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Will Low-Carb Diets Ultimately Make Us Fat?

Many low-carb diets emphasize eating only "good" carbs from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but supermarkets are being flooded with low-carb junk food.

Food Fight

At the heart of the food fights on what will sustain weight loss and lower heart disease risk is the indisputable fact that American waist sizes are expanding.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 64% of adults aged 20 years and older are overweight or obese, a 20% jump from the early 1960s. In preteens and teenagers, the numbers of overweight are both at 15%, compared with about 4% each 40 years ago.

The figures are especially alarming given that risks of developing diabetes and heart disease increase with weight.

Experts blame a sedentary lifestyle and bigger food portion sizes for the bulge. But there is also some finger pointing at the role of processed foods and junk food such as white breads, white rice, pasta, soda, chips, and cookies.

Wiant says many of the low-fat products caused weight gain because manufacturers added carbohydrates to the food to make up for the lack of fat.

Low-carb critics could apparently make the same argument. In order to replace carbohydrates, food makers have had to add fat, protein, fiber, water, or sugar-free sweeteners.

"You can't have a low-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-protein food, because then, what have you got?" says George Bray, MD, Boyd Professor in the division of nutrition and chronic diseases at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in the Louisiana State University system. "Whenever someone lowers something, there's been a relative replacement by something else."

The sugar alcohols in many low-carb products -- namely sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol -- particularly concern Roger Clemens, PhD, a food science communicator for the Institute of Food Technologists. Although the sweeteners have been shown to be generally safe, Clemens worries about the presence of the sugar alcohols in so many foods.

"The sweeteners were never intended for larger quantities," he says, noting that some people may experience stomachaches, gas, and diarrhea with greater consumption of such products.

Other low-carb ingredients such as fiber and soy can also cause gastrointestinal distress, warns Dorfman.

License to Eat

There are those who believe that the low-fat movement of the 1990s actually encouraged weight gain. Because people thought they were eating low-fat products, they reportedly ate more. Some food experts fear the same trend could happen with low-carb goods.

Katherine Tallmadge, also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, is no fan of low-carb diets. Yet she does say the one good thing about them is that they initially kept people away from processed foods.

"Unfortunately, the trend is starting to undo itself," she says, pointing to the wave of low-carb junk food. "The one benefit of that diet is being undone with all of these low-carb products."

The folks at Atkins say they cannot account for other low-carb products, but foods with their company name are scientifically tested to meet the diet's requirements.

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