If the word you hear most often is “calories,” it must be January. As I write this it’s only January 10th, and already it’s starting to work my very last nerve. We have ads touting low calorie soup, low calorie cereal, low calorie yogurt, as opposed to that “high calorie” yogurt – you know, with a whole 100 calories per serving. Oh, and the soup is advertised as having only 80 calories per serving “and no fat.” Welcome to the post-100-calorie-pack advertising gimmick.
Is any of this stuff nutritious? Will any of it make you feel full, satisfied, and energetic for longer than, oh, twenty minutes? Who cares? It’s low calorie!!
Dr. Mehmet Oz, Oprah’s pet physician, has recently once again urged people to avoid drastic or extreme diets, an implied slam at low carbing if ever I read one. Instead, he says, just cut 100 calories per day, and you’ll lose weight! Yeah, sure, that’ll work. (I haven’t noticed it working particularly well for Oprah.)
Behind all of this is the long-established truism that weight loss is all about “calories in, calories out,” and along with it the apparently unshakeable assumption that all calories are created equal.
It’s all bunk. Sheer bunk. But it’s bunk with so much weight of belief behind it that it’s very hard to shake people’s faith in it, even people like Dr. Oz, who should know better.
So we’re still bombarded every January with propaganda from the calorie police. One of their favorites is to tell us that low carb diets only work because they “trick” you or “fool” you into eating fewer calories, by making you feel less hungry. I actually have read exactly that: “Oh, that diet just works by making you less hungry.” As if that were a bad thing.
If that were true, I’d be okay with it. I mean, I’d rather be tricked or fooled into eating fewer calories by reducing my appetite than try to muster up the willpower to tolerate being ravenous half the time. (Oh, Lord, the memories… When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a while at a health food store. Every day I’d buy my lunch from our cooler – a sandwich on whole grain bread, a bottle of juice, a piece of fruit or a whole grain, honey-sweetened cookie. Such a healthy lunch. By two o’clock I’d be starving, and I’d spend the afternoon chewing sugar-free gum and trying to ignore the fact that I was surrounded by food.)
But it’s simply untrue. Repeated clinical tests demonstrate that simply cutting calories causes the metabolism to slow down. Your body’s not like your car, which will happily run at sixty-miles-per until it sputters and dies for lack of fuel. Your body is a complex living organism, with very powerful homoeostatic mechanisms designed to keep you from starving to death. If you follow Dr. Oz’s advice and cut 100 calories per day, your body will simply burn 100 calories less per day – and you will have that much less energy. Cut 500 calories per day and pretty soon you’ll wonder why your “healthy” diet makes you so darned tired.
Fascinatingly, clinical tests have repeatedly shown that what sort of calories you eat influences how many calories you burn. It’s common for people to scoff at this notion, to say that it somehow defies the laws of thermodynamics. And it would, if your body were a machine. But again, your body is a complex living organism, and your food powerfully influences your hormonal signaling – mostly notably, your levels of insulin, which tell your body to store fat, versus your levels of glucagon, which tell your body to release fat.
Going back over fifty years, a couple of British researchers named Kekwick and Pawan put obese subjects on a very low calorie diet – just 1000 calories per day – but they varied the macronutrient composition of the diets. Some subjects got most of their calories from carbohydrate, some from protein, and some from fat. They discovered that even on such a low calorie diet, the people eating mostly carbs lost little weight, but the people getting mostly fat lost weight rapidly and easily.
So they tried feeding obese subjects 2000 calories per day, which sounds a whole lot easier to live with, doesn’t it? They tried a 2000 calorie “balanced” diet, and found that their subjects didn’t lose weight. This will come as no surprise to those of you who have struggled to lose weight on 1500 calories per day, or even on 1200. However, when Kekwick and Pawan kept the calorie count the same, but knocked out the carbs, their subjects lost weight easily. Indeed, they found that the average subject could eat 2600 calories per day and lose weight, so long as they stuck to protein and fat.
So a doctor named Frederick Benoit, working at the Oakland Naval Hospital in California, tried a related experiment. He first put his subjects on a fast, what we could call the “no calorie” diet. If it’s all about calories in/calories out, this should have caused the quickest possible fat loss. It did not.
Oh, Benoit’s subjects lost weight, an average of 21 pounds in 10 days. Which sounds great, until you hear the rest: On average, only seven and a half pounds of that was body fat. The rest was water and muscle. Indeed, they lost twice as much muscle as fat. Bad ju-ju.
So then Benoit put his subjects on 1000 calories per day – again, a very low calorie diet, but after that total fast thing it must have felt pretty good. But here’s the thing: Benoit gave them a very low carb, very high fat diet. And what happened?
In the ten day trial the subjects lost twice as much fat as they had eating no calories at all, an average of fourteen pounds apiece, with only half a pound coming from muscle mass.
But all of this is practically ancient history. I mean, it was in the last millennium! Anything more recent? (‘Cause after all, we know how much the human body has changed in the past 60 years, right?)
How about this: In 2000, a study was done at Schneider’s Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park. New York, regarding obese adolescents. The kids were split into two groups, one eating a low fat/high carb diet – you know, all those fruits and veggies and grains and beans – the other eating a low carb diet which the researchers frankly admitted was high fat. On average, the kids in the low carb group ate 66 percent more calories per day than the low fat group – a total of 1860 calories per day, as compared with just 1100 calories per day for the low fat kids.
What happened? The low carb kids lost twice as much weight as the low fat kids. Lest you think this was at the expense of their overall health, they had a greater improvement in their triglycerides and HDL cholesterol, too.
And in 2003, a study was presented to the American Association for the Study of Obesity regarding the effect of macronutrient balance on weight loss. Twenty-one subjects were divided into three groups. Two groups got the same number of calories – 1500 per day for women, 1800 per day for men – but with different macronutrient ratios. One group ate 55 percent carbohydrate, 15 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. The other group ate 5 percent carbohydrate, 15 percent protein, and 65 percent fat. The third group got the same macronutrient balance as the low carb group, but 300 more calories per day. The study lasted for three months, and all meals were provided to the subjects in a restaurant setting, so the researchers weren’t relying on the subjects to accurately calculate and report their meals.
What happened? The low calorie, low fat/high carb group lost an average of 17 pounds apiece. The low calorie, low carb/high fat group lost an average of 23 pounds apiece, or 35% more than the low fat/high carb group while eating the same number of calories. That’s a substantial difference. But here’s the kicker: The low carb/high fat group who got the higher calorie diet lost an average of 20 pounds apiece – still better than 17% more than the low fat/high carb group who had eaten fewer calories.
Can you hear Dr. Atkins saying “I told you so” from the Great Beyond?
Mind you, I don’t mean to imply that calories don’t matter at all. They do. You do have to run a caloric deficit for fat to be released from your storage depots. But what kind of calories you eat – fat, protein, or carbohydrate (or, for that matter, alcohol) will have a major impact on how readily your body releases that fat, and how much of it you burn.
But most people can eat somewhere around 2000-2700 calories per day and lose weight easily on a low carb diet – and feel full, satisfied, and energetic into the bargain.
Which beats the heck out of subsisting on 80 calories at a time of yogurt and canned soup.
© 2010 by Dana Carpender. Used by kind permission of the carb-counting-not-calorie-counting author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments or New Years greeting to Dana Carpender.