Confessions of a Biased Low-Carb Zealot

Man With Fingers Plugging EearsWe are all biased in one way or another.

We tend to see the things we want to see and ignore the rest.

In the modern environment, this is necessary as we are constantly bombarded with all kinds of useless information.

We have learned to ignore things that are irrelevant to us, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get anything done.

In science, this becomes a major problem… and nowhere is it as apparent as in the field of nutrition.

People choose “sides” – then follow blogs and join groups of other people who have chosen the same “side.”

These blogs and groups like to share and discuss articles and information that reinforce the group’s beliefs.

When evidence that goes against the beliefs of the group shows up, people ignore it or attempt to explain why it is either flawed or invalid.

This is also known as group thinking:

“Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.

Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”

My articles often get linked to from vegan message boards. Sometimes I follow these links to see what they’re saying and this group thinking phenomenon is obvious in those places.

But I’ve been noticing this behavior a lot in low-carb/paleo groups as well and I REFUSE to be a part of it.

I do not write my articles to serve some agenda and I shudder at the thought of belonging to a group as biased as the most militant of vegans.

The Reason I Write so Much About Low-Carb Diets

I honestly believe low-carb diets to be a potential solution to some of the world’s biggest health problems.

These include all the problems related to the metabolic syndrome… obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and even heart disease, plus many others.

These happen to be the biggest health problems in the world.

To treat most of these disorders, the authorities and most health professionals still recommend a calorie-restricted, low-fat diet.

The evidence is clear that this is a bad choice. These diets have been proven to be completely ineffective in large-scale randomized controlled trials that went on for years.

But there is another way… with tons of evidence behind it, that the authorities are still ignoring.

Over 20 randomized controlled trials show that the low-carb diet leads to much better outcomes than the low-fat diet… not just for weight loss, but a ton of important biomarkers and risk factors too.

In my opinion, there is no excuse for health organizations to continue to ignore these studies and peddle a failed low-fat diet that keeps people dependent on junk foods and drugs.

I think the message about low-carb diets as a treatment for these disorders is extremely important and I will continue to do my part in making people aware.

Low Carb Diets Are Not For Everyone

It is a big mistake to assume that there is one diet that is right for everyone.

What any one person should eat depends on a lot of things… age, gender, current health, activity levels, goals, environment, financial status, personal preferences, etc.

I don’t think most athletes should be eating a low-carb diet, especially not athletes that require glycogen in their muscles to do anaerobic work.

I also know plenty of people who have given low-carb an honest shot… but they didn’t fare well and gave up on it.

Then there are people who don’t want to eat low-carb, people who don’t feel good doing it and people who don’t need it.

We should be mindful of this and not bash other people for making choices that are different than ours.

Prevention vs. Cure

There is a lot of controversy regarding low-carb diets and it often seems like people aren’t even debating the same thing.

People seem to mix up the prevention and the cure… which do not have to be the same thing.

When someone’s metabolism breaks and they become insulin resistant, obese, diabetic, etc… things change.

The biochemical rules change and a person who has these problems may need a diet that is vastly different from someone who doesn’t have them.

Even though removing carbs can reverse some of these problems, it does not mean that removing carbs is necessary to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

I don’t think people who are metabolically healthy need to eat a low-carb diet. I think it’s completely unnecessary for these people.

To prevent this metabolic dysfunction from occurring in the first place, I think it’s enough to live a healthy lifestyle, exercise and avoid most processed foods, refined grains, trans fats and veggie oils.

There are so many populations in this world that have thrived as long as they ate real food… regardless of how many carbs they ate.

If you’re healthy and simply want to stay healthy, then just eat real food. In this case, the relative carbohydrate content of your diet is simply irrelevant.

This Close-Minded Attitude Must Change

I recently had an exchange with a few low-carbers about the subject of calories.

Some people were trying to make the case that calories were irrelevant when it came to weight loss. Irrelevant. I objected and got flamed by a bunch of people, including one medical doctor who is a low-carb blogger himself.

Calories are simply a measure of the energy contained in our foods. Of course the energy matters.

The energy content of the food we eat, vs. the energy content we expend… this is what determines whether we gain or lose fat (fat = stored energy).

It’s called the first law of thermodynamics and isn’t even debatable.

The reason low-carb diets work so well for weight loss is that they reduce appetite and cause an automatic restriction in calories (making calorie counting unnecessary, in many cases).

There is no metabolic magic at play that overrides the first law of thermodynamics. That is not possible and trying to maintain that position simply scares intelligent and educated people away.

Another recent exchange I had was about fruit. If you ask a few low-carb folks, fruits are nature’s poison. They have a bunch of fructose, raise your blood sugar sky high and everyone should be avoiding them.

This simply isn’t true. Fruits are also loaded with fiber, water and it takes a while to ingest them. It is almost impossible to overeat fructose by eating fruit (fruit juice is a different story).

The only reason I can see for avoiding fruit is if a person is either diabetic or actively trying to maintain a very low-carb ketogenic diet.

But that’s only a few percentages of the population… people should try to keep the other 90 something percent in mind before making blanket statements about real foods like fruit.

If we Behave This Way… Then We’re No Better Than The Vegans

At the end of the day, we must keep an open mind to other people and the choices they make.

The low-carb community as a whole must be more open minded and open to discussion. We shouldn’t let ourselves get blinded by our bias or else we’re no better than the vegans.

There is no one right way to eat and the sooner we accept that and stop bickering back and forth about the different approaches, the sooner we will make some actual progress for the good of everyone.

78 Comments

  1. Just wondering if you have seen this, in regards to the calorie thing? Its an interesting experiment! http://live.smashthefat.com/5000-calorie-challenge-day-20/

    • Thanks, that’s an interesting n=1 experiment.

      The guy who is doing it looks like the type of guy who can eat anything he wants without gaining, an “ectomorph” body type. His caloric expenditure must have increased to compensate for the added calories.

      I’m pretty sure someone with a tendency to gain weight would have seen vastly different results.

      I’ve done this experiment myself, kind of. I’ve tried eating large amounts of peanut butter every day (70% fat) and I gained weight like clockwork for a few days until I stopped.

      • Don in Arkansas says:

        Totally agree Kris. If I ate 5000 calories a day for 3 weeks I probably would exceed the expected weight gain. I don’t believe in the ‘a calorie is a calorie’ thoughts but they do count.

      • Sol y Sombra says:

        Kris, if you ate 5000 kcal worth of real food like meat, eggs, vegetables, butter, olive oil, nuts, you probably wouldn’t gain weight. And you certainly wouldn’t, if the 5000 kcals worth of food you were eating felt like eating to satiety and not overeating. I mean, you could easily be hungry for 5000 kcal worth of real food, if you exercised vigorously enough.

        And as for peanut butter – of course eating large amounts of it would lead to weight gain. Peanut butter is not really food, is it? It’s not meant to be a staple. It’s meant to be a cheat and not something to base one’s diet on.

        • Sorry, but in my last pregnancy I ate nothing but meat, eggs, vegetables, butter, kefir, raw cream, nuts and a few blueberries. I packed on 40 lbs. I didn’t eat 5,000 calories. And I was growing another human being and I still gained plenty of weight. And I didn’t have one single cheat till the night before delivery when I had some french fries. Ironically I gained the same amount of weight as in my previous two pregnancies where I did NOT exercise every day. And I did not eat anything close to that good. It was quite the disappointment. I am convinced now despite all the argument to the contrary that I can personally gain weight on a low carb diet.

        • How is peanut butter not real food?

          There’s only 3 different types of food carbs, proteins and fat.

          That is the chemical truth.

          Peanut butter is high protein and high fat carbohydrate. Of course it’s real food.

          The idea that eating the same calorific amount of peanut butter is different from eating the same calorific amount of other foods is nonsense.

          Faulty science which doesn’t understand the meaning of a calorie. A calorie is the energy required to raise one gram of water by one Celsius. It’s a form of measurement that doesn’t change based on the food. Carbs are high in calories because they burn hotter and proteins are relatively low because they don’t produce much heat. Fat burns the hottest and longest.

          Peanut butter is only bad because you might eat too much because it’s high in calories. If you’re eating a specific amount of calories then it’s fair game.

          It has been proven in scientific experiments by a doctor who at only twinkies and vitamin pills and lost weight. Because he made sure to count the calories.

          It wasn’t healthy. But you can lose and gain weight eating anything because a calorie is a calorie. Some things have less calories or longer lasting calories but this only prevents you from eating more calories. If you’re all eating the same amount then it’s the same result. First Law of Thermodynamics.

          • Noooo, the human body is not a perfect energy converter regardless of fuel. 1 calorie of diesel is the same as 1 calorie of gasoline is the same as 1 calorie of wood chips is the same as 1 calorie of peanut butter… Nor is the human body a closed system.

      • Dave Tapson says:

        Could you putting on weight eating peanut butter be more of a function of eating peanut butter rather than the fats that skinny dude ate?

      • Steve Grover says:

        Kris,

        I suspect that ‘eating tons of peanut butter every day’ and gaining tons of weight may be a confusing statement on your part. It suggests that you were on a serious low-carb high-fat diet.

        However, you did not mention what else you ate. If you drank soda, consumed bread and so on, then the one high fat ingredient in your diet during this time is meaningless.

        I’m not saying this is what you did, I’m just saying that you didn’t include enough info to make your comment persuasive.

        Steve

  2. Ahh finally someone who not only supports low-carb diets, but who is also educated and not an extremist making false statements or blanket statements without understanding what they are talking about. It’s refreshing.

    I loved this article because I can relate, understand, and 100% agree. I’m a psu kinesiology grad, was at one time a certified personal trainer, and a low carb dieter. I have tried many diets, studied nutrition, and observed people.

    I have found a few things to be true based on that experience: 1– weight loss is determined by caloric intake (1st law of thermodynamics) 2– for me, low carb is what I stick to the best and therefore am most successful with in terms of dieting, 3– for other people, whatever diet they will stick to is the best diet FOR THEM, 4– no matter who you are, skipping the junk food and eating real food is always the best choice.

    • Stipetic says:

      Mike, point one is a good one and a favorite of the CICO folks, but it’s a tautology and basically meaningless. You have to take the extra step and ask yourself “what determines caloric intake?”

      Cheers

  3. Margaret RC says:

    I agree with everything you say. I’ve always said calories matter, but that doesn’t mean we have to count them. It’s about creating the right hormonal environment such that the body counts them for us–and doesn’t make us over eat. For some that means low carb. For others, who have a healthy metabolism like my daughter, that means eating a balanced diet that includes good fats.

    But I do have to say there is some evidence that there is a bit of a metabolic advantage when one eats low carb–or even moderate carb, as opposed to high carb, probably because when the body feels like it’s getting enough energy from fat, it doesn’t tend to down regulate metabolism just because fewer calories are coming in, which it does on high carb low fat reduced calorie diets eventually.

    That recent study where they measured TEE of people on LC, Mediterranean, and low fat (isocaloric) diets and the LC TEE was 300 calories per day higher than the low fat arm. So, while eating LCHF isn’t for sure a license to consistently over eat, I think it gives some leeway–at least for weight maintenance–that one does not get with other diets.

    I think if one goes over one’s needs one day, one will automatically compensate–either by burning more off and/or by eating less the next day (from a drop in hunger.) IMHO, anyway. And, while I don’t think everyone needs to be low carb, I don’t think it harms anyone–except perhaps a serious weight trainer who is doing a lot of anaerobic exercise, like you say.

    My metabolism is reasonably healthy, but I choose LCHF. My daughter chooses to eat real food and not worry about fat or carbs. It works for her. But my son is T1 and eats LCHC because for him, that’s best.

    • I agree. I actually just commented on the Dr Diet blog with my belief that extremes in calories always matter, but our hormonal and gut flora balances determine how efficiently our bodies utilize the calories overall. More research is needed here to help unlock optimal nutrition.

  4. Hey man, love your page and this is a great article but I found it a bit jarring that you argue against those who say calorie counting is irrelevant, but then go on to state that in most cases, with a low-carb diet, it is unnecessary.

    Perhaps in a later article you could elaborate on this further? (I apologise if you already have and I’ve missed it).

    Also, it’d be nice to get some discussion of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects the application of the First Law.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    • I was arguing against the people who say that calories (the energy content of our food) is irrelevant. The amount of food energy we ingest matters, but counting the amount of energy is unnecessary in many cases.

      • That statement makes no sense. If calories matter, then counting them will matter. For example, if you believe blood pressure matters, then measuring it matters. If you believe blood sugars matter, then measuring them matters. Measuring a significant variable improves its reliability.

        • Many people experience a reduced appetite when they eat less carbs, more fat and more protein. In this case, they start eating less calories automatically and lose weight without calorie counting or portion control. Calories matter, but counting them is unnecessary in many cases. This is well documented in many low-carb studies.

          • If I understand you correctly, calories matter, but counting them is unnecessary because calories are surely reduced via a low carb diet. What about for those that are not losing weight on a low carb diet? What if calories are NOT reduced on a low carb diet? If you believe calories are important, you would not simply assume that they are being reduced. It would actually be critical to measure calories to see why they are not losing weight. Calories either matter or they don’t. If they do, then they should be measured. If height is important in basketball, then it should be measured. You can’t say that height matters, but we won’t look at the height or measure it.

  5. Lisa Miller says:

    I almost stopped reading after your comment about how the fist law of thermodynamics “is not even debatable”. The discussion should center around the second law when dealing with living organisms such as ourselves:

    http://www.nutritionj.com/content/3/1/9

    • Did I say that “a calorie is a calorie”? Believe me, I am well aware that different foods and macronutrients affect our bodies in different ways… but the amounts we eat (calories) matter too.

      What I am arguing against is that some people are saying that the amounts of food (energy, calories) we eat are irrelevant when it comes to weight gain/loss.

      Of course the amounts matter, as well as the types of foods we eat.

  6. David Arroyo says:

    Was curious if you could offer up some specific examples of vegan group think. It’s not that I don’t believe you, I’m just interested in what, specifically, you’ve encountered.

    • Sure, go to “drmcdougall (dot) com (slash) forums” (I don’t want to link to the site). Then click search and type in “authoritynutrition”

      It’s common to accuse me of being sponsored by the meat and dairy industry, also appeals to vegan authorities like Dr McDougall are common. Then my site is referred to as invalid because it’s just a “stupid low-carb site.”

      These people are completely brainwashed.

      • Don in Arkansas says:

        Listen to Jimmy Moore’s recent podcast with Dr. McDougal

      • Or as I like to call them Food Cults.

        Glad someone else has written about this group think brainwashing phenomenon. It is a very creepy thing. Then again, one of the first quotes I heard that burned in my brain, “It is easier for a person to switch religion than (food) lifestyle/diet” there’s a lot of similarity between the two.

  7. ProudDaddy says:

    Hear! Hear!

  8. Tom Keating says:

    Hi kris – that’s an interesting take on things. I always thought (based on what I’ve read) that the ‘energy in v energy out = stored energy’ model did not necessarily show causation, and that was the criticism of it I.e. what does actually make someone want to eat more / be less active.

    As an example, during puberty sex hormones would drive the gain in weight, perhaps by making someone eat more / exercise less, so the cause is the hormone – to say the gain in weight is a result of ‘overeating’ may be a truth, but doesn’t give the whole story.

    Thanks as always for getting me thinking!

    • I am not at all saying that weight gain/loss is or should be a consequence of conscious choices we make about food intake, or that overweight people should be blamed for overeating.

      There are various factors that influence food intake… hormones, neural circuits, psychological factors, etc. Willpower is just one of many factors and trying to exert conscious control over a strong behavioral drive like hunger can be impossible in many cases.

  9. Komel Crowley says:

    Loved this article! I don’t know why this is the case, but people always get SO fixated on focusing on a “bad” food group rather than just eating whole foods. I just wrote an article on this very topic. The field of nutrigenomics will hopefully be the end to this fighting over which diet is the best.

  10. Aaron V says:

    YES!! Great article!! I know Low-carb is highly beneficial for fat loss (never have been overweight myself but I’ve seen it do wonders for others). And I know higher carb is useful for anaerobic activity.

    Nate Miyaki is the go to guy for realizing that not one size fits all. Paleo style works well for the sedentary and overweight and general health. Anaerobic activity requires glucose and therefore needs adjustment in the carb department. And of course the theme of the post is to have respect and an open mind. Good stuff.

  11. Former vegan here, really like where you are at right now. I was contemplating giving Dr. Mcdougall’s starch diet a go last year until I looked at the recipe section and its wheat galore, I’d be so god dam sick if I followed that mans diet and I aint Celiac. He is peddling a specific diet, I do believe his intentions are good but am kind of sick of this nonsense from paleo and vegans saying the other is sponsored by industry x or y.

  12. Donnageddon says:

    Great post, Kris, and highly welcomed in this age “diet craziness” When folks ask me about my low carb diet, I explain why I have switched to it (pre-diabetes II), and also that it is not for everyone. You have to experiment a bit, and find what works for you, and your lifestyle.

    There is no “One Size Fits all” diet. But eating Real Foods, exceeding, and avoiding refined grains should be a basic for all diets. Beyond that, you need to find what works for your body.

    Regarding Dr. McDougall, I am less kind than others who have posted here. He is a quack. Anyone who states that he has seen “patients who have conquered life-threatening illnesses such as type-2 diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease” on a high starch diet, is a lunatic, at best. I am more inclined to use the term “charlatan”.

    Any way keep up the good work Kris, and thanks for your honesty.

  13. I apply a negative factor to advice from any web “expert” who has a “Store” tab. This is why I repeatedly return to Authority Nutrition. Thank you.

  14. Great Article Kris. The whole ‘nutritional one-upmanship’ thing does get very tiring. It’s a little narcissistic to think that just because a dietary approach works for you, that it should be applied to all people, everywhere, at all times in their life! I think as a health professional, it is important to know the benefits of dietary approaches, such as low carb, and be able to apply them in the right situations, for the right people. Sitting in one camp and advising only one approach for all seems a little silly to me!

  15. As I just posted on FB – Probably one of the most important Low Carb blog posts ever written! I really mean it and I have read a few since 2006. I agree 100 % on what you are writing and I am also deeply worried that part of the LC-community has succumbed to groupthinking just like the vegans and the representatives of the conventional wisdom we critizice.

    We oversimplify things and we cherry pick studies pointing in our direction and ignore the others. We have only replaced the oversimplified “calories in, calories out” mantra with an equally oversimplified “carbs in, insulin out” mantra to explain obesity and every aspect of Western diseases.

    We attribute most health gains on LC-diets to carb restriction that probably should be attributed to other factors such as eating real food, avoiding added fructose and avoiding grains with gluten and lots of antinutrients.

    A good example of all this, discussed frequently here in the Swedish LCHF-community is what happens after gastric bypass surgery. Patients get “cured” from their diabetes over night and lose weight at a fast rate. To me it is pretty obvious that this is a black swan that can not be fully explained with the carb-insulin hypothesis.

    There are probebly other hormonal, neuronal and microbiota changes at work here that we do not fully understand. Blogged about it here (in Swedish): http://www.lchf.se/Bloggar/Blogg/tabid/83/EntryId/10113/Andrad-tarmflora-kan-vara-en-delforklaring-till-viktnedgang-vid-gastric-bypass.aspx

  16. Great article and commentary, Kris! Thanks!

  17. Per Wikholm,
    That black swan is not too impressive IMO:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23530013

    And in Swedish:
    http://tranastyrka.se/magsacksoperation-och-diabetes-typ-2/

    • Yes, that is a small but interesting study that I am well aware of (and with results that both the calorie restriction and the carb restriction crowd can agree upon) and of course there is little doubt that dramatically restricting food intake will affect diabetes in a positive way.

      But is it conclusive that this explains it all? Nope. And it definetely does not explain the mice experiments were fecal transplants from GBP-surgery mice led to a significant weight loss by itself. The mechanism why GBP works remains to be sorted out.

  18. Laureen says:

    What are your thoughts on Tosca Reno’s Eat Clean Diet?

  19. Just a little comment about the first law of thermodynamics–why does anyone on either side keep bringing this up? First of all, the laws of thermodynamics only apply to closed systems, and the human body is not a closed system. It is an inappropriate application and demonstrates a poor understanding of science.

    Secondly; yes, we all get it–if you take in more than your body uses, it is either stored as muscle or (more likely) fat. But that’s like saying if you put water in a glass, it fills up. So what? It’s about the most banal and useless statement made when it comes to health and weight management. The human body is a chemistry set, not a piggy bank.

    Great article overall, but really, why even bring the “calories in-calories out” factor into the discussion?

    • “First of all, the laws of thermodynamics only apply to closed systems, and the human body is not a closed system. It is an inappropriate application and demonstrates a poor understanding of science.”

      You mean closed systems like the universe? No, it’s a poor science understanding to say the few science laws on which we base all of science don’t apply to the human body. Different types of calories may encourage or discourage body fat loss. The body can learn to be more or less efficient with food. Very rarely, a body will cannibalize energy for muscles and organs to keep body fat. But ultimately only actual imbalances in energy input or output can generate changes in body fat.

  20. Amany Loutfy says:

    Is it true that people with hypothyroidism will never lose the extra weight gained over time, even if they try?

  21. Becky-Oregon says:

    I think we are so passionate and defensive about whatever way of eating works for us is that for most of our lives we’ve been lied to by the agencies that we were told had our best interest in mind. I resisted the truth for a long time. Now I know we are on our own. When we find a way of eating that heals us and makes us feel good we want to share it! Low carb eating makes me feel great! Thanks for your humble article.

  22. Isn’t the diet they recommend after gastric bypass essentially a low carb diet? Hardly a black swan. Besides, if you can eat only a cup of food at a time, then of course you’re going to lose weight… it’s called starvation.

  23. I loved the article, as I usually do. As a home health nurse teaching overweight, diabetic, and heart unhealthy patients about diet, this site is one I refer them to often. They often freak out because most of it goes against all of the teachings of the USDA and US government food pyramid recommendations, as well as the teachings of well educated dietitians. I do teach patients to be informed and educate themselves. And mostly, do not buy into a 1-size-fits-all mentality.

  24. Thank you! I think you read my mind.

  25. Kris, the only issue I would take with your advice is to question the “90%” who are not diabetic or trying to eat a VLCKD. The overweight and obese population is approaching 50% in the U.S. This cohort has pre-diabetes or most if not all of the indications of Metabolic Syndrome. It has been suggested that they already have a deranged metabolism. It is even suggested that they have a genetic predisposition to insulin resistance, etc. etc. My point is I think the percentage of the population who would benefit from VLC approaches 50%, not 10%.

    • I totally agree. Being metabolically healthy is the exception today, not the rule.

      But for the 90% of people out there not eating low-carb, starting to eat more fruit (in place of truly awful foods like sugar and refined carbs) would be a massive step in the right direction.

  26. I’ll also add that a small percentage of those that undergo gastric bypass gain a significant portion of weight back. With a “stomach” barely larger than an infant’s… how do you suppose this is possible?

  27. I wouldn’t spend a lot of effort convincing sceptical people of the the benefits of low carb nutrition, this is a bit of a waste of time, because a majority of these folks will never change their minds. Just keep on as usual, this is the best “no nonsense” site on nutrition I’ve found so far.

  28. Dave Sill says:

    I’m a libertarian, so I’m perfectly OK with letting people follow whatever diet they want, and I’m not interested in coercing people into doing what I think is right. If someone wants to eat lots of carbs, they should eat lots of carbs. If they can do that and remain healthy, good for them. If they ask my advice, I’ll give it gladly.

    I read lots of diet-related websites and blogs, but not because I’m interested in participating in group think. I had to overcome a lot of dogma and inertia to arrive at the level of understanding I have now, but I’m not an expert. I’m also not interested in replacing the old dogma with a new one. When the popular press covers a study with results contrary to what I believe, I need to understand why. Is my belief wrong? Is the study flawed? Is the press reporting the findings incorrectly?

    Also, folks buying into the mainstream heart-healthy-grains and artery-clogging-saturated-fats have all of the support they could want from the government, food industry, and medical industry. Those of us who have managed to get past that are very much in the minority and need the kind of support that forums and blogs provide–e.g., for explaining apparent contrary study findings, for recipes, and for dealing with being in nutritional belief minority.

  29. I did the Atkins diet for a while and wow, I felt good. Could not believe how much abdominal fat seemed to melt away and of course in other places. The Nutritionists and other so called specialists started knocking the lifestyle and scared me so much I quit :( Since then, well still fat and never found the same satisfaction in any “diet” I try. But on that note I am going to go back to the low carb, perhaps not as radical as Atkins, I have a better understanding of good carbs bad carbs and that eating fruit is not the same as drinking fruit, hence i.e fructose is not dangerous.

    It is totally true what you write in the article when you do low carb you don’t think calories in fact as you say it becomes a non issue because you do not have the need for high calorie food, such as white sugar, wheat, rice etc, so you automatically eat less of those things. Just one question, what about beans, I love beans, and have recipes for some great salads or side dishes. Any thoughts on that food in a low carb… been pondering that question for a while. Thanks :)

  30. Have you read Gary Taubes’s discussion on the First Law of Thermodynamics and nutrition? Extremely insightful (he has a degree in physics, btw), and it might make you change your mind.

    • I was just about to make that same point :-) But I will just agree with you instead.

      Storage = Calories In – Calories Out makes total sense if you assume that the Storage can’t have any impact but is only controlled by the other two. But if you write it like Calories In = Storage + Calories out you get a different picture of the exact same formula, then all of sudden it is obvious that the Storage parameter may control the intake parameter. If you want to see how it may affect the energy available in the body you just write it like Calories Out = Calories In – Storage. The equality goes either way, without disputing the laws of thermodynamics. Physics is so elegant :-)

      Thanks Jesse :-)

  31. I am so sick of “Paleo” and the commercialization of diet in general. That is the real problem here – it’s a big money grab. Don’t get me wrong – their intentions are genuine, but let’s face it – you can’t make money by simply saying “eat real food” on its own. So they come up with often conflicting angles.

    I do take one exception to your insistence on calories in/out. The problem with that theory in this context is that the law of thermodynamics only works in a closed system. You’re completely dismissing the metabolic process and assuming the body is simply acts like a ‘box’ (perhaps a trash bag is a better analogy? : ) that can get overfilled or not depending purely on energy intake.That’s the equivalent of saying the energy (i.e., fuel) in a Honda engine is going to equate to the same performance (output) as that of a Cadillac engine with the same exact input (i.e., fuel). They internally work differently and thus result in different results. Bodies are the same.

    Not to mention that we do not have an exact way of actually measuring calories.

  32. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    I actually do agree with you about the calories issue being much more complicated than “calories in vs. calories out” – it’s a complex issue and I didn’t manage to do it justice in the article.

    I totally agree that different macronutrients and foods affect hunger and hormones in different ways. In this respect, not all calories are created equal.

  33. Hi All,

    I very much enjoyed the article, as well as the comments, for the most part. As far as individualism goes, I have found that I feel and perform best on a low carb diet… 50 to 100 g of carbs per day. I have noted over many years of observation, that if my calories go much beyond 2500, I will gain weight REGARDLESS of what I eat.

    Yes, I am one of those people who can be in sustained nutritional ketosis (blood ketones ~ 2 Mm) and NOT lose weight until I bring my calories into check, according to my activity level at the time. I suspect that insulin resistance is the culprit here? Easy weight gain, difficult weight loss, abdominal adiposity since childhood and fasting glucose numbers in the glucose intolerance range (~6Mm) despite a low carb diet.

    Anyway… the calorie in / calorie out dogma has never worked for me on any eating regimen. Just further proof that I truly AM a special little snowflake… just like the rest of you… LOL!

    • Same for me! In ketosis I have to get my caloric intake under 1800 Kc to lose weight very slowly. And still occasionally have high fasting glucose numbers, with 20 grams or less carbs and 75 grams or less protein.

  34. Sam Knox says:

    “The energy content of the food we eat, vs. the energy content we expend… this is what determines whether we gain or lose fat (fat = stored energy).

    It’s called the first law of thermodynamics and isn’t even debatable.”

    The first law allows for the possibility that fat-storage is caused by increased food intake. It also allows for the possibility that increased food intake is caused by fat-storage.

    This is the insulin theory of obesity, upon which low-carb diets are based. Food calories that would have been used for energy are instead stored as fat, appetite increases to compensate.

    “The reason low-carb diets work so well for weight loss is that they reduce appetite and cause an automatic restriction in calories (making calorie counting unnecessary, in many cases).”

    Again, if the insulin theory is correct, decreased appetite is caused by fat-loss. Energy is now available from fat-storage, less is required from food. Appetite decreases to compensate.

    • If the insulin theory is correct, then somebody out there ought to be able to explain why obese people have very high levels of NEFAs in their blood with all that insulin suppressing fat release and causing cellular starvation.

  35. I’ve seen someone assert that there are studies demonstrating that if your metabolism and insulin levels are healthy– such as from low-carb eating– that your body will metabolize extra calories to maintain your weight. What do you think about this? I don’t want to drop names on blogs, but if necessary I can cite the video I saw the above information in. Thanks.

    • I’m not sure which studies you’re referring to, but a healthy body does try to maintain its body weight and fat mass. But voluntary force feeding should be able to override these mechanisms, I believe.

  36. Hi Kris, I think on this one, I have to disagree with you. While not everyone needs to go very low carb, it is going to be the best way for a lot of people who have been eating the SAD way and have a broken metabolism. Some may be able to tolerate more carbs than others. I have to stick at around 20-30g a day whereas my partner can have 100-150g a day without a problem (he didn’t have a candy and chocolate bar addiction like I did!). Anyway, I think even those who have a healthy metabolism would benefit from moderate carb restriction.

    Generally, we eat too many carbs these days and even those who might not have a problem when they are young might find insulin resistance creeping up on them in middle age. Mark Sisson has a very good post on his site about fat being the preferred fuel for human metabolism. It has an interesting chart at the bottom of the page called the Carbohydrate Curve and he reckons that that ‘a chronic intake of over 150 grams of carbs a day can lead to insidious weight gain over a lifetime’

    Read more: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/a-metabolic-paradigm-shift-fat-carbs-human-body-metabolism/

  37. I had always been thin and fit. In 1990, I got sick building syndrome at the school I was teaching in. While continuing to run 1 hr. per day and having diarrhea all day long for 2 yrs., and being unable to eat regular fruits and vegetables as all the skin peeled off the inside of my mouth and off of my tongue unless they were organic…I gained 88 pounds!! A specialist told me that my liver created fat to store toxins in. When I lose weight, my body gives off terrible odors as the toxins are released. Not all weight problems are from eating.

    I went on LCHF after trying every other diet. I am really stubborn and stick to my diets. I never lost anything until this one. I have not lost that much weight yet but have shrunk many sizes and lost over 15% body fat in just a few weeks. Best of all, I am not hungry all the time and feel younger and stronger as I have more muscle. My trainer, using specialized equipment, says that the first 2 weeks I gained 6.8 pounds of muscle while losing 11% body fat yet I had lost 4 pounds.

    I think I am heading in the right direction.

  38. Michael says:

    Simplistic laws of physics don’t aptly describe complex biological functions. I’m not arguing against the point that calories count, but the first law of thermodynamics is a logically unsound foundation for that point. Use biology to describe biology and physics to describe physics. The two are completely and utterly different disciplines, and any apparent similarities come with a horde of caveats.

    • No, they are not separate. In fact, the laws of thermodynamics are the basis of all the rest of science including biology. (And in the modern era, a great deal of biology is really chemistry.)

      Science has no meaning if we change the “base” rules everytime we encounter a slightly different situation. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. You may waste a lot of food energy in conversions. Heck, you may even fail to digest it, but ultimately all energy that you eat is accounted for.

  39. Hi again Kris – here is an interesting article from the Huffington Post which gives a good account of why we all should eat less carbs!

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/riva-greenberg/carbs-fat_b_2885211.html

  40. Just one question, how is it possible that I keep gaining weight on a 1500 cal carb diet and lose weight on a 2500 cal low carb diet?

    Perhaps insuline? Which renders the calories consumed as carbs useless by storing them as fat instead of using it?

    How is that the same calorie as the one in a good side of beef that my body can use?

    • Dave Sill says:

      That’s easy, Anita. A calorie is just an amount of energy. A calorie of fat is nothing like a calorie of sugar–the entire metabolic pathway is completely different.

      Calories are not really useful for making dietary decisions.

      • Agreed. This is where people incorrectly assume the human body is a machine – perfect, efficient, with one method to deal with all the food we swallow.

        Fat calories in particular, need to be “corrected” for actual energy available to the body.

  41. Kristin says:

    Excellent article. I can’t say I agree with every point you make but isn’t that in and of itself the point?

    It reminds me of the first six months of my own LCHF diet. When I realized that just eating whole foods, lots of veg and getting a lot of exercise still wasn’t impacting my metabolic syndrome (it only took 15 years, sheesh) I did a week long detox diet living off of rice milk smoothies and steamed veg. I also spent hours and hours on the web researching diet.

    It did come down to two camps, low carb or vegan for people who made real claims about reversing my condition. I had never taken ‘paleo’ or ‘atkins’ seriously. Seemed like nutty fringe diets to me. But I had tried vegetarian and then vegan and gained weight, my skin and hair dry, and I was depressed.

    So in my own N=1 (boy is that becoming overused!) analysis I decided that I’d give the high fat diet a go. I had already given up wheat due to IBS which helped a lot. So I was already headed that direction. It worked so well I lost weight, felt better than I ever had, and the menopause i was headed for just reversed itself.

    So back to that six months in. My personal trainer was very concerned about my diet, eating too much fat, not enough carbs for the hard training I was doing. He asked if I had ever considered any other diet. The way he phrased it he clearly considered me a low carb zealot. I realized it was kind of true. So I explained my process to him and that for the moment I saw no further need to explore other options for myself. He was not only satisfied by that he started just watching me to see how things went and tried a bit of carb restriction himself (young and healthy as he is, his weight dropped like a stone. So now he knows how to drop a bit of weight quickly.)

    I now know that not everyone has to do this diet. When challenged I just say I have to do this to treat my damaged metabolism. And since most people around me still think carbs are the way to go and fat is evil, yes I do lurk on low carb blogs to keep my focus. I have, however, changed the way I express myself on the subject which is a reflection of understanding that while there are a lot of us out there who need to eat low carb, it isn’t all of us by any stretch.

  42. Wild fruits are good, domesticated fruits from back in the day were still good, but todays fruits are in bad shape. Challenge your readers to check out watermelons. Back in the day you’d make frequent trips to the bathroom to relieve yourself.

    Try the seedless wonders at the grocers today. No water. No bathroom trips. All sugar. The flesh doesn’t even look right so I wonder about the fiber content. Peaches are dry and don’t have seeds in them anymore too.

  43. Great post and most researchers in low carb certainly admit that what we know is greatly outweighed by what we don’t know. An important point, meant as constructive criticism and educational info:

    Those of us who have studied and/or teach thermodynamics (and find it tough going) are surprised at all the experts in nutrition who have it all figured out. It is an area in which even physicists are a little bit diffident but let me point out a few things that I know. I will probably expand in my own blog but in case anybody cares about the details:

    “Calories are simply a measure of the energy contained in our foods. Of course the energy matters.”

    In chemical thermodynamics, the energy refers to the reaction, not the substance. The calories in food refers to complete oxidation with oxygen (as measured in the calorimeter) to CO2 and water. While it doesn’t matter how you do the oxidation, if you do something else, make protein or DNA, etc., the associated calories are different. The reason it is frequently simply a matter of “energy in — energy out” is that for two similar people with similar lifestyles, all the other stuff cancels out and you are basically looking at oxidation. The energy matters, but:

    “The energy content of the food we eat, vs. the energy content we expend… this is what determines whether we gain or lose fat (fat = stored energy).” This is not true. Let me explain.
    “It’s called the first law of thermodynamics and isn’t even debatable.” Oddly enough, my colleagues and I are engaged in a big debate (actually dispute with the Journal of Chemical Education (which they are currently winning)) about how to interpret the laws of thermodynamics.

    “The reason low-carb diets work so well for weight loss is that they reduce appetite and cause an automatic restriction in calories (making calorie counting unnecessary, in many cases).” This is a major reason that they work but probably not the only reason.

    “There is no metabolic magic at play that overrides the first law of thermodynamics. That is not possible and trying to maintain that position simply scares intelligent and educated people away.”

    One man’s magic is the next man’s basic biochemistry. So, let me tell you, first, thermodynamics is not primarily about the first law but rather about the second law. In fact, there are four laws and the first law only operates in concert with the others. (They are physical laws). The zeroth law and the third law are pretty much theoretical (defining thermal equilibrium and the condition of absolute zero) but it is the second law that embodies the special character of thermodynamics. Described by Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel-prize winning chemist and philosopher of thermodynamics as the first revolutionary science, it is the second law that explains how one diet can be more or less efficient that the other.

    The second law has many descriptions but the simplest one is that all (real) processes are inherently inefficient — not just practically, not because you can’t machine them so carefully that there’s no friction, but theoretically, absolutely — no escape from inefficiency. The second law says that a perfect engine, living or otherwise, is not possible (unless you could get one to run at the mysterious temperature called absolute zero; the third law does give you that). In a human being, sometimes keeping warm, that is, using food for heat, may not be considered inefficient but from the standpoint of a machine that is trying to manufacture protein and other cell material, it is energy that is wasted. The heat generated in the processing of food, the so-called thermic effect of feeding (TEF) is an expression of the inefficiency of the human machine. That TEF of different macronutrients is different (protein much more than carbohydrate more than fat) says that metabolic advantage is an obvious fact and the extent to which small changes add up is only a question of how you set things up to take advantage of the advantage. The arguments that these differences are small and not important are usually made by the same people who tell you to reduce 100 kcal a day because it will all add up (and sometimes by the people who measured TEF which can be 20 % of ingested calories).

  44. Thanks to Lisa Miller for linking to our paper on the second law. Again, on detail:

    “First of all, the laws of thermodynamics only apply to closed systems, and the human body is not a closed system.”

    This is not quite right. The laws of thermodynamics apply to everything — they are physical laws. However, they apply in different ways. Thermo is very precise:

    1. isolated systems do not exchange energy or material with the environment.
    2. closed systems exchange energy but not material with the environment.
    3. open systems can exchange energy and material with the environment.

    Living systems are open but at any moment, metabolism can reasonably be considered to be a closed systems — maintain cell contents, export heat. The big misunderstanding in CICO is that in chemical thermodynamics, we look at the system, NOT at the system and the environment.

    In a closed system, energy is NOT conserved. Otherwise all food would have 0 calories because when you measure combustion in the calorimeter (where calories are determined), the heat lost by combustion of the food is equal to the heat gained by the calorimeter, so from conservation of energy, there are no calories to assign to the food. In chemical thermodynamics, we focus on the reaction, not the environment. The complete oxidation of a gram of glucose produces 4 kcal. It is not about conservation. It is about dissipation of energy.

  45. “The energy content of the food we eat, vs. the energy content we expend… this is what determines whether we gain or lose fat (fat = stored energy). It is called the first law of thermodynamics and isn’t even debatable.”

    Well it is if you understood the First Law which states: “the change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to the system, minus the amount of work derived from the system”

    Note a CLOSED system!! Last time I looked, the various holes make my body anything but closed – I exude sweat, heat, number 1s and number 2s. All of which mean that the First Law most emphatically does not apply.

If you made it all the way down here, you probably liked the article. Please share it:

Speak Your Mind

*