Carbohydrates have taken a beating lately thanks to popular diets such as the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet and the South Beach diet. These low-carbohydrate diets are the subject of heated debates between dieters, weight loss researchers, authors and registered dietitians. Low-carb followers suggest that carbohydrates are the cause of America's weight problem. Critics of low-carb diets say weight loss comes down to decreasing calories, not limiting carbohydrates.

The debate has consumers asking, “What's the truth about carbohydrates?”

Carbohydrates are the starches, fiber and sugar in foods. They are the body's main source of energy. Many of the popular low-carb plans suggest cutting carbohydrates to as low as 20 grams a day for the first two weeks of the diet. This suggestion is extremely different from the National Academy of Sciences recommendations. The NAS recommends both adults and children should eat at least 130 grams of carbohydrates each day.

However, the problem is that most people consume far more than that and often our carbohydrate choices are considered the “not-so-good carbs,” such as sugar, syrup, cookies and pastries. These carbs don't pack much nutrient punch.

It's true; all carbs are not created equal. Instead of labeling all carbohydrates as bad, it's important to understand the difference. Carbohydrates are sometimes classified as processed or unprocessed. Processed carbohydrates include sugary foods like candy, white rice, white bread and white pasta and they are often low in vitamins, minerals, fiber and disease-fighting phytochemicals. Unprocessed carbohydrates such as fruit, oatmeal and whole grain cereal are typically rich in fiber, B vitamins, and phytochemicals.

So if carbohydrates aren't all bad, why are people losing weight on low-carb diets?

First of all, when you cut processed carbohydrates such as cakes, cookies, candy and white bread, calorie intake tends to drop as well. Low-carb diets eliminate lots of empty calorie foods.

Second, carbohydrates act like a sponge in the body, holding onto water. When you go on a low-carb diet, your sponge wrings out and your body dumps a lot of water. Most of the initial weight loss while on the low-carb diet is water weight. Overall, most weight loss while following a low-carb diet results from reduced calories and water loss.

Despite the appeal of low-carb diets, there is little scientific research in terms of long-term weight loss success or the health consequences of the diet. Here is a breakdown of the benefits and downfalls of low-carb diets.

Low-carb diet benefits: • Weight loss can be motivating • High fat content satisfies • Simple sugars cut from the diet • Appetite can decrease with lower carbs

Low-carb diet downfalls: • Rapid weight gain once diet is stopped • Dehydration • The diet is low in fiber which can cause constipation and increase long-term risk of cancer • The diet is low in calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C • High-saturated fat and cholesterol intake can increase blood cholesterol levels • Limits healthy food groups

Bottom line: You can have your carbs and eat them too. Just make your carbs count.

Better Bets: 100 percent whole wheat bread Oatmeal Cereals with flax seed, oats or brans Brown rice Unbuttered popcorn Baked beans Fruits and vegetables, with the skin

Dump the low-carb diets and try these winning weight loss tips: 1 Cut saturated and trans fat. Eat fewer burgers, French fries, butter, pizza and ice cream. Eat more salmon, tuna, chicken and nuts. 2 Make your carbs count. Eat fewer carbohydrates such as sweets, sugars, cakes and pastries. Eat more whole grains, fruits and high-fiber, low-starch vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, celery, peppers and mushrooms.

Look for weight loss strategies that work for you. One diet does not fit all. It might be easier for some people to limit bread and pasta and others will find it easier to limit saturated fat and fried foods. Whatever you choose, make sure that you cut calories and that the fats and carbohydrates you eat are healthy.

Tracey Shaffer, RD, LD, is a Hy-Vee dietitian at the Blue Springs location The information provided should not be construed as professional medical advice. Email her at