Confused about carbs?

These days, low-carb diets are more popular than ever. But this weight-loss strategy is hardly new. It began in the 1960s with the Atkins diet, followed by the South Beach, paleo, and keto diets. All of these diets — which swap carbohydrates for protein or fat — can help some people lose weight, at least over the short term.

But as is true for most diets that require you to avoid many popular foods, low-carb diets are often hard to maintain over the long haul. And if you do keep your carb intake low, the long-term effects on your heart and overall health remain something of a mystery so far. But a new study provides some clues.

The study, which included more than 15,400 people, upholds the old adage of moderation in all things. Researchers found that on average, people whose diets included moderate amounts of carbohydrate (50% to 55% of calories) lived about four years longer than people who ate lower-carb diets (fewer than 40% of calories from carbs) and a year longer than people with high-carb intakes (more than 70% of calories).

What replaces missing carbs?

Of course, man does not live by bread alone — the rest of your diet matters, too. “Just calling it a low-carb diet isn’t enough. You have to know the sources of the other calories in the diet,” says study co-author Dr. Eric Rimm, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

That’s why the researchers homed in on exactly what types of protein and fat were filling in for the missing carbs among those in the low-carb group. Eating more animal-based proteins and fats from foods (such as beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and cheese) instead of carbohydrates was linked to a greater risk of early death. Eating more plant-based proteins and fats (from vegetables, legumes, and nuts) was linked to a lower risk.

Researchers asked participants about their diets twice (at the start and after six years), then kept track of their health for a median of 25 years after the study began. All were part of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, which includes people from four communities in the United States. Although not a perfect representation of America’s population, the participants were from a variety of races and cultures, Dr. Rimm notes.

The investigators then combined the ARIC results with findings from seven multinational studies (including studies from Greece, Sweden, and Japan) that also looked at carbohydrate intake and longevity. The upshot: people with high and low carbohydrate intakes had shorter life expectancies than those who ate moderate amounts of carbs. The study was published in the August 16 Lancet Public Health.

If you consider the diverse diets that people eat across the globe, the results consistently support the benefit of a moderate-carb diet, says Dr. Rimm. The take-home message is also in line with what he and other nutrition experts have advocated for years: eat a mostly plant-based diet, such as the Mediterranean or DASH diet, with animal-based protein (if desired) in limited amounts.

Upgrade your carb choices

Instead of this … … Try this
White rice Brown rice, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, wheat berries
Pasta made from refined flour Whole-grain pasta, whole-wheat couscous
White bread Whole-grain bread
Fried potatoes Small sweet potato baked with skin
Fruit-flavored yogurt Plain yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit
Sugary breakfast cereals Oatmeal cooked with fresh or dried fruit
Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, fruit drinks, punches, sweetened iced tea, lemonade) Water, low-fat milk, unsweetened or lightly sweetened tea or coffee, seltzer with a splash of 100% fruit juice
Cakes, cookies, pies, and other low-nutrient sweets Fruit, 1 to 2 ounces of dark chocolate

Responding to the critics

Ardent low-carb advocates argue that low-carb diets not only foster weight loss, they may also help lower heart disease risk by reducing cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels. All true, says Dr. Rimm. “Many weight-loss diets can be successful, usually because you’re much more conscious of what you’re putting in your mouth.” But it’s the weight loss — not the specific diet — that leads to the drops in cholesterol and other risk factors.

What about the alleged improvements in mood and thinking from going low-carb that some people report? That’s likely because they stop eating foods full of white flour and added sugar, says Dr. Rimm. Those highly processed carbs can cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar levels, leading to “brain fog.” Eliminating those carbs can clear that fog. But rather than shunning all carbs, you can switch to healthier ones, which have the added advantage of providing fiber, vitamins, and minerals (see “Upgrade your carb choices”).

Below are spiritual recipe for health and wellness: Matthew E. McLaren

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love. Ephesians 3:16-17 NIV

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Mark 11:24 NIV

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1  NIV

For we live by faith, not by sight. 2 Corinthians 5:7 NIV

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit? Romans 15:13 NIV

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. James 1:6 NIV

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:6  NIV

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” John 11:40 NIV

Because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. James 1:3 NIV

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26 NIV

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