Carbohydrates are important and necessary in our diets and have generated a great deal of attention over the past decade due to the low carbohydrate weight loss craze. Marketing trends have played off of that low carb craze and so have dieting plans that count "points" and provide different "rules" based on what carbs are being consumed. Could this confusing information and marketing ploy be affecting your weight loss success?
Most of us know the basic truth about carbohydrates. We know there are simple carbohydrates that increase the blood sugar level which brings a surge of insulin and roller coaster of highs and lows. We know we need to limit our intake as much as possible. We are equally aware that complex carbohydrates provide necessary energy for the brain and body need to live the active life we desire to live. We know about the importance of indigestible carbohydrates called fiber and the benefits it provides to our digestive health. In our healthy eating plan we watch our total carbohydrate intake and know that they come from a variety of foods such as sugars, fruits, vegetables, legumes, milk and grain products.
Extremely low carbohydrate diets that restrict intake to 20-30 total grams in a day are harmful to the body but since they provide weight loss results they have become popular regardless of the long term risks to the body. To me it just goes to show how willing we are to see a change of number on a scale that we are willing to ignore the long term risks for a short term benefit. Add to that the new marketing focus of "net carb" counting and you have a recipe for messed up metabolic responses and weight loss confusion and frustration. I think it is important to point out that there is NO legal definition for "net" "active" or "impact" carbs. The only FDA regulated carbohydrate information is total carbohydrate with the break down of dietary fiber and sugars. The idea that a food item can have 30 grams of total carbohydrate but only 2 grams of "impact" carbs counts because the other 27 grams are from sugar alcohols can make us feel better but if you skip the part on the label that says that those 2 grams of impact carbs also come with 260 calories, you have missed a lot. If you eat a food that provides 2 net or impact carbs and 75 calories or you consume 2 net or impact carbs from a food that provides 250 calories, you are kidding yourself if you think you are consuming equal foods. Using a made up marketing trend to measure your intake could be limiting your weight loss success.
What if I told you perhaps the simple versus complex versus total amount of carbohydrate discussion is only part of the story? Diabetics have known for a while that glycemic index guidelines can also be a helpful tool in managing blood glucose levels. There are many weight loss diets that have taken the glycemic index principles and packaged them as a diet regimen. For some it can be helpful especially if the person has a degree of glucose intolerance issues that are contributing to their weight management issues. For other people, following these diet guidelines could be a contributor to weight loss frustrations. Looking at glycemic index numbers alone only looks at part of the way the body uses carbohydrates but where weight is concerned, there is more to it than just the raise and rate of blood glucose levels. Something that may be even more practical is using the glycemic load. Glycemic load looks not only at the quantity of response but also the quality. The glycemic load is determined by the glycemic index plus the amount of carbohydrate available for the body to use. Consider this example - a large carrot has a high glycemic index, however, since it is made up mostly of water, there are only about 5 grams of available carb for the body to use. A cup of spaghetti on the other hand while it has a similar glycemic index also contains 38 grams of carbohydrate for the body to use so it has a glycemic load that is eight times higher than the carrot. Following a low glycemic index diet for blood glucose control makes a great deal of sense but if you are having trouble with weight loss using these same principles, focusing on glycemic load may be more beneficial.
A Harvard multi-year study that looked at overweight woman found that those who ate a high glycemic load diet increased risks of developing coronary heart disease as well as increased risks of diabetes, gallbladder disease and elevated triglycerides, cholesterol and c-reactive protein (which is an inflammation marker related to a number of diseases). Likewise, they found that the glycemic index/glycemic load ratio may play a key role in weight loss. So if you are having trouble moving that scale and you are eating enough calories and including the right types and amounts of your macro nutrients, consider lowering your glycemic load. When you look at the list and compare that with all those that talk about following a low carbohydrate diet and seeing results, perhaps you will find that maybe it was related more to changing the glycemic load and the amount of sugar the body had to process.
The Bottom Line
Your body needs carbohydrate energy every day, throughout the day. Your muscles need them if you are active and your brain needs them to keep you sharp and clear. It is important to be aware of simple carbohydrate intake and limit them when possible in favor of complex, whole grain options. For many people, making sure macro nutrient intake and total calorie intake are in line and balanced with activity is enough to reach weight loss goals. For other people, especially those with conditions that effect glucose metabolism, it is necessary to look at macro nutrients like carbohydrates a little closer to see weight loss success. Don't fall prey to the marketing and dieting ploy to use net carb as an evaluation tool. Instead, consider the foods that you typically eat and how they rate related to glycemic load. You may find that making some small modifications is all your body needs to see the results you desire.
Did you know that "net carbs" was not an official FDA definition? Have you ever thought about the glycemic load of your carbohydrate intake? Will you now?
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