They block carbs from being digested, apparently allowing you to eat carbs without (some) of the unwanted calories. But are they really as beneficial as they sound?
This is a detailed review of carb blockers and their effects on your health and weight.
What are Carb Blockers?
Carb blockers, also known as starch blockers, can help block the enzymes needed to digest certain carbs.
Some types are sold as weight loss supplements. They're made from a group of compounds called alpha-amylase inhibitors, which occur naturally in certain foods.
In this article, the term carb blocker will refer to the nutritional supplement containing bean extract, not the prescription medications.
Bottom Line: The type of carb blocker discussed in this article is a dietary weight loss supplement extracted from beans.
How Do Carb Blockers Work?
Digestible carbs can be split into two main groups: simple and complex carbs.
Complex carbs are made up of many simple carbs linked together to form chains, which have to be broken down by enzymes before they can be absorbed.
Carb blockers contain substances that inhibit some of the enzymes that break down these complex carbs (3).
As a result, these carbs then pass into the large intestine without being broken down or absorbed. They do not contribute any calories or raise blood sugar.
Bottom Line: Carb blockers inhibit enzymes that digest complex carbs, preventing the carbs from providing calories or raising blood sugar.
Carb Blockers May Help with Weight Loss
Carb blockers are usually marketed as weight loss aids. They are advertised as allowing you to eat as many carbs as you desire without providing any calories.
However, their effectiveness may be limited and studies provide conflicting results.
How Effective are Carb Blockers?
Carb blockers only prevent a portion of the carbs you eat from being digested. At best, they appear to block 50–65 percent of carb-digesting enzymes (5).
It's important to note that inhibiting these enzymes does not necessarily mean the same proportion of carbs will be blocked.
One study examining a strong carb blocker found that even though it could inhibit 97 percent of the enzymes, it only prevented 7 percent of the carbs from being absorbed (6).
This may happen because carb blockers don't directly prevent carbs from being absorbed. They may simply increase the amount of time it takes for the enzymes to digest them.
On top of that, the complex carbs affected by carb blockers make up only part of the carbs in most people's diets.
For many people trying to lose weight, the added sugars in processed foods are a bigger problem. Added sugars are usually simple carbs like sucrose, glucose or fructose. These are not affected by carb blockers.
Bottom Line: Carb blockers only block a small percentage of carbs from being absorbed and their effectiveness depends on the type of carbs you eat.
What Does the Evidence Say?
Several studies show that carb blockers may be able to cause some weight loss.
The studies ranged from 4–12 weeks long and people taking carb blockers usually lost between 2–5.5 lbs (0.95–2.5 kg) more than the control groups. One study showed up to 8.8 lbs (4 kg) greater weight loss than the control group (7, 8, 9, 10).
Interestingly, the people who ate the most carbs appear to be the same ones who lost weight while using these supplements (11).
This makes sense because the higher the proportion of complex carbs in your diet, the bigger the difference carb blockers can make.
Unfortunately, most of these studies were small, poorly designed and largely funded by supplement companies, meaning the results may not be very reliable.
More independent, high-quality studies are needed.
Bottom Line: Some studies have shown that carb blockers can help you lose up to 2–9 lbs (0.95–4 kg) of weight, while others show no effect.
Carb Blockers May Decrease Appetite
One rat study found that the phytohaemagglutinin in carb blockers did cause a significant decrease in food intake. The rats that had been given the compound ate between 25–90 percent less. However, this effect lasted only a few days (2).
By the eighth day of the experiment, the effects wore off and the rats ate just as much as before. Additionally, once they stopped taking carb blockers, the rats ate up to 50 percent more than before to compensate and returned to their previous weights (2).
However, there may be other ways that carb blockers decrease appetite.
Similar studies found that a carb blocker supplement could decrease the amount of food the rats ate by 15–25 percent over a consistent period of time and even caused them to eat less of foods that are high in fat and sugar (2).
This effect has not been well-researched in humans, but one recent study found that a concentrated, standardized bean extract did decrease feelings of hunger, probably by suppressing levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin (6).
It's hard to say if this effect is achieved with the carb blocker supplements currently on the market or if the effect can actually contribute to weight loss in humans.
Bottom Line: Some animal and human studies suggest that carb blockers can decrease appetite and cravings, but more studies are needed.
Carb Blockers May Help Control Blood Sugar
Carb blockers are usually marketed as weight loss supplements, but they probably have a bigger impact on blood sugar control.
They prevent or slow down the digestion of complex carbs.
As a result, they also lower the spike in blood sugar levels that would normally happen when those carbs are absorbed into the blood stream.
However, this is only true for the percentage of carbs that are actually affected by the carb blockers.
In addition, carb blockers are thought to affect some of the hormones involved in controlling blood sugar levels (5).
In several studies of healthy people, carb blocker supplements have been shown to cause a smaller rise in blood sugar after consuming a meal high in carbs. They also cause blood sugar levels to return to normal faster (1, 5, 13).
Bottom Line: Studies have shown that carb blockers can cause blood sugar to rise less and return to normal faster after a meal.
Carb Blockers Provide Beneficial Resistant Starch
Carb blockers have another unintended benefit—they increase the amount of resistant starch in the large intestine.
This is because they decrease the amount of carbs that are absorbed in the small intestine, thereby increasing the starch that runs through the gut.
Similar to fiber, resistant starches are any starches in food that cannot be digested by the enzymes in the small intestine.
When resistant starches pass into the large intestine, gut bacteria ferment them and release gasses and beneficial short-chain fatty acids.
When carb blockers prevent the digestion of complex carbs in the small intestine, these carbs function like resistant starches.
Additionally, resistant starches may help increase the amount of fat your body burns after a meal (17).
Bottom Line: When carb blockers cause carbs to pass into the large intestine undigested, these carbs act as resistant starch. Resistant starch has been linked to many health benefits.
Are Carb Blockers Safe?
Carb blockers are generally considered safe, but make sure to buy them from a reputable source.
Safety and Side Effects
As far as side effects are concerned, carb blockers are considered very safe.
However, when carbs are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, the gasses they release can result in a number of uncomfortable side effects.
These side effects are usually not severe and go away with time, but they are enough for some people to stop taking carb blockers.
Additionally, people with diabetes who take insulin should talk to a doctor before taking carb blockers, since there is a chance they could cause low blood sugar if the insulin dose is not adjusted.
Bottom Line: Carb blockers are usually safe, although they can cause uncomfortable side effects.
Another issue is supplement regulation.
Supplement manufacturers are themselves responsible for the safety and integrity of their products, and there have been many cases of fraud in the supplement industry.
In the past, the FDA has even found dietary supplements that were adulterated with prescription medications that had previously been removed from the market due to their dangerous side effects.
These potentially harmful medications had been added in an attempt to make the supplements more effective (19).
For this reason, chances are that many of the carb blockers you can buy in the store don't actually contain what is listed on the label.
When it comes to supplements, it's always a good idea to do some research and buy from a reputable manufacturer.
Bottom Line: Even though carb blockers are usually safe, it's hard to say if supplements will really contain what they say on the label.
Should You Take a Carb Blocker?
A few studies suggest carb blockers can help cause a small amount of weight loss, reduce appetite and lower blood sugar levels.
However, studies haven't been high enough in quality to show whether carb blockers have any real long-term effect. Plus, they are probably only helpful for people following a moderate-to-high-carb diet.
Regardless, carb blocker supplements are just that—supplements. They are no substitute for a healthy lifestyle.
This article was reposted from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach
The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.
When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.
We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.
Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.
What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.
Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.
To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.
Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.
The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.
Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.
Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?
The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.
Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome
While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.
It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.
Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.
Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.
Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.
Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.
Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."
"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.
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