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.


103 Responses to “The Calorie Debate … Again (and again and again?)”
  1. Sean Thein says:

    Great !

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Thank you.

      • JIllOz says:

        Those last paragraphs were just what I needed, Tom, I still have a lot to learn about the low carb deficit thing to induce weight or fat loss.

        Please do post further on this, and as far as I’m concerned you can dumb it down to your heart’s content! 🙂

  2. Bob Johnston says:

    I totally get what you’re saying but I believe there are a couple other things to consider.

    The first is the timing of the meals. As someone who does some occasional intermittent fasting I’ve seen the weight loss benefit (for me at least) to do all my eating during an 8 hour period with an accompanying 16 hour fats. I eat tons during that window but still lose weight.

    The second is something I tried as a 30 day trial because even though I’ve been low carb I simply hadn’t lost all the weight I wanted to and that’s Zero Carb… basically just meat and eggs. Protein intake is roughly 200-300 grams per day with roughly the same amount of fat and I lost body fat. I enjoyed my 30 day trial so much 7 months later I’m still doing it.

    With intermittent fasting there is no calorie restriction on a daily basis but there is enough of a window of no eating that stored fat is burned and then no fat is stored during the eating window (as you noted earlier). But when it comes to Zero Carb I’m a bit unsure because I’m not fasting nor limiting calories but I’m losing all the stubborn fat I couldn’t when I was LCHF. So it’s a bit of a puzzler… I used to think that calories matter but now I’m not so sure.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Sure, what you describe is one of the many reasons I trash The Piggy Bank theory. In “the poor, misunderstood calorie,” Dr. Lakagos recounts how meal timing can change fat gain or loss, even when the total number of calories consumed in a day is exactly the same. I certainly haven’t gone over to the dark side of CICO.

      But regardless of how many hormonal benefits we derive from low-carb, keto, fasting, or whatever, some people will consume more than they burn/excrete until they consciously adopt limits. And for some people, even a ridiculously low intake of calories won’t produce weight loss … but that’s a different issue.

  3. Bill says:

    Perhaps like you Eades got me into this way of eating. I was visiting the US for Xmas and suffering chronic indigestion whilst staying with US friends in MA. Wandering around Barnes and Noble I chanced on Protein Power, this was in 1997. I have never looked back in my diet. With regard to calories, the idea that the body is a laboratory calorific bomb has troubled me, I spent some time looking into Attwater’s work, he and his team in the late 19th century were quite scrupulous and I think (oops real science) showed way back that different foods provoke different responses in the human body. The calorie assumption stemmed from that and became a fashion. But of course , around the same time, we had Kellogg and Graham with their ‘health’ foods and Coca Cola as a ‘tonic’ together with Procter and Gamble and the amazing Crisco. Marketing is a very powerful tool in the food world, couple marketing with skewed government policy and lobbying and you end up with the situation we find ourselves (as a western society, not individuals necessarily) today.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      What struck me while re-reading portions of Protein Power, which was published in 1996, is how well it still holds up.

      • chris c says:

        Yes it was one of my original major inspirations too. The problem with books is they are already out of date by the time they get through publication, and even more so by now – the last two decades have actually seen a whole bunch of science being done, all of which have passed the Propagandists by. Michael Eades was an engineer which helps his thought processes no end.

        Here’s some engineering – I had a Renault which did over 60 mpg (our miles are the same as yours but our gallons differ). Then I had a VW (briefly) which was superficially similar but hard pressed to do more than 50 mpg. Now I have a Nissan with essentially the same Renault engine, only tuned differently, and despite being bigger and heavier with a lot more performance it does over 56 mpg.

        Oh look! A Metabolic Advantage! Only engineers don’t flap their hands and shriek that this breaks the laws of physics/thermodynamics, they actually study it and use the results when designing new engines (well at VW not so much) and journos who test and review cars, trucks, agricultural machinery etc. also know full well that this happens and why. Among the known factors are efficiency of the burn, and frictional and other losses.

        Clueful people who study humans are also aware of known factors, endocrines for example. More further down the thread.

  4. Dr.Garry Lee says:

    I think you’re fully right, Tom. I struggled with my weight until I did more or less what you did. I was last my chronic longterm weight of 220lb in June 2012. Lost half of the 40 or so pounds I’ve kept off by quitting all sweet things, and having regained some 7lb, lost the rest by doing LCHF and keeping my carbs at 50g max per day. I’ve only counted my calories etc., twice, for someone on Twitter who was curious. I did my macros on those days as well. They were 18% protein, 10% carbs, 72% fat.
    There is a BIG secret in adhering to this. It’s don’t cheat. Habits are way stronger than will-power.
    Keep writing. We love your style!

  5. Dominik says:

    All of this should be common sense… but it is not.

    • Firebird7478 says:

      There is a chiropractor named John Bergman who lectures on YouTube. He now calls this “Uncommon sense” because “common sense” no longer exists.

  6. Tom Welsh says:

    Yes, thanks Tom! A very timely reminder and refresher of facts we should know… but are all too likely to forget (or “forget”).

  7. Mitzi says:

    Brilliant…I’m going to share this with all my nutrition classes.
    I just love your writing style and the analogy of the bank account…

  8. Mark B says:

    Great post Tom. It always seems that whatever camp you are in there are always zealots. SAD, Mediteranean, Paleo, Primal, whatever. Even when the figure heads of these camps are not. Take Robb Wolf as an example. He pitches a plan to start very restrictive in what you eat. But that is only to get you started. He is fully subscribed to Paleo yet will still eat corn in the form of tacos. People need to take a step back and start saying this is what worked for me. Why don’t you try it and see what happens. Then if it doesn’t work don’t say you are not doing it right, just say you may need to tweak it a bit to get it working for you.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I believe the zealotry results from the natural desire for clear, simple answers. Unfortunately, the human body isn’t simple.

      Yup, often the zealots are more extreme than the people whose ideas they (supposedly) follow. Mike Eades, Richard Feinman, Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Steve Phinney … if you read what they write, listen to what they say in speeches and interviews, they rarely express ideas in terms of “this is how it is, all the time, for all people, period.”

      • Firebird7478 says:

        Yep! I did great on The Zone Diet but knowing what I know now about fats, fruits, etc. I don’t think I could comply to the tenets of a 40-30-30 diet. It’d be tough to work out since I’ve put the yolk back into the omelette and can no longer eat just 3 macadamia per meal.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          I’ve ended up on sort of a modified Zone diet … which is close to the Perfect Health diet and also close to what Eades & Eades recommend for maintenance. Protein and carbs in approximate balance, usually around 75-100 grams on the carbs, 100+ grams of protein. When I track it, it comes out to something like 20% carbohydrate, 25% protein, 55% fat.

          • Firebird7478 says:

            Dr. Jaminet is keen on white rice, rice noodles, rice crackers etc. and you have mentioned that rice does not agree with you. Do you swap out with something else or do you just not bother?

            • Tom Naughton says:

              Jaminet defines a “safe starch” as one that doesn’t cause damage. So rice is “safe” in his book, but wheat isn’t because of the gluten, lectins, etc. But he also points out that rice has very little micronutrient value, unlike potatoes.

              I just don’t bother with rice.

      • Bill says:

        People like a simple answer to everything, it saves them having to think it through themselves. Our societies are riddled with it; religion, politics, food, medication ideology etc, etc. I am often astounded by the absolute adherence to an idea otherwise intelligent people seem to have. In an age where you can access pretty much all the knowledge known to man you’d think that people would do more research and form their own ideas. Tom, you have often commented on the ‘gatekeepers’ and how the internet threatens that status quo. Might it be that the vast majority prefer it that way? Of course those that are paid to express opinion or offer advice are a different matter, they have often made disinformation a lucrative career, the majority mentioned before are their bread and butter.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          I doubt it’s a majority, but sure, I know a few people who preferred the days of the information gatekeepers. They’re uncomfortable with all that debate and disagreement out there.

          • Bill says:

            Whenever I hear a”they say’ that precedes a food or Pharma comment I know I’m talking to someone who likes to hear their information via a gatekeeper, no research required; after all its true isn’t it?

  9. j says:

    I try to eat lots of low starch veggies ..really takes care of everything almost in keeping carbs low, feeling full, lowering calorie intake. I’ll have the occasional potato or rice but mostly eat veggies found in salads and a bit of squash…the rest is meat proteins and occasionally fruit. 🙂

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I’m fine with potatoes. They’re satisfying for me, and they don’t raise my blood sugar that much. I’ll typically peak at 125 if I include a small-to-medium potato with a meal, then drop back to 80-90 soon after. Same for squash.

      Rice is another story. Consistently, I find that even small servings of rice jack up my glucose, and it stays high for another hour. So rice is off the menu.

      • j says:

        Considering I perceive my diet as being healthy, Ive never found a reason to frequently measure blood glucose aside, perhaps, for a routine (yearly) blood test.

        That being said, I dont eat rice daily..maybe couple times a week. #N=1

  10. Abby says:

    Thank you for the common sense!

  11. Stephen T says:

    I did find that helpful. I’ve never counted calories in my life, but I struggled to explain to overweight friends how their bodies should self regulate when they stop eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates.

    Allowing the body access to stored fat, by lowering insulin, and then giving it a reason to use the stores makes so much sense. If we have enough calories in what we eat, even in a low carb diet, then why would our body use its stores of fat? We don’t look in the freezer until the fridge is empty, to paraphrase Dr Fung.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      According to Drs. Eades and Eades in the Protein Power books, most of their patients did spontaneously reduce food intake enough to enable weight loss after going low-carb. Those patients didn’t need to count calories, just eat to satiety. But kudos to the docs for pointing out that some people, for whatever reason, still continue to overeat if they don’t count.

  12. Judy B says:

    Thanks for another great post! I have wondered if stress affects the metabolism in strange ways, too?

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Absolutely. Stress raises cortisol, and high cortisol can trigger weight gain.

      • Firebird7478 says:

        And there isn’t much you can do about cortisol. Endocrinologist just told me that.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          Hmmm, I wonder if all endocrinologists share that opinion … ?

          • Firebird7478 says:

            Before I went to the endocrinologist, I was being treated by my osteopath. She went over my labs with me and was glad to hear I was going to see one — because of serum calcium levels. When I said, “I hope he can finally do something about my cortisol,” she sort of smirked and shook her head.

            I’d be all for medical marijuana if it meant reducing stress which in turn would lower my cortisol. If it didn’t, at that point I probably wouldn’t care.

            Pass the Doritos.

            • Tom Naughton says:

              I’m all for medical marijuana even though I personally have no use for the stuff.

              • Firebird7478 says:

                Given the choice of anti-anxiety medication or marijuana, I’ll take the marijuana!

                • Phillis Hammond says:

                  Personally I’d rather fix the underlying problem whether physical, mental or spiritual and skip the Marijuana altogether. As far as I know there is no imperative physical need for marijuana. It’s just another drug as far as I’m concerned regardless of its legality. I wouldn’t take it any more than I’d take any other drug whether it came out of a pharmaceutical house or someone’s backyard. I’d also rather find the cause of my anxiety and fix it rather than stick a bandaid on the symptom. But these are just my opinions.

              • j says:

                Medical marijuana.. also known as.. marijuana.


                • Tom Naughton says:

                  Wait … it doesn’t come in the form of an expensive pill?

                  • Firebird7478 says:

                    There is dispensary one town over from me (where I grew up). A woman I know was approved. They have cooking classes for it.

                    Cannot wait to someday try Chareva’s almond bread with marijuana added into the recipe. Talk about getting baked!

                    • Tom Naughton says:

                      I tried marijuana as a young man (unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled) and didn’t much care for the effects. I’ll be skipping those brownies.

                  • j says:

                    If you like your marijuana, you can keep your marijuana..

                    • Firebird7478 says:

                      Apparently there are different strains for different maladies.

                    • Cranky Old Lady says:

                      There are different medical pot mixtures for different maladies.

                      I use a CBD tincture (water with the active ingredient) for chronic and uncurable hip pain and it is MAGIC–no wooziness, no feeling fuzzy or drugged–just relief from the pain. There are also topical gels that work well for some types of pain.

                      I also use a CBN tincture for sleep and after a lifetime of being a chronic insomniac I can now sleep almost normally and wake up without a drug-induced hangover (I preferred being sleep deprived to the drug hangovers–ugh).

                      I used to scoff at the medical pot stuff until I was screaming with hip pain and my orthopedic told me they had no clue why it hurt and there was nothing more to try. A friend of a friend suggested I look into CBD and out of sheer desperation I did.

                      The medical tinctures don’t cause one to feel high or drugged, and that for me is the miracle of it and I’m glad I live in a state where its now legal (even though I originally voted against it).

          • Jason Bucata says:

            I’m not sure if you first introduced me to Joy Kiddie but she’s been talking about trying to reduce cortisol recently. Mixed results so far I think:


  13. Firebird7478 says:

    #6. Deplete the body of excess stored iron.

    That is something I have an issue with. Ferritin levels are always high.

    A lot of this blog also parrots Dr. Ted Naiman (or vice-versa) that if you are looking to fat loss, to use leaner cuts of meat where you can.

    It also correlates with Dr. Greg Ellis’ book from 2001 “Ultimate Diet Secrets” that over eating on a low carb diet can either stop weight loss or even cause a weight gain. He believed in calorie reduction but not to the point of starvation. He called it “metabolic adaptation”, where if you bring your calories down to say, 1000 for the day, the body will adapt to that number and act accordingly and begin to actually hold on to fat as it is a signal to the body that it is in starvation mode.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Yup, I read a book recently that I didn’t review or recommend because the author still believes saturated fat is bad for us and whole grains are good for us. His views on weight loss were interesting, however. He said there’s no getting around the need to create a calorie deficit, but it should be moderate, no more than 500 calories fewer than your weight-stable intake. Cut beyond that, and the body goes into the starvation mode Ellis described.

  14. Stephen T says:

    Having read the post again, I wonder why people on low carb diets who over consume calories “don’t really gain weight”?

    • Tom Naughton says:

      It’s not true for everyone, mind you. Some people do gain significant weight on low-carb diet, or even on full-blown ketogenic diets. In a podcast with Tim Ferriss, Dr. Peter Attia mentioned he’s seen that happen in a handful of patients.

      As for why some of us don’t gain at all if the carbs are low and the calories are quite high, I’ve asked both Dr. Mike Eades and Dr. Richard Feinman about that. Being honest men, they offered some speculations, but said the true answer is that we don’t yet know. They’d both like to see more research on the subject.

      • chris c says:

        Yes, and also the opposite. I’ve always been low-normal weight but in retrospect always had the “health markers” of a fat person. All the while I dutifully ate my HCLF diet based on Holy Health Grains and “heart healthy” industrial seed oils this was largely true – UNTIL I met a dietician. It took deleting even more fat and replacing it with even more grains to make me gain weight. This also left me constantly hungry and semipermanently exhausted, and brought me right up to the brink of diagnosed diabetes.

        I fairly rapidly gained about 15 kg all around my gut, and when I wised up, bought a glucometer and paid attention to its output I lost the weight even more quickly, regained all the energy and more, reversed or greatly decreased all my symptoms and improved or normalised my “health markers”, and have basically maintained that for over twelve years now.

        My freaky insulin response is a big part of it – this also knocks on to a whole bunch of other endocrine stuff, probably also leptin. Basically my control system is fried but can be manually overridden given the right feedback.

  15. Phillis Hammond says:

    I’ve stepped away from the “My way or the highway!” attitude when it comes to diets. This is mostly because people are coming from so many different variables that it is hard to just pick one way that works absolutely for everyone. Genetic and ethnic makeup, level of metabolic dysfunction due to poor diet choices and food allergies/sensitivities are just a few I can think of. These were the three considerations that helped me. I don’t tolerate many carbs at all and some may be able to tolerate a higher threshold of carbohydrate. Also, it depends on the type of carbohydrate for me as well. I have to avoid wheat due to genetically derived sensitivity but I can tolerate the occasional potato without weight gain. I know that there are certain biological pathways that are the same for everyone but the conditions under which those pathways exist can vary from person to person.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      One of the speakers on the low-carb cruise two years ago said the same thing: for some of his patients, VLC works amazingly well, but others actually do better with some potatoes and other real-food starches in the diet. He said the ideal carb intake for him — based on lots of tinkering — is 75 to 100 grams per day. I feel good in that range as well.

      I suspect for some people, never-ending VLC slows down the thyroid. Dr. Ron Rosedale insists the slowdown is a healthy adaptation, but I can’t imagine an obese person struggling to lose weight wants a “healthy” slowdown in thyroid function.

      • Phillis Hammond says:

        I agree with the thyroid issue. I’ve found that cycling VLC with a higher carb (yet still low carb) diet is what works for me long term. Hubby on the other hand needs more carb than I do. I’m jealous of that but them’s the breaks! Hahaha!

        • Tom Naughton says:

          Some form of cycling carbs in and out seems to do the trick for many people. I do that sometimes, cut the carbs to almost zero for a few days, then enjoy my high-carb Mexican dinner on the weekend. Other weeks, I go back to the 100-ish carbs, 100-ish grams of protein per day routine. I like to mix it up. Since I’m not a diabetic, I have that option. I of course wouldn’t tell diabetics to do what I do.

      • chris c says:

        When I started low carbing I was limited to around 15g carbs at breakfast and 30g by evening in order to stay euglycemic(ish). After some time, presumably by reducing insulin resistance, I was down to 10g carbs at breakfast but could do 50 – 80g and sometimes 100g by evening. Mostly I stay around 50g/day where I am largely in ketosis and am mostly fuelled by stored energy from the previous day’s meal, or sometimes two meals – I routinely go 5 – 8 hours without needing to eat, and sometimes up to 11 hours or so, irrespective of what I’m doing, a far cry from the days when I’d need to carb up every couple of hours to avoid crashing both physically and mentally.

        My thyroid remained resolutely normal (TSH around 1) up until a couple of years ago, when I suddenly went hypERthyroid (TSH down to around 0.001 or was it 0.0001?) I’m told almost certainly autoimmune (Graves) and nothing to do with diet.

        I largely keep that in check with on average about 17.5 mg Carbimazole, but every so often it will go off on one and either jump really high again or suddenly shut down. Can’t relate this to any environmental factor *so far*.

        TSH of 44 is also Seriously Ungood.

        When it shoots up high I tend to lose weight but retain fluid. When it goes low (overtreated) I tend to gain weight as in actual fat, probably because I become a zombie and have no energy and for some reason my appetite doesn’t decrease. More endocrine involvement. Different part of the control system hosed.

        • David Sander says:

          Hi Chris,
          Your autoimmune condition is likely treatable by raising the vitamin D3 level to 80-100 ng/ml. Have a look at the Dr. Coimbra Protocol for MS treatment which uses very high levels of vitamin D. It’s generally safe to try up to 30,000 IU daily for a few months or 20,000 IU for a year or more. Another autoimmune lowering nutrient is boron, 18-36 mg is generally successful at reducing arthritis rates by 90% and it may help other autoimmune conditions. Boron does help turn vitamin D into its most potent form. Lookup Dr Jorge Fletchas 2013 video on Boron for a good review.

  16. Robert says:

    Thank you for a good and balanced article. And I also see what others have commented, that usually the followers of the gurus are much more extreme than the gurus. For example, when I read on dietdoctor forum, if someone isn’t losing weight, the advise is often anything but the obvious: eat less. It’s more often eat more fat, check thyroid, or this or that. Theoretically possible in some outliers maybe, but for the majority of people they need to eat less.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Simply adding more fat to a diet that’s already failing to produce weight loss makes no sense to me, unless you’re also ratcheting down something else. Of course, it never hurts to look for reasons other than calories, but we shouldn’t ignore total intake either.

  17. Robert says:

    Regarding the overeating on low carb, I’ve heard many anecdotes about it, that people certainly don’t gain weigjt like they should in theory. However, I guess that’s only natural since I spend much of my time on low carb sites. Maybe if I checked out low fat sites, people would be saying the same?

    I did however watch a documentary on BBC, where they had people eat like crazy, but this time junk food, burgers, fries, milkshakes, pizzas etc. Almost all people resisted gaining weight for some time, but the individual differences were big. Some gained fast, some didn’t. Especially one guy, at the end of the experiment he had barley gained at all, just as skinny as when he started.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I remember that BBC doc. Yet another example of why calorie math doesn’t work. We mentioned a similar example in the book. Over eight weeks, subjects consumed an extra 56,000 calories over their usual intake. Some gained 10 times more body fat than others. A few subjects only gained a half-pound. Responses to excess calories vary wildly … but of course, that’s not the same as “calories have nothing to do with it — for anyone,” which was the point of the post.

      • Firebird7478 says:

        This recalls the 5,000 calories/day experiments a few years ago by Sam Feltham. Gained virtually nothing on a keto diet, got fat and soft low fat/high carb/processed food, like wise w/vegan diet.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          The vegan diet fell somewhere in the middle as far as weight gain. Another example of how real food makes a difference too.

          • Firebird7478 says:

            I recall that all that fiber he was getting from the vegan diet was killing him. He reported lots of time in the bathroom and upset stomachs.

            • Walter Bushell says:

              Well all that upset stomach and bathroom time might well cut down on eating and hence lead to wight loss.

              And if you die, you lose all your weight.

  18. John Hauser says:

    great post Tom!

    I very much appreciate (as a Control and Dynamical Systems researcher) your ability to capture the essence of how these things work from a “systems” point of view.

    thanks much for your continuing contributions.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Thank you. I’m sure that’s my background as a software programmer influencing the explanations I choose.

      • chris c says:

        Yes IME it’s the software/program or even operating system. Of course “calories” are important, but irrelevant. What’s relevant is what *drives* the changes in calories in vs. calories out, including but not limited to insulin and its effects as a “master hormone” and the easiest to manipulate through diet, and also leptin (which can be manipulated by changing insulin levels and waiting a while) and as I’m recently discovering T3 (thyroid) which so far I’ve found only medication and changing levels thereof controls.

        Trying to starve on HCLF never seems to work despite being the only thing the mainstream recommends. OTOH there’s no need to starve on LCHF, I eat until I’m full and then don’t need to eat again until I’m empty. Everything else seems to go back to working just like Normal People. Good innit?

  19. Jennifer Snow says:

    From what I’ve read, and experienced myself, one relatively painless way to reduce calories is simply to go longer between meals. If you’re still hungry, it’s really hard to stop eating once you start. But it’s easy to wait for the next meal if you know it’s going to be as much as you want to eat.

  20. Wayne Gage says:

    “… 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…” Very profound.

    “… 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…” Even more profound.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Naw …

      “Wherever you go, there you are.” — Buckaroo Bonzai.

      That’s profound.

    • Stephen T says:

      Wayne, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, so there’s a need to explain and to keep explaining. Most people haven’t a clue about insulin or how to access stored fat.

  21. EatLessMoveMoore says:

    That is all well and good, Tom – but please clarify your position on JIMMY MOORE. Why – in your estimation – is he chronically unable to lose weoght?

  22. Robert says:

    Since the Feltham experiment was mentioned, and I had heard about it before, I decided to investigate it further. There are several problems with it. First, since he consumed on average 322 g of protein per day, I wouldn’t call it ketogenic, but rather an extreme high protein diet. This is significant, since it hardly is news that high protein diet produces a metabolic advantage, to the tune of one kcal per gram.

    Second, he was on higher carb before starting, so he would have lost at least 2 kg from the start due to glycogen. At the end, without a body scan, even if the weight was the same, he could then have gained 2 kg fat mass, we just don’t know.

    Third, he only consumed about 400 kcal of added fat, most of the fat came from eating nuts. It’s well known that nuts are not fully digested, what you read on the label is not the amount of calories your body will absorb.

    Stephan Guyenet also commented that overfeeding studies consistently shows extreme individual differences, but no correlation between insulin and fat gain.

    In conclusion, after digging deeper, I’m not so impressed.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Sam didn’t conduct the experiment to prove anything about ketosis. He wanted to see if the type of food consumed affected weight gain independently of what the usual calorie math would predict. It certainly did.

      I’ve heard the rationalization about nuts before, so I looked up how many nuts he consumed and what percent of nut calories aren’t digested. Bottom line is that undigested calories in nuts would account for part of the difference, but not all or even most of it.

      Glycogen loss on 322 grams of protein, much of which would have been converted to glucose? Maybe, but I doubt it. It also seems unlikely he gained fat mass, since his waist shrunk a bit.

      Whatever explanations or rationalizations we apply to explain the differences, his experiments demonstrated that we can’t just add up the calories we consume and accurately predict weight gain or loss based on Piggy Bank math.

      • Robert says:

        You’re right, it does disprove the piggy bank thing. That is an oversimplification. I’m just saying it doesn’t prove that anyone can drink liquid butter ad libitum without gaining weight, as long as carbs are kept low. Some seem to want to interpret it that way.

        Once again, we land in the conclusion that the middle ground is the most reasonable approach.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          I agree. Dr. Peter Attia said during a Tim Ferriss podcast that he’s had some patients get fat rather quickly on a ketogenic diet, despite no carbs. They were in the minority, but it happened. Some also had their labs go all out of whack, with markers going in the opposite direction of what most people experienced. When patients didn’t do well on a ketogenic diet, he did the smart thing and took them off of it.

          Much as we’d like to come up with answers that apply to everyone, there’s just too much variation among humans.

          • Firebird7478 says:

            His response is better than most doctors. Prozac not working? Let’s increase the dosage? Statin not working? Let’s try adding a second pill…one in the morning and one before bed.

      • Robert says:

        Jason Fung’s take on the matter:

        My point is this: I’m not so sure this is a unique feature of low carb diets. It seems to be a general thing.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          The study he cites shows fat mass increasing during overeating, then quickly snapping back when overeating ended. Not quite the same thing as what Dr. Eades mentioned (and what I’ve experienced), which is no increase in fat mass while over-eating on a VLC diet.

          By contrast, I can gain weight very quickly if I overeat high-carb foods.

          • Robert says:

            Sorry, I didn’t mean Fung’s article was supporting my position. It isn’t. I just thought it was interesting. And what does it show about the piggy bank? When you fill it with more money, it doesn’t like it, so it starts to waste more money, and in the end the amount of money is the same. No point in saving then 🙂

            But regarding “pigging out” on low carb vs normal “pigging out”, can you really consume as much calories? I personally find real food low carb very satiating. After a big steak, butter, veggies, it’s hard to consume huge amounts of cheese or similar for dessert, even later in the evening. But let’s say I eat a pizza and coke, could I eat a pint of ice-cream and a chocolate bar two hours later? You bet…

            All in all, the combination of fat+carbs is very high calorie, very palatable and high reward, not satiating. It’s the perfect storm for overeating.

            • Tom Naughton says:

              I do find low-carb foods satiating, and several studies have shown that people spontaneously reduce calories when going low-carb. But my meals aboard the cruises were absolutely, positively high-calorie meals.

    • Robert says:

      Digging further, it seems there are no studies made where they tried overfeeding on low carb. Some have tried extra calories with fat vs. extra calories with carbs and seen no difference. But since carb base line was relatively high, the high fat group was not low carb.

      So it’s certainly possible that these anecdotes are on to something. I also tried to google to find anecdotes on people overfeeding on low fat high carb, and not gaining weight, but I can’t find anything.

  23. Emily says:

    I’m sure what you say here is almost always true. However, when the body gets totally messed up for other reasons, these rules don’t necessarily apply. When I was on opiates, I packed on belly fat incredibly quickly. Before that, my weight had been completely stable my entire adult life matter what I ate or did. On the opiates and in extreme pain, I was eating fewer than 1000 calories a day, probably way less, as I had no appetite. My doctors didn’t believe that I was eating almost nothing. (But then my doctors believed me about almost nothing.)

    My husband got scared about how little I was eating and badgered me into eating more. Having no appetite, I had to start with the most palatable stuff I could think of — which was cake. Cake for breakfast every day. That helped my appetite, and I was able to eat more throughout the day. Not only did my weight gain stop, but I even shed a few pounds. A few years later, off the opiates, I’m eating whatever I want and my weight is again stable.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I’m certainly not making a case here that anyone who gains weight or fails to lose weight is eating too much. I’m just pointing out that “calories have nothing to do with it” isn’t an accurate statement.

      In the Fat Head Kids book, I wrote that saying people get fat because they consume more calories than they burn is like a plumber saying your toilet overflowed because more water flowed into the bowl than drained out. Yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t explain anything useful.

      The point I’m making in this post is that it would be equally ridiculous to say the amount of water flowing into the bowl has nothing to do with it.

  24. Brandon says:

    Another great post, Tom. As pointed out by many others, there’s a tendency to take either/or positions when the truth is somewhere in between. As you’ve pointed out throughout the comments, the human body is complicated and everyone is different. I know I experienced a lot of positive benefits after reading PHD and incorporating more potatoes into my diet. I’ve become convinced a VLC isn’t optimal for my thyroid functioning, as I lost an additional 15 pounds I could never lose on VLC after adding in more safe starches. I find it amusing, however, how many people find a diet that works for them and insists it’s the only diet that will work for anyone else.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      Going back to a range of 75-100 carbs per day (which is still a low-carb diet, by the way) is working fine for me. I like the variety it allows in the diet, too.

      • Firebird7478 says:

        I have tried that myself but find that in order to get my intake to 75, I need to add oatmeal, peas and other starchy carbs to get there. There is only so much broccoli and cauliflower I can eat!

        • Tom Naughton says:

          Sure, I wouldn’t try to get to 75 with nothing but green vegetables. After reading “Perfect Health Diet” and “Catching Fire,” I changed my mind about foods like tubers and squashes. They’re real foods with real nutrients, and yes, they were part of Paleo Man’s diet, at least in much of the world.

    • Firebird7478 says:

      They’re called “vegans”. 😉

  25. Andrés says:

    No one should have to resort to counting calories.

    There is some lessons to be learned in extreme escenarios. Dr. Bernstein do some very informative observations about their diabetic patients and how he creatively uses the seventh method enumerated by Dr. Eades in order to keep in check their wreck appetite control. Given the sparce data about long term consequences of eating lower amount of FOOD (posibly individually adapted, some will have to skip nuts or cheese) than your appetite wants you to eat, it would be highly informative if clinical data from MDs like Drs. Bernstein, Eades, Davis and so on could be analyzed. We have suffered the skewed research done on anything diet related already (Dr. Fettke’s take on it is eye opening) so it is going to be of much more practical importance than any short term hormones-blind demonstration done by CICO-believers. Without that long term data I am not very convinced that some anecdotes counting calories over carb restriction is giving much information about the long term consequences, the ones anyone should focus on.

    I think that counting calories over counting carbs is just applying a black box engineering approach further down the line without any real knowledge of the hormone status background except insulin. We know the long term effect when applied further up the line: weight (fat) rebound. It is a second class approach because we don’t have enough information to apply the first class one centered completely on hormones by tweaking everything else. I personally would go any non-CICO (circadian, intermittent fasting, higher safe starches, lower dairy…) route first. Not that there is any guarantee of course. Here it is where even the higher fat intake (butter on morning coffee) should be a technique to try before counting calories: it is going to elicit an hormone response of its own (like somatostatin).

    • Tom Naughton says:

      In the ideal scenario, yes, counting calories would be unnecessary. Adopt the right diet, and the calories should take care of themselves.

      But what Dr. Eades found in clinical practice is telling: some people were still consuming 4,000 calories per day even after going VLC. The spontaneous appetite/intake reduction just didn’t happen, for whatever reason.

      Cutting calories to the point where your body thinks it’s starving is a bad idea. But I sincerely hope cutting from 4,000 to 2,500 or so wouldn’t cause the starvation-emergency program to kick in.

      • Andrés says:

        I see from your next blog post that Dr. Mary Dan Eades (I read their first book some time ago, not the second) talked about edible processed junk food as a component of those excess ingested calories. Certainly it may happen with cheeses and nuts. Dairy elicits an insulin response of its own. I don’t know about nuts.

        Still. You don’t have to count calories in those cases either: you have to just stop eating either processed edible items or very specific food types. Calories keep being the HOW, specific foods or edible items the WHY.

        So the question remains. Are there any of their patients having to restrict calories (same food) on purpose in order to shed weight? Do they have long term data about them?

        It seems that ad libitum dieting (take a look at the figure about the weight loss success) is NOT guarantee of not eliciting the rebound effect at six months. I am very suspicious of any non-ad libitum one. If LCHF really performs as it seems it does in a sufficient proportion of patients, a case series report with long term data would be in order.

  26. Kathy in OK says:

    You must get tired of rehashing this, but the number of comments indicates the need to have another go at it. I know I appreciate your efforts and am reminded to keep experimenting to find what works for me. Thanks.

  27. Paula says:

    Wow, is this timely for me. I’ve been eating LCHF for nearly five years now. I lost 85 pounds, went from a pre-diabetic state to perfectly normal blood glucose numbers. But…a little over a year ago I entered menopause. Since then, I have slowly, but steadily put on fifteen pounds that refuse to budge. I hate to look in my closet and see all the cute clothes that just don’t fit me anymore. In fact, I had to break down and buy some larger things just to be comfortable. My BG is still great, but the weight gain has really been discouraging.

    This past Sunday I was at a birthday gathering and spent some time talking to a sister-in-law who also eats LCHF. A couple years ago she had some health problems for which she needed surgery, resulting in early menopause. She ended up gaining weight also and told me that the ONLY thing that helped her to take it back off was exercise and LOWERING CALORIES. I did not want to hear this…lol. The entire time I lost (and kept off) the weight I did not exercise and I ate as much (low carb) food as I desired. I loved living that way!

    But I think the writing may be on the wall…

  28. Jeffrey T Ranney says:

    Tom – You absolutely never cease to amaze me. This post put Everything into perspective for me on a low carb diet. While I don’t keep a food log, I can look back on what I ate and can. now, clearly understand why the weight fails to budge. Sure, heavy whipping cream is low carb…. but do I Really need all those calories and fat? In retrospect, nope. Time for a change; a big change. Thanks, as always!

Leave a Reply