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Most nutrition experts today support a diet high in carbohydrates (55-60% of total calories), low in fat (<30% of total calories) and moderate in protein (10-15% of total calories). However, other dietary ratios have made headlines in recent years. In particular, enthusiasm has been growing for a diet in which carbohydrates are virtually eliminated while fat and protein are increased. Is it time for you to cut back on your carbs and boost your protein and fat?

Not so fast, says Debra Wein, MS, RD, nutritionist and exercise physiologist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Don’t pass the pasta and say good-bye to bagels just yet. We know from decades of research that a diet rich in carbohydrate foods such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits helps to prevent disease, maintain healthy body weight and optimize athletic performance. There is no substantial evidence to support a change in that recommendation.

Some of the carb-bashing theories have focused on the glycemic index (GI), a system for classifying foods based on their effect on blood sugar level. For example, the GI rating for pure sugar is 100 because it is absorbed very quickly and causes a rapid rise in blood sugar. At the other end of the scale, lentils, peanuts and fructose (the natural sugar found in fruit) rate a score of 30 or lower because they are absorbed more slowly and create only a modest rise in blood sugar. Low-fat or nonfat, processed foods such as cookies and cakes, have a high GI due to the abundance of simple sugars added for taste when fat is removed. High-fiber foods, such as whole-grain bread, have a lower GI.

Many nutrition experts believe the GI itself has limited practical value since most people consume a variety of foods together in meals. However, the underlying concept -- that all carbohydrates are not equal -- is an important one. We do need to be concerned about the quality of the carbohydrates we eat, says Wein. Complex carbs from whole grains, vegetables and fruits not only provide fiber to keep the digestive tract running smoothly but also supply a better balance of vitamins and minerals than highly refined simple sugars. Heavily processed foods with a lot of refined sugars can have a negative impact on your blood sugar level, your mood and your ability to stop eating. You can find yourself caught in a vicious circle of carbohydrate consumption that ultimately leads to unhealthy weight gain, Wein says.

Scientists believe the types of carbs found in convenience foods can dangerously raise triglycerides and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, particularly in people who are insulin resistant, as many diabetics are. In short, you are safer with whole foods, such as grains, fruits and vegetables. If you can’t buy fresh products, frozen is better than canned because the freezing process locks in freshness and maintains vitamin and mineral content.

How can you make sure you get enough of the right kinds of carbohydrates in your diet? Here are some tips to expand your food choices and optimize the nutritional value of the carbs in your diet:

Combine beans with a grain-based food, such as pasta or rice, for a tasty, well-balanced meal.

Try wild rice, brown rice, Spanish rice or long-grain rice instead of white.

Enjoy different types of whole-grain and multi-grain breads with sandwiches.

Try topping pancakes or waffles with fruit instead of syrup.

Increase the fiber content of your diet. The National Cancer Institute recommends 20-35 grams of fiber per day. Some high-fiber foods include baked beans, lima beans, pears, strawberries, brussels sprouts, apples and certain cereals (read labels).

These recommendations will help you maintain your health and your weight. Beware of diets that severely restrict carbohydrate intake. Such diets cause rapid water loss (as opposed to fat loss) and fatigue. Create a healthy diet for yourself that you can maintain for life. Variety and moderation are the keys!

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Note: Information on this site is intended for general reference purposes only and is not intended to address specific medical conditions. Information on this site is not a substitute for professional medical advice or a medical exam. Prior to participating in any exercise program or activity, you should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. No health information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.

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