is stupid, so I ignore them. Some foods make me feel better than others. Salads usually make me feel better than corndogs, so I usually prefer salads. If I eat tons of 'refined' foods, I feel yucky - so I tend to stick to fruits, veggies & whole grains. but no one will ever convince me that bananas & baked potatoes are bad for me. EVER!

  27. I suspect most of the studies are done by researchers who are not in the best of shape anyway. For me, the less processed the food is by man, the better. If you follow this rule, you can ignore all of these studies, imo.

    - Dave

  28. Don't we inherently know what's good for us and not good for us? If you're sitting at a table with a bowl of fruit to your left and a a slice of pizza on your right, you know which one is good for you. The answer is not low carb, low fat, low calorie, low anything. The answer is learning how to resist the bad stuff more often. Does anyone know how to do that?

  29. Besides the obvious difference between processed and non-processed , I PERSONALLY need to cut out grains. When I eat grains, be it whole wheat, oatmeal or brown rice, I definitely start poofing out, with water AND fat.

    On the other hand, I do just fine with mountains of fruit, potatoes, beans, and vegetables.

    Just one of those things where we need to experiment and figure out how our own bodies react to specific foods.

  30. There's big money in complicating the matter, when it's really quite simple.

    We should eat real foods, as close to nature as is safe and reasonable. Buy ingredients, not food. The taste difference alone is mind-blowing.

    It really doesn't take a long time to prepare meals from scratch, if you don't need a gourmet feast each night. Dump ingredients into the rice cooker, crock pot, veggie steamer, and bread maker, set your timer and walk away. Store the finished meals in glass or ceramic containers in the fridge and pop in the microwave as needed.

    Since going homemade, I've found that my food cravings have disappeared. I can eat two homemade cookies and be satisfied, but could never say the same of the store-bought cookies that didn't taste half as good.

    I don't know what's in our processed crap that makes us keep stuffing our faces, but I'm glad to be off that hamster wheel!

  31. It's ridiculous, isn't it? I heart the carbs.

  32. Very good carb-points.

    Then again, I have the same problem with calories as I do with carbs-- ever since forever ago, when I read the millionth dietician writing "A calorie is a calorie is a calorie; too many apples can make you fat just like too many candy bars can," I've felt a little exasperated with them. The day I get fat off eating too much fruit or healthy by giving up carrots, I'll let you know...

  33. Read "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes.

    It has the answers you're looking for. In particular, competent analysis of the scientific research.

  34. Wow. I read the post and all the comments.

    Now I have a headache. LOL.

    I personally feel better if I go low grain-based carbs. (Does that mean I do it? Um, SURE! Yeah . . . )

    But like Dragonmama said, everyone is different, and the best thing to do is experiment with what makes *you* feel best.

  35. Marste, I'm sorry about the headache. I can relate.

    Anon, I've heard great things about the Taubes book, and it's definitely on my TBR list, but it wouldn't answer my question. I want to know what the scientist who did the excess liver fat study meant when he wrote about a 'low-carb' diet being effective.

    Hopefully scientists all over the world have now read my cri du coeur, a.k.a. whine, and are rushing to amend their abstracts with specific dietitic details.

  36. Merry,

    Most people who are talking about "low carb" are taking about "net carbs". Essentially, net carbs are carbs-fiber carbs (since the body can't digest fiber)=net carbs.

    The scientists SHOULD be more specific, but I hope this helps.

  37. Ruth, that is helpful -- thank you! It's also irritating, but that's not your fault :)

    I'm glad to know what most people mean when they use the term.

    However, it sounds like they lump carrots, broccoli, rice, and sugar all together, subtract the fiber, and call it low-carb. That, I find irritating.

    Good thing it's almost Friday!

  38. I totally embrace "low carb" but not "no carb".......

    For me, I have had the best success at losing by eliminating the "whites" and excessive carbs.........also if I am going to eat grains, I try to do it earlier in the day. I think you can never overdo the veggies but there is a limit to how much fruit......at least for me.....in order to keep losing.

    I think the concept going around these days is that you should try to pair up your complex carbs at each meal and snack with protein and healthy fat. That's what I do 90 percent of the time. I have never felt better!

  39. Merry,

    I hear you! Of course, sugar is not broccoli. Also, to add to your annoyance (it's the devil in me), low carb on something like Atkins means 20 grams of net carbs per day. BUT, since the US Gov., suggests 300 grams of actual (not net) carbs per 2000 calories (I'm pretty sure I'm right about this, but to lazy right now to look it up), I've heard about studies regarding "low carb" that are 150 carbs per day! Who defines low carb? ARGHHH!!!!!!!

    But, enjoy your weekend anyhoo.

  40. bunnygirl, when you said "Since going homemade, I've found that my food cravings have disappeared." I was right with you, thinking maybe that explains why I don't seem to have cravings. But then you said "I can eat two homemade cookies and be satisfied, but could never say the same of the store-bought cookies that didn't taste half as good." and I figured it's more complicated than that, since I can easily eat a dozen hot from the oven cookies, and after a full meal, too, but store bought cookies are something I would only nibble on if I were hungry and they were all that was available.

    But even so I think "Buy ingredients, not food" is my motto.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  41. I fear I have never will never begin to wrap my brain around carbs... calories make SO much more sense to me. How do you burn a carb? How many is too much? It's all so far over me - eek!

    hehe the argument is CRAP - love it. And I totally thought it said CRAB not CARB - who knew they shared the same letters?

  42. I agree that all these studies all saying different things are completely confusing.

    One of the most sensible diets I have read involves eating whole foods and cutting out the processed crap. Keep breads, pastas, rice etc to a minimum but eat lots of vegetables including the ones that have carbs. That sounds sensible to me.

  43. I second the recommendation to read Gary Taubes' "Good Calories Bad Calories". It really spells out the biological function of macronutrients, as well as providing a history of the biases that pervade public health policy and insight as to why the reporting is a lot more confusing than the known facts.

  44. Trying to eat low-carb can be annoying sometimes (when people keep trying to stuff you with lasagna!) and it can be a little confusing, but it's really not that hard once you get into it.

    I started eating low-carb in 2000 and 9 years later I am still 50 pounds lighter than I was when I started the program.

    If I was more strict with myself I could probably lose another 20 pounds, but I introduced some carbs back into my diet (mainly low-carb bread and pasta and a daily piece of dark chocolate), so my current size is my own fault.

  45. Great example of all the nonsense weight-loss diets get us into. They've confused us so much about healthy eating that we think it requires a nutrition degree to do it. To keep it simple, I just encourage eating foods close to their natural state (altho I do cook mine) and eating balanced -- the Plate Model is a good tool for that. Then just enjoy!

  46. I considered looking into the glycemic index, until I found out that carrots were "bad". I don't think so, and I'm not giving them up. Neither do I agree with the "starchy vegetables are bad" theory. Who ever got fat from eating radishes? Or rutabagas or beets? Sweet potatoes? Please. I eat as unprocessed as I can get, though I'm not a nut case about it. If friends want to go for pizza, I can eat pizza. If I'm on the road and there's nothing on the menu that I'll eat other than fish and chips, I can eat that. It may feel like I ate a rock for the next 6 hours, but it's tasty on occasion.

    Regarding language: I find it distracting if spelling is awful, even if first and last letters are the same. In extreme cases, I just can't read it.

  47. If I try to go without eating what people usually refer to as carbs - bread, potatoes, etc. - I end up feeling weak and lacking energy. Also, my brain fogs up. My boyfriend, on the other hand, doesn't feel that way quite so much - in his case, he needs fairly large portions of protein to feel his best. So whenever I make dinner, I make sure there's protein, a "carb" of some kind, and of course veggies/green stuff, and just give him a larger portion of protein and less carbs, and me t'other way around.
    With all these studies, you do have to keep in mind, that PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT!! What's better for one person isn't necessarily going to be better for the other.
    PS. (And if anyone's picturing me as the size of a house and my boyfriend a neanderthal, we're both normal sized, but even he admits that I'm thinner and fitter. So there.) :)

  48. One should not look at GI in isolation. It is important to take Glycaemic Load into account.

    Carrots are ok to eat in moderation even on a low carb diet, because although the type of carbs you find in carrots have a high GI, there aren't all that many carbs per gram of carrot. This means that you have to eat quite a large helping of carrot before you get an unhealthy increase in blood sugar levels.

    Pasta, which people think they can eat loads of because it has a low GI, has a lot of carb per gram of pasta, so you should only eat a small amount of this.

    Also, one should avoid combining fat and large amounts of carbs in the same meal.

    Simple carbs (high GI) increase your blood sugar levels a lot. Your body will produce a correspondingly large amount of insulin in an effort to keep your blood sugar level within an acceptable range. In addition to lowering blood sugar levels, insulin tells your body to store fat. If you simultaneously provide your body with fat, it will be very efficient at piling on the pounds for you.

    For this reason, pizza is excellent for fattening you up, should you ever need to do a Charlize Theron and put on some weight for an oscar winning performance :)

    When considering what foods to eat, counting calories is not always accurate. Fiber is a carb, and has the same amount af calories as other carbs, but as we are unable to digest them, you can ignore any calories that come from fiber.

    You should never cut carbs completely for longer periods of time. An extreme low carb diet will put your body in a state called ketosis, which is great for kicking off your diet, but bad for you in the long run.

    Complex carbs will release a slow trickle of glucose into your blood stream. This will help you stay alert throughout the day. Your brain needs glucose, but certainly nowhere near the amounts we usually provide it with.

    Focus on eating lean proteins(white meat, fish, soy flakes, etc), healthy fats(oily fish, granola oil, virgin olive oil), and small amounts of complex carbs (=loads of veggies, as there are few carbs per gram, and lots of fiber).


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