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Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work – And Why Low Carb Is Crucial

Published on August 3, 2012,

Returning to the theme of ‘are all calories equal?’, Dietriffic has a well reasoned and researched article that concludes that just counting the calories you eat is not the right approach to weight loss and what you eat – especially restricting carbs – is crucial.

No doubt you’ve heard the expression, “A calorie is a calorie,” meaning the calories we get from carbs, fat and protein are equal in terms of their effect on our weight.

Perhaps you think all that matters is the total number of calories you take in each day, regardless of whether the majority comes from one macronutrient more than the other.

In fact, many people emphasize that weight management is a simple game of math. Maintaining your weight, therefore, is merely about consuming the same number of calories your body burns each day.

But, while this is true in part, research suggests there’s a lot more to it than that.

Calories Are Not All Equal

Firstly, it might help to define the term ‘calorie.’

A calorie is a unit of food energy. Basically, the energy that fuels the body; much like petrol or gas fuels a car. Fat provides 9 calories per gram. Carbohydrates and proteins provide 4 calories per gram.

While it may seem simple to conclude that all you need to do is take in fewer calories than you expend, if you want to lose weight, research suggests the body may processes these macronutrients differently. So, perhaps a calories is not a calorie after all.

This gives us an indication as to why weight loss is not so simple, and suggests why so many struggle with losing weight long-term.

Calorie Counting Has Limited Use

If you are only concerned with counting calories, it won’t tell you much about the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in your diet. Let me give you an example:

A bar of chocolate has roughly 251 calories. 6-8 brazil nuts and 5-6 almonds have around 250 calories.

These two snacks contain similar amounts of calories, but they will certainly not have the same effect on your body. The chocolate bar is pretty much all carbs in the form of refined sugar. But, the nuts contain healthy fats and protein, as well as vitamins and fibre.  It’s obvious which is the better option.

As we shall see, calorie counting alone tells you absolutely nothing about how your body will react to a certain food.

The Research: Protein vs Carbs vs Fats

Research indicates the calories from proteins, carbohydrates and fats may not be treated the same by the body, therefore challenging the idea that a calorie is a calorie.

1. Dietary Effect On Muscle Mass

A recent 2012 study, found that when you overeat on a low protein (higher carb) diet, you store fat around your organs (e.g. liver, kidneys and pancreas). However, when a high protein diet is eaten, it adds muscle and increases resting metabolism.

The researchers concluded:

Among persons living in a controlled setting, calories alone account for the increase in fat; protein affected energy expenditure and storage of lean body mass, but not body fat storage.

Interestingly, the low protein group (5% protein) lost 1.5 pounds of muscle, and gained 7.5 pounds of fat. The high protein group (25% protein) gained 6.3 pounds of muscle mass.

This study suggests that some calories may make you store fat, while others help you build muscle.

Avoid ‘Free’ Fructose

Calories from drinks appear to be particularly problematic.

One study specifically singled out fructose, concluding that in overweight and obese adults, it increases intra-abdominal fat, promotes abnormal lipids, decreases insulin sensitivity, and increases DNL (de novo lipogenesis).

Another 2012 study in young people, found that the ‘free’ fructose in high fructose corn syrup, led to increased belly fat, inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar and pre-diabetes.

2. Dietary Effect On Satiety

We know that protein foods make us feel more satisfied. The result of this is a reduced appetite, which has the potential to make us eat less, if we listen to our body’s hunger signals.

One study found that when subjects increased their protein intake to 30 percent, they ate 441 calories less each day, and experienced greater feelings of satiety.

In fact, they lost almost 11 pounds on average, including more than 8 pounds of body fat.

3. Dietary Effect On Wellness

A very good comparison of the different effects certain diets have on the body, is Ancel Keys’ semi-starvation experiment versus John Yudkin’s low carb study.

The big difference between these two studies was the carbohydrate and fatintake; they were basically the reverse of each another. Yet, as Dr Eades puts it in his article on Tim Ferriss’ blog:

Both studies provided between 1500 and 1600 kcal per day, but with huge differences in outcome.

In the Key’s semi-starvation study (high-carb, low-fat) the subjects starved and obsessed on food constantly. In the Yudkin study (low-carb, high-fat), the subjects, who had no restriction on the amount of food they ate, volitionally consumed the same number of calories that the semi-starvation group did, yet reported that they had “an increases feeling of well-being.”

Instead of lethargy and depression reported by the Keys subjects on their low-fat, high-carb 1570 calories, those on the same number of low-carb, high-fat calories experienced “decreased lassitude.*”

* state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy.

So, despite that fact that the diets were almost identical in calorie intake, the results were vastly different, with the higher fat, lower carb diet showing a much more favorable outcome on overall wellness.

More at: Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Work

Can an occasional high carb day help weight loss on a low carb diet?

Published on July 31, 2012,

Mark Sisson discusses the idea of occasional (e.g. once a week) high carbohydrate eating when otherwise on a low carb diet to help the body avoid fighting against continued weight loss. This seems to be especially relevant for those who have already experienced an amount of weight loss through low carb but are starting to plateau.

Sometimes, weight loss slows. Sometimes, what worked amazingly well before, stops working quite the same. Although this can be scary, frustrating, annoying, or all of the above when progress slows, stops, or requires new input to continue like it was is ultimately okay, because we are an adaptive species. We can change things up, shift stuff around. Physiological processes (among which weight loss and metabolism can certainly be counted) are never linear – that’s partly what makes all this stuff so endlessly engaging.

Today, I revisit a strategy for overcoming these lulls in weight loss induced by low carb: carb (re)feeds. They seem counterintuitive, sort of, especially if you’ve had success restricting carbs, but hold you opinions until you read on. I think you’ll find it enlightening.

“Dear Mark: Your blog is a treasure trove of valuable information. Thank you for keeping this resource available to us!

This is a question that I think many of your readers would appreciate seeing addressed in a post. [Background: I've been studying (and trying, periodically) various low carb regimens for many years, with varying degrees of success. I'm looking to metabolize off about 30-40 pounds of excess fat, build lean muscle and optimize my health and fitness.]

My question is, what do you think of the increasingly common recommendation (from various diet and fitness gurus) to “spike” calories and carbs one day per week, in order to keep the body from down-regulating certain mechanisms too much due to continued low carbohydrate intake? The theory is that a once-per-week carb/calorie spike gives the metabolism a boost, and keeps weight loss going at a better rate than simply sticking to the low carb regimen seven days per week.

I’m wondering if this recommendation for one “free day” per week is helpful or harmful to the objective of significantly reducing excess body fat over a period of a few months, and staying lean for life. I don’t mean a “be a fool and eat garbage” day, but an honest “spike the carbs and calories with healthy foods” day. What do you think: Would this be a weight loss booster overall, or just a setback on the road to burning excess fat and getting to an optimally lean body composition?

Thanks, Mark! I (and I’m sure your other readers) will value your opinion on this.

Dee”

I’m happy to help. Thanks for the kind words.

Short answer: Yes, I think there is something to the lowish-carber’s occasional carb and calorie fest. Its relevance to a given individual depends on that person’s metabolic situation, of course, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Check out my previous posts on leptin and carb refeeds and weight loss to get an idea.

Longer answer: If you’re eating low-carb and low-calorie (which low-carb tends to promote on account of its inherent satiety) and the weight has stopped dropping, you may be low in leptin. Why does leptin matter, and what do calories and carbs have to do with it?

More at: Dear Mark: Should I Increase Carb Intake for Weight Loss?

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