Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bring on the carbs

195 pounds
It's no doubt that we're all aware how popular low-carb diets have become over the past ten or fifteen years, but while I was visiting my parents earlier this month, I was astounded when I realized how much our national obsession with carbs has messed up the way we eat.

You might not yet have heard of Noodles & Company, but it's a wonderful new chain restaurant that has started opening in major metropolitan areas around the country. I say that it's wonderful because, from my way of thinking, any resturaunt that celebrates noodles and is located in a made-up land called "Noodleville" earns a special place in my heart.

But it's not just the noodles I love; it's the affordable prices and the wide variety of options. You see, even though Noodles & Company has higher calorie options—such as Macaroni & Cheese, Buttered Noodles, or Mushroom Stroganoff—it also offers healthier meals such as Bangkok Curry (pictured above), Penne Rosa, and Japanese Pan Noodles. According to the Noodles & Company website, "two-thirds of its dishes are less than 500 calories and one third are 10 grams of fat or less" and "Health magazine named Noodles & Company one of America's Healthiest Fast-Food restaurants in 2008 and 2009."

Because of all this, I wrongly assumed that my parents would be happy to eat there one night during our recent visit. After all, they were the ones who had first introduced us to this new chain the year before.

But as soon as I mentioned the word, "noodle," my dad began to balk. At first, I wasn't sure if he didn't like the food anymore or if he simply wanted something different, but later he made it clear that he didn't want to eat pasta of any kind because he was worried about getting too many carbs.

For the record, The International Food Information Council explains that "As the main energy source for the body, carbohydrates are an important part of a healthful diet" and recommends that we "get the majority of our daily calories from carbohydrates—about 45 to 65 percent of daily caloric intake." Also, UCLA dietitian Dana Ellis explains that carbs are a good source of fiber and "your body actually needs carbohydrates to function at its optimal level" because they help feed "your muscles and cells, allowing you to sustain an active life-style."

Despite this, my dad was adamant about not having any pasta that night. So rather than go out to Noodles & Company for dinner, we compromised and got carry-out—the rest of us ordered noodles while my dad asked us to pick him up an order of Sweet & Spicy Asian Chicken from Wendy's, which is located right across the street from Noodleville. I assumed that what he wanted was some kind of Asian salad, so I happily took his order and headed out the door. But when I arrived at Wendy's, I found out that, in reality, what he had asked us to get him was an order of fried boneless chicken wings served in an Asian-style sweet and sour sauce. Fried chicken wings? Made with processed chicken? This was his healthy alternative to pasta???

It didn't take long for me to put two and two together. My dad believed that since the Asian wings are a meat dish and the Noodles & Company offerings are primarily made with pasta, he was being healthier by going with the meat. Immediately, I questioned this logic, and as soon as I had a chance, I looked up the facts to find out for sure.

As it turns out, Wendy's Sweet & Spicy Asian Chicken is much worse for you than the large order of Bangkok Curry noodles my mother and I got from Noodles & Company.* In fact, though the large Bankgok Curry noodles (at 600 calories and 71 grams of carbs) have about the same amount of calories and carbs as the Wendy's boneless wings (at 550 calories and 67 carbs), the wings have more than three times the amount of sodium. That's right, three times!!! That's because Wendy's boneless wings contain more than 2500 grams of sodium! That's 100-1000 more grams of sodium than the range recommended per day by the Mayo Clinic!

And adding insult to injury was the lack of satisfaction my dad got out of his "healthier" meal. When we all finally sat down at the table, his small pile of meat looked pretty pathetic next to our huge bowls of pasta, meat, and veggies. Honestly, I felt guilty that night, having so much food in front of me that I couldn't even finish it all while my dad picked sadly through his tiny wings like a homeless man eating something he had found in the trash. To make matters worse, it wasn't an hour later that he claimed to be hungry again whereas the rest of us felt satisfied all night.

I told my dad about what I had learned the next day, but I don't know if he processed what I was telling him. The bottom line is that we all need carbs. They're good for us. And if we don't eat them, we may temporarily lose a few pounds, but in the long run, it's not worth it.

And, in truth, we all need sodium too. According to the Mayo Clinic, our bodies "need some sodium to function properly" because it "helps maintain the right balance of fluids in [our bodies], helps trasmit nerve impulses, influences the contraction and relaxation of muscles," and prevents your kidneys from hoarding sodium, the latter of which would unfortunately make your heart work harder and increases pressure in your arteries. But that doesn't mean we don't have to be careful about how much sodium is in our diet because most of us get too much. And the real problem is processed foods. In fact, 77% of the sodium we eat comes from "prepared or processed foods" like the Wendy's boneless wings.

Since that night I've noticed that the advertisements for Wendy's Asian Sweet & Spicy Chicken are everywhere—they can be seen on television and on billboards. Heck, they even pop up when I check my email. And every time I see one of those ads, all I can think is, no wonder our country has a problem with obesity. No wonder.

*I am not trying to assert that Noodles & Company offers meals that are healthier than a home-cooked meal, but I am trying to point out that some things we think are healthy (like my Dad's boneless wings) are not and that we all need to re-examine why we choose some foods over others.

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