Feast and Famine
March 1, 2004
by Dan Malovany
Feast and Famine
Being a good Catholic boy I decided to give up low-carb products for Lent. Yes, it will mean fasting for 40 days on full-carb snack and bakery products, but somebody had to do it.
Actually, I've had my fill of carping on the low-carb issue, especially after the wonderful presentation dubbed "The Great Carb Debate" at the American Society of Baking this month.
In one corner was Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Willett and other self-anointed geniuses at Harvard propose a revised food pyramid, which has outraged some folks in the industry because it places white bread and baked sweet goods made of refined grains at the peak and encourages consumers to eat them sparingly. In their view, white bread is about as good for you as eating red meat and saturated fats.
In the other corner, Dr. Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology and director of the kinesiology program at the University of Virginia, defended refined grains and, in fact, all carbs. A spokesman for the Wheat Foods Council, Gaesser said calories, not carbs, were the problem.
In the end, the two experts agreed that Americans need to eat more fiber because of its potential health benefits against the risk of developing heart disease or adult diabetes. They even agreed that the glycemic index was too complicated a concept to be useful for the average consumer to use on a daily basis. Both of them also doubted that high-protein diets that encouraged the mass consumption of high-fat foods and red meat were good for you in the long run.
However, they agreed to disagree about the consumption of refined grains. Willett proposed to reduce or eliminate refined grains, suggesting that the body digests them in ways similar to refined sugar.
Gaesser counter-proposed a more balanced approach and called Willett's position "extremist." Gaesser argued that the harmfulness of refined grains was exaggerated. He asserted that high-carbohydrate products, such as bread, that contain both refined and whole grains were good for you because the health benefits of fiber more than offset any minor detriments of refined grains.
It was fun to watch. While both sides gave highly technical presentations, they sparred during the question-and-answer session. Willett accused Gaesser of presenting "misleading information." He said Gaesser was misrepresenting the issue by stating it was okay to eat high-carbohydrate foods because many products made with refined grains also contained whole grains. But Gaesser, who had used the same Harvard studies that Willett did to support his position, simply responded, "It's your data."
Willett repeatedly noted that consumers need to reduce, if not eliminate, the amount of trans fat they consume. Gaesser repeated his position that Americans need a simple message that talked about a balanced diet. Eat less and exercise more. He acknowledged it wasn't flashy, but common sense rarely is.
Willett summed it up by saying that the real issue wasn't about low carbs. Rather, it's about the whole issue of obesity. Both experts acknowledged that Americans should get off their butts more often. If they did, there wouldn't be a need for a "Great Carb Debate" or about which carbs were good for you and which weren't.
And besides, not all low-carb products are good for you. Recently, I found out that vodka was considered a low-carb product. Drat. How many days left till Easter?