Interesting Overeating Experiment

      69 Comments on Interesting Overeating Experiment

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Sam Feltham on his Smash The Fat Live show.  He told me at the time that he was running an N=1 experiment to see what would happen if he consumed 5,000 calories per day on a high-fat/low-carb diet for 21 days.

Before we look at the final results, here are some quotes from an article Sam wrote when he was halfway into his experiment:

10 days ago I started a 21 day experiment where I eat 5,794 calories of a low carbohydrate high fat diet to see if a calorie is really just a calorie. I have come across some militant scientists, who say my experiment is bogus, and some very supportive ones, who have applauded me for trying to push science forward. The only premises that I’m starting with are that a calorie is a calorie, that if you eat more than you burn you put on weight and that 1lb (0.45kg) of fat is 3,500 calories.

At the start of my 21 day experiment I weighed in at 85.2kg in the morning and 86kg in the evening making my mean for day 1, 85.6kg. My waist measurement was 78cm in the morning and 81cm in the evening making my starting mean 79.5cm. As it stands from this morning, halfway, I’m in a calorie surplus of 26,841 and according to the calorie formula I should be 3.5kg heavier than when I started at 89.1kg. On day 10 of the experiment I currently weigh 85.7kg and my waist is 76cm, so a gain of 0.1kg and a loss of 2.5cm.

So after 10 days, he gained a miniscule amount of weight, but lost a bit of fat around the middle.  In other words, he probably gained a bit of lean tissue.

Now here’s his report after 20 days of consuming more than 5,000 calories per day:

Day 20, and I am 86.7kg at 3am as I’m off for the weekend! Which is 0.4kg down from last night’s weigh in where I was 87.1kg making my mean for yesterday 86.45kg, which is 0.85kg up from my starting mean weight! According to the calorie formula I should be up by 6.6kg as I’m now in a 51,239 calorie surplus to 92.2kg from my starting mean weight of 85.6kg.

My waist measurement this morning was 76cm which is 2cm down from my starting AM measurement. Last night I was 77.5cm giving me a mean waist of 76.5cm, which is 3cm down from the start!

Translation for those of us not on the metric system:  he gained slightly less than two pounds, but lost just over an inch around the waist.  According to the usual (and wrong) interpretation of the calories-in/calories-out theory, he should have gained more like 15 pounds.

Predictably, the calorie fanatics who commented on his experiment are insisting that he simply has a super-high metabolism.  Oh, really?  By that logic, he should have been wasting away when he was on his normal diet of somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day.  And yet he wasn’t.  So that “super-high metabolism” is a new development.

In two of my posts about the low-carb cruises I attended, I mentioned that despite eating three and sometimes four meals per day – larger meals than I typically eat at home, by the way – I didn’t gain any weight.  In fact, on the first low-carb cruise I attended, I weighed myself in the ship’s health club on the first and last days of the cruise.  I was a pound lighter on the last day.

People who insist weight loss and weight gain is all about counting calories like to point to studies of semi-starvation diets – people consuming 1,000 calories per day or thereabouts.  Yup, in most of those studies, there’s not much of a difference between low-carb and low-fat diets.  (In others, there was a difference.  The low-carbers lost more.)

But in my experience, the advantage of a low-carb diet isn’t in losing more weight at a very low calorie intake.  It’s in not gaining weight at a high calorie intake.  Pardon me for comparing apples to oranges a bit here, but when Morgan Spurlock consumed 5,000 calories per day of high-sugar, high-carb food in Super Size Me, he gained 24 pounds in 30 days and got fat around the belly.  Sam Feltham gained slightly less than two pounds while losing in inch around his waist.

After my first low-carb cruise, I wrote to Dr. Mike Eades to ask why I hadn’t gained weight while stuffing myself with eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers, steaks, lobster, salads with creamy dressing, etc.  He replied that he’d seen the same phenomenon dozens of times with his patients.  Some of them took being on a low-carb diet as an excuse to stuff themselves, then were disappointed when they didn’t lose weight, or only lost a couple of pounds in a month.  (For the record, Dr. Eades has always insisted that losing weight requires a calorie deficit.  Read the original Protein Power book if you think otherwise.)  When he checked the disappointed patients’ detailed food journals, he found that they were consuming 4,000 calories per day or more.  And yet they didn’t gain weight, or even lost a bit.

Why?  I don’t know exactly.  Neither does Dr. Eades.  He told me all we know is that the body finds ways to burn the extra calories.  The body may produce extra heat, it may repair and replace cells at a faster rate, it may engage in other energy-using processes no one has identified yet, or some combination of all three.  Somehow, given the right hormonal conditions, a body can resist accumulating fat even with a higher-than-usual intake of calories.  Dr. Richard Feinman told me pretty much the same thing.

And by the way, neither of them claimed that the extra calories vanished into thin air.  They claimed that somehow, a dramatic increase in calories in caused a compensating increase in calories out.  That’s what happened to me when I pigged out on the cruises, and it’s what happened to Sam Feltham during his 21-day experiment.

And no laws of thermodynamics were harmed in the process.


69 thoughts on “Interesting Overeating Experiment

  1. Lori

    Re: repairing and replacing cells at a faster rate, I believe this. Last year when I was injured in a bike wreck, I ate twice as much as I normally did, and mostly sat around between medical appointments. I got down to what I weighed in junior high school.

    I wouldn’t recommend injury as a weight-loss strategy, but that’s an interesting result.

    1. Kathy

      I have a friend who broke her leg in 6 places – shattered just below the knee – and was eating like a fiend and still losing weight while she healed. Her doc said it was not unusual.

      Interesting. So perhaps when we increase calorie intake (and assuming we’re not hormonally driven to accumulate fat), the body engages in extra repair work.

      1. Lori

        Perhaps when there are injuries or illnesses, appetite ramps up (mine sure did). But if certain vitamins and minerals aren’t available to do the repairs, maybe the body just stores the extra fuel as fat until the nutrients come along. Gary Taubes pointed out in Why We Get Fat that obesity used to be seen as a disease of malnutrition. If there’s something to this, it could also be a reason why LCHF works: it has more nutrients than a grain-based diet.

        Indeed, studies have shown that nutrient-poor food doesn’t satisfy us as much, mostly likely because the body senses it still needs essential nutrients and ramps up appetite in hopes of getting them.

      2. Galina L.

        I have a similar experience.I had been a great beliver into the slimming effect of exercise most of my life untill I had to have a foot surgery 3 or 4 years ago. I was scared that I would gain weight during recovery, and turned my already low-carb diet into a strict kotosis, and finally moved from a weight-loss plateau. My doctor was suprised at the speed of the wound healing.
        I still enjoy different forms exercising, but my expectations about it slimmimg qualities are more realistic.

      3. Susan

        I have to agree about the accelerated healing. Last year, at age 62, I cracked my fibula. I didn’t lose any weight while I recuperated, but I didn’t gain either, even though my activity level was restricted. Within 6 weeks, the bone was totally healed, surprising my doctor. He looked at the x-rays and asked, “HOW old are you?” He said it usually takes 6 to 8 weeks for a much younger person to heal such an injury. He had expected it to take several more weeks at my age. At the time, I chalked the fast healing up to my intake of vitamin D and magnesium. But maybe it was the LCHF diet instead.

        Probably a combination of both.

  2. Eric

    Could the body not be absorbing the extra calories? Just because they are ingested doesn’t mean they are absorbed. To prove this would require some scatological examination that I don’t care to contemplate.

    I think that could probably figure into it.

  3. Randal L. Schwartz

    I forget where my buddy Andy Lopez (the guy who got me on LCHF by pointing me to your movie) got it from, but he’s always said that provided you’re not dumping large amounts of insulin into your bloodstream, any excess dietary fat (after satisfying BMR) ends up in the toilet, one way or the other, within 4-5 hours. I wish I had the reference. But that does explain why people don’t *lose* weight except with a BMR-deficit, but don’t *gain* any weight either, in normal functioning metabolisms.

    Could be. The first law of thermodynamics applies to closed systems. The fact that we need toilets at all means we’re not closed systems.

  4. Rebecca Latham

    Over a year ago, someone dared me to do an experiment like this in the hopes of breaking the stall I was experiencing. I added a bunch of fat and protein to my low carb diet, and, lo and behold, I immediately started losing weight, and more than a few pounds! I was really excited, but was finding it hard to eat all the food I had decided to eat. I didn’t have to keep it up for long, because, about a week in, I gained back all the weight and then some.

    Of course, according to CICO, I should have gained from the beginning, but I didn’t. Why I lost several pounds and then put them back on again is a mystery. I’ve stopped trying to figure it out!

    I guess I’d better limit those cruises to a week.

  5. Marilyn

    It would be a really interesting experiment for Sam to continue his diet for 5 or 10 years. There’s a fair amount of stuff out there about restricted calorie diets extending life. But perhaps a high-calorie LCHF diet would do even better.

    My suspicion (with some evidence from animal experiments) is that those calorie-restriction studies worked by lowering glucose and insulin, not by the calorie restriction itself.

  6. Galina L.

    As the people with a removed gallblader know too well. when you don’t digest fat properly, the symptom is hard to miss – it is called diarrhea.

  7. gallier2

    One way the surplus is gotten rid off is in the stool. I found once a paper on pubmed (I tried to locate it again but to no avail) that had measured the fat content of human poop depending on the ingestion. At normal caloric intake, the fat content was basicaly nil (a little bit of butyric acid coming from fermentation) but when upping the dietary fat there was a non linear increase of the content. They measured up to 30% by weight of lipids in the stool, that’s enormous. The funny part is that nearly nobody knows about that and that people often actively deny that possibility, even in low-carb circles.
    On a personal note, I noticed that when really eating a lot low-carb, that my poop gets lighter (i.e. it gets difficult to flush as it becomes nearly insubmersible).

    Well, that gives “calories out” a meaning I hadn’t considered before.

    1. Lori

      Right. To think of a human as a closed system, you have to consider heat, work and (fecal) matter. Considering the different ways the body can put fuel to work (futile cycling, repairs and maintenance, exercise, digestion, etc.), trying to figure calories is like trying to grab smoke.

  8. Nads

    He should do an ABA n=1 and do a month of carbage after this, 5000 cals, then do a month of what he is doing now again.

    My thing is if I overeat on low carb I get really hot. And if I ate coconut oil like that bloke it’d all be passing straight through me.

    He’d be a brave man to consume 5,000 calories per day of carbage.

    1. SB

      Sounds like in September he’ll do 21 days of 5,500 cal/day of sugary, starchy, refined carbs. See the facebook comments on the day 2 vid on his site. That will be interesting. What I’d like to see is the same w/ beans n whole grains, to potentially how that they’re inferior to fatty foods.

      1. Justin B

        In the final video, or one of the last few, he said that after his refined carb experiment in the fall, he’ll try a beans and whole grain diet.

        He’s a brave man.

        1. Kristin

          Oh my! My hat is off to him for donating his body to science by doing the refined carbs and sugar and then the beans and whole grains experiment. It is one thing to do an ‘extreme’ diet when you are fairly sure you will be fine. It is another to do ones you are fairly sure will make you sick. My arthritis is starting to hurt a bit just thinking about it. But he is young and will probably recover a lot better than my middle-aged body would. I will certainly follow all this with great interest.

          He looks like the naturally-lean type, so he’ll probably snap back … assuming he doesn’t do any permanent damage to his metabolism.

  9. Kindke

    A reduction in waist circumference suggests an improvement in metabolic health, also even if his weight has gone up, obviously that doesnt mean its fat hes gained, as you point out Tom, probably muscle mass or he could be carrying extra fecal mass in his intestines which wouldnt be a surprise if he was eating tons of nuts.

    Dare he repeat the experiment eating a higher carb version? 🙂

    Talking about calories and “where they go” is pointless really, because until we get a method of tracing and tracking exactly what happens to every carbon atom you eat, talking about calories is all just speculation.

    Agreed. I’m currently reading a textbook on metabolism and the word “speculation” keeps showing up. Honest scientists admit there’s still a lot they don’t know.

  10. zoe harcombe

    Fab stuff as ever.

    The analogy that I use, which seems to work for some calorie die hards (for some it is a religion and so shall never be re-evaluated) is as follows…

    We can put 5.3 short tons of coal into a power station and produce 10,000 kilo Watt hours of electricity. A substance with weight has been turned into something with no weight – Thermodynamics laws 1 (conservation of energy) and 2 (entropy) will have held true. We cannot reverse this process and get coal back from electricity, let alone at the same conversion rate.

    The corollary for food and humans is – we can burn 1 gram (weight) of dietary fat and get approximately 9 calories (energy). We should no more assume that we can convert calorie energy back to body fat weight (let alone at a precise conversion) than we can convert electricity back to coal and yet we do!

    Love the analogy.

  11. Fred

    The problem with the “calories in – calories out” theory is that the human body is extremely complex. This mean you aren’t contolling all the variables and simple observations may be right in some situations and wrong in others (eg. If you are eating a ‘normal’ calorie count the body works one way, when overeating the body changes its response to adapt). To js290: unless the calories in are ending up in your excreta; in that case they may not be affecting your calories out

  12. Nick S

    My informed guess on “where do all those calories go?” is that there are some very calorie-expensive processes related to muscle growth and joint repair which are strongly promoted by an excess supply of particularly protein and fat. I’ve been “overeating” while doing Crossfit, and I keep expecting to get fat… I am getting heavier, but not fatter, and gaining strength by leaps and bounds. My supposed BMR is something like 2200 calories; I’m eating more like 3500.

  13. Julie

    I know for a fact that I’m eating more on my low-carb diet than I was on a low-calorie vegetarian diet (because I was tracking my calories), and yet I’ve lost weight. As a matter of fact, I’ve been eating 500 calories or so more a day for a year, which means I should have gained around 50 pounds, but I’ve lost 10.

    My husband has been eating about 400 calories more a day for a year, which means he should have gained 40 pounds, but he’s lost 20!

    I’m not denying that calories count, but I’m positive it’s not a simple math equation. I think this is something that we all have to experiment with to figure out.

    The body can dramatically raise or lower its metabolism. No laws of physics are harmed in the process.

  14. Firebird

    I still believe a person’s individual metabolism has something to do with it. Sam might very well have a fast metabolism…now. When he is 40 who knows?

    My brother and I are a year apart in age. He was so skinny as a child, one of our elder cousins called him “Bones.” The doctors thought he was dangerously underweight. As a pre-teen, he could sleep until 11 AM in the summer, wake up, eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches (2-3 at a time) then eat again at 1 PM and be thin as a rail. Then it seemed like, when he was 25, his metabolism slowed down and he put on a ton of weight, much of which he cannot seem to lose.

    Me? I was a husky kid. Not fat or overweight, but athletic. I took up weight lifting at 13, got really serious about it when I was 16 and have been training ever since. I never got fat, but lean and muscular (never ripped…lowest BF % was 10%. Even in my early 20s I was around 12%) Still, I have had to fight a slower metabolism than my brother and have seen my waist size grow three inches in 10 years, despite being on a low carb diet. Truth be told, I have not lost any weight on the low carb diet. In fact, I have gotten fatter.

    I would never dare try what Sam did. I believe, like you, Tom, that the low fat diets of the 80s have harmed my metabolism. I feel like I would put on fat.

    Absolutely, metabolism is individual and it can be damaged over time. What Sam’s experiment has shown is that the calorie-counting freaks have the wrong idea, because metabolism can clearly adjust up or down in response to what we eat. That being said, we know some people would get fat on his diet — perhaps not as fat as if they consumed 5,000 calories per day of carbage, but they’d still get fatter. Jimmy Moore gained a lot of weight on very low-carb diet over the past few years and didn’t lose the weight until he adjusted his fat/protein ratio, which in turn allowed him to eat less without feeling hungry.

  15. Ash Simmonds

    As mentioned previously I follow these kinda things:

    As to this experiment, I read some of the comments (stupidly enough) and many were along the lines of “it’s all about calories in/out, but you were eating a lot of nuts which are proven to not be metabolised the same”.

    Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. HBOD.

    I don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to accept that our metabolisms can adjust up and down.

    1. Walter Bushell

      Cognitive dissonance. Even though we all have heard of eating light in the Summer, because eating heavy makes you hot. The calories in is so entrenched and repeated that people can’t disbelieve. Social “proof” everyone believe it, therefore it must be true.

  16. Anna

    I could look this up, but maybe you know the answer already: Isn’t the concept of a calorie based on how much energy an element generates when it is burned by fire? Which would mean that in order for calories to be meaningful in terms of human metabolism, our bodies would have to be equipped wit a furnace that burns ingested food using fire. I need not point out that this is not the case. It seems extremely logical to me that is cannot be a question of calories in/calories out.

    We are not bomb calorimeters.

  17. Sabine

    When I first started very low carb eating, I also overate (carb-less calories) for the first few months, during the time of transition. Overeating (only according to the calorie theory) on large amounts of mainly fat and some protein, I soon noticed, that I gained muscle. I could suddenly carry very heavy grocery bags and other heavy items with no problem and no fatigue. Much less fatigue with other activities was also present.
    As it was winter, I also noticed less cold sensitivity.
    I also lost staggering amounts of weight, and fat.
    It was much later, that my appetite downregulated. Did my body need the extra nutrition? Was I undernourished, even though I was fat? Did my body repair and improve itself? Was the urge to overeat a natural physiological response?

    Could be any of those.

    1. Red Kate

      I am trying very hard to gain muscle and lose the flab, and have been having an on-again/off-again relationship with low-carb eating. I have had blood sugar issues for years (prob reactive hypoglycemia) that I’m also trying to fix (though I am better!). But I have noticed that during the times I try to eat low carb, I eat and eat and eat. Perhaps I’ll just give in to that for a while and see what happens…

    2. Anna

      This happened to me too, and also to my dad. We are eating low carb for health reasons, neither of us have weight to lose, but after an initial period our appetites downregulated and we find ourselves eating much less than usual. It was a bit annoying because without the appetite, I lost interest in cooking.

      Well, I still like food enough to enjoy cooking … or to enjoy Chareva’s cooking.

  18. Mike P

    Tom – Do you know what Sam was defining as ‘low carb’? Was it along the lines of the Mark Sisson approach of under 100g or along the lines of Jimmy Moore and being in ketosis [<20g] or somewhere in the middle.

    Great article!!

    He spelled it out in the article he wrote:

    15g of coconut oil; 135 calories, Carbohydrate=0g, Fat= 15g, Protein=0g
    200g of salmon; 374 calories, Carbohydrate=0.4g, Fat= 19.8g, Protein=48.2g
    180g of green beans; 60 calories, Carbohydrate=18g, Fat= 0g, Protein=2g
    250g of eggs; 390 Calories, Carbohydrate=3g, Fat=26.5g, Protein=31.5g

    Total; 959 Calories, Carbohydrate=21.4g, Fat=61.3g, Protein=81.7g

    150g of walnuts; 1,058 Calories, Carbohydrate=4.6g, Fat=102.75g, Protein=25.95g

    15g of coconut oil; 135 calories, Carbohydrate=0g, Fat= 15g, Protein=0g
    180g of green beans; 60 calories, Carbohydrate=18g, Fat= 0g, Protein=2g
    260g of mackerel; 785 calories, Carbohydrate=5.2g, Fat=62.92g, Protein=48.1g

    Total; 980 Calories, Carbohydrate=23.2g, Fat=77.92g, Protein=50.1g

    150g of pecans; 1,059 Calories, Carbohydrate=8.25g, Fat=105.15g, Protein=16.35g

    15g of coconut oil; 135 calories, Carbohydrate=0g, Fat= 15g, Protein=0g
    400g of topside beef; 576 calories, Carbohydrate=0g, Fat= 15.6g, Protein=108g
    180g of green beans; 60 calories, Carbohydrate=18g, Fat= 0g, Protein=2g

    Total; 771 Calories, Carbohydrate=18g, Fat=30.6g, Protein=110g

    150g of almonds; 967 Calories, Carbohydrate=9.75g, Fat=83.7g, Protein=38.1g

    Grand Total; 5,794 Calories, Carbohydrate=85.2g (10%), Fat=461.42g (53%), Protein=322.2g (37%)

  19. The Older Brother

    But, but …

    Just saw a new Coke ad last night talking about how much they care about our health and that all calories are the same, so we just need to watch those calories and exercise more.

    Bang. Head. On. Entertainment. Center.

    On the one hand, it’s frustrating to see them just blatantly lying; but on the other I’m thinking perhaps they’re sensing the beginning of a paradigm shift if they have to spend advertising dollars convincing people of something they were already supposed to believe.


    I think it’s both.

  20. George Wilson

    Sometimes nothing happens. This a key point in chemical processes that is often missed. Hydrogen and oxygen will react violently to make water – maybe. You need a catalyst or a spark or sufficient heat to drive it. The absorption of food into the system is driven by metabolic factors. It’s pretty easy to think that if the metabolites are used up, no more food will be absorbed. Alimentary my dear Watson.

    Care should be taken, however, as it is also possible to imagine a metabolic disorder that drives the absorption of fat and protein beyond need. For such a person, this experiment would be a problem. This is a problem with some diet advisors (low carb, low fat, vegan, whatever), the tendency to see a one size fits all approach to diet/health.

    We can suppose there is some portion of the population that can eat anything that does not eat them first. (Fat people know this guy, he’s your friend who piles up the plates at a buffet and causes everybody to stare at YOU for being a pig.) There are people with metabolic syndrome that need to really tone down the carbs. I would assume there are analogous syndromes that would be driven loopy by excess fat.

    In the end, the only way to successfully diet is to match your approach to your problem. Low carb work for me (100+ lbs in a little over a year). I spent some time thinking about what food did to me before I started a diet (while I spent 40 days doing two hour a day hyperbaric dives to cure a diabetic related wound). I clearly matched carbs to my high blood sugars. I did use a calorie counting as a guide but with low carb it was almost as much to make sure I got enough calories to satisfy my metabolic needs.

    Now, lets say that when they finally do a study on LCHF it shows it’s only really effective for 20% of the people who use it. Failure? No way. It’s a success for 20%. If it works for anybody, it’s a good thing. We need to worry about what works for us, not what any particular zealot says is the be-all, end-all approach to dieting.

    BTW, one final thought don’t diet. Alter your lifestyle. If you diet (eat things or in a fashion you would never voluntarily eat for an extended period) you will fail. If you find a path to eating that matches your taste and metabolism as a regular fare, you have a chance of success. I failed diets several times.

    Good points and good advice.

    1. Charles-André Fortin

      Very good point indeed. One thing I remember from the AtoZ study is that in each group there were people who lose weight and people who gain weight…

      But there is a special class of people the insulin resistant people who can only loose weight on a low carb approach…

      Even more interestingly (the follow come from the same searcher current research, he speak about it in a video with garry taube), if you put the same people in a medical ward and feed them a low fat diet, they loose weight the same as the low carb group..

      My hypothesis is that, under no other diet do the insulin resistant people get their hunger under control… I remember very well, my first month dieting before switching to low carb diet (< 100g) I had a lot of trouble with that.:(

      On very low-calorie diets (i.e., the kind people can’t live on for any sustained period of time), the weight loss appears to be the same. No surprise there, since insulin levels drop when you’re starving. At higher calorie levels, there was a difference in some studies. The low-carbers lost more body fat.

      1. Walter Bushell

        One can speculate on what the low fat dieters lost instead of fat, muscle being the most benign loss, brains perhaps? That would explain a lot of the low fat propaganda.

        Anyway see

        The profits from manufactured foodlike substances are *so* large a major decline could collapse the stock market with apparent wealth returning to the thin air from which it sprang. Don’t even think of the impact on the sickness care industries.

        Doesn’t worry me a bit. The money will find better uses. We survived the collapse of the horse-and-buggy industry just fine.

      2. Pierson

        Tom, when you’re starving, shouldn’t your insulin sensitivity get worse? I mean, what better time to become insulin resistant than when there’s literally (effectively) no food at a cellular level, and every calorie counts?

        Insulin levels drop to allow fatty acids to escape your fat cells and feed you.

  21. Bret

    Speaking of thermodynamics, I wonder what the likes of loud-mouthed know-it-alls like Jillian Michaels are going to do once the truth becomes mainstream, and they realize that their beliefs about caloric expenditure were foolish assumptions contradicted by science. Imagine the extreme embarrassment she’ll experience when she thinks back over all the years she spent yelling at fat people, or the unbelievably arrogant lecture she gave Gary Taubes on national TV.

    My guess is she will either crawl into a hole in shame for a few years, or (more likely) she’ll jump on the bandwagon and insist that she’s been telling everyone the current facts all along…kind of like CSPI once they realized their trans fat error.

    She’s a good marketer, so I suspect she’ll find a way to jump on the bandwagon.

    I still shake my head at the thought her telling Gary Taubes his ideas would violate the laws of thermodynamics. The man has a degree in physics from Harvard and wrote his first book about physics. I suspect he knows more about thermodynamics than she does.

    1. Firebird

      Jillian Michaels was a struggling model whose agent, aware that there was a show coming out about diet and weight loss, told her to get a basic personal trainer’s license, an A.C.E., and sent her to audition for that role.

      The rest is infamy.

      If she was a model, that would explain why she believes starving yourself is the key to being thin.

      1. Walter Bushell

        Also why she doesn’t really believe what she is saying, it’s a role and she felt no need to examine things for herself, she perhaps might just as well take the role on a Paleo show, if one had been offered.

    2. Peggy Holloway

      My partner, son and I had the pleasure of hearing Gary speak in Denver last month. Our favorite moment was when he shared the Jillian Michaels anecdote. Too funny.

      It was priceless. (I am assuming, of course, that physics isn’t taught in modeling school.)

    3. desmond

      Unless I am very much mistaken, I heard Taubes in an interview about thermodynamics and fat loss ask the rhetorical question (paraphrased): “Why is obesity the only disease for which medical doctors consult a physics textbook?” Why indeed?

    4. Pierson

      Agreed. I studied evolutionary biology when I was in college, and all things considered, it’s not really much different from the anti-evolution sentiment. Hell, I even have a name for it; ‘nutritional creationism’.

      1. Bret

        Nutritional creationism is a perfect term, considering that the calorie obsessors have based their beliefs on dogma. And they refuse to acknowledge any evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

        1. Pierson

          It really is eerily similar, even down to the constant mantras of ‘it violates the laws of thermodynamics!’, ‘there’s no fossil evidence’, and (my favorite) ‘it’ll make people lazy and gluttonous!’. Really, all I’m waiting for is the ‘research’ which ‘concludes’ that people who don’t follow the USDA guidelines are more likely to commit murder, and cheat on their spouses.

          Give them time.

  22. Kerike


    Another great write-up on your part.

    Sam Feltham should be lauded for posing an intriguing question and devising an equally-intriguing experiment. If more people examined assumptions in their environments, we’d all be better off.

    I’ll link to this article on my own blog in the near future.

  23. Kristin

    I always enjoy the comments on this blog, looking forward to them nearly as much as the blog post itself. I’ll have to say that some of the finest things I have now internalized: 1) that my body is not a closed system, 2) I don’t have to starve myself to keep from gaining weight, and 3) exercise, no matter how hard I train, will not make me thin. It has freed me from the tyranny of everything from calorie counting to pathetically hoping for the scale to register a lower weight just because I hiked hard for 7 hours that day.

    I lost a bunch of weight quickly on high fat but then it stopped. I just kept at it and disheartening noticed that the scale was going up, by nearly 13 lbs! Then I realized that I must be putting on muscle from my twice a week sessions with a personal trainer because my waist had not changed and I was clearly getting leaner in oddball places like my wrists and neck. I’ve never laid down muscle like that in my life! So now I’m also freed from the tyranny of my own weight!

    Sometimes I think the worst thing about the whole low fat/restricted intake/calories in-calories out mentality is the emotional angst so many of us (especially women) have put ourselves through. I became an adult right at the start of this mess in the early 80s so I’ve bludgeoned myself with this my entire adult life. The sense of freedom is so worth giving up my beloved bread noshes.

    (Hmm, on editing this post I notice how many times I used the word ‘tyranny.’ Keeping it. Seems appropriate.)

    Guys go through that angst too. At least I did. Every time I failed to lose weight (or rather, body fat) and keep it off on a low-fat diet, I blamed myself for not being disciplined enough to endure being hungry most of the time. Tyranny is a good word for it.

    1. Bret

      The angst was not only self-induced, Kristin. There is a whole industry and a huge chunk of society out there who seem to enjoy making self-righteous critiques of all these “psychologically inferior” people who have no “self-control.” They make these comments, of course, in patent ignorance of the biochemical truth and with no realization that they have their genes to thank for their thinness way more than any supposed behavioral superiority. Ignorant or not, a prevalent opinion such as that is very effective at making unsuccessful dieters feel defeated and hopeless.

  24. Mike

    I eat very high fat, low carb sometimes, and weight goes off rapidly. I would say insulin is the key. With low enough level, there’s no way to let cells store fat, so body finds other ways 🙂

    Over the one week Christmas / New Year carbs ‘loading’ I gained almost 10lbs. Back to previous weight it in 2 weeks.

  25. Nads

    Yes, agree, should be a month of healthywholegrains next (ask a random dietician to design it) for 5000 cals a day.

  26. Bob

    On the subject of disappearing calories, one of my favorite examples has always been ketonuria. If your body is chugging along in a nice energy surplus on a low carb diet, it will excrete excess ketones in the urine. In other words, on a low carb diet, your body is more than happy to piss away what it doesn’t need. How’s that for calories in calories out?

    That’s definitely a form of calories out.

  27. J. Stanton


    Thank you for alerting us to that interesting experiment! I’ve had several of my own commenters tell me the same thing — they’ve “overeaten” dramatically on LCHF and not gained any weight.

    I’m in the middle of a series of articles detailing some of the peer-reviewed science demonstrating that all “calories” are not equal, and that the basic concept of the “calorie” is flawed:

    The Calorie Paradox: Did Four Rice Chex Make America Fat?

    You’ve hit on one of the key issues with the naive application of CICO with this small aside: ” in my experience, the advantage of a low-carb diet isn’t in losing more weight at a very low calorie intake. It’s in not gaining weight at a high calorie intake.” Not only are “calories in” and “calories out” not independent quantities, the processes of fat loss and fat gain don’t involve identical metabolic pathways — so we should expect them to be somewhat asymmetrical.


    I’ve been reading your series. Excellent stuff. I also enjoyed your AHS speech.

  28. JasonG

    I am strict LCHF. I can lose body fat when I stick to the rule of eating when I’m hungry and eating quitting when I’m satisfied. It’s easy because I lose the urge to eat while in ketosis. However, as a social eater, I often go out and enjoy calorie-loaded dinners at restaurants. Sometimes I pig out. Regardless, I feel fine when I stuff myself and suffer no ill-effects. On LCHF, our metabolisms adjust without penalizing us with nasty side-effects.

    Once my cousin and I each ate a 2 lb cheeseburger for a Fat Burger challenge in Las Vegas. The normal challenge was 1.5 lbs, but that’s not fair without fries or a bun. So we added a fourth patty with me choosing egg and my cousin choosing bacon. When we had finished, a Fat Burger employee took our picture and posted to display on the wall. Afterwards, he walked and I rolled in my wheelchair 6 or 7 miles on the strip back to our hotel. My only problem was a dry mouth. There was no tiredness, bloating, gas, heartburn. or muscle cramps. We felt terrific.

    1. Firebird

      I do that at the Chinese Buffet. I pick out all the protein items, including bacon wrapped scallops and bacon wrapped chicken. The only “carb” I’ll eat comes in chicken/broccoli or creamed spinach topped with cheese. I can normally get two-three trips to the buffet line out of it. No bloating, heartburn either. I might end up thirsty later from the salt.

  29. Ray

    A possible correction?

    you said: “Translation for those of us not on the metric system: he gained slightly less than two pounds, but lost just over an inch around the waist. According to the usual (and wrong) interpretation of the calories-in/calories-out theory, he should have gained more like 20 pounds.”

    His premis was that 1 pound of fat = 3500 calories. At 20 days in he was at a 51,239 calorie excess (self reported). 51239 / 3500 = 14.6 pounds (rather than the 20 pounds you stated). This results in the mysterious disappearance of 12.7 pounds (14.6 pounds of excess “calories-in” minus the 0.85 kg of weight gained).

    Interesting stuff! Anyhow, you should probably change the 20 pounds to 15 pounds.

    Thanks for the catch. Sam said he should have gained 6 kg. I punched a 9 into my kg/lb converter instead of a 6.

  30. Marilyn

    @Nads. Ugh! One of the “selling points” of healthywholegrains and healthyfruitsandvegetables is that they “fill you up without filling you out.” Trying to stuff oneself with enough of those things to equal 5000 calories a day, while limiting fats, might do permanent damage.

    That would be my concern too.

  31. Ironmoon

    85g carbs and 322g protein:

    186g of protein transformed to glucose + 85g glucose – some fiber = low glucose&insulin?

    I’m not sure how we’d determine exactly how much protein his body converted to glucose.

  32. Charles

    Did no one stop to think that maybe his TEE was higher than what he consumed through food? No?

    I think that’s exactly the point. When he increased his calorie intake, his TEE went up too. The calories-out side of the equation is not an independent variable.

    1. Charles

      I agree. I experienced the same just recently in an effort to gain more strength on my lifts and weight I increased my carbs upwards of 800-900g’s a day (4,700 cals average from my former intake of 2300-2500cals) for several weeks. I barely put on a meek 3lbs while I lost an inch off the navel. The 3lbs were lost when I came down to a more moderate intake in just a few days. As you can see I fall into the high carb spectrum of things while I understand this site is pro- low carb and I’m not here to attack or complain :), hope you understand.

      Here’s an article on the awesome effect of high carb/low fat 1000+ cal over maintenance on putting on lots of lean mass and negligible fat gain that kinda makes this guys experiment look lame in comparison.

      Yeah, I remember when a bodybuilder I knew in college would go through those “bulking” stages. Lots of calories, lots of weight-lifting, lots of carbs to fuel the long workouts. Then he went low-carb before tournaments to get cut.

  33. calorie is a calorie

    > And no laws of thermodynamics were harmed in the process.

    Of course not, he just badly miscalculated his caloric expenditure
    throughout the experiment.
    In other words, he now has a much better baseline as to what amount
    of energy he was really spending.

    He didn’t miscalculate his calorie expenditure. Sam understands that when his calorie intake increased, so did the calories-out side of the equation. If you excrete fats without using them for fuel, that’s part of calories out. If his baseline metabolism were 5,000 calories per day, then he should have been wasting away before this experiment.

    1. calorie is a calorie

      Another wrong assumption: energy spendings are constant and equal before and during the experiment. But hey, there is some outcome from this experiment, at least, he can now learn much better how much energy he was spending through experiment by summing up weight gain and calories from food log.

      Regarding “if you excrete fat without using it”, it means that:
      1. Either, you got some serious problems with your digestive system and should see a doctor.
      2. Or, you follow practices from anorectic/bulimic circles, in which case you should see a doctor, too.
      3. Or, you hit the physiological limit where body cannot digest any more (afair it is about 15000 kcal / day, I cannot provide a source though).

      No, as other people pointed out in comments, human feces contains fat. And no one here is assuming energy expenditure was the same before and during the experiment. We are pointing out exactly the opposite: when Sam ate more, his energy expenditure went up.

      1. calorie is a calorie

        Ah, so what is this experiment trying to prove really?

        He’s conducting two experiments: over-eating LCHF, followed by over-eating high-carb. The point is to see if the type of foods we eat affects the body’s tendency to accumulate fat. If he consumes 5,000 calories per day of high-carb foods and also fails to gain more than a pound or so, then we’d conclude the type of calories makes no difference.

  34. Eric from belgium

    Wow, this is one of my hot buttons…

    Everyone talks about calories, yet the great majority have no idea what it is! The only person who ever gave me an accurate definition of a calorie during my cooking courses was a 14 year old autistic girl, who with a shy voice said “It is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one liter of water from 14°c to 15°c.

    I was astounded…

    It is true to say that diesel oil and coal has a much higher “caloric” content than a lettuce.

    But let’s consider history. Calories is a concept devised to evaluate the efficiency of steam engines in the Victorian era, because …. there was no such units of measure back then.

    I have yet to see a locomotive powered by lettuce though. Can you imagine the size of the tender wagon?

    A lot of pseudoscience originated during that period, and unfortunately some of that body of knowledge has not evolved since. I consider calorie counting the same way as astrology. Same thing for BMI (a creation of a fellow countryman of mine, Mr Adolphe Quetelet). Truth be said, Mr Quetelet’s work was a first attempt at sociology and social welfare, and he laid the foundations for a lot of modern science. But according to the BMI gospel, Scharzenegger was morbidly obese when he was Mr Universe.

    I view calorie counting as unchallenged dogma in human nutrition. Yes, we are not closed thermodynamic systems, and part of what we ingest is unwanted and disposed of accordingly. And not all of which we ingest gets transformed into heat.

    My view is -according to the current level of scientific knowledge- that the most appropriate approach is to view nutrition in the same manner as pharmacodynamics and toxicology.

    Everything is toxic, and what makes stuff “toxic” is the dose and the concentration of a substance, and inidividuals will respond differently to a range of dose and concentration of this substance. So in toxicology there is this notion of LD50 and LC50, which is the dose (LD= lethal dose) and concentration (LC=lethal concentration) at which 50 % of the studied sample will die.

    In other words, everyone is different, and will have a different level of reaction to a substance.
    On the other hand, our organism has a process to rid itself of unwanted substances thanks to the liver, which destroys ‘bad stuff’ at a certain rate thanks to a group of enzymes called cytochromes P450.

    I love to cook with basil, and estragon. These herbs get their flavor from substances called eugenole and estragole, the former being toxic, and the latter being carcinogenic. But the liver and its cytochromes is able to destroy these substances faster than they can harm one’s organism (up to a point), so I remain confident in serving dishes to my guests without fear of poisoning them.

    Other interesting aspects to consider is evolution and inhibitors.
    Years ago I did some investigation in insecticides for head lice. in broad terms, head lice have evolved to become resistant to classic insecticides, the bugs having developed cytochromes that were able to destroy the insecticide before it could become potent. So the “cure” was to add a substance to the mix called Piperonyl butoxide, which blocks the cytochrome and allowed the insecticide to do its job.

    By the way, grapefruit juice (an some others) contain substances that have a similar effect on our liver. Never drink grapefruit juice if you are unfortunately having a chemotherapy, for the same reasons as above.

    So, there are several key concepts to consider:
    -the nature of the substance is ingested, and how it is metabolized by the organism
    -how fast it is metabolized / destroyed by the organism
    -what processes / substances accelerate or slows down these processes
    -how we evolve over time as a species or an individual to adapt to new substances

    Hmmm… I wonder. Does this look like a framework for diabetes / insulin resistance?

    I am not a steam engine, yet I do eat (a-hem) “calories” and occasionally blow of steam. But no matter how much teleoanalysis you throw at me, these two facts remain unrelated.

    Oh, and by definition, it is impossible to “burn a calorie”. A calori – or Joule as it should be properly named – is a measure of energy in the form of heat.

    Regards to all

    (and for those interested in the subject, I invite your to look out for “Connections” by James Burke on your favorite video channel. You would be surprised how science and technology evolved)

    “Connections” was a terrific series. I liked it so much, I bought the book and read that too.

  35. Eric

    What about gaining lean mass? Is that difficult on LCHF? Is eating a higher carb diet recommended for adding muscle?


    I gained muscle on LCHF, and Jimmy Moore put on 16 pounds of muscle last year while losing nearly 100 pounds of fat. That being said, I’m not going for body-builder proportions. Many body-builders recommend consuming some carbs after hard workouts.

  36. Eugene

    Nice anecdote, but by itself it does not prove anything. Unlike numerous tightly controlled metabolic ward studies that failed to show the difference between diets with varying nutrient compositions. It is still calories in – calories out, and a calorie is a calorie. The best anecdotal evidence – ask masters of body recomposition, bodybuilders, what they do to get leaner or gain weight. Plenty of macronutrient manipulation, but on top of calorie balance.

    By the way, the yellow line predicting theoretical weight gain in this experiment is incorrect. As the body mass increases, so does the metabolic rate, and weight gain slows down. So that the line is not straight.

    Are you suggesting he lied about his food intake and weight? That he fudged those very detailed numbers? Because there are only two possibilities here: 1) He made up the data, or 2) he barely gained weight on 5,700 calories of LCHF foods but gained 16 pounds on 5,700 calories of high-carb foods.

    (I’m assuming you saw my post the second experiment:

    If you’re arguing that he’s a liar … well, okay, you think he’s a liar. (Good luck with with that one.) If you’re not arguing that he’s a liar and therefore accept that his data is correct, then yes, it clearly does prove something: it proves that at the same very high calorie intake, low-carb vs. high-carb made a dramatic difference in how much weight and body fat Sam Feltham gained, so a calorie was not a calorie in his case. If it made a dramatic difference for him, it can make a dramatic difference for other people too … unless you believe he’s unique among the billions of people in the world.

    The tightly controlled metabolic ward studies were of people on low-calorie weight-loss diets and don’t prove anything about what happens when people overconsume calories on diets of different macronutrient ratios.

  37. Eugene

    One more thing: how old is this guy? He looks twenty-something. Being an ectomorph myself at that age I had trouble gaining weight on any diet.

    Did you or did you not read up on his second experiment — the one where at the same calorie intake (5700 per day) of high-carb food, he gained nearly 16 pounds? I think we can safely dismiss the possibility that he was a twenty-something ectomorph during the first experiment but not during the second.


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