Keeping with new findings, “slow carbs” feature prominently in the top-ranked 2020 diets, according to U.S. News and World Report. The Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet, and Flexitarian Diet each include whole grains on the menu. Why are they better than no carbs?
In February 2019, The Great Courses Daily published a news post featuring new evidence about carbohydrates and their place on—or off—your plate. While the medical community has long suggested that cutting out most or all carbohydrates could be the key to weight loss, new research showed that it may be more advisable to switch to “slow carbs” instead of no carbs. Almost a year later, U.S. News and World Report has once again published its annual “Best Diets Overall” list and each of the top three nutritional regimens include whole grains—minimally processed whole kernel grains. However, the Keto diet placed 34th on the list. So why aren’t all carbs created equal?
Long Chain, Long Breakdown
“We classify carbohydrates by their structure, from simplest to most complex, and these include monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides,” said Dr. Michael Ormsbee, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences and Assistant Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.
“In all of these types of carbohydrates, the term ‘saccharide’ means sugar, from the Greek word saccharum. The prefixes mono, di, oligo, and poly refer to how many sugars are linked together. So mono would be one sugar, di would be two sugar molecules, oligo would be three to nine molecules, and poly would be 10 or more sugar molecules bound together.”
According to Dr. Ormsbee, the length of the carbohydrate chain is a major factor in the rate of carbohydrate breakdown. Longer chains mean more time spent in the stomach being digested and broken down. Of course, the longer these foods spend in your stomach, the more time you’ll feel full throughout your day.
“Another interesting factor that determines the rate of carbohydrate breakdown is the shape of the carbohydrate,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “Starch, which is a carbohydrate from plant sources, can have two basic forms. Amylose is a straight, long-chain molecule, which is digested slowly. Amylopectin, on the other hand, is a highly branched and rapidly digested molecule due to the increased surface area of the molecule due to the branched structure.”
Separating the Wheat from the Fads
While they’re all different diets, Atkins, Paleo, and Keto have some major similarities. All stress a high-fat, low-carb diet.
“Overall, there is actually a lot of evidence to show improvements in health, body composition, and other physiological functions with a higher-fat, low-carbohydrate approach,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “Advocates of [these] diets point to research that shows more fat oxidation or fat burning with this sort of diet and rapid weight loss.”
So what’s the catch? Dr. Orsmbee said most people on high-fat diets tend to eat more fast food, fried food, and processed meats with no discrimination between types of fats and no reduction in carb intake. Furthermore, exercise helps our bodies use fat as fuel and carbs are proven to increase our exercise performance.
A high-fat, low-carb diet may not be the magic cure-all that some of its proponents claim. However, Dr. Ormsbee noted, virtually all nutrition plans are rife with pros and cons depending on how you live your life every day. The biggest variable in each diet is you; only you can pick the one based on your personal lifestyle.
So once you do that, how should you adapt to your new diet in 2020?
“It’s all about taking care of the most basics first,” he said. “For example, maybe just eat more vegetables for three weeks until it becomes part of your daily routine. Then, and only then, try a new habit like eating more lean protein for a few weeks.”
“The best approach is to pick just one or two attainable goals and master them.”
Dr. Michael Ormsbee contributed to this article. Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Assistant Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.