Once upon a time, grains (wheat, rice, millet, etc.) were the darlings of nutrition: plant-based, full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They formed the base of the old food pyramid, with recommendations to eat 6-11 servings per day. But like a plot twist in a Christopher Nolan movie, grains have become vilified over the last 10 or 15 years: empty calories, the real reason Americans are getting fatter. From the Atkins Diet to the South Beach Diet, and now the Paleo Diet, “carbs” are now the whipping boy of popular nutrition. Is this reputation justified?
First of all, what do these diets mean when they say “carbs”? Short for carbohydrates, they’re referring to the highly processed and refined grain products such as white bread, bagels, most breakfast cereals, pasta, and white rice. Of course, as any student in my beginning nutrition class could tell you, carbohydrates are also in healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans. So first and foremost, we need to distinguish the type of carb we’re talking about, before we label it with that four-letter word. Yes, those highly refined grain products are low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and contribute to difficulties in blood sugar regulation that can lead to increased hunger, weight gain, and eventually even insulin resistance or diabetes.
The trend over the last decade has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. Whole grains (100% whole wheat, brown rice, millet, and quinoa, to name a few) are nutritional powerhouses, and make sense as part of a balanced diet that includes lots of vegetables, moderate amounts of fruit, as well as nuts, seeds, beans, and moderate amounts of meat or eggs.
A 2005 study published in JAMA compared several different types of diet with wildly different proportions of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. The results? As long as folks adhered to it, they all lost weight and improved their cholesterol levels.
I’ve seen a lot of fad diets over the last couple of decades. My personal hypothesis is that they all work to some extent for two simple reasons:
- They provide a structure for including more healthy foods in the diet, especially vegetables, while cutting down on portion sizes and total calories.
- They almost all start off by cutting out the refined grain products (bad carbs). Some go on to restrict all grains (Atkins, Paleo, etc.), but either way, this eliminates most of the junk food from the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.).