A doctor from Mexico emailed today to tell me he enjoyed the previous two posts on calories. He apologized for his English (which a lot better than my Spanish), so I cleaned up the spelling and punctuation a bit, but here’s how he views the explanation that people get fat because they consume more calories than they burn:

It’s like saying it rains because water falls from the sky.

Somebody replies, “No, really, WHY did it rain?”

And you shout, “BECAUSE WATER FELL FROM THE SKY! ARE YOU DUMB?”

Yes, it’s true that when it rains, water drops fall from the sky, but that is not WHY it rains. You are simply saying it’s raining because it’s raining. What is the meteorological explanation? What conditions get together to cause the rain?

And later in the email:

In weight gain, the cause in the majority of the cases is the alteration of the hormonal pathway that normally controls that area of the physiology. The human body has multiple mechanisms of regulation. For everything else, scientists have very complex biochemical explanations. But for obesity, all they have is a religious explanation of gluttony and sloth, expressed in a mathematical form.

The hormone that controls the storage of energy is insulin. There are other factors in obesity, but all of them are affecting the hormonal, physiological mechanisms of control.

Well said, Doctor – in any language.

As for those other factors, I thought I’d mention a couple that I left out of the previous posts because the posts were already lengthy.

How many fat cells do you have?

This is an area I hope gets a lot more attention in future research. Apparently scientists have only known since 2008 that the number of fat cells we carry as adults is constant. Here are some quotes from a New York Times article:

Every year, whether you are fat or thin, whether you lose weight or gain, 10 percent of your fat cells die. And every year, those cells that die are replaced with new fat cells, researchers in Sweden reported Sunday.

The result is that the total number of fat cells in the body remains the same, year after year throughout adulthood. Losing or gaining weight affects only the amount of fat stored in the cells, not the number of cells.

“There is a system waiting to be discovered,” said Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, an obesity researcher and dean of Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Flier and other obesity researchers cautioned, though, that even if scientists knew how the fat cell system worked, it was not clear that it would be safe or effective to treat obesity by intervening. One of the hard lessons of the past couple of decades has been that the body has redundant controls to maintain weight.

Redundant controls to maintain weight? Nawww, this stuff’s simple. If you consume fewer calories, your body goes and retrieves calories from your fat cells to make up the difference, and you lose weight. Works that way for everyone … although I seem to recall writing this in the Fat Head Kids book, in the chapter where we explained that Marty Metabolism, the ship’s chief engineer, is like a super-complicated software application:

Like all important apps, Marty’s code includes something called redundancy. That’s a programmer’s term that means if one block of code doesn’t work, the program switches to another … and another, and another, until the command is obeyed.

Anyway, back to the New York Times article:

“This is a new way of looking at obesity,” said Dr. Lester Salans, an obesity researcher and emeritus professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

“I suspect that the body’s regulation of weight is so complex that if you intervene at this site, something else is going to happen to neutralize this intervention,” Dr. Salans said.

Complex regulation? If you intervene, the body may respond by neutralizing the intervention somewhere else?

Geez, these obesity researchers just don’t seem to get it. It’s a simple matter of calories in vs. calories out, so just cut the calories. No other intervention needed.

There was a time a few decades ago, before the current interest in how the brain regulates how much is eaten, when obesity researchers spent all their time studying and discussing fat cells. Investigators discovered that fat people had more fat cells than thin people and that fat cells shrank with weight loss and bulged with weight gain.

The result was the fat cell hypothesis, a notion that obsessed researchers. Fat cells, the hypothesis said, are laid down early in life and after that, they can change only in size, not in number. When people lose weight and their fat cells shrink, that creates a signal to fill the cells again, making people regain.

There’s more to the article, but here’s the important point: Yes, it appears that when we get fatter as kids, we do so mostly by creating new fat cells. But when we get fatter as adults, we do mostly by enlarging our existing fat cells.

I poked around online for more information and found that some researchers believe (but haven’t proved) the number of fat cells we’re born with is largely genetic. In other words, people with a tendency to get fat easily — a trait that clearly runs in families — may have been carrying more fat cells from birth.

I also found that lean people typically have between 25 billion and 35 billion fat cells, while fat and obese people may have anywhere from 75 billion to 150 billion fat cells. (Another study, by the way, demonstrated that adults can grow new fat cells if they gorge themselves to gain weight quickly, but it’s a few billion, not an extra 100 billion.)

So … let’s suppose I make it to adulthood at a lean 15% body fat and have 30 billion fat cells. Let’s also suppose I’m six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. That means I’m carrying 30 pounds of fat – one pound for each billion fat cells. Let’s suppose that’s the normal size for fat cells.

Now suppose my best friend is also six feet tall and has about the same lean body mass, but is cursed with 150 billion fat cells, perhaps because of genetics, or perhaps because he became very fat as a kid.  Or perhaps a bit of both.

If his fat cells are the same size as mine, he’ll be carrying 150 pounds of fat. I weigh 200 pounds (170 lbs. lean, 30 lbs. fat), but he weighs 320 pounds (170 lbs. lean, 150 lbs. fat). I’m at 15% body fat, he’s at 47% body fat … but our fat cells are the same size.

If I live on pizza and beer during my 20s and balloon up to 250 pounds, I’m not saying it would easy to lose the weight. But to return to 200 pounds, I’d only have to shrink my overly-large fat cells back to their normal size.

But for my obese buddy to get down to 200 pounds, he’d have to shrink all his fat cells to one-fifth their normal size and keep them shrunk. I’d be very, very surprised if those redundant controls to maintain weight don’t fight against that.

So if change my diet and get back down to a lean 200 pounds, and my buddy changes his diet but only manages to get down to 245 pounds, it still means he shrunk his fat cells to half their normal size, while I merely shrunk mine back to normal. I’d be a bit of a jackass if I judged him a failure because he’s still 45 pounds overweight. His weight loss was almost certainly more difficult than mine, and will be more difficult to maintain.

Gut Bugs

In my review of the 2017 low-carb cruise, I wrote this:

Another lecture I enjoyed was delivered by Erynn Kay, a physician’s assistant who works with Dr. Jeffrey Gerber. She spoke about the importance of feeding our good gut bacteria – a topic I don’t believe gets enough attention in low-carb circles. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t gathering bacon, after all. They were gathering plants with fibers that feed the gut microbiome.

If you’re trying to lose weight by living on cheeseburgers, bacon, eggs, butter, heavy cream and a bit of broccoli now and then, you’re not feeding your gut bugs. Bad idea. That’s why there’s a chapter in the Fat Head Kids book titled To stay healthy, you need to feed trillions of your closest friends.

One of the low-carb doctors who does write extensively about the importance of feeding the gut microbiome is Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly and, more recently, Undoctored.

Speaking of Undoctored, pardon me while I go on a bit of sidebar rant …

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In Undoctored, Dr. Davis stresses again and again that we can’t simply trust the health-care system (which he points out is a sick-care system that has little to do with health) to take care of us. We have to pay attention and be our own advocates.

We saw another example of that recently. Chareva’s father was hobbled by a stroke many months ago. He’s also an insulin-dependent type 2 diabetic. He recently fell and broke his hip while trying to limp to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

After surgery to repair the hip, he was placed in a rehab center. Someone forgot to tell someone else he’s a diabetic, even though it was written on the admission form. He wasn’t given insulin for four days, and only then because Chareva’s mom asked someone on the staff how his blood sugar was doing. Then, and only then, did a nurse finally check his blood sugar. It was over 600, and had probably been that high since he was admitted.

In an age when one-fourth of all senior citizens are type 2 diabetics, how in the @#$% do you not check a 75-year-old man’s blood sugar?

Don’t just trust the medical staff to pay attention and do their jobs. Ask. Demand.

End of rant.

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Anyway, here’s a video by Dr. Davis I think everyone on a low-carb or keto diet should watch and consider carefully:

In a post back in 2015, I explained why I went back to a high-protein diet. It’s still low-carb, but not VLC, and not ketogenic.  I gave the same explanation, albeit more briefly, during a Q&A session aboard the low-carb cruise later that year.

(Jimmy Moore was so upset with me for explaining why I dropped the keto diet, he bought me drinks in the bar later, encouraged me to give another presentation on the next cruise, and made plans to visit over Thanksgiving. You know how these with me or against me types think.)

Going with a low-carb approach (75 to 100 grams per day, sometimes a bit more) certainly gives me more flexibility. I like that. But more importantly, it means I can eat more of the foods that feed the gut microbiome.

Since I knew I’d be writing this post tonight, I measured and counted the ingredients in two of my meals today instead of just eyeballing them. I looked up the calorie and macro counts. I also checked my blood sugar reactions.

Breakfast was three eggs, two tablespoons of butter, a cup of shredded cheese, and a medium potato — cooked and cooled and then rewarmed. Add plenty of salt, mash it all together, and it’s delicious. It comes out to 770 calories, 37 grams of protein, 32 carbs. An hour later, my glucose peaked at 121. It was at 85 an hour after that.

Dinner was 4 ounces of chicken breast meat, one cup of refried black beans, one cup of shredded Mexican cheese, two tablespoons of sour cream, some hot sauce, and a big scoop of salsa. It comes out to 640 calories, 55 grams of protein, 41 carbs, and – the important part – 13 grams of fiber from the black beans. That’s the feed-the-gut-bugs part of the meal. My glucose peaked at 110.

In a podcast interview with Tim Ferriss, Dr. Peter Attia said most of the patients he put on ketogenic diets did very well. They lost weight and their lab markers moved in the right direction. But he said a dozen or so patients didn’t do well at all. Their markers moved in the wrong direction, and some of them gained weight quickly. So he did the smart thing and took them off the diet.

When asked, he said he doesn’t know why some people don’t get good results. Based on what Dr. Davis explained in the video, I’d say failure to feed the good gut bacteria might be part of the problem.

So don’t do that.  Feed your little friends.

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Can’t say I was surprised a post about calories generated a lot of discussion. Like I said, it’s apparently the issue that will never die. Based on back-and-forth comments on the blog and elsewhere, here are some additional thoughts about the calories debate in no particular order.

Extreme positions.

As someone pointed out in comments, people engaging in the calories debate often have more extreme views than the leaders whose ideas they’ve supposedly adopted. Yup, I agree. (And for the record, I don’t believe I’ve ever written that calories have nothing to do with it. If I have, let me know — I’m not going to go check every post I’ve ever written.)

When I re-read portions of Protein Power (1996) and The Protein Power Lifeplan (2000) to pull some quotes, I was struck by how well both books have stood up over time. I didn’t come across anything that made me think, “Boy, I bet they wish they hadn’t written that.” In fact, I was reminded that Drs. Eades and Eades were way ahead of the curve. They were explaining this stuff in terms of evolution and what our Paleolithic ancestors ate long before PALEO ™ became a thing.

But just to be sure I wasn’t quoting opinions they no longer hold, I emailed Dr. Eades to check. No, he replied, I haven’t changed my mind on how calories figure into it, so quote away. Then he added this:

I do believe that you can cheat the calorie math a little on the low-carb diet front. In another early blog post I guesstimated (an educated guess, but still a guess) that people on low-carb diets could probably get away with about 300 more calories than they could on a low-fat, high-carb diet. A few years later, Ludwig and colleagues came up with almost that same number (theirs was 325 kcal, as I recall) of excess energy expenditure on low-carb diets as compared to low-fat.

Perhaps a bit of a caloric advantage when trying to lose weight on a low-carb diet. That’s a heckuva long way from calories have nothing to do with it. But I wonder how many people who are fans of Dr. Eades insist calories don’t figure into it?

On one of the low-carb cruises, someone asked Dr. Eric Westman during Q&A if calories count. “Yes, calories count,” he replied. “But that doesn’t mean you need to count them.” He went on to explain that if you adopt a diet that lowers insulin to where it should be, your appetite should naturally fall in line with your energy needs, and your weight will normalize without counting calories.

Once again, that’s not the same as calories have nothing to do with it.

Low-carb and overeating.

In the previous post, I quoted Drs. Eades and Eades explaining that they had patients who wanted to know why they weren’t losing weight on a VLC diet. Diet journals showed that these patients were consuming 4,000 or more calories per day. That’s why they weren’t losing weight.  (The pleasant surprise was that they weren’t gaining, either.)

Several studies have demonstrated that people on low-carb diets spontaneously eat less and report feeling less hungry, so what was happening with these people? Why weren’t their appetites reduced?

I remember Dr. Mary Dan Eades telling me over dinner years ago that if anything would torpedo the low-carb movement, it was all the junk-food low-carb products being sold. She explained that when they had patients who were still overeating, diet logs often showed they were stuffing themselves with processed junk that happened to be low-carb.

Unlike a lot of low-carb enthusiasts, I don’t simply dismiss Stephan Guyenet’s ideas about food reward. No, I don’t think it’s the entire answer, but this isn’t an either-or situation. The makers of processed foods don’t hire all those food-flavor scientists for no reason. In fact, for those of you who haven’t read it, here’s a part of chapter seven of the Fat Head Kids book:

The Nautilus was programmed to choose the right fuels and building materials automatically. Inside the FUD hatch, special sensors send messages to The Brain that say This is what the ship needs. You experience those messages as This Tastes Good.

When humans hunted and gathered their food, this app worked perfectly. Our taste for sweets told us to eat fruits and sweet-tasting vegetables like carrots and squashes. Our taste for fats told us to eat olives, nuts, eggs and meats. Our taste for salts told us to eat meats and seafood. Our taste for spices told us to eat plants that were full of vitamins and minerals.

But as we’ve seen, apps are designed for a particular environment. The This Tastes Good app was programmed for The Planet of Real Foods. It still worked reasonably well when we migrated to The Planet of FUD Farms. But when we migrated to The Planet of Industrial FUD, we created a huge mismatch between the app and the FUD in the environment.

The makers of food-like products understand exactly how the This Tastes Good app works. So they add just the right combinations of sweet, fatty, salty and spicy flavors to industrial FUD. When these food-like products enter the FUD hatch, our sensors tell us This Tastes Good. This is what the ship needs. That’s how The Nautilus was programmed.

But of course, these aren’t the foods the ship needs.

We are programmed to find certain flavors highly rewarding. So my guess is that if you’ve been dealing with a dysregulated appetite for years (or even if you haven’t), it’s easy to continue craving and stuffing yourself with oh-so-tasty junk foods – even low-carb junk foods – if they tickle the right part of the brain. After all, people crave and over-consume lots of substances that don’t provide calories or jack up insulin.

That’s just one guess. Another guess is that people who fill up on low-carb junk foods aren’t getting enough protein or micronutrients. As we point out in the book, your body knows what it needs. If you don’t provide what it needs, it will keep triggering hunger in the hope that you’ll eventually stumble across some actual nutrients in your food. In that case, you won’t stop until you’re stuffed. Here’s what we wrote in the book:

Food-like products can satisfy your appetite for awhile – but not because The Nautilus has what it needs. When the belly of the ship becomes full and begins to stretch, special sensors warn Marty to stop running the Get Hungry! program. But by the time that happens, you’ve probably consumed way more FUD than you actually need.

Marty has to do something with all that extra fuel. If you’re one of those lucky people (like my wife) Mary will crank up your metabolism and burn it away. But if you’re not so lucky, Marty will store the extra calories as fat.

Not exactly a calories have nothing to do with it argument, wouldn’t you say?

Why calorie math sucks, part one.

Calories have nothing to do with it is an extreme and unsupportable position. But so is The Piggy Bank Theory with its stupidly simple calories in/calories out math. Suppose you’re overweight and go online looking for advice. Here are some samples of what you’ll find.

From Shape Magazine:

In one month you can reasonably anticipate losing eight to 10 pounds if you follow a pretty strict plan. Losing one pound of body fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories. To lose two pounds per week, you must drop 1,000 calories per day. Elimination can be done by cutting the calories consumed in a day or increasing the amount of calories burned during your workout.

From Good Housekeeping:

If every day you can cut about 75 calories through diet and burn about 75 calories through exercise, you’ll drop between 10 and 15 pounds in a year. It’s practically losing weight in your sleep.

From Eat This, Not That:

On average, a slice of cheese—whether it be atop a sandwich, salad, omelet or burger—has about 70 calories. Eliminate it from just three meals a week to keep 10,920 calories and keep 3 pounds off of your frame over the course of the year.

From the Centers For Disease Control:

Paul is 47 years old and weighs 240 pounds. He’s at risk for type 2 diabetes. His doctor urges him to lose 40 pounds at a rate of 1 pound a week. Losing 1 to 2 pounds a week is a healthy goal for most adults, experts say. This gradual weight loss is the way to make lasting changes. To lose 1 pound a week, Paul needs to burn 3,500 more calories than he takes in each week. That’s 500 calories per day.

The CDC then lists all kind of ways to cut those 500 calories: swap skim milk for whole milk, use reduced calorie margarine on your toast instead of butter, steam your vegetables instead of sautéing in oil, etc., etc.

From Fitness Magazine:

To lose one pound in seven days you need to reduce your net calories by 500 every day. The easiest way to do that is a 250 split: Cut half from your diet and burn the other half through exercise…. Choose one strategy from the diet and exercise columns each day and after seven days you will have cut out 3,500 calories. Losing four sticks of butter has never been such a cinch!

Heck, it’s a cinch, ya see! The article then lists all kinds of ways to cut those calories … switch from a cup of premium ice cream to light ice cream, eat an ounce of soy nuts instead of three ounces of almonds, etc., etc., blah-blah-blah. Simple math.

I could go on and on, but you’ve already seen this advice everywhere.  You’ll hear it from doctors, dietitians, trainers, workout buddies, and countless internet cowboys.  Just cut those calories, and the pounds will drop off in exact proportion to the number of calories you cut.

So people follow that advice and fail to lose weight – because our bodies don’t work like bank accounts.  But that’s just part of the problem …

Why calorie math sucks, part two

Here’s a quote from the Fat Head Kids book, after a section describing the typical “just cut one pat of butter per day from your diet!” advice:

Well, that sounds easy, doesn’t it? So according to these people, if you’re fat, it’s because you’re not willing to eat just a little less — which means you’re a pig. Or you’re not willing to exercise just a little more — which means you’re a lazy pig.

The real problem with The Piggy Bank Theory is that it gives people who don’t know what the @#$% they’re talking about a license to be judgmental jackasses. It allows them to assume that anyone who gains weight or fails to lose weight is simply eating too much and could therefore lose weight by just eating normally. That’s nonsense. Here’s a quote from the book:

In a study from the 1960s, researchers wrote about obese patients who were locked in a hospital and fed just 600 calories each day. That’s about one-fourth as much as most adults eat. And yet the obese patients didn’t lose weight. Is that because of a flaw in their character? Should they only eat 300 calories per day? Or 200?

The researchers, by the way, referred to these people as the resistant obese and thermodynamic paradoxes. They were at a complete loss to explain how anyone could stay fat on 600 calories per day.  But they did.

Here’s another quote from the book:

A documentary I saw called The Science of Obesity featured a woman who was lean until about age 35. Then she suddenly started getting very fat. She cut her calories to just 1500 per day and still got fatter.

So, was she consuming more calories than she was burning? Yes, absolutely. That is always HOW we get fat. But was consuming too many calories WHY she got fat?

No, of course she wasn’t consuming too many calories. But thanks to the belief in Piggy Bank math, doctor after doctor accused her of lying about her food intake, even though she’d been keeping detailed records. By gosh, nobody could get that fat on 1500 calories per day!

Uh, yeah, some people can. And some people don’t lose weight even on low-calorie diets. Of course, pointing that out inevitably leads to some jackass citing …

The concentration camp argument

If there’s one argument that makes me want to smack the person offering it, that’s the one.

Well, no fat people ever walked out of a concentration camp, so that proves it’s all about the calories! Huh? Huh? I bet you crazy low-carbers never thought of that one!

Ehhhhhh …

Yes, we’ve thought of that one. Here’s a quote from Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes:

Yes, it’s true: If you are stranded on a desert island and starved for months on end, you will waste away, whether you’re fat or thin to begin with. Even if you are just semi-starved, your fat will melt away, as will a good share of your muscle. Try the same prescription in the real world, though, and try to keep it up indefinitely – try to maintain the weight loss – and it works very rarely indeed.

There’s a reason it rarely works: it’s true that no fat people ever walked out of a concentration camp. It’s also true that no healthy, happy people with well-functioning metabolisms ever walked out of a concentration camp. The only reason they could be starved into an emaciated state is that THEY WERE LOCKED INSIDE A CONCENTRATION CAMP, YOU @#$%ING MORON!

There, I think that more or less expresses how I feel about it.

Ancel Keys actually conducted a useful study in the 1940s. To determine the likely effects of food shortages in Europe after WWII, he locked a group of young, healthy volunteers inside a camp and fed them 1500 calories per day for weeks on end. They lost weight. They also lost their energy, their libidos, and in a few cases, their sanity. They were miserable. They were cold. They were obsessed with food. One participant bit off part of his own finger to get out of the experiment.

When the CICO crowd insists that fat people should just starve themselves into being thin, they’re telling them to suck it up and live in a state of constant misery.

Yes, the woman who continued getting fat on 1500 calories per day probably could have starved away the fat at some ridiculously low intake of calories. She also would have been miserable the whole time, and would have had to remain miserable to avoid regaining the weight.

In a speech about what he calls “the fat switch,” Dr. Richard Johnson mentioned what happens in experiments when animals lose weight. When they burn dietary calories, they’re calm. When they start burning their own body fat, most of them remain calm. But when they start burning away lean body mass, most of them become highly agitated. That’s what happens when the body believes it’s starving.

The alcoholic analogy.

We used various analogies in the Fat Head Kids book: Saying people get fat because calories in exceeded calories out is like explaining that Donald Trump is a billionaire because he deposited more dollars in the bank than he withdrew. It’s like a plumber explaining that your toilet overflowed because more water went into the tank than drained out. Those statements are true, but they only explain HOW something happened, not WHY it happened.

Here’s an analogy I’ve used in speeches, but not (for obvious reasons) in a book targeted at kids: saying people become obese because they eat too much is like saying people become alcoholics because they drink too much. That not only fails to provide an answer, it doesn’t even ask the relevant question, which is: WHY do they drink too much? What’s the root cause of the excess drinking? Why do they crave far more alcohol than normal drinkers?

To me, arguments about calories are often as ridiculous as:

“The cause of alcoholism is drinking too much.”

“What?! That doesn’t explain anything. You’re confusing the symptom with the cause.”

“No, no, no. We’ve studied this extensively, and every time an alcoholic becomes drunk, it’s because the amount of alcohol he consumed exceeded his body’s ability to process it. So the cause of alcoholism is obviously drinking too much, and the cure is to stop drinking too much.”

“It doesn’t work that way in real life.”

“Of course it does! We locked alcoholics and normal drinkers inside a prison and gave them each just two drinks per day. At the end of each day, they were all equally sober. So that proves the cause of alcoholism is drinking too much, and the cure is to stop drinking so much. Don’t be anti-science!”

Assuming we live in an alternate universe where we can’t live without alcohol and not drinking at all therefore isn’t an option, any treatment for dealing with alcoholism would have to address the underlying biochemical drive to drink to excess. “You’re a drunk because you drink too much” isn’t an explanation; it’s just a restatement of the symptom.

“To cure your alcoholism, just drink less” would be ridiculous advice.  But it would be equally ridiculous to say “being drunk all the time has nothing to do with the amount of alcohol consumed, so nobody has to count how much they drink.”

Previous posts on the topic.

Someone mentioned in comments that there are probably people who read the previous post, but aren’t long-time readers.  Duh.  I should have thought of that.  So here are links to some posts related to this whole, never-ending debate about calories.

Toilet Humor And The HOW vs. WHY Of Getting Fat.

The Rider and The Elephant explains why we can’t just starve ourselves into being thin.

Puppies and Thermodynamics is about how we have two Rotties who eat exactly the same meals … but one has 35% more body mass, despite being the more active of the two.

Fat Accounts and the Laws of FiscalDynamics is another take on the body-as-bank-account analogy.

I hope that helps.

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Calories. Sheesh, here we go again. Apparently it’s the debate that will never die. Hardly a week goes by without yet another calories count vs. no it’s all about hormones dustup on the Fat Head Facebook group. I’ve addressed the topic many times, but I’ll give it another whack.

In online debates, people seem to take one of two positions: 1) gaining and losing weight is a simple, linear function of how many calories you consume, or 2) calories have nothing to do with gaining and losing weight.

I don’t subscribe to either position.

Hundreds of people have emailed me over the years to tell me after watching Fat Head, they finally lost weight after years of frustration with low-fat/low-calorie diets. I’m grateful for that. But in case you’ve forgotten (or never saw the film), here’s what I said before starting my fast-food diet:

So here’s my plan: using my functioning brain, I did a few minutes of research and found that a man of my size and activity level burns about 2500 calories per day. To create a calorie deficit, I’m setting a target of 2000 calories per day. I’ll also burn a few extra calories by walking six nights per week instead of my usual three. But, here’s the really important part: To make sure my body can burn its own fat for fuel, I’m going to keep my insulin down by limiting my carbohydrates to about 100 per day.

I didn’t pull that plan out of thin air. While researching diets, health and weight loss online, I came across a few posts by some doctor named Mike Eades that made perfect sense. I wasn’t previously familiar with him, so before getting in touch to ask about a possible interview, I read both Protein Power and The Protein Power Lifeplan, the books he wrote with his wife, Dr. Mary Dan Eades.

Both books were very enlightening. I finally understood why I’d failed to lose weight on low-fat/low-calorie diets full of hearthealthywholegrains! and other garbage carbs: I was trying to restrict calories while eating foods that were signaling my body to store fat. When you fight your own body, your body wins. If you want your body to cooperate, you need to get into a hormonal state where it’s willing to burn away stored fat. But willing to burn stored fat isn’t the same as has a need to burn stored fat.

Here’s a quote from Protein Power (bold emphasis mine):

Try to make it a habit to keep good records of what you’re eating, how much you exercise, and how you feel. Having an accurate written record also gives you some hard data to look at if you hit a plateau. Are you simply eating too much? Have you missed exercising regularly?

Protein Power includes a formula for guesstimating your daily protein requirement. Mine came out at around 120 grams per day. Later in the book, there are instructions for moving out of the initial (very low-carb) phase, through a second phase, and finally to a maintenance phase:

Increase your daily carbohydrate intake in 10-gram increments until you reach an amount approximately equal to your daily protein intake – e.g., if your daily protein intake is 75 grams, increase your daily carbohydrate gram total from 55 grams (the Phase II level) to 65 grams and finally to 75 grams.

Protein and carbohydrate roughly in balance … yeah, that sounded good.  So as someone who walked six miles several nights per week, I chose a target of 100 grams or more of protein per day, plus around 100 grams of carbohydrate. Yes, that’s more like a maintenance phase, but I was pretty sure that would get me into a hormonal state of willing to burn fat. Then I chose a target of 2,000 calories to create the need to burn fat.

Here’s another quote from The Protein Power Lifeplan (again, bold emphasis mine):

There are basically seven methods we use in our practice to improve insulin sensitivity, and all the but the last are part of the Protein Power Lifeplan:

1. Decrease carbohydrate intake
2. Decrease calorie intake
3. Exercise
4. Alter the dietary fat profile
5. Supplements
6. Deplete the body of excess stored iron
7. Medications

And later in the same chapter:

Carbohydrate restriction actually aids in the calorie-restriction process. A number of studies have demonstrated that when presented with unlimited quantities of foods containing high, moderate, or low amounts of carbohydrates, the group given the high-carbohydrate foods will eat more calories than the group given the low-carbohydrate foods …

And finally, here’s a quote from one of Dr. Eades’ blog posts, which he forwarded to me today in an email:

Although the lowered insulin and elevated glucagon open the doors to the fat cells allowing fat to come out to be burned, the fat comes out only if it’s needed. If you are meeting all your body’s energy needs with the food you eat, the body doesn’t need the fat in the fat cells. On a low-carb diet your body burns fat for energy. But it doesn’t care where this fat comes from; it can come from the diet or it can come from the fat cells or it can come from both. If you are consuming enough fat to meet all your body’s requirements, your body won’t go after the fat in the fat cells no matter how severely you restrict your carbs. You will burn dietary fat only and no body fat. And you won’t lose weight. It’s that simple.

That’s a pretty far cry from calories have nothing to do with it, wouldn’t you agree? That’s why you won’t see me melting a stick of butter into my morning coffee. I don’t see the point. It’s not going to help with weight loss unless you’re still creating a need to burn body fat by restricting elsewhere. I’d rather eat a few eggs for breakfast and get some protein into the equation.

But wait … haven’t I written a bunch of posts trashing the CICO theory? Why yes, I have.

My beef with the CICO crowd is that they’re constantly pushing a belief that simply isn’t true: namely, that our bodies work like simple bank accounts, with calories substituting for dollars. Cut 500 calories per day from you diet, and by gosh, you’ll automatically burn away one pound of fat per week. Cut 1,000 calories per day from you diet, and by gosh, you’ll double the fat loss to two pounds per week. Start eating an extra 500 calories per day, and by gosh, you’ll automatically gain a pound of fat per week, etc., etc. All based on simple, predictable, linear math.

In the Fat Head Kids book, we call that The Piggy Bank Theory. There are reams of evidence that it simply doesn’t work in real life. We mentioned some of that evidence in the book. You can read up on more of the evidence in The poor, misunderstood calorie by Dr. Bill Lagakos or The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor.

The Piggy Bank Theory doesn’t work because it ignores the fact that the calories-in side of the equation affects the calories-out side of the equation.  Or to stick with a banking analogy, it ignores the decisions made by an account manager who controls all your spending and receives a constant stream of instructions from the bank — many of which are determined by what kind of currency you deposit, not just how much. (I used the account-manager analogy in an early draft of the book before switching to the biological-spaceship analogy.)

If the account manager has instructions to increase your savings account, she’ll probably start by sending you messages demanding bigger daily deposits. But if you refuse, she’ll turn down the thermostat to spend less on fuel. She’ll cancel the daily repair jobs to spend less on construction. Then she’ll take the savings and put them in your account.

Or if the account manager is under orders NOT to increase the size of your account even though you’re making bigger deposits, she’ll ratchet up spending. She’ll turn up the thermostat to spend more on fuel. She’ll spend your extra deposits by hiring construction crews to tear down and rebuild portions of the building, then do it again. She might even take some of the dollars you deposit and flush them down the toilet.

That’s why Piggy Bank math doesn’t work in real life. The account manager receives and follows instructions we can’t control simply by depositing fewer dollars. But that’s not the same as saying the number of dollars you deposit has nothing to do with the size of your savings account.  Of course your deposits affect your balance.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to count calories. Lots of people find that when they ditch the sugars and processed carbs, or go full-blown ketogenic, they finally lose weight after years of frustration and failure, even if they’re not counting calories. That’s because the change in diet changed the instructions sent to the account manager. She was informed that it’s okay now to start draining dollars from the savings account. So she kept the spending high and/or requested fewer deposits.

But once again, the fact that many people on a low-carb diet lose weight without counting calories doesn’t mean everyone on a low-carb diet will lose weight without counting calories. Here’s another quote from The Protein Power Lifeplan:

Patients come into the clinic or send us their diet diaries indicating that they have been keeping their carbohydrate intake within the prescribed limits or even lower, and yet they haven’t been losing weight, and they want to know why. We question them or look at their diaries and often find that they have indeed been keeping their carbohydrate intake low but at the same time have been eating enormous quantities of food.

The book goes on to describe how quite often, people eating these large quantities of food didn’t lose weight, but also didn’t gain. Dr. Eades mentioned that again in an email:

If people are extremely calorically restricted, they do about the same on any diet, because the body is using everything coming through the mouth.  Where it gets interesting is at the other end of the spectrum.  When people go on rigid low-carb diets, but overconsume calories, they don’t really gain weight.  They don’t lose, but they don’t gain, either.  Somehow the low-carb diet really ratchets up the energy expenditure when low-carb calories are high.  I’ve seen this in patients (as has MD) innumerable times, and I’ve had a number of readers write to tell me about it.

We know that’s not true for everyone, but it’s certainly been true for me. In fact, that’s what I consider the real gift of a low-carb diet: the resistance to weight gain. I’ve gone on cruises and eaten like a king for a week … bacon and sausage and eggs with hollandaise sauce, meat-and-vegetable salads with bleu cheese dressing, steaks and lobsters and shrimp cocktails, and plenty of butter with everything. Then I step on the scale at the gym when I get home and find I haven’t gained an ounce. Love it.

But that’s not the same as losing weight. So to wrap up, let’s return to The Protein Power Lifeplan:

We can take home a couple of lessons from this example. The first is that although cutting carbohydrates doesn’t necessarily mean you will lose a lot more weight than you would on a high-carbohydrate diet of equal calories, it does mean that if you eat a huge number of calories in low-carbohydrate form, you will be prevented from gaining the weight you would on a high-carbohydrate diet of the same number of calories. The second lesson is that if you want to lose weight, you have to watch the calories – even on a low-carbohydrate diet – particularly if you’re a small person…. To lose weight, you’ve got to create an energy deficit.

Hormones, not calories, determine whether your body wants to burn fat or store fat. But even when your body wants to burn fat, you still have to give it a reason to raid the fat stores.  Some people begin burning and/or excreting more calories than they consume automatically when they go low-carb or ketogenic.  But some people don’t.  I’ve heard from plenty of people who had to combine carbohydrate restriction with some degree of calorie restriction to finally drop the pounds.

So please, let’s stop insisting nobody has to count calories.  It simply isn’t true.

 

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Last March, we had a pine tree fall very close to the house:

For obvious reasons, we made cutting it up and getting it away from the house a priority. There are still big chunks of the trunk sitting in the side yard, waiting for us to figure out what to do with them. The current plan is to use the big ol’ stumps as seating around our (seldom-used) fire pit in the front yard.

Months before pine tree threatened the house, another big tree fell in our side field:

Quite a supply of firewood there. The smart approach would have been to cut it up in the winter, before the grass grew up around it. Unfortunately, that task fell below finish a version of the film in time for the cruise on my priority list, so I didn’t start dragging my chainsaws out there until June. I’ve been cutting it up a bit at a time since then – with the grass growing up all around it, of course.

I finally finished cutting it into chunks last week. (Sorry, I neglected to take pictures.) We figured we’d drive the van into the field, load up the chunks of wood, and drive them over to the barn to be stored until we rent a splitter.

That idea lasted until Chareva said, “These stumps are covered with ants. I don’t want them in the van.”

Our girls have a well-deserved reputation for using the van as a combination clothes closet and garbage bin, so I replied, “How would you know the difference?” But I had to concede the point.

So we ended up piling wood into a garden cart, with each load weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple hundred pounds, then pulling the cart out of the field, up onto the driveway, out towards the barn, through another field, and finally stopping at the barn door. Then we tossed the wood into the barn. Lather, rinse, repeat. By the time we were done, I’d already given myself permission to skip my weekend workout at the gym.

Also last weekend, we made progress on building the new chicken yard. We got the fences up and strung some Paracord atop the 10-foot poles.

This weekend, we finished stringing the Paracord from pole to pole.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Paracord is there to hold a net, which meant it was time to figure out how to unfurl a giant net and get it draped over the cords.

The net comes in a box, all rolled up.

My plan was to take the net into the nearby field, unroll it, start raising it over one end of the chicken yard, then work our way across.  Chareva’s plan was to not go with my plan.  She said we needed to start by tossing the net over the pole and cords in the middle of the yard, then work our way out. I didn’t see how that was feasible, with the net still rolled up and all.

She tried it explaining it to me, but it had something to do with vectors she learned while working with Adobe Illustrator, or female intuition, or something else I couldn’t grasp. As a result, my role was reduced to holding the ladder steady while she worked the net outwards. I was also allowed to offer as many suggestions as she cared to ignore.

Slowly but surely – and obviously due in no small part to my ability to hold a ladder steady on hilly ground – she got the net unfurled and draped over the poles and cords.

We still have some work to do before we’d consider the chicken yard a safe haven at night. The net has to be tied down on all sides, and we need to attach chicken wire along the ground to deter predators from digging under the fences.

But the net is up, and as you can see, it’s way above our heads – just where I wanted it.

We also got a door attached to Chareva’s signature cattle-panel archway, so the yard is safe enough during the day for the chickens to run around the yard and look for bugs. They seem quite happy about that.

I’ll be happy as long as a raccoon doesn’t figure out a way in.

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I saw a debate on Facebook recently in which a woman warning about the horrors of arterycloggingsaturatedfat! replied to someone disputing her advice with You do realize you’re arguing with a registered dietitian, don’t you?

A registered dietitian?!  Oh, goodness.  The infallible have spoken.

An appeal to authority is a weak argument, especially when the authority you’re appealing to is yourself. And of course, whenever I read I’m a registered dietitian, I can’t help but interpret it as I earned a degree by parroting what I was taught in a curriculum designed and funded by the makers of industrial foods.

There are some good dietitians out there. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of nincompoops with the awe-inspiring title of registered dietitian. I was reminded of that today when a reader sent a link to an article titled A Month Without Sugar—One Dietician’s Day-by-Day Tell-All. Let’s look at some quotes.

As a dietitian, I’ve heard of every crazy diet. No dairy, no carbs, no sugar, no tomatoes, no gluten, no fat—you name it, I’ve heard of it (and have probably rolled my eyes at it).

No dairy is a crazy diet? No sugar is a crazy diet? No gluten is a crazy diet? Amazing … humans somehow managed to thrive for 99% of their time on earth living on nothing but crazy diets. And now that the craziness ended, we sure are healthier, aren’t we?

The problem with these restrictive diets is they aren’t sustainable and often cause you to crave whatever you gave up. But no matter how many times I tell my clients this, I’m met with resistance.

So the dietitian is against restrictive diets. Just keep that in mind for later.

So I decided to try it for myself, and I stopped (correction: I tried to stop) eating all added sugar for 30 days. Spoiler alert—it sucked!

Aw, shucks, I was hoping you’d keep me in suspense. Oh, well.

First, added sugar refers to sugar that is added to a food, not sugar naturally found in fruits, vegetables, grains, or dairy. Cutting out all those food groups would just be cray cray. Regardless of my lack of desire for sugar, I still add a bit of brown sugar to my oatmeal, enjoy a pre-workout granola bar, and top my spoonful of peanut butter with mini chocolate chips. But that’s the extent of my sugar habit, so I figured I would be fine. Reality hurts.

The registered dietitian regularly adds brown sugar to her oatmeal, eats granola bars with sugar before working out, and adds chocolate chips to her peanut butter. But she lacks the desire for sugar.

Day 1

While eating whole-wheat crackers with my super-healthy salad (feeling great about my food choices), I check out the crackers’ ingredients label. WTF? Cane sugar! Day 1=fail.

Oh, no! Those otherwise healthy wheat crackers contain sugar! If only she’d checked the label before buying, she could have bought wheat crackers without sugar and been super-healthy.

Day 2

My oatmeal definitely tastes a little bland without a scoop of brown sugar, so I head to the store and pick up some naturally sweet foods, such as dates, bananas, red grapes, and papaya. Problem solved.

The dietitian lacks a desire for sugar, but couldn’t get through her oatmeal until she added dates and bananas.  Problem solved.

Or so I thought… until lunchtime, when I add Sriracha to my rainbow grain bowl. Surprise—Sriracha has sugar. I guess I need to read EVERY single food label.

Dang! Two days in, and she still hasn’t managed to avoid added sugar.

Day 5

I’m getting the hang of this no-sugar thing, but I have a dilemma. Today I’m running the Brooklyn Half. Since this is my 10th half-marathon, I have a pretty standard fueling routine that consists of water for the first six to seven miles, followed by a sports drink for the second half of the race and a CLIF Shot Blok around mile eight or nine.

I’d never heard of CLIF Shot Blok, so I had to look it up. Here are the ingredients: Organic Tapioca Syrup, Organic Dried Cane Syrup, Organic Maltodextrin, Pectin, Citric Acid, Watermelon Extract with Other Natural Flavors, Sea Salt, Potassium Citrate, Colored with Organic Black Carrot Juice Concentrate, Organic Sunflower Oil, Carnauba Wax.

So to get through a half-marathon, the registered dietitian normally needs a sports drink (if it’s a 16-oz. Gatorade, that’s 21 grams of sugar) plus an energy bar with another 24 grams of carbohydrate, 12 of them in the form of sugar.

In other words, my usual fueling plan is loaded with sugar because sugar (a.k.a. glucose) powers muscles during endurance activity.

Actually, sugar is not a.k.a. glucose. Sugar is half glucose and half fructose. And we don’t need either for endurance activities.  I’ve somehow managed to spend five hours pushing a mower up and down the hill in our back pasture several times without consuming sugar (a.k.a. glucose) beforehand.

Luckily, another dietitian (and marathoner) told me to try dates, stuffed with peanut butter and sprinkled with sea salt, for the right mix of sugar and sodium.

Thank goodness another registered dietitian was able to suggest an alternate source of sugar to replace the sugar from a sports drink. Disaster averted.

The only problem was I got an annoying cramp around mile seven that wouldn’t go away, so I gave in and reached for a sports drink.

So that would be yet another day in the “sugar free” month when the dietitian failed to go without added sugar.

Day 7

All in all, I feel like the first week was much harder than I anticipated. #fail. Between the added sugar in my crackers and Sriracha and my sports drink during the half-marathon, I’m beginning to understand how incredibly difficult it is to omit an entire ingredient from your diet.

Yeah, you wouldn’t want to omit an entire ingredient from your diet. That would be just plain crazy – especially if it’s added sugar, which of course humans have been eating forever.

Day 15

Halfway there, and it’s finally starting to feel easier. I’ve become accustomed to sweetening my morning oatmeal with bananas and eating pre-workout snacks with natural sugar (dates and peanut butter, anyone?). I can definitely do this for two more weeks.

Wow, I’m impressed with your ferocious discipline. You can actually avoid added sugar (most days, anyway) if you eat enough bananas and dates to replace the added sugar with natural sugar.

Days 17-22

Status quo. Omitting added sugar from my diet has made my already healthy diet even healthier. I have no choice but to eat plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Glad to know that already healthy diet full of grains and added sugars has become even healthier because you substituted natural sugar for the added sugar.

Day 23

All self-control goes out the window when I’m tired. We arrived in California last night, and I’m super jet-lagged. I need an afternoon cookie to make me feel better. And let me tell you… it worked.

Yet another day in the “sugar free” month when the registered dietitian couldn’t get by without eating added sugar. Glad to know that sugary cookie helped you get over an exhausting day of sitting in an airplane seat.

Day 26

I’ve done this long enough, and I give up! Being on vacation and trying to “diet” isn’t fun. It’s actually really terrible. So I cut this little experiment short and ordered an espresso shot in a chocolate-rimmed ice cream cone. And I’m not sad about it.

Well, dang. The registered dietitian just couldn’t continue the “month without sugar” experiment, even though she broke down and ate sugar several times. I wonder what conclusions she’ll draw from the experience.

The Big Takeaways

This confirmed my right to roll my eyes at diets that eliminate entire food groups, because it’s nearly impossible to sustain that change for the long term. I’m a dietitian, and I wasn’t able to do it for longer than a week without a slipup.

Impeccable logic. The registered dietitian is a sugar addict who couldn’t go a month without added sugar, and that confirms her right to roll her eyes at diets that eliminate entire food groups.

And now for the punchline … curious about who this woman is, I looked her up. Here are some quotes from another of her articles:

As a vegetarian, I pretty much hate barbecues. While the meat-lovers pile on burgers, hot dogs, and steak, I’m usually stuck with a plateful of potato salad.

… You can almost always count on one thing at a barbecue: burgers. And with burgers come mustard, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and pickles. Although it’s not the most creative sandwich ever, combining these ingredients on a bun will definitely equal a sandwich that will probably keep you full for a few hours.

A meatless burger will definitely probably keep you full until your next dose of sugar a few hours later.

… Take a creative dish to the barbecue, and you may pique the interest of vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. How about some carrot hot dogs or cauliflower steaks with chimichurri sauce?

… When all else fails, throw your own party! … Let them know what you’re serving is all veg-head friendly. Encourage them to step out of their meat-eating comfort zone and get creative with plants.

Hmmm, let’s combine quotes from the two articles:

This confirmed my right to roll my eyes at diets that eliminate entire food groups.

As a vegetarian, I pretty much hate barbecues.

The problem with these restrictive diets is they aren’t sustainable and often cause you to crave whatever you gave up.

Let them know what you’re serving is all veg-head friendly.

So there you have it. You shouldn’t give up added sugar — even if you substitute with the sugars in dates and bananas — because it’s just crazy to eliminate an entire food group — added sugar, of course, being a food group.  But giving up meat is fine and dandy and good for you, and you should encourage your friends to try a meatless diet by throwing a vegetarian dinner party.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t try to survive the rigors of a cross-country flight without a cookie.  If a registered dietitian can’t handle it, neither can you.

That’s the kind of dietary wisdom we so often get from registered dietitians.

My apologies to the good dietitians out there.

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The Whatever Happened To Rocky Raccoon VI? mystery is no longer a mystery.

It was two weeks ago that we realized our efforts to keep a chicken-killer out of the chicken yard had failed because the killer was a raccoon living somewhere in the coop.  Rather than try to hunt down a raccoon in tight quarters, we constructed a new coop in one day and moved the chickens.

I set a trap for the raccoon inside the chicken yard, but he just knocked it over without going inside.  So a couple of days later, I set two arm traps, the kind that snag a paw when the critter reaches in for food.  Nearly two weeks went by with no sign of Rocky.  There were also no signs that he burrowed his way out of what is now the Fort Knox of chicken coops.  I began wondering if we’d been dealing with a ninja raccoon all along.

Nope.  We went out yesterday to begin working on a new chicken yard, and there was Rocky VI, arm snagged in a trap.  He was also quite dead, so I’m guessing he finally went for the bait out of desperation and died soon after being caught.  I would have preferred to catch him in the big trap right away and dispatch him quickly with a shot to the head, but so it goes.  At least we know he won’t be coming back and attempting to break into the new coop.

The new coop is fine, but those chickens need a secure yard where they can run around, so we started that project yesterday.  The plan was to build the yard between the garden and the chicken yard where Rocky lived.

Any project that Chareva plans, you know there will be cattle panels involved.  The only two panels we hadn’t already used were inside the pen where the hogs once lived.  It’s reverted to a jungle, so I had to use the brush attachment on my weed whacker and hack a path to the panels.

As I’ve mentioned before, the previous owner left a lot of stuff behind, including some big ol’ dog pens.  We decided to use the last two sections of a dog pen for the fencing closest to the garden.

You can be sure I was quite careful when working with t-posts and the t-post hammer for this project.  One near-death experience while building chicken yards is quite enough.

Now that we’ve done this a few times, we have a better idea of what we want when building a chicken yard.  High on my list is keeping the net far above my head.

When building the other yards, I sunk poles into buckets of concrete and buried the buckets.  Later, doing that thing wives do where they come up with the easy solution after you’ve nearly killed yourself with effort, Chareva suggested we could just strap the poles to t-posts.

Son of a ….

Anyway, now that putting tall poles around the yard doesn’t involve concrete and lots of work with a shovel, we decided we’d strap one fence on top of another to create plenty of head room.  That way the net won’t have to drop to 48 inches above the ground.

Another lesson we learned from our previous efforts was to dig a trench.  That way we’re not trying to bend a fence over mounds and dips in the ground.

With the poles attached to t-posts and the trench dug, we strapped on two levels of fencing.

Like I said, it just wouldn’t be a Chareva construction project without a cattle-panel arch somewhere.   The door to the chicken yard (also made from a cattle panel) will close against the arch.  We’ll have to surround the fences and the doorway with heavy-duty chicken wire pegged into the ground to keep critters from trying to dig under.

When everything else was in place, we started stringing Paracord from pole to pole.

We still have to do some crisscrossing with more cord, but when we’re done, the 50 ft. x 50 ft. net should fit over the entire yard … although I have a feeling raising the net over the 10-foot poles and draping it over those cords will make for an interesting weekend experience.

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