It is my opinion that a low carbohydrate, high fat, moderate protein diet is the healthiest way for most people to eat. I’m not alone in this opinion. There’s a growing voice, a vocal community of Paleo, ketogenic, and low-sugar advocates who have realized how much easier and more satisfying it is to moderate carbohydrate intake than it is to starve yourself while simultaneously using all your spare time to exercise.
Moreover, I suspect that restricted calorie diets work, on average, not because of energy imbalance, but rather, because of decreased sugar intake and a switch from eating rapidly available glucose to eating slowly available glucose; for instance, axing white rice and bread, and substituting beans and barley.
Why do I believe this? It all started with a 850 calorie piece of cake.
I’ll set the stage.
I had been exercising, fairly regularly and fairly intensively, for about 6 months. I’d managed to slowly widdle my weight down from my adult average of 210 or 215 pounds to around 198 pounds. It had been the case for 10 years that I could, after significant exercise and dietary adjustments, get down to around the 200 pound mark, but not much lower. 198 was a big win for me, because I hadn’t seen that side of 200 since my college days.
That day in mid-February, my wife and I were planning to have her step-mom over to celebrate her birthday. We bought a red velvet cake, topped with a creamy frosting, and served it for dessert. Before my wife’s step-mom left, we tried to coax her to take the cake home with her. She declined.
So, like any good red-blooded American, we decided the best solution was to eat the cake.
Earlier in the day, anticipating a calorie glut, I’d done about an hour of cardio, burning, to my estimation, 550 calories. Calculating my estimated base metabolic rate, subtracting estimated calorie intake for the day, I concluded I had some calories left – 400 or so…just enough for my extra slice of deliciousness. But after partaking in my sugary sin, I’d realized the cake was much more calorie dense than I’d expected – a whopping 850 calories!
No time to lose – I wasn’t going to allow this sort of dietary setback. I hopped on my exercise bike, and rode another 30 minutes. Calories in, calories out, after all.
I went to bed around 11, and found myself lying in bed, wide awake. A question popped into my head that would become an obsession over the next 6 months. The question was this: will my body “use” all those calories from the cake, or might it simply digest some of them without using them? In other words, will all those extra calories magically turn into fat, as I’d been conditioned to believe, or is there a chance I’ll poop some of them out without them affecting my calorie equilibrium?
Just a quick point regarding that magic fat conversion: there is a biological mechanism called de novo lipogenesis that converts sugar into fat, but it’s arguably not the primary cause of fat accumulation.
I got out of bed, and decided to investigate this question – after all, I didn’t stand much chance of sleeping any time soon. My body was smack dab in the middle of metabolizing 100 grams of sugar, coupled with a burst of adrenaline and other sleep-limiting hormones from the exercise.
My late-night investigation led me to learn about the biological mechanisms that drive human metabolism. I discovered the work of Gary Taubes, Peter Attia, Mark Sisson, Chris Kresser, Zoe Harcome, Kris Gunnars, Nina Teicholz, and a variety of other members who make up various niches in the low carb community.
I learned about cells, mitochondria, the Krebs cycle, how my fat cells store fatty acids as triglycerides, how insulin inhibits enzymes from breaking apart those triglycerides, how insulin forces muscle cells to uptake glucose while simultaneously forcing fat cells to accumulate fat. In a word, I learned about the chemical interplay that underlies metabolism.
One of my earliest conclusions during this investigative process was simply this: lots of glucose and fructose lead to lots of glycogen storage, which leads to diminished fat metabolism and/or increased fat accumulation. This was the first time I’d given any serious consideration to the notion that I should consume a lot of fat.
It’s quite the counter-intuitive diet, considering all the media demonization of fat. My habit, starting from a pretty young age, was to avoid eating excess fat trimmings, to favor low-fat poultry over high fat red meat, and to limit my intake of butter and other fatty foods.
“Sure, you can eat a bunch of fatty stuff, but aren’t your arteries going to gum up?” my wife asked.
Turns out, the answer to that question is an emphatic no! That’s not what happens. In fact, when you limit carbohydrates and moderate protein, you lose body fat, your body stores fewer triglycerides, your lipoproteins carry fewer triglycerides around in your blood, your HDL cholesterol often increases, and your LDL cholesterol often falls. Truth is though, these cholesterol markers that the media has hardwired into us to be of critical importance, are far less predictive of negative health outcomes than you’d think, given how much attention they get.
As it turns out, the relationship between HDL and Triglycerides is the best insight you can get from a standard lipid panel . LDL-C, and indeed HDL-C (by itself), is not very predictive of anything.
Thus started my self-experiment. I cut carbs and increased fat. I replaced my morning sugary coffee creamer with coconut oil and heavy whipping cream. I replaced my morning cereal with eggs, bacon and sausage. I replaced my sandwich at lunch with oily salad, fish, cream cheese, and a variety of other high fat/moderate protein foods. I switched out my sugary yogurt snack for nuts and legumes. I skipped bread products and other carbohydrates at dinner. Even though I stopped thinking about energy intake in terms of calories, my calorie intake went from less than 2000 per day to well over 2400, on average – if my math is correct, that’s 20% more daily calories I was taking in.
Results: within 3 months, I dropped another 8 or 9 pounds, and have managed to stay at the 189-191 mark for almost a year. My HDL went up, my LDL went down. Also improved were my triglycerides, blood pressure, and my tendency to get eye styes and chalazion, which I’d been getting fairly regularly for the past 3 years. I continued to lose weight even though I cut the amount I exercise in half, or even more.
Now, when I limit my carbohydrates to under about 80g per day (half or less being sucrose-type sugar), my weight generally goes down the next day (maybe 1/4 of a pound); when I exceed 80g of carbohydrates in a day, my weight generally increases. I’m still about 10 pounds heavier than I’d like to be, but I’d attribute that to a combination of lack of discipline and lack of inclination to exercise more.
In a word, low-carb works, not just as a weight loss strategy, but as an overall health strategy.
In fact, it works so well, we see, rather consistently, low-carb diets result in about two times the weight loss, in controlled trials, as traditional calorie restricted diets.
During the course of my investigation into these matters, the question occurred to me: why do we believe and propagate information that is wrong? For instance, why is it that our government was so compelled to tell us that we should incorporate grass and vegetable oil into our diet? Why has there been such an emphasis on calories-in-calories out when it fails people so magnificently? Why have we swept under the rug the biological, chemical, and endocrinological tenets that underly metabolism? Why is it that people like Dean Ornish, who reaps a handsome salary from companies like McDonalds, Pepsi and Mars Candy, have such an influential say in government suggestions?
When we examine the historical trajectory, one name sticks out: Ancel Keys. Keys was a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who attempted to answer a question in the wake of a national hysteria regarding American health, in the years where heart disease came under an increasingly glaring spotlight following Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955. Keys posited that saturated fat is the culprit, since he was able to demonstrate correlation between saturated fat intake and incidence of heart attacks across several countries.
Indeed there was (and is) correlation, but Keys committed an error, where he mistook correlation with causation.
This is a common error that is easy to commit, and people do it all the time – we are after all, a pattern-seeking species. For instance, if we say something like “shark attacks always occur when ice cream sales spike; therefore, ice cream sales cause shark attacks”, we can immediately see this statement’s faultiness. Unfortunately, the science that drives medicine often commits the same error that Keys committed, which is the same error as the ice cream/shark link. Correlation is not the same as causation.
It is a biological advantage that the human body has the capacity to accumulate fat. This would have been critically important for humans up until around 10,000 years ago, once domestication took over as the primary human food source. Carbohydrates do not deserve demonization, and they do not need not be avoided by everyone. Indeed, some people can eat a lot of carbohydrates without serious repercussions. The difference, I think, between those people who can eat a lot of high glycemic foods and those who can’t is primarily in how sensitive or resistant their cells are to insulin, and probably also has something to do with how fast their cells’ mitochondria can process the incoming energy.
That being said, there seems to be a clear biological, biochemical, endocrinological mechanism that has lead to a profound increase in obesity rates, and the underlying mechanism that gave rise to this increase is the the interplay between the high sugar western diet and the human body’s ability (or lack thereof) to quickly metabolize the sugar.
Calories in / calories out as a paradigm for weight loss is wrong-headed. It is such an over-simplification of this complicated process that I think it merits being thrown out completely. It’s not useful, and it’s not helping. Understanding the science of fat accumulation is a better strategy to correct the problems that were brought on by the move towards a diet characterized by rapidly available glucose and high amounts of fructose.
The solution is probably not the same for everyone, but it’s certain to include decreased (and well-timed) sugar intake, as well as more thoughtful consideration regarding the type of carbohydrate being consumed, and its associated glycemic and insulinemic index value.