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A healthy low-carbohydrate diet

(reprinted from June 15, 2001)

Low-carbohydrate weight-loss plans have become very popular. You may know people who have lost weight by following Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, Sugar Busters!, The Zone, The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program, or other low-carbohydrate diets. While these programs may help you lose weight, it is too soon to tell whether they are safe. In fact, low-carbohydrate diets that are high in saturated fat and red meat might increase your chances of getting heart disease or cancer.

Good carb, bad carb

Certain types of low-carbohydrate diets are healthy. Although cutting carbohydrates out of your diet completely is never a good idea, reducing the number of "bad carbs" in your diet can help you lose weight safely. Bad carbs such as cookies, cake, crackers, potatoes, white bread, white rice, and pasta are digested very quickly. Because they do not stick with you for long, you may feel hungry again soon after eating them.

"Good carbs" are slowly absorbed by the body and may make you feel full longer than bad carbs do. Green vegetables such as spinach, green beans, lettuce, and broccoli are examples. Nonstarchy vegetables and whole grains are a necessary part of any healthy diet. Whole-grain cereals and whole-wheat foods are also excellent sources of fiber. Because they tend to keep blood sugar at a consistent level, good carbs are especially healthy choices for people with diabetes.

Basic guidelines

• Eat about 4 servings of whole grains and at least 5 servings of nonstarchy fruits and vegetables (like berries and leafy greens) each day

• Limit the amount of bananas, potatoes, carrots, and other starchy fruits and vegetables in your diet

• Replace white bread, white pasta, and white rice with whole-wheat and brown rice versions

• Cut back on sugar

• Eat chicken, beans, and fish for protein instead of red meat.

Still hungry?

If you do not feel full, eat more fruits and nonstarchy vegetables rather than sweets and junk food. Whatever you do, do not begin eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, cheeseburgers without the bun for lunch, and steak for dinner. Over time, such a weight-loss plan could have dangerous effects on your overall health. A healthy diet is a balanced one that is based on foods that come from plants rather than animals. Meat (especially red meat) should be eaten sparingly—no more than a few times per month.

Get in shape

As with any diet, exercise is key to losing weight and keeping it off. Consult your doctor about an appropriate program of physical activity. In most cases, at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity each day is recommended.

Consult your doctor

Never begin a diet or exercise program without first speaking with your doctor—especially if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes or hypertension. He or she can give you advice on whether the plan you are considering is right for you. Your doctor can also keep track of your progress, make sure your health is improving, and make suggestions on how to change the plan if it is not working. His or her knowledge is based on years of medical training and experience not usually found in fad diet books. There is no quick way to lose weight. But with a balanced diet, determination, and the help of your doctor, you can make yourself healthier and lighter on the scale.

Sample diet

Breakfast: a bowl of high-fiber cereal

Lunch: salad, vegetables, and a lean source of protein such as baked skinless chicken

Dinner: soup (with a clear broth base instead of cream), salad, and a green vegetable followed by a small amount of protein and starch (such as fish and rice). The trick is to fill up on the soup, salad, and green vegetable as much as you can, so you will only eat a tiny portion of the protein and starch.

Healthy snacks (choose 1): vegetables, fruit, yogurt, a dozen nuts, or a 2-oz low-fat cheese stick.