Most nutrition debate these days is fueled by carbs - or lack of. Our fear of fat has faded and now we're in a state of carbo-phobia. No wonder people are confused about nutrition.
The Atkins diet - and its relatives like the Zone diet - have renewed popularity. Arguably the suggestion to quit carbs comes after decades of dismal low fat campaigning that didn't stop the rot within our healthcare crisis which is the Western diet.
Experts have suggested that lowering carb intake can have health benefits, but that's partly because many people eat excessive amounts of sugar, refined grain and processed food. So, if eating less carbs means cutting out the crap, then it's a point hard to argue against.
Going low carb means cutting out or restricting your intake of potato, bread, pasta, rice, baked products and much, much more. Meanwhile, you would increase healthy fats, and possibly protein. If done right, this is nutritionally sound. However, people often go into low carb dieting blind.
The confusion and controversy lies with very low carb diets of less than 50g a day. For some people, a low to very low carb diet has its benefits, but this must be in the right context.
Lower carb diets seem to have the largest health benefits for those with insulin resistance. It is debated that this is large proportion of the population and is characterised by impaired carbohydrate tolerance, which can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, along with other health issues.
But a headline claiming A call for a low carb diet that embraces fat would suggest a common consensus has formed. It hasn't, although it does have to be considered by the medical world with an open and unbiased mind. This has been driving Dr Caryn Zinn to educate NZ dietitians over the past couple of years on the importance of adding a low-carb prescription to their toolbox.
Regardless of the carb controversy it's important not to demonise everything sweet and starchy. For a healthy person, including a sensible amount of carbohydrates in your diet is perfectly fine.
Here are some points to consider.
Low carb diets may help you lose weight faster, but not necessarily keep it off forever.
Evidence suggests any diet can help you lose weight in the short term, with low carb diets having a slight advantage. However, after a couple of years of dieting, there is often no difference in weight loss between different strategies. This indicates that the best diet is one that you can stick to. There is also debate about whether low carb diets are actually low calorie diets in disguise - or vice versa.
Do you have insulin resistance or carbohydrate intolerance?
If an individual can't metabolise carbohydrate efficiently, then they should moderate or reduce the amount of carbohydrates in their diet. This is what most of the evidence supports and is a main message among low carb academics. However, diabetics need to tread with caution and seek professional advice first, especially if you're insulin dependent.
Low carb diets can be an effective therapy for various conditions, but not a magic bullet.
Depending on the person and context, a well-managed low carb diet can be used as an effective treatment for metabolic syndrome and diabetes, drug-resistant epilepsy, hypertension, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, some neurological conditions, dyslipidemia and inflammation.
Low carb diets don't necessarily benefit everyone.
Some people thrive on long term, low carb diets. Their weight is stable, they're full of energy and have no, or minimal, health concerns. Though, it doesn't mean the whole population should be given a blanket prescription of removing everything sweet and starchy.
If lowering carbs is therapeutic for a condition, it doesn't necessarily mean carbs caused it in the first place.
Even though low carb diets have been shown to reverse some of the metabolic markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it doesn't necessarily imply that eating carbs was the instigator. This means that despite treatment and prevention strategies overlapping, they are also distinctly different and nutritional intervention should reflect this.
Low carb diets are a lifestyle choice.
Good health is a by-product of eating the right food in sensible combinations every day. Success in cutting down on carbs requires lifestyle changes like understanding the consequences and learning new skills. The best diet for you is one that you can sustain.
There are different types of carbs.
Unless someone can tell me otherwise, there are no studies linking fruit and vegetables with being fat and sick. Both beans and nuts contain carbs, yet are incredibly nutritious. Some of the longest living populations in the world get most of their calories from carbs too, with the common trend being that it comes from wholefoods.
Everyone sits on a spectrum of carbohydrate tolerance. Some people need to restrict how much of it they eat. While others can get away with eating truck loads of the stuff, but this may cause problems in the long run. The one thing we can all agree on is that the population would benefit greatly by eating a diet consisting of minimally packaged and processed food. To achieve this is one of the greatest challenges we face today.