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Carb Comeback

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THE low-carb craze shows no sign of slowing, but if you've begun to sneak grains back into your diet, don't despair.

The new trend is to be smart about carbs - not to avoid them altogether, a July article in Fitness Magazine reveals. Here, a sneak peek at the magazine's "New Carb Rules," by Peter Jaret:

1. If you work out, carbs are your friend.

"Low-carb diets aren't appropriate for women who exercise even a few times a week," says Chris Carmichael, author of "Chris Carmichael's Food for Fitness." "Carbohydrates supply the quick-burning fuel you need for energy."

Eliminate carbs from your diet, and you will feel sluggish and unable to exercise at your maximum intensity - thus you'll burn fewer calories per session.

Popular low-carb diets start you off at a daily intake as low as 20 grams. "But you need 30 to 60 grams in just one post-workout meal to replenish glucose stores," says Carmichael.

If you're on a low-carb diet, modify it to include at least 130 grams of carbohydrates a day - the minimum amount you need to stay healthy, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

2. Calories count, not carbs.

When it comes to weight, calories, not carbs, are the pivotal factor. This was shown in a comprehensive review of 107 studies on low-carbohydrate diets published last year and in a recent long-term University of Pennsylvania study.

Researchers put volunteers on either a low-carb or a low-fat diet for a year. At the six-month mark, the low-carb group had dropped an average of 22 pounds while the low-fat group had lost 11. By the end of the study, however, the average weight loss in the two groups was just about the same: 11 to 15 pounds.

"Diets that tell you exactly what you can and can't eat are easy to follow, and that may be why the low-carb group ate less and lost more weight at first," says study author Gary Foster, clinical director of the university's Weight and Eating Disorders program. "In the long run, it's calories that matter."

3. The right carbs fight disease and prevent weight gain.

Fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans are the high-carbohydrate foods to emphasize in any diet plan. The fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in carb-rich plant foods also protect against heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Harvard researchers examined the diets and health status of more than 75,000 women and found that those who ate at least 21/2 servings of whole grains a day were 30 percent less likely to develop heart disease over 10 years than those who ate less.

Several studies show that people who center their meals on these foods have an easier time managing their weight.

4. Refined carbs aren't poison.

Many experts believe that a major reason "good carbs" like whole grains keep you slim and healthy and "bad carbs" like white bread and sugar make you fat has to do with their position on a scale called the glycemic index (GI), which ranks carbohydrate foods by how quickly they're converted to glucose.

According to the theory, high-GI foods cause a spike in glucose level that prompts the body to release a flood of insulin. In turn, insulin drops blood sugar levels so low that you get hungry again quickly and eat more. Low-GI foods are digested slowly and release glucose gradually.

The popular diet books make it sound as if GI is an accepted theory, but in fact it's one of the most hotly debated topics in nutrition research.

The reason to eat fewer refined carbs isn't that they're high-GI. It's that they contribute far too many extra calories to the average woman's diet.

"Sugar alone makes up 18 percent of daily calories yet provides no vitamins, minerals or fiber," says Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, who directs research at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center. "So if weight loss is your goal, sweets and white-flour products like baked goods are where you'll want to cut back."

5. Pasta, bread and potatoes can be health foods.

Research shows that 40 percent of people who've tried low-carb diets say that they're hard to stick with for more than a few months at a time. If pasta, bread, potatoes and rice are among your favorite foods, you need a strategy that lets you eat them.

Watching portion size is key. A cup of cooked pasta, the recommended serving, has around 200 calories. But when New York University researchers sampled pasta dishes served at local fast-food outlets and family restaurants in 2002, the serving size averaged almost five cups.

Although these foods may not be as nutritionally stellar as broccoli, you can make them healthier by using them as a platform for more nutritious foods.

For instance, combine a half cup of rice with a tablespoon of chopped cashews, a half cup of diced chicken, and vegetables like broccoli, bok choy and red peppers and you'll have a dish rich in fiber and nutrients for about 400 calories.

6. Low-carb products can make you gain.

The thousands of low-carb products that have entered the market in the last few years have many nutritionists worried. "If people get the idea that as long as a food is low-carb they can eat as much as they want, we're in trouble," says Pelkman.

These products may be lower in calories if the sugar has been replaced with an artificial sweetener. But often the manufacturer alters the carb count by trading wheat flour for high-protein ingredients, like soy flour or wheat protein, or swapping sugar for sugar alcohols (like sorbitol). The calorie count can stay the same or even increase.

For example, one low-carb pancake mix weighs in at 320 calories per serving, compared to just 250 for the classic brand. Make that switch every day, and you'll put on a pound in 6 weeks.

Even when calories stay the same, the fat content can jump. Both Ben & Jerry's Carb Karma Vanilla Swiss Almond Ice Cream and Cherry Garcia Low Fat Frozen Yogurt have 170 calories per half-cup. The ice cream has less than half the carbs, but it also contains 15 grams of fat.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing from the July 2004 issue of Fitness Magazine. "The New Carb Rules" copyright © 2004 by Peter Jaret.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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