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It’s the Calories, not the Carbs!

Posted By Mark Sisson On June 19, 2007 @ 5:20 pm In Carbs,Diet,Health,Nutrition,Sisson Said What?,Weight Loss | 17 Comments

Although I think the current food pyramid ought to emphasize vegetables over other sources of carbohydrates, you still need some carbohydrates in your daily diet. (Yes, you read that correctly.) I happen to believe a nutrient-loaded bowl of fresh broccoli is a more intelligent – not to mention tastier – dietary choice than a slice of bread and infinitely better than a Pop Tart. I don’t think many would quibble with my Pop Tart derision, but plenty of people take understandable issue with my unfavorable opinion of grains. We’ve been told grains are healthy – to say otherwise must be crazy-talk!

Grains do have a little fiber – sometimes – and offer some vitamins and protein. But, so do vegetables – for far fewer calories. Even whole grain food products tend to come with preservatives, added fats, and corn syrup – not always, of course, but I’m thinking in terms of the typical American diet. Someone is buying all those hamburgers and french fries. Not you? Okay, good.

One of many reasons for favoring vegetables over grains is the calorie factor – grains just have more calories than vegetables. A lot of people hope to lose weight without cutting calories, so they eliminate an entire macro-nutrient category. Axing a whole category is easy at first, and gives one a sense of accomplishment. It feels good. We did it in the 90s with fat. As it turns out, many forms of fat are vital and nutritious, so that wasn’t a smart idea. Now we condemn carbohydrates, which is fine, but I see people chowing on bacon and avoiding “too many” vegetables! How long before we start rethinking carbohydrates? This is why I stress the need for portion control. Eat a little fat, eat a little protein, eat a little (smart) carbohydrate – eat a little.

You can lose weight on a high-protein diet, but few stick with it for more than a few months. I agree with the philosophy of the higher-protein, higher-fat diets in that it’s essential to cut out the refined carbohydrates for optimal health. If we eliminated refined foods, particularly refined sweeteners in the form of snacks and sodas, I think it’s probable that we would see a welcome drop in heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Refined and even whole-grain carbohydrates are not the most nutritious source of calories.

What’s more important to you: being healthy or being thin? I would hope both! If you want both, you’re going to have to come up with a sensible long term solution beyond completely eliminating a macro-nutrient, because that’s not reasonable or healthy. Eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet, but remember that weight management is still about calories, calories, calories. None of us needs to be feasting on massive steaks or wolfishly consuming the excessive portions restaurants dish out. Shaq is an exception.

To that end, I recommend limiting portions and getting the most out of every single calorie. Why eat a bag of peach-flavored chips [7] when you could eat a real peach for half the calories and a good dose of unprocessed, real nutrition?

Carbs are an instant energy source, and some amount of carbs are necessary to function – though you can be healthier and leaner on a lot less starch than the food pyramid would have you believe. You don’t “need” 6 to 11 servings of grains every day. In fact, I think if we all but removed the grain section from the pyramid, we’d be right in step with an entirely natural diet for humans. We need a lot less of the grains and a lot more of the vegetables, nuts and legumes. And even though fruits are a source of sugar, we also need some fruit to be healthy – berries are best. Guess what? Those fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are legitimate sources of quality fibrous carbs, and they’re necessary to health. (The grains, on the other hand, not so much. But it’s folly to lump all carbohydrates into one “evil” category, just as it was folly to lump all fats into one “evil” category. As we all know, there are vitally important and highly nutritious fats, like Omega-3′s, that we need to consume with reckless abandon.)

When we eat grain and sugar-based carbohydrates, we are more likely to store fat, suffer inflammation, create an imbalanced metabolic response, and stress our organs. (I cover issues like grain agriculture and human development in greater detail in my weekly op/ed, Primal Health [8].) That said, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. Certain calories, like refined carbohydrates, can prompt unhealthy reactions in the body, and may be more prone to store as fat because they seem to trigger a particularly stressful metabolic response. So, the key to health is in making the most of your calories by choosing nutritious ones that compliment the way our bodies work. But the key to weight loss? It’s still the calories, baby. Any more than you need to get through your day and you can bet dollars to donuts your body will find a way to store it all for future use.

Food is a great pleasure. I could never make it on a severely restrictive diet, nor would I want to. I advise that when you eat, choose the most nutritious, valuable calories possible, and keep it small. I do recommend limiting grain-based carbohydrates, not because I believe in “restrictive” diets, but because the evolutionary evidence indicates to me that we just aren’t meant to eat them. When you do eat non-vegetable carbs, limit them to very light portions, and choose natural starches that won’t send your pancreas into overdrive. Make fresh produce the base of your diet rather than attempting to adhere to a severely restrictive, high-calorie diet that demonizes an entire macro-nutrient. Remember, it’s the calories.

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