SA embraces low-carb diet - balance is key, experts

2016-03-03 06:00
PHOTO: supplied Restrict refined starches and carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice.

PHOTO: supplied Restrict refined starches and carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice.

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RESEARCH has shown that weight loss alone improves markers of heart disease such as high blood pressure. Losing weight also helps in reducing the risk for a range of other diseases such as cancer and diabetes. With low-carbohydrate diets rising in popularity and many South Africans claiming astounding feats of weight loss, this can only bode well for the health and waistlines of South African people.

An online survey conducted by Resolution Health Medical Scheme (Resolution Health) and its wellbeing and rewards partner, Zurreal, showed that a resounding 66% of the more than 700 respondents who participated in the survey said that a low-carbohydrate diet had helped their weight-loss goals in the long term. Almost 70% of the respondents also expressed confidence that a diet high in natural fats and low in carbohydrates would help them lose weight.

As many as 91% of the respondents who participated in the survey cited carbohydrates as being the main enemy of those fighting the battle of the bulge, while 82% felt that sugar was a definite no-no for the weight conscious.

Mark Arnold, principal officer of Resolution Health, said that the survey was an important exercise, firstly to fulfil the need of raising awareness about obesity and related health-care risks and, secondly, to tap into the mind-set of South Africans and gauge their attitudes towards dieting. “The results of the survey have revealed a definite shift in thinking among our relatively young, health-conscious membership base. In the past, the word ‘fat’ was a big taboo when it came to dieting. Even the fats found in nuts, butter and avocados, for example, were avoided because of the perceived high-calorie content of these foods. In fact, almost 88% of the respondents stated that years ago they never would have thought that a diet high in natural fats and low in carbohydrates would have helped them lose weight,” said Arnold.

“With non-communicable diseases of lifestyle, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancers, on the increase in South Africa and obesity being a major risk factor for most of these diseases, it is reassuring that South Africans are becoming more weight and diet conscious,” Arnold said.

“However, while mindful eating is always highly beneficial, a great deal of concern has been raised by health-care professionals about fad diets and their long-term impact on overall health and wellbeing,” he said.

Despite the success stories and growing popularity of low-carbohydrate diets, experts warn that balance is key. According to Dr Jacques Snyman: “A thorough examination of the evidence has not yet shown the superiority and long-term sustainability of low-carbohydrate diets over a healthy balanced diet. Nor has any evidence been brought forward regarding the safety of this diet for patients with specific chronic conditions.

“The diet seems to work as long as you follow it to the letter. However, the real test for how sustainable this diet regime is over a long period of time will become evident when the person starts eating more carbohydrates again,” said Snyman.

Many doctors, dieticians and health-care experts do not believe this approach is achievable for all South Africans. In many households, a decent portion of protein such as meat or fish is only a dream. “It is simply not feasible to exclude carbohydrates in an already protein-depleted meal plan for many South Africans. It would be difficult to create a balance in diet if fats and only fats are left in the diet,” said Snyman.

“Many plant-based protein sources such as legumes and beans are often rated as carbohydrates. If everyone went on a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet, it would become increasingly difficult to supply sufficient animal protein to a growing world population and this would place an even greater burden on the environment. The questions then are who would benefit most and is it suitable for all? To my mind, this is simply not a sustainable way to eat for the majority,” said Snyman.

Here are some guidelines for those wanting to reduce their carbohydrate intake and live healthier lives.

• Consult a professional first before embarking on a specific diet, especially if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol or heart disease.

• Begin by restricting refined starches and carbohydrates such as white bread and white rice. Rather choose whole grains and whole-wheat options.

• Choose foods that suit your budget with regards to red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes (beans), fruit and vegetables.

• Avoid sugary products such as cool drinks, sweets and biscuits and stay away from processed foods.

• Choose vegetables and fruit over high-starch meals.

• Control portion sizes and increase physical activity.

“Diet alone cannot curb the rising epidemic of non-communicable diseases. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on promoting physical activity and making certain lifestyle changes,” said Snyman.

High-fat diets need to be discussed with your doctor, especially if you suffer from a metabolic disease or heart condition. There are other possible dangers associated with eating a high-fat diet, such as a higher incidence of gallstones and gallbladder infection. Constipation is another possibility. “If you are attempting a new diet, embark on it with caution and keep track of your blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Make sure you exercise frequently. Just be honest with yourself and about how you feel and do not go to extremes.” — Supplied.

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