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Experts: Carbs are not the enemy in health, wellness battle

Navy Ensign Ted Johnson completed the Marine Corps Marathon while following a ketogenic diet, but now he's back on carbs. (Courtesy photo) Navy Ensign Ted Johnson completed the Marine Corps Marathon while following a ketogenic diet, but now he's back on carbs. (Courtesy photo)

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Diets that restrict carbohydrates have their share of followers looking to lose weight. The ketogenic diet, for example, calls for slashing carbs to about 5 percent of calories consumed daily, with fats comprising at least 75 percent, and proteins about 15-20 percent. In comparison, the National Academies guidelines recommend carbohydrates comprise 45-65 percent of the daily diet, with fats at 20-35 percent, and proteins 10-35 percent.

Health care experts agree that cutting carbs may lead to initial weight loss. However, it's not necessarily an effective or wise long-term solution for losing and maintaining weight, they say. Indeed, when it comes to overall health and wellness, carbs are not the enemy.

"I think carbohydrates have gotten a bad name because people tend to lump them all together," said Jonathan Scott, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics. "But not all carbs are created equal," said Scott, who's also an assistant professor in the department of military and emergency medicine at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

The Warfighter Nutrition Guide contains strategies and recommendations for all aspects of performance nutrition for Military Service Members. (USU graphic)
The Warfighter Nutrition Guide contains strategies and recommendations for all aspects of performance nutrition for Military Service Members. (USU graphic)

Scott clarifies that carbs are equal when it comes to calorie count. No matter the source, carbs contain 4 calories per gram. (Proteins also are 4 calories per gram; fats are 9 calories per gram.) However, carbs vary when it comes to nutrition density, or the amount of vitamins including B6, C, and K; and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Nutrient-poor "bad" carbs include processed foods, white bread, sugary beverages, and baked goods. Nutrient-rich "good" carbs include whole grains, beans, dairy, fruits, and vegetables.

"Carbs are really the source of fiber in our diet," Scott said. Studies have found that fiber lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some gastrointestinal illnesses.

"Carbs are the body's most readily available and preferred energy source," Scott added. Digested carbs become glucose. They provide more energy per gram than either fats or proteins offer. Some carbs provide quick bursts of energy, while others provide a steady supply of energy.

Limiting intake of even "good" carbs can lead to an initial rapid weight loss, Scott and other health care experts agree. However, they add, the pounds shed initially are mainly water weight. Further weight loss is linked to an overall decrease in actual calories consumed, not the diet itself. Scott said studies that compared weight loss among participants following diets that were respectively low, moderate, or high in carbohydrates found no significant weight-loss differences among the three groups over time. Many of the studies focused on people with health issues including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, he said.

Navy Ensign Ted Johnson, a USU medical student interested in emergency medicine, followed a ketogenic diet for six months as an experiment, even running the Marine Corps Marathon while following it. Johnson said he lost 10 pounds he really didn't need to lose, with the initial five coming off within the first week or two and the rest over the next few months.

"I was eating at a calorie deficit," Johnson said. "With the keto diet, it's easy to do that because the fat and protein make you feel full longer."

Johnson said his experiment with keto ended mainly because "I missed getting to enjoy some of my favorite foods." He says he's back on carbs, but not the standard American diet, or SAD. "It's called that for a reason," he said, laughing. "I've given up foods with added sugar. I eat a lot of sweet potatoes, whole grains, and a ton of vegetables. In fact, I eat way more vegetables than I ever have before, because all that fiber keeps me full."

Johnson said he does allow himself to cheat during the week following an endurance competition. "I did an ultramarathon recently and basically ate whatever I wanted the following week," he said. "I don’t eat pizza anymore, but I ordered a pizza. I treated myself to a bowl of ice cream. But now I'm back to eating healthy and training for the next race."

Scott said a low-carb diet may help to control blood sugar in patients with diabetes. However, he recommends people focus on the overall quality of what they eat and not a specific macronutrient, such as carbohydrates.

"It's important to be mindful of the types and amounts of carbs we're eating, rather than eliminating an entire group that provides a wide variety of benefits to health," he said. "This really helps to foster and encourage a healthier relationship with food."

USU's Consortium for Health and Military Performance, or CHAMP, has created a nutrition guide for service members to optimize performance and improve and maintain health.

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