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Carbohydrates have developed a rather taboo reputation throughout recent years. They have been accused of being the causative agent for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease as well as a contributor to conditions such as insulin resistance. Are all carbohydrates bad for you? Research says no. Certain diets high in carbohydrates not only promote a healthy weight but are proven to pack a powerful punch in the fight against chronic disease.

Probably the best known high carbohydrates diet is the Mediterranean Diet. As its name signifies, this diet started in the Mediterranean area and has spread worldwide due to its many health benefits. The premise of this diet is found within a diet high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Nuts and seeds, as well as olive oil and red wine, are highly encouraged. Lean poultry and fish are the protein sources. Red meat and dairy are consumed sparingly. For many years, this diet has been advocated by health professionals in the prevention of heart disease.  Yet, current research is adding a whole new aspect of health to this diet’s resume. Science is showing that due to the high levels of phytochemicals in this diet, inflammation may be reduced when consuming these foods.

Inflammation’s role in health may be new to some. Current research1 shows that many chronic conditions have a direct link to higher levels of inflammation in the body. This natural response to stress imposed on the body can induce unhealthy bodily responses if not removed properly and promptly.  

Heart Disease & inflammation

Inflammation may not be a direct cause of heart disease2, but it is not helpful. As plaque is placed in the arteries through a buildup of bad cholesterol (LDLs), inflammation occurs and encourages more build-up. This can eventually lead to heart disease and stroke. The Mediterranean Diet3,4,5 has proven to be heart healthy for many years. It is proven to lower the LDLs6. A five-year study conducted in Spain7 demonstrated that from the 7,500 participants, those who followed the Mediterranean diet lowered their changes for a heart attack or stroke. The DASH Diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) is another very helpful high carbohydrate diet used to prevent cardiovascular disease. Like the Mediterranean Diet, it is high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat. Both diets are quite similar, yet the Mediterranean diet seems to provide more heart-healthy fats through items such as avocados or olives.  

Cancer & inflammation

Cancer not only has a direct link to the increase of free radicals but also to an increase in inflammation8. Diets high in carbohydrates such as the Mediterranean Diet are proving to be beneficial in the fight against certain cancers. Diets high in produce are high in chemicals called phytochemicals. Simply, these are chemicals found in plants that provide specific health benefits. One such well-known phytochemical is lycopene. Found in tomatoes and other red produce this photochemical is proven to aid in the prevention of prostate cancer9. A group of phytochemicals found in berries and other produce are called phenolics. These less common chemicals are quite powerful. They not only reduce free radicals but also inflammation. Studies show that the Mediterranean Diet with the help of phenolics may reduce the mortality rate of cancer patients by 10%. A study of over 500 Greek women consuming this diet showed a 9% decrease in breast cancer. A decrease of colorectal cancer has been seen even among obese patients8  when following this diet.

Diabetes

It is no exaggeration to say that diabetes is on the rise. What many people may not know is that people with diabetes are also trying to combat other chronic diseases and prevent further diseases from developing. People with diabetes are told to monitor three distinct values for optimal health — their Hemoglobin A1C, blood pressure, and cholesterol10. To regulate blood pressure and cholesterol, many are advised to follow the DASH diet. The Mediterranean Diet may also be a wise choice. Studies demonstrate improved glucose levels and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease when following this diet10. Studies have even demonstrated a decrease in Hemoglobin A1C values as well11.

Obesity

The problem still arises regarding obesity. Is a high carbohydrate diet better than a high-fat diet when weight loss is desired? The most recent data supports healthy eating patterns such as high vegetable intake, no added sugar, and no processed foods but cannot answer the question if a high carbohydrate diet allows for greater weight loss than a high-fat diet. A recent two-year study demonstrates this fact. It showed that once again, making healthy food choices is key and that weight loss is indeed individualistic, we cannot and should not place every person in the same diet bucket.

What Next?

If high carbohydrate dietary plans are so beneficial in the prevention of certain chronic disease and can be helpful in weight loss, why all the bad press? It all goes back to the actual definition of a carbohydrate. Technically whole grains and produce are carbohydrate-containing foods. Yet, so is a candy bar or sugar-coated cereal. If wise choices are made by increasing whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limiting and eliminating processed foods that are high in salt and sugar, our health landscape might look quite different than it does today.  

Even though carbohydrates have developed a rather taboo reputation throughout recent years, the accusations aren’t merited. It is proven that high carbohydrate diets such as the Mediterranean Diet and DASH Diet are helpful in the reduction of the risk of developing certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Even though current research can’t distinguish a significant difference in a high carbohydrate diet versus a high-fat diet, it can provide many health benefits. These diets not only promote a healthy weight but do pack a powerful punch in the fight against chronic disease.  

Useful Links:

https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801

https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/dash-or-mediterranean-which-diet-is-better-for-you