Good Riddance to Low-Carb Claims

Carbohydrates are not the enemy

September 29, 2004
The Globe and Mail
by Leslie Beck

Although recent surveys suggest that the low-carbohydrate craze is waning, there’s no shortage of carbohydrate-reduced foods that cater to those following the Atkins or South Beach diets.

Low-carb versions of breakfast cereals, breads, salad dressings, pasta and soft drinks are turning up on supermarket shelves.

But not for long, it seems. Earlier this year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that low-carb claims will not be permitted as of December of 2005. These regulations apply to all foods, prepackaged and non-prepackaged, no matter where they are sold.

Instead of looking for product labels that boast terms such as “carb counting,” “net carbs,” “CarboFit” or “Atkins-friendly,” carb counters will have to look at the nutrition-facts box, where the grams of carbohydrate per serving will be clearly posted.

The government’s new regulations include mandatory nutrition labels for most prepackaged foods, and evidence-based, nutrient-content claims.

Manufacturers will soon have to display a “nutrition facts” table on their food packages, making it easier to compare brands and manage special diets. Labels will clearly and consistently disclose the calories, the amount of total fat, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, fibre, sugars, protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C contained in a specified amount of food.

The 47 approved nutrient-content claims – fat free, zero trans fat, high fibre, no added salt and so on – are based on scientific data and current dietary recommendations for disease prevention.

To date, there is no scientific evidence that low-carb diets reduce the risk of heart disease or diabetes. Nor is there any good evidence that following such a plan can prevent or treat obesity.

Studies lasting six months do show that low-carb dieters lose more weight, and at a faster rate, compared with those who follow a traditional low-fat, high-carb plan. But the only year-long study conducted revealed no difference in weight lost between the two groups at the 12-month mark.

There are other predictors of health besides the bathroom scale. Levels of blood fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides are also important risk factors for heart disease. A handful of studies conducted with obese individuals has shown that an Atkins-style diet does a better job at lowering triglycerides and preventing a drop in HDL (good) cholesterol than does a low-fat diet. But there’s no evidence yet that this translates into less heart disease.

In fact, a study published in last week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that among 1,507 older adults, adherence to a Mediterranean diet and a healthful lifestyle were linked to more than a 50-per-cent lower rate of death from heart disease and cancer.

Science aside, low-carb claims can be misleading as they imply the product is a healthier choice.

Low-carb cookies, candies and potato chips are no better for your waistline than the regular versions. These highly processed snack foods contain artificial sweeteners instead of sugar and fibre instead of white flour, but they still deliver calories – and often, plenty of them.

Some experts contend that the proliferation of low-carb products makes it harder to shed weight on a low-carb diet. By adding variety to a “meat-and-vegetable-only” diet, dieters are likely to eat more food.

Think back to the low-fat craze, when we mistakenly thought fat free meant calorie free and gobbled up fat-free cookies and muffins. Calories are calories.

The bottom line is this: Low-carb claims will not be permitted under the new regulations because there are no science-based dietary recommendations that advise reducing carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrate-rich foods are not dietary villains, provided you choose the right ones and don’t overdo your portion size. Avoid highly processed foods with white flour and refined sugar.

Instead, emphasize whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables, all of which contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre.

People who have welcomed the surge of low-carb foods will still be able to find them on the shelf.

Personally, I’d rather munch on a piece of fruit than an Atkins Advantage bar. That’s right – I’ll take natural sugar any day over the fake stuff and, oh yes, I can certainly pass on those seven grams of saturated fat.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV’s Canada AM every Wednesday. Contact her at