Local experts debate benefits of low-carb lifestyle

By Audra Davie

“I eat carbs,” proclaims the fitness center employee’s T-shirt. “New low-carb wraps,” announces the advertisement in the restaurant window. “Only five net carbs per serving,” guarantees the wrapper on the box of cookies.

As recently as five years ago, advertisements based on promises of reduced carbohydrates meant little. In today’s world of protein-crazed, breadbasket-hating Atkins dieters, however, a thin and seemingly fit gym employee advertising her continued consumption of carbohydrates is near blasphemy to some.

Despite the seeming increase in popularity of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets such as Atkins and the preponderance of low-carbohydrate products, people have continued to get fatter.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 59 percent of Illinois residents are overweight or obese. Registered dietician Susan Kundrat said a special diet like Atkins is unnecessary for 90 percent of people, who merely need to be educated on how to make appropriate decisions when it comes to healthy eating – and have the willpower to follow through on those decisions.

Kundrat and Carle Weight Management Center dietician Kristina Adams agree that Atkins or similar restrictive weight-loss plans are manageable for a short time, and that some of their patients have been successful in losing weight quickly.

However, Kundrat and Adams said they would be unlikely to prescribe a diet like Atkins because of its impracticality. Adams said life in the “real world” makes it difficult to stick to low-carbohydrate plans, most of which prohibit bread and pasta, any foods with sugar and many vegetables. Low-carbohydrate diets can also cause fatigue, constipation, headaches, muscle cramps and bad breath.

Adams also said those who lose weight through a low-carbohydrate diet usually gain most or all of their weight back once they resume their normal eating habits. Furthermore, cutting out carbohydrates entirely can lead to patterns of binging on the forbidden foods, particularly sugar, after ending the diet.

Nonetheless, the potential for fast results and the promise to Atkins dieters that they will “never be hungry again” – Atkins instructs followers to eat until they are full – has spurred many to try a low-carbohydrate diet at least once.

While no conclusive statistics exist in regard to the number of Atkins dieters, there are many low-carbohydrate products available, said Deb Montgomery, owner of the Low Carb Shoppe, which opened in February of 2004 in Champaign. Montgomery, a low-carbohydrate dieter, did an inventory of low-carbohydrate products available in the traditional area grocery stores before concluding there was a need for a store such as hers in the area.

“Stores such as Meijer or Wal-Mart are beginning to cater to low-carb shoppers,” said Montgomery, “But most of my regular customers are people who began shopping here when I opened … people who made a lifetime commitment to following a low-carb lifestyle.”

Montgomery also said the idea that those who return to prior habits after a low-carbohydrate diet almost always regain lost weight.

However, it is this yo-yo weight loss and gain that people should avoid. Not only does it become more difficult to lose weight each time, but frequent weight fluctuations can worsen a person’s overall health, increasing the occurrence of common ailments like the common cold and life-threatening afflictions like heart disease, Kundrat said. Maintaining a weight that is a few pounds too heavy is considered healthier than frequent weight fluctuations.

“I try to teach people about dividing their plate so that vegetables take up a certain amount, protein a certain amount, and so on,” Kundrat said.

Americans do not have an accurate idea of what a single serving of food is or how many calories they are taking in during a meal. Kundrat said restaurant meals often contain an entire day’s worth of fat grams and cholesterol.

“It’s easier to eat healthy if you’re cooking in the home,” Kundrat said, adding that people are more likely to plan ahead if they are preparing it themselves.

In addition to owning Nutrition on the Move, a consulting company that creates custom nutrition plans for several college athletic programs, and hosting her own radio call-in program on WILL radio, Kundrat also works as a nutritional consultant for Strawberry Fields Natural Food Store in Urbana.

“I give my customers an unbiased approach to what their body needs,” Kundrat said. “A lot of people don’t know what they need.”

Kundrat also helps store customers compare different foods and answer questions about organic or natural foods.

“Some organic food is intrinsically healthier because it is grown without pesticides and comes from a nearby farm,” Kundrat said. “Something like cereal is going to have roughly the same nutritional value, whether it’s organic or not.”

While organic food is not necessarily lower in fat or calories than non-organic varieties, following an organic lifestyle often indicates a value system that a person has a healthier overall attitude regarding fitness and diet, Kundrat said.

Vinnie Hernandez, assistant manager at Strawberry Fields, outlined several reasons for eating organic foods, including the environmental benefits and the economic impact of supporting local farmers.

“Everything we sell has an added reason for you to buy it,” Hernandez said. He said he believes organic food is healthier because people can eat food the way “nature intended,” like brown rice that is naturally full of vitamin B, rather than fortified white rice.

“Conventional grocery stores are beginning to carry more organic foods,” Hernandez said. “Kraft has introduced an organic line, but they don’t put their name on it because consumers will say, ‘What were you feeding us before?'”

“People need to know that if they want to have a Snickers bar once in a while, they can budget their diet to allow them a Snickers bar,” Kundrat said. “It’s all about balance.”

“People get so worked up about conflicting studies,” Kundrat said. “But what we really need to do is get back to basics. What’s good and what’s bad is really pretty simple.”