The great villains of the obesity epidemic in America are sugar and starch. Or are they? Area experts say it may not be fair to characterize sugar and simple carbohydrates as the cause of our society’s weight woes.

“I think (sugar and starch) are part of the problem, but they are by no means the only culprit, says Jamie Joyner-Cassell, a registered dietitian at St. Luke's Hospital. “Another part of the problem is the high amount of unhealthy fats that you find in many processed foods. Americans tend to rely heavily on pre-packaged and processed foods that are high in both sugar and fat. In addition to that, lifestyles are much more sedentary than they used to be. Think about a typical day: sit in car, sit at desk, sit in car, sit on couch. Decreased calorie expenditure, combined with increased calorie intake, equals weight gain.”

So weight control once again relies on the old adage: eat less, move more. Yet for some people, avoiding sugar and starchy foods, such as pasta, pastries and breads made with white flour, in order to reduce overall calorie consumption isn’t as easy as just saying no to the occasional cookie. Finding dietary balance can seem like putting together pieces of a somewhat tricky puzzle, and sugary, starchy foods can be difficult to limit.

“I think keeping the temptations to a minimum is key,” Joyner-Cassell says. “Complete avoidance of sugary foods altogether is not always an option, but keeping them out of your everyday environment will certainly help to reduce the temptations. If there are cookies sitting on your counter or in the pantry, you’re going to eat them. However, if you keep the sweets out of the house and stock your fridge and pantry with healthier options, you’ll eat those instead.”

Those healthier options include whole grains instead of refined grains, naturally sweet fruits, and fresh, whole foods. “For example, choosing grilled chicken on a bed of lettuce versus fried chicken, or choosing chocolate graham crackers versus chocolate chip cookies,” says Becky Doss, an outpatient dietitian with Mercy St. Louis. “Small changes such as these make big differences in one’s diet in a positive way.”

In fact, avoiding carbohydrates altogether is a bad idea—the key is in choosing the right ones, experts agree. “Skimping on carbohydrates can cause one to feel very fatigued with no energy,” says Deanna Miller, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “The more complex starches (such as brown rice instead of white rice) provide more fiber, and you eat less. They also contain more nutrients.”

Eating a variety of minimally-processed foods can actually help reduce the addict-like sugar cravings some people experience. “Be sure to include a good source of fiber and protein at each meal and at snacks. This will help keep your blood sugar stable and leave you less likely to crave sugar,” Joyner-Cassell notes. Eating on a regular basis also helps stabilize blood sugar and stunt cravings, she adds.

“The bottom line is that balance, variety and moderation are the keys to a healthy diet,” Doss says. “This opens the door to healthy eating that is nutrient dense and leaves room for those special treats on an occasional basis.”

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