For the 24% of California women struggling with obesity, the word “carbohydrate” likely evokes more than a little bit of stress. For years, experts have debated the utility of foods such as breads and grains in a healthy diet; some experts recommend a diet rich in whole grains, while others recommend, as much as possible, their complete exclusion.
Two seemingly conflicting studies released this week added yet another confusing chapter to this ongoing saga. The first one, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital, evaluated the metabolic effects of three different (and calorically similar) diets on previously obese women whose weight had stabilized after losing approximately 30 pounds each: a 20% fat diet, a 10% carbohydrate diet, and a low-glycemic/Mediterranean diet. Researchers conducting this study found that the women following the low-carbohydrate diet burned the caloric equivalent of about an hour’s worth of exercise more than women following the low-fat diet.
The second study, looking at the 15-year health histories of 44,000 Swedish women, found that a gradually increasing risk of heart disease was correlated with dietary decreases in carbohydrate intake and increases in protein intake. Translated into food, a dietary addition of 5 grams of protein, combined with the exclusion of 20 grams of carbohydrate (about equal to one ounce of meat and a slice and a half of bread) increased the likelihood of a cardiovascular event by 5%.
While these two studies may seem to conflict, considered together, they present some interesting take home messages.
First of all, weight does not equal health. Pounds on a scale simply indicate your physical body’s interaction with gravity. They do not reflect your health on the inside. While there is a trend toward healthier people being leaner, research does suggest that extreme measures of diet and/or exercise are not the way to achieve a lower weight.
Secondly, while proportions of carbohydrates, protein, and fat are important to keep in mind, they are not the only component of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates are best chosen from the low-glycemic category: vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Best protein choices are low in saturated fat, for example, seafood. Even the researchers in the first study acknowledge, despite the omission of this finding in the title of their article, that a low-glycemic/Mediterranean diet is probably the best option of the three diets they tested. It would be hard to argue that a diet with a regular intake donuts and bacon is the equivalent of one rich in seafood and sweet potatoes!
Thirdly, be sure to read the text of an article. These days, sound bites and 140 character Twitter declarations seem to predominate in the medical advice giving arena. There are always disclaimers and details to qualify any study.
The fact that no extreme diet has ever been proven superior in losing weight or maintaining it once it is lost supports the reality that sensible eating, meaning a wide variety of choices made in moderation, are your best choice for prolonged health.