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Weighing In on Diet Plans

Low carb or high carb? Experts disagree

SATURDAY, Jan. 18 (HealthDay) -- If you've finally decided to lose that weight, you'll probably find yourself immersed in the Great Diet Debate.

Follow a high-carbohydrate diet and minimize fat, many experts advise.

Other experts argue that the surest route to weight loss is a low-carbohydrate diet with generous amounts of protein and fat.

The debate isn't likely to die down anytime soon. Both sides are convinced their plan is correct, the right way to lose weight and keep it off.

Dieters in a quandary can educate themselves on the merits of each plan, then consult with a physician and decide the best plan for them. And they can take heart that some diet experts say "high-carb" plans might be right for some people, while "low-carb" plans are best for others -- at least short-term.

"One size doesn't fit all," says Leslie Bonci, a dietitian who is director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

While low-carb diets that push plenty of protein (such as the Atkins diet or other high-protein plans) are perhaps the most popular weight reduction strategy of the moment, Bonci says, "body fat loss is not any faster on the high-protein diets. There is a little more rapid water weight loss, loss you see on the scale."

But, Bonic adds, "the overall fat loss is equivalent," whether dieters follow a high-protein plan or other diets, as long as they cut down on food intake sufficiently.

Another dietitian, Gail Frank, a professor of nutrition at California State University, Long Beach, says dieters tend to look on the low-carb, high-protein diets as a quick fix.

But, she notes, the high-protein plans will "trick you into feeling successful but won't give you the long-term success you want."

She blames people's fascination with the high-protein, low-carb plans for roller-coaster dieting. "They use it short term, get five pounds or so off, then go back to typical eating and gain all the weight back," she says. Soon they are dieting again, she adds.

Frank suggests a sensible eating plan, also recommended by other experts, that includes a diet of 50 percent to 55 percent carbohydrates (such as fruits and vegetables), up to 30 percent fat, and about 15 percent to 20 percent protein (including meat and fish) -- along with plenty of exercise to speed weight loss.

But those who advocate a high-protein diet say controlling carbohydrate intake is the key, especially in the initial stages of weight loss.

"When you control carbohydrates, you switch metabolic pathways so you burn fat for energy," says Colette Heimowitz, director of education and research at Atkins Health & Medical Information Services in New York City.

In the initial phase of the Atkins diet, she says, people can lose at least four pounds a week. But she says critics often don't understand that the Atkins plan has four phases -- the initial weight loss phase, the ongoing weight loss phase, the pre-maintenance phase and the lifelong maintenance phase.

Each phase varies, depending on how much weight a person needs to lose and how quickly it comes off, Heimowitz says. And, she adds, the maximums suggested by Atkins -- a diet of 35 percent protein, 60 percent fat and 5 percent carbohydrates -- still fall within the upper limit of protein consumption suggested recently by the National Academy of Sciences.

But critics contend that even short-term deficits in carbohydrates can be bad.

"Your brain absolutely needs carbs," says Evelyn Tribole, an Irvine, Calif., dietitian and author of numerous nutrition books. You need carbohydrates, she explains, to get the amino acid tryptophan into the brain. And tryptophan is crucial for maintaining levels of serotonin, which helps elevate mood, she adds.

"If you have a history of depression in your family, a low-carb diet can be bad news," Tribole says.

"And if you are on a low-carb diet, it is going to be hard to exercise," she adds, because carbohydrates are "energy" foods.

Before beginning any weight-loss plan, Bonci suggests you administer a quick survey of your eating habits. "Be really honest with yourself," she suggests. "What are you eating now? What are you willing to change?"

Think long term, not just in terms of what you will do in the coming weeks regarding your eating habits, but in the coming years. Realize that long-term weight control depends not just on healthful eating, but on regular exercise, she says.

And always get your doctor's OK before beginning a weight loss or exercise program.

What To Do

Jan. 19-25 is Healthy Weight Week.

For more information on diets and nutrition, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Evelyn Tribole, R.D., Irvine, Calif.; Colette Heimowitz, M.S., director of education and research, Atkins Health & Medical Information Services, New York City; Leslie Bonci, R.D., spokesperson, American Dietetic Association; Gail Frank, R.D., spokesperson, American Dietetic Association
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