WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN LOK
The Carbs You Need
While training at her Edmonds home for an Ironman competition, Loree Bolin drinks a liquid that contains carbohydrates, proteins and electrolytes to help keep her going. After the session, she'll eat a meal high in carbs, including a yogurt-fruit smoothie and barley.
CARBOHYDRATES HAVE weathered a shock-and-awe assault over the years through diet plans, advertising campaigns and books. So I wasn't surprised to hear one estimate that close to half of all Americans have either tried a low-carb diet, are on one or will likely try it in the future.
Why? Because carbs are enemy No. 1 in the fattening of America, of course. But not so fast. Like most things, it is not that clear-cut.
Dietary guidelines released earlier this year by the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture recommend that people place more emphasis on counting calories, exercising and choosing the right kinds of carbs.
Eat your vegetables and...
The government's joint 2005 dietary guidelines list the following under "Food Groups to Encourage":
Consume a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables while staying within energy needs. Two cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables per day are recommended for a 2,000-calorie intake, with higher or lower amounts depending on the calorie level.
Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. In particular, select from all five vegetable subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables and others) several times a week.
Consume 3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day; the rest of the recommended grains should come from enriched or whole-grain products. In general, at least half the grains should come from whole grains.
Consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products.
Lola O'Rourke, a nutrition consultant for the American Dietetic Association, urges people to limit carb-rich snacks that are high in simple sugars like cookies and cakes. Choose complex carbohydrates and carbohydrates from whole (rather than refined) foods. Complex carbohydrates (grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal, beans (legumes), vegetables and low-sugar cereals) provide longer-lasting energy and more nutrients. "These foods all provide fiber, vitamins, minerals and in many cases antioxidants, which may help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer," she says.
While fruits contain more simple carbohydrates, they are still a healthy choice because they provide fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. O'Rourke agrees with several experts who believe the anti-carb trend has blurred important nuances of fitness and health.
Dr. Emily Cooper, who works with both high-performance athletes and folks trying to lose or maintain weight, says both groups are confused about carbs. "I see a lot of people who work out constantly and say they are hardly eating, but not losing weight," she says. "Most of those people are on low-carb diets."
Carbs provide the main source of ready fuel and, when you don't eat enough of them, says Cooper of Seattle Performance Medicine, your body converts protein into carbs to satisfy its need. Only protein can substitute. Fat stores can't fill the gap.
"Once we begin to burn up our protein stores, which are located in our muscles and immune system, primarily," she says, "we begin to lose lean mass. And our percentage of fat mass increases. Since lean mass drives the metabolic rate, this breakdown process slows the metabolism."
Restricting carbs not only influences the efficiency of the body's internal system, she says, but it reduces endurance, lowering the amount of time, exertion and productivity of workouts. Even some athletes aren't getting enough, says Cooper.
Loree Bolin is a Lake Stevens dentist, mom and, at age 50, a size 4. She had run marathons, but never finished well — "faltering" is how she puts it. Working with Cooper, Bolin determined she wasn't eating nearly enough calories, especially carbs, to match the hours of training she was doing.
Bolin has since followed a strict meal plan, even hiring a personal chef to prepare ready-to-go meals and snacks. She will be competing in an Ironman race in June. "I could not have gone from a struggling marathoner to an Ironman competitor without fuel that came from added carbs," she says.
Cooper says serious athletes like Bolin who work out hard for an extended period also need proper carbs after workouts to take advantage of the "glycogen window." That's a period when the body restores carbohydrate balance. Failing to do that, Cooper says, can slow the metabolism for up to four days.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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