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The Latest on Carbs, Fat and Weight Loss

by | Jan 29, 2009

A study published last week in the journal Obesity may make you question whether you really want to rely on the Atkins or South Beach diets to reach your New Year’s Resolution goals.

It is widely believed that low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets support weight loss in most individuals and indeed, there is a good amount of research to back this claim. Despite this, few studies have examined the after effects of a low-carb diet, particularly once normal eating is resumed.

In a new study, scientists had rats consume either a regular high-carb diet or a low-carb, high-fat diet for sixteen days. After this period the diets were switched and rats were maintained on the opposite diet for another sixteen days. Both diets included the same number of calories, so the only difference between the groups was the relative percentage of macronutrients.

As you might expect, while the rats were fed a low-carb, high-fat diet they lost weight compared to rats on a regular diet. Interestingly, however, despite this loss of body weight there was little to no loss of fat, and therefore the rats that lost weight had a relatively higher body fat percentage than the rats fed a normal diet.

The low-carb rats also had lower energy expenditure (exercise and calorie burning) than rats on a normal diet, and the decrease persisted even when the animals were returned to a normal diet. This is consistent with reports of exhaustion in humans undergoing very low-carb diet regimens.

Furthermore, animals that were temporarily put on a low-carb diet regained more weight than animals that were never fed a low-carb diet. This suggests that short term exposure to a low-carb diet increases risk of weight gain compared to no dieting.

Uh oh.

According to this research it is possible that a low-carb diet may actually cause you to gain weight in the long run. How very unfortunate.

But while these results are compelling, do not go stocking up on pasta just yet. First remember that these are rats, not humans. The way scientists change the composition of a rat’s diet is by giving them different pellets of bizarre lab food with various proportions of “nutrients.” This is not the way humans eat (assuming you don’t spend too much time in GNC), nor can it ever reflect a healthy human diet. It would be great if they could put the rats on a diet of seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fatty fish, but that is not the way animal research works. This is something to keep in mind whenever you hear about nutrition studies.

Also, nutrition research using rodents rarely distinguishes between the qualities of different macronutrients. For example, did the “high-fat” diet contain mostly saturated fat, trans fat, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats or all of the above? A similar question can be asked about the quality of carbohydrates, but it is difficult to imagine high-quality carbohydrates coming in pellet form. A huge body of scientific literature suggests that the quality of different macronutrients is far more important to health and weight than relative proportions of refined macronutrients.

Protein is another question mark in this study, which the authors acknowledge. The low-carb diet they used was not high in protein like a typical Atkins style diet. However, their findings were similar to studies that did use higher protein content and their animals were fed sufficient protein to maintain normal body growth, so the effect of protein on their findings is likely to be small. Their goal was to examine the effect of extreme carbohydrate restriction, and this was accomplished.

Regardless of this study’s imperfections, the results shine an interesting light on our current understanding of how relative proportions of dietary macronutrients effect body composition, long-term body weight and metabolism.

Have you experienced weight gain after going off a low-carb diet?

UPDATE: This article is also available at Synapse.

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Sunchokes: Did You Know?

by | Nov 25, 2008

Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes, are one of the few tubers native to North America. Despite the name, these plants are not from Jerusalem nor are they artichokes. They are in fact a type of sunflower, though their flavor is similar to that of an artichoke. For this reason Italian cultivators called them girasole, the Italian translation of sunflower. When pronounced in Italian, girasole sounds similar to Jerusalem. Hence the name Jerusalem artichoke.

Their unique taste and texture make sunchokes a fantastic addition to many foods, however they are particularly useful as a potato substitute for diabetics. Unlike most tubers, sunchokes store their carbohydrates in the form of inulin instead of starch. Our digestive enzymes do not breakdown inulin, so it has a minimal impact on blood sugar and does not raise triglycerides.

The down side of inulin is that since it is not easily digested it can produce gas and bloating in sensitive people. Cooking sunchokes well can minimize this effect. It is also a good idea to eat a small amount the first time you try them and build up your tolerance.

Sunchokes are a good source of potassium, thiamin and phosphorus, and a fantastic source of iron and soluble fiber.

They make a delicious soup, but can also be roasted, sauteed or eaten raw.

What is your favorite way to eat and prepare sunchokes?

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Thanksgiving and the Beginning of Fat Season

by | Nov 19, 2008
Photo by VirtualErn

Photo by VirtualErn

Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for all we have. And as Americans, we love to use this as an excuse to gorge ourselves stupid.

I mean, what self-respecting holiday doesn’t involve a feast?

We are thankful for that turkey! And for the ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing, biscuits, pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, and anything else that happens to be within eye sight.

Okay, maybe some of us are not thankful for the obligatory vegetable casserole, but we know Grandma will be mad if we don’t take at least a little scoop, so we find a small corner of the plate and plop some on. We are grateful for Grandma too, after all.

Yet deep down we all know this is not an isolated meal, but rather the beginning of a feast that lasts from the third Thursday in November until January 1. Holiday parties and family gatherings will start popping up week after week, and all the while the short days and cool weather thwart our best intentions to go for a jog.

Once Thanksgiving comes it will be six long weeks before we again remember to dust off our gym memberships and emerge from our cookie-induced daze as the reality of our new pants size starts to sink in. Yikes.

Health-wise, the holidays are difficult for us all. But don’t worry, I am not going to ask you to forego Thanksgiving dinner. Instead I have a few pieces of advice to keep this Season of Fat in perspective.

Thanksgiving Healthy Eating Tips

  1. Try not to graze. Thanksgiving dinner itself is really not so bad. As much as I sometimes wish it were, this holiday is not Carnitas Day. Usually the most significant sources of calories during the holiday season is the casual eating we do outside of mealtime. When you aren’t in a sit down meal mentality, it’s easy to lose track of how much you are really eating. Avoid the midday chip bowls, artichoke dips and cookie platters, and you are on your way to minimizing the health risks of Thanksgiving.
  2. Beware of the most dangerous foods: breads, sweets, dips, creams, chips, potatoes and cheese. These are the foods that pack in the calories with little nutritional value and minimal satisfaction. It is frighteningly easy to suck down 500 extra calories of chips and onion dip. In fact, you have probably done it. You do not even want to know how many calories are in pumpkin cheese cake (hint: possibly more than in your entire dinner). It is okay to eat these foods, just do not eat them blindly.
  3. Watch your portions. When it comes to snacks, it is easier to be aware of your portions if you take the amount you want to eat and put it on a separate plate. Better yet, just eat structured meals. Trust me, it is way easier to eat less when you are seated and focused on your meal. If not-so-healthy foods are part of your actual meal, help yourself to a normal-sized portion, enjoy it and do not go back for seconds. Eat these foods slowly, savor every bite, and you will not feel deprived.
  4. Eat a balanced meal. Make an effort to have at least half your plate filled with vegetables. No, mashed potatoes do not count (sorry). Even if the vegetables have some sort of cheesy sauce on them, at least they have fiber and nutrients and are low energy density. It is harder to stuff yourself with pie when your belly is full of veggies. The rest of your plate can be turkey, stuffing, potatoes and all the other stuff traditions are made of. Piling your turkey on top of your stuffing is cheating, by the way.
  5. Stay hydrated. Overeating (which you should avoid, but may not succeed at avoiding) can cause dehydration, and thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Drink water throughout your festivities.
  6. Enjoy yourself. The best part about the holiday season is being able to spend it with the people you care about. Your friends and family should be the focus of your holiday, not the food on your plate. Spend the day and meal talking with loved ones and savoring your food rather than silently wolfing it down. If you eat slowly, you are much more likely to eat proper portions and enjoy the food you do eat.

Happy holidays and be healthy!

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    Breakfast Cereal Eaters are Thinner, More Nourished

    by | Nov 12, 2008

    The case for eating breakfast everyday is mounting. We already know that people who eat breakfast are generally thinner than those who do not. They also tend to eat a healthier diet overall. Now new data suggest that the nutritional quality of your breakfast is also important for your health. Surprise!

    A study published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is the first to address how your choice of breakfast is correlated with the quality of food chosen during the rest of the day. The scientists combined dietary data from three continuous National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (1999-2004) to determine energy density, nutritional quality and variety of foods eaten. They also examined the relationship between breakfast choices and body mass index (BMI). A total of 12,316 people were analyzed.

    Eighty percent of people in the study reported eating breakfast. Although breakfast eaters ate more total daily calories during the study, the foods they chose tended to be of lower energy density. Lower energy density foods have fewer calories per gram and are usually associated with more nutritious fare such as fruits, vegetables and grains. Examples of higher energy density foods are meats, cheeses and processed carbohydrates.

    Interestingly, breakfasts of lower energy density, such as cereal with milk and fruit, were an indication of a more diverse diet throughout the rest of the day. In other words, participants who ate cereal for breakfast were more likely to report eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and other healthful foods overall. This was true whether or not breakfast itself was included in the calculation.

    People who chose breakfasts of higher energy density ate fewer different kinds of foods, but more pastries and junk foods. Countless studies have shown that dietary diversity is one of the best predictors of good health. This was confirmed in this study, as higher energy density breakfasts predicted fewer beneficial micronutrients consumed overall.

    The researchers also found that seventeen percent of people who ate breakfast reported items that could not be “grouped into the major food groups,” things such as pastries, confections and meal replacement drinks and bars. With this the authors of the study point out that a significant percentage of Americans do not eat “real food” for breakfast (somewhere Michael Pollan is smiling and nodding). Not surprisingly, this group comprised the highest average energy density of any type of breakfast.

    Women (but not men) that did not eat breakfast had a higher average BMI. This was true regardless of body image or attempted weight loss. In both men and women, breakfast energy density showed a linear positive association with BMI. This means that even for people who do eat breakfast, if you eat foods with higher energy density you will probably weigh more.

    In English, what this all means is that although eating breakfast alone does a body good, it is much better if your breakfast is cereal and fruit rather than eggs and meat.

    There is no clear cause and effect in an analysis of this kind, however there seems to be a correlation between eating less healthy foods at breakfast and making poor food choices throughout the day. While it is possible that some people simply make unhealthy selections all the time, there is also a possibility that your breakfast choices affect metabolic and hormonal systems that alter your cravings for different foods over the course of the day. Indeed, there are studies showing that people who eat whole grains in the morning have altered insulin responses for nine to twelve hours after eating.

    Even if your breakfast choice does not have a direct impact on the rest of your food selections, choosing cereals and fruit will certainly bring you a step closer to better health. Pouring a bowl of whole grain cereal and adding some fruit is pretty simple, and I guarantee you it is easier than making eggs and sausage. Do yourself a favor and save the cakes and donuts for dessert.

    This article can also be found at Synapse.

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