“Troubles impending always seem worse than troubles surmounted, but this does not prove that they really are.”

~ Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

The diet and nutrition “establishment” really just doesn’t get it, do they? You’d think that a university study (Harvard, no less!), titled thusly:

Diets That Reduce Calories Lead to Weight Loss, Regardless of Carbohydrate, Protein or Fat Content

might offer a glimmer of intriguing scientific insight.  Maybe a well-designed study, the results of which force a rethinking of prior-held beliefs.  Not. Just have a look at the carbohydrate content of all four of the various diets used in this study.  Carb. content for all of the diets used fell between 35 and 65 percent of total calories. And to make matters worse, no mention (at least not in this release. Maybe in the study itself?) of what, for the purposes of the study, constitutes a “carbohydrate” calorie. Did a carbohydrate block of Oreos and an equal block composed of leafy greens carry the same weight?  Things that make ya go, hmm.

Really, I expect quite a bit more out of an illustrious institution like Harvard.  I mean, it is Harvard, for godsakes.  Hell, I could get the same dull-minded drivel from The Biggest Loser — which, by the way, I attempted to watch for the first time this week while awaiting the Obama address.  What a complete waste of a perfectly good 5 minutes of my time.  I hate to sound like a pessimist, but with the likes of The Biggest Loser and Harvard leading the way, the overall health of this nation will get a hell of a lot worse before it gets any better.

In Health,

Keith 

58 COMMENTS

  1. Well there are a lot of things wrong with the study, though you picked out the one that stood out first to me as well.

    One other issue, and an important one, is that there is no analysis of what kind of weight was lost. Was it fat or lean body mass? I’m guessing that if you kick people down 750 calories below their basal metabolic needs, they’re going to lose a lot of lean mass. So that will be fun when they go back to eating closer to their daily needs and get fatter on fewer calories than before.

    I mean really, since when is it news that if you drop peoples’ calorie consumption 750 calories below base needs they will lose weight? That’s a news flash? Seems like a big “Doh!” to me.

    The other thing about this study is that all it basically showed is how to keep people on a low-calorie diet for a couple of years. And that took lots of counseling, food plans, and food diaries. That’s a lot of support, and still at the end, a lot of the people who stuck with the study (645 out of 811 even with all the support) were falling off the wagon and regaining weight.

    Useless piece of dreck, not to put too fine a point on it.

    • You’re spot-on, Charles, about those other points. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at those “counseling” sessions.

  2. Charles:
    1. Why would dropping 750 calories (note the article says a reduction of 750cals, not eating at 750cal below basal needs… no intake below 1200cal indicates that people certainly weren’t eating 750cal below BMR) necessarily lead to a big LBM loss?

    2. Do you know the metabolic cost per pound of muscle? per pound of fat?

    3. If they are eating “closer to their daily needs” (implying that they are still eating below needs) then how will they get fatter?

    TTP:
    1. Not to defend the validity of the study but what does the carb source matter? Also- thats an article about a study, not the full study but the do mention the foods emphasized for participants.

    2. While a greater degree in variation of macronutrient intake would probably be better for a study like this, I’d say a difference of over 100% in carb intakes between some of the diets is probably sufficient.

    • “Not to defend the validity of the study but what does the carb source matter?”

      Not exactly sure how to respond to this, Ian. Are you familiar with the premise that carbs. drives insulin drives fat?

  3. I just finished listening to this Doctor being interviewed on NPR (Science Friday). He did mention that insulin levels went down on the lower Carb diets and not on the high carb diets, but he ended the interview by saying “it really doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you keep the calories at the right level”(paraphased)………..Here we go, my family and friends are going to be telling me how full of crap I am. Ha , ha

  4. Hmmm… I think its a bit more general than that. Insulin is a storage hormone so it does “drive fat” I guess, but thats not all it does. Carbs drive insulin, as does protein and to some (very small) degree does fat.

  5. Ian,

    The carb source matters because, based on the degree of refinement, different carbohydrate sources illicit different degrees of insulin response. If you eat 50 g of carbohydrate from broccoli, it will illicit a weaker insulin response than 50 g from rice, which will illicit less than 50 g from bread, which will be less than the response to a similar amount of Soda, and so on. The more refined the carbohydrate, assuming similar carbohydrate load, the greater response. The more inordinate the response, the greater the fat storage, damage to insulin receptors, inflammation to the vascular system, etc.

    This variance in response is known as the glycemic index, and it has been quite exhautively demonstrated. So you see, the source of the carbohydrate matters a great deal.

    My first complaint with this study is the abundance of uncontrolled variables. For example, participants were asked to exercise 90 minutes a week, but there doesn’t seem to be a control that pervented half of them from working out for 5 hours per week, which would skew the results.

    Furthermore, a majority of Americans (based on statistical obesity rates) have a great deal more than just 9# of fat to lose, and considering that the average participant lost an initial 13lbs in 6 months, and than plateau’d/regained to only a 9# net loss, I’d say that none of these diets can really guarantee that the average american can meet their weight loss goals by simply reducing calories. And, oddly enough, NONE of these diets are low carb.

    35% carbohydrate isn’t even close to an effective low carb approach. For me (I’ve lost 30# in 14 months, with muscle mass INCREASE), a I would consider ~20-25% carbohydrate to MAINTENANCE, and 10-15% carbohydrate (specifically from fruits and veggies) to be carb-restricted for weight loss. I think most low-carb success stories would agree with me on that. It is telling that there none of these diets was truly carb restricted, and none of them showed sustainable weight loss.
    -Bryce

    • Thanks for taking the time to write that up, Bryce.

      Ian,
      I encourage you to poke around some on this blog, and others that I have linked to in the sidebar. Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories is also very informative.

  6. Not quite sure what the problem is with the report, though it rather states the obvious. Eat less, lose weight. You can talk about carbs, proteins and fats, but all diets that put the body into a calorie deficit will cause weight loss, the bigger question is will the diet be sustainable in the long term to keep the weight off.There is and will continue to be debates over what diet works the best. The study released in 2007 of the Atkins diet, the Zone diet, the LEARN diet or the Ornish diet. caused even more debate , but what that research showed was that the biggest problem was sticking to the diets over the long term. You can debate this Harvard report too, but at the end of the day there is no debate, to lose weight you have to eat less.

    • Dave,
      I respectfully disagree with your premise that one has to reduce calories to lose weight, or that the body operates under a simple, thermodynamic process. We in the Paleo community have proven otherwise.

  7. Theorypractice,

    Thanks for the reply. I have no problem with the paleo diet,and I think much of it makes sense, but are you telling me that if I eat 4000 calories per day on a paleo diet I would not gain weight ? I would have a hard time to believe that. If there are studies out there that show you don’t have to reduce calories to lose weight, I would be interested to read them.

    • Dave,
      For an exhaustive listing of studies, simply peruse a copy of Good Calories, Bad Calories. As well, my buddy Chris at Conditioning Research has complied an impressive array of related studies. Practically speaking, I can tell you that I haven’t the faintest clue — nor do I care, really — what my actual, day-to-day, caloric intake is. I know that it varies — sometimes I’m hyper-caloric, sometimes hypo-caloric — and my overall caloric expenditure varies as well. Keeping track of either would be, in the real world, dare I say impossible? It is at least a fruitless, fool’s errand. I eat a high fat, high protein, very low carbohydrate (with no refined carbs) diet. I eat when I feel like it, and until I am full. I count/weigh/diary nothing. Sometimes I fast for an extended period (18 – 36 hours), again, when I feel like it. I’m certainly not saying that you cannot overeat on a Paleo diet; anything can be forced. My contention is simply that you’ll naturally be satiated well prior to reaching that point.

  8. Keith,
    I was bored . . . heh.

    To point the topic in somewhat opposite direction . . . Rusty Moore at fitnessblackbook.com has an interesting post up about Eat Stop Eat author Brad Pilon’s new book about protein. The gist: that we don’t need nearly as much protein as we’ve been told by the supplement industry to induce hypertrophy and gain strength.

    Looking at it from a Paleo stand point, the idea seems to make sense in that hormones drive our bodily changes, not necessarily nutrient surplus/deficit. When you increase insulin, you store fat. When you increase hgh, you gain muscle. That seems to be the conlcusion to which I’ve come through my Paleo education. Is it on track?

    I can’t say I agree with all of what Rusty says about eating Pasta as an acceptable occasional protein source (not a type :O). However, I’m eager to see the book, and to hear your thoughts.
    -Bryce

  9. Keith,
    I was bored . . . heh.

    To point the topic in somewhat opposite direction . . . Rusty Moore at fitnessblackbook.com has an interesting post up about Eat Stop Eat author Brad Pilon’s new book about protein. The gist: that we don’t need nearly as much protein as we’ve been told by the supplement industry to induce hypertrophy and gain strength.

    http://fitnessblackbook.com/diet-tips/protein-guilt-when-you-wish-the-meal-had-more-protein/#more-210

    Looking at it from a Paleo stand point, the idea seems to make sense in that hormones drive our bodily changes, not necessarily nutrient surplus/deficit. When you increase insulin, you store fat. When you increase hgh, you gain muscle. That seems to be the conlcusion to which I’ve come through my Paleo education. Is it on track?

    I can’t say I agree with all of what Rusty says about eating Pasta as an acceptable occasional protein source (not a type :O). However, I’m eager to see the book, and to hear your thoughts.
    -Bryce

  10. Keith,

    As I say , I have no problem with the paleo diet.I also would be the last person to claim how you eat is wrong( as some low fat high carb community would) I just feel to call the Harvard study a ” train wreck ” is unfair.
    I have a far bigger problem with funded studies saying people who eat meat for breakfast weigh more than those who eat cereal,and of course that study is funded by kellogs !

    This Harvard study shows what I said in my first post, that calorie restriction will cause weight loss.

    I do know Chris’s blog,he’s in my feed reader!.

    Gary Taubes good calories bad calories would be easier to call a train wreck. Yes he has research in there, most before 1960. But he picks only data to confirm his own ideas.He ingnores anything that contradicts him.
    Taubes has some valid points, the one exception is the crux of his book. Research has consistently shown that overweight people drastically under report the number of calories they eat.He neglects this research when he ‘proves’ that obese people eat the same as normal people, and therefore it must be the carbs. From that point on, his research is flawed.

    If Taubes was to look at more recent data, then perhaps he could be taken more seriously.
    This study for example http://www.jlr.org/cgi/reprint/30/11/1727 the part I have put in quotes below is enough to question everything Taubes says. That is what science is meant to do. In Science you take things you believe to be right, and methodically and logically try to prove them wrong.Using Science you can’t prove what it is, you can only prove what it isn’t. Sounds a bit strange, but its true !. That Harvard study shows it isn’t high carb or low carbs making a difference to weight loss, it is calories. That is all they were doing, it does not make it a train wreck.
    Now for the text from that report which questions everthing Taubes says.
    “Metabolic response of Acylation Stimulating Protein to an oral fat load.

    Cianflone K, Vu H, Walsh M, Baldo A, Sniderman A.
    McGill Unit for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, Royal Victoria Hospital, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
    Acylation Stimulating Protein (ASP) is a small (mol wt 14,000), basic (pI 9.0) protein present in human plasma. When examined in vitro with normal human cultured skin fibroblasts and adipocytes, ASP appears to be the most potent stimulant of triglyceride synthesis yet described. In this study, a competitive ELISA assay for ASP has been developed using immunospecific polyclonal antibodies, and ASP levels have been measured in seven normal subjects. Following an oral fat load, a sustained significant increase in ASP occurs, whereas after an oral glucose load, ASP levels do not change significantly. These responses are entirely opposite to those of insulin, which rises sharply but transiently after an oral glucose load but is unchanged after an oral fat load. Both the fasting and peak ASP levels were significantly related to the postprandial lipemia. These data provide the first in vivo evidence that Acylation Stimulating Protein may play an important physiological role in the normal response to an oral fat load.”

    We do agree on the biggest loser though 😉

    • Bryce,
      I would agree that hormonal response trumps protein intake, hands down, thus rendering protein supplementation while following a Paleo diet, unnecessary.

      Dave,
      Let’s assume (though I don’t agree, due to hormonal/enzymatic influences) that “a calorie is a calorie”. Now, what is it that I can do, in a real-world, day-to-day sense, that will enable me to feel satiated after a meal and, therefore, eat less (in a caloric intake sense)? We have to take account of hormonal/enzymatic response, though, because this is what we deal with every time something hits our gut (actually, even prior to, but I digress…). The Harvard study, though, does not acknowledge this, nor does it acknowledge the variance in carbohydrate make-up. And yes, I agree, deprive an organism of calories in excess of its basic metabolic rate and weight loss will occur. Much of that, muscle and organ tissue, not fat. Is this “diet” sustainable? No. This is not rocket science, and my “train wreck” tag is a finger wag to Harvard for not, “digging a little deeper”, as it were.

    • Dave,
      One thing I noticed about the study you sited is that the “fat” dosage was actually comprised of 25.6% carbohydrate — and simple table sugar (a highly refined carb.) at that. I’d like to see the same study done using a true fat source — maybe a few pats of real butter, say. Again, this is my issue with the term “high fat” used in studies — in my mind, 25 % is still a relatively high carbohydrate content. Especially, when that carb. content is of the highly refined variety.

  11. Mr. TTP,

    I think “train wreck” is fine, but “trivial” seems applicable as well.

    As you say, reduce peoples’s caloric intake below what they burn, and they will lose weight. So “Duh!” That’s what they think deserves a headline?

    The point of the articles (and the research) is to imply, without proof, that all macronutrients are the same, so this whole low-carb thing (among others) is bunk. The study doesn’t really address that question, for that it would have had to hold initial calorie levels constant and change macronutrient ratios.

    Already I have had a scientist friend write me and claim that the study shows that a calorie is a calorie, and it doesn’t matter what you eat to lose weight, it’s all about total calories. Arghhhhhh!

    So how about “trivial train wreck,” since this study doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before…

    • Well put, Charles. It strikes me as funny how the great “calorie” debate has gone the way of the evolution/ID debate. But again, let’s assume for a moment that I am actually taking in less calories than before — who knows, and really, ultimately, who friggin’ cares? The lifestyle is sustainable, my blood profile is rockin’, my body fat is in the low single digits and, guess what? — not once have I written/diaried/weighed/timed meals/been “counseled” or whatever. I just eat when I feel like it, as much as I want. This particular Harvard study was a waste of time and money, and ultimately proved nothing new.

      • …other than to prove that the “establishment” still cannot conceive of the true hormonal/enzymatic impact of one calorie vs. another. The human body, to them, is still a simple, thermodynamic engine. Whatever.

  12. Keith, good discussion and a lively debate. Personally, it irritates me that some of these studies are not more comprehensive in the range of diets considered. I know they can’t accomodate everything under the sun, but the limitations allude to trying to confirm the business as usual caloric restriction mantra for weight loss.

    Sustainability is the key for long term weight loss and maintenance. I keep coming back to Taubes’ study on severe caloric restriction that drove some to the brink of insanity. As you mention, the calorie restriction route takes its toll on muscles as well. While carbohydrate restriction with control of the insulin levels burns fat. Paleo is so simple to follow and is compliant with this protocol. One of these days I’m thinking of actually keeping track of my calories to see how much I am putting down. I’m fairly sure it is close to 3000 daily with a reduction in body fat.

  13. Ian,

    The carb source matters because, based on the degree of refinement, different carbohydrate sources illicit different degrees of insulin response. If you eat 50 g of carbohydrate from broccoli, it will illicit a weaker insulin response than 50 g from rice, which will illicit less than 50 g from bread, which will be less than the response to a similar amount of Soda, and so on. The more refined the carbohydrate, assuming similar carbohydrate load, the greater response. The more inordinate the response, the greater the fat storage, damage to insulin receptors, inflammation to the vascular system, etc.

    This variance in response is known as the glycemic index, and it has been quite exhautively demonstrated. So you see, the source of the carbohydrate matters a great deal.

    –>
    –>

    Bryce,

    -The glycemic index measures the blood glucose levels in response to eating food, not insulin response.

    -Why is everyone ignoring the fact that protein causes an insulin response? Why isn’t protein on the hit list if insulin response is so bad?

    -What would happen if you only ate fat? Impossible to gain weight since it doesn’t create an insulin response?

    • Ian,
      Of course, protein does elicit an insulin response, just not to the degree of (nor with the spike/plummet nature of) refined carbohydrates. Nor does protein elicit an immune system response in the way of grains, legumes and (in some people) dairy. All of this is matter of degree, Ian; there’s nothing here that’s black and white. And you’re correct about the GI; though it is still useful, in a real-world sense, as a thumb-rule indication of foods to shy away from. Keep in mind where our ultimate focus is here, on this blog at least — I deal in real-world applications of science and exercise methodologies. Personally, I love to geek-out on the finer, hormonal/enzymatic points of diet, say, or rate-coding vis-a-vis the power-generating capability of muscle, but in the end, if I can’t effectively apply the science in a day-to-day situation it doesn’t do me much good. This is what I can tell you: I have seen some dramatic and sustained body re-composition take place in people who I have helped in adopting this lifestyle. It is sustainable, in every sense of the word. I have seen their well-being as a whole improve along with their blood profiles. On the exercise front, I can tell you that, pound-for-pound, the more powerful athlete will (technical skills aside) be the better athlete. We can deconstruct/argue over the reasons why, but the bottom line remains self-evident in the empirical evidence.

      And, yes, if one were to eat a high percentage of fat in the complete absence of carbohydrate, they would lose weight. There are those within the larger umbrella of the Paleo community who do just that. Impossible to gain weight? Nothing is impossible — one could force-feed, of course.

  14. Don’t disagree with a whole lot of what you said there but just because a non-calorie counting diet approach has been fairly successful doesn’t mean its not calorie balance that is ultimately the key to the success. I think a lot of dieting approaches operate (or attempt to operate) in this way- they indirectly limit caloric intake via some sort of limit on foods eaten, meal timing, macro combining, etc.

    As far as your comment on eating a diet high in fat without carbohydrates let me be a little more precise with my theoretical question:

    If you burn 3000 calories daily and you take in 5000 calories each day in the absence of carbs (lets say 1000 calories of protein and 4000 calories of fat) what do you think would happen to your weight?

    • Ian,
      Taken as is, in a vacuum, the answer to your question would obviously be that one would gain (adipose) weight. My contention is, however, that in the above scenario, and in an environment of low circulating insulin, the body would first top-off skeletal muscle and liver glycogen levels, then raise the basic metabolic rate to a level sufficient to burn the excess caloric intake. This would not be the case in a high circulating insulin environment, where the signal would be (via insulin, primarily), to store the excess calories (after the above mentioned glycogen top-off) within adipose tissue. Being as I am currently at a very low body fat level, I can tell you that during periods of an extended fast (>20 hours, for me), I become unnaturally chilled, even during warm-weather months. Periods of hyper-caloric intake will elicit from my body, wave after wave of heat. Maybe we can find common ground by saying that total calories do matter, but they pale in comparison to the hormonal/enzymatic environment in which they find themselves placed? And that the hormonal/enzymatic environment is dependent mostly upon the type of calorie/macro-nutrient ingested? But now we’re right back to, a calorie isn’t a calorie across the board. This is the crux of why simple calorie-counting never works over the long haul for weight reduction. In a gross sense, it’s like saying that equal volumes of gasoline, alcohol and nitrous-oxide will elicit the same sustained horsepower out of a given engine. Now, I hate using an engine analogy because it inevitably leads to the simple thermodynamic equation, which, for the reasons stated above, I wholly reject when we’re speaking of a living organism. The analogy is sufficient for this discussion though.

  15. Topping off skeletal muscle = weight gain, does it not?

    If you are burning more calories as a result of the food you ate (are you referring to the thermogenic effect of food?) and you wind up in calorie balance then you won’t gain weight, no disagreement there. If your body somehow adjusts metabolic rate up to the level of your intake then you will maintain weight and if the metabolic shift does not match the degree of overfeeding then you will gain weight… it still all comes back to a calorie balance at the end of the day.

    • “Topping off skeletal muscle = weight gain, does it not?”
      Negligible effect, weight-wise, even considering the resultant H2O addition. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m focusing on adipose gain/loss.

      Ah, but I would gain substantially more weight if those excess calories were derived from carbohydrate sources (especially refined carbs.) as opposed to fat and/or protein sources. Which brings me back once more to carbohydrate driving insulin driving fat gain. Let’s invoke a little theory to practice (couldn’t resist 😉 for a moment. Suppose you were a sumo wrestler, and your livelihood in the sport depended largely upon your ability to gain/maintain weight — primarily fat weight (as that is the easiest to put on). Now, at 9 cals/gram, loading up on fat would be the obvious choice — more bang for the mouthful, right? But curiously, these guys wolf down high carbohydrate meals (at a measly 4 cals/gram). Why? Quite simply, to take advantage of the hormonal/enzymatic response elicited by the ingestion of carbohydrates.

      BTW, the thermogenic effect of the food itself deals with the energy required to digest the food in question. This is a negligible effect, and not worth, imho, consideration.

  16. Keith,
    In terms of fat loss, a calorie is a calorie,in terms of nutrition of course it not as simple as that.In your comments about the study asking if the carbs were oreos or leafy greens, in terms of calorie restriction it would not matter, and I am sure this is what your scientist friend meant by a calorie is a calorie.People do not get fat because they sit in front of the tv eating leafy greens, they get fat because they sit eating the Oreos,but it won’t be just one oreo, that is what we know.We could agree on that, but to lose body fat you only have to reduce calories, carbs do not make you fat, calories make you fat when you eat too many, no matter how it is dressed up. In theory you can lose weight eating crap like Oreos,in practice I doubt it, for the same reasons you mention in one of your previous replies.The issue though is it is not as simple as painting carbohydrates as the bad guy.Taubes or anyone else trying to say that someone who needs 2000 calories for maintenance and then eats 2000 calories of carbs gains weight because of the carbs,and would not do so from 2000 from protein or fat is simply not true, and is proven in study after study and you can add the Harvard one to the list. To lose weight you have to restrict calories.How someone who needs to lose body fat, best restricts those calories is the issue, replacing the oreos with a better nutritional source makes sense. Telling people who are fat that the problem is not their fault, but that of carbohydrates is misleading, they are fat because they consume more calories than they need.I just want to be clear, I am talking here in terms of fat loss, not in terms of what is or is not a healthy balanced diet.

    • Dave,
      I suppose that we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point, then. I still maintain that the calorie source does have a profound impact on the hormonal/enzymatic environment and, therefore, the organism’s reaction to that calorie source – whether to store excess calories or burn them. All that would have had to be done by the Harvard study in question to prove this was to add one more category – a high fat, moderate protein, very low carbohydrate diet. They could have further defined the carbohydrate source(s) as being non-refined, and non-grain/legume. Until such a study is performed, we’ll just continue chasing each other’s tails. Of course, they, like many, are still stuck in the calorie is a calorie/simple thermodynamics mindset, and so such an alternative has never come to light.
      On the bright side, we can still agree on the worthlessness of The Biggest Loser 🙂

  17. LOL, yes Keith we are united on the biggest loser !. I think we could also agree that more studies are needed, and by that I don’t mean studies funded by various food companies trying to help fit their own ideals.

  18. “Topping off skeletal muscle = weight gain, does it not?”
    Negligible effect, weight-wise, even considering the resultant H2O addition. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m focusing on adipose gain/loss.

    –> Weight gain is weight gain. It gets more complex than just calories in/out when you are talking partitioning etc but in terms of just weight gain (thats what the study, and thus this conversation, is about). Also how does skeletal muscle have a negligible effect on weight gain/loss? It contributes plenty to someone’s total body weight.

    ………………………

    Ah, but I would gain substantially more weight if those excess calories were derived from carbohydrate sources (especially refined carbs.) as opposed to fat and/or protein sources. Which brings me back once more to carbohydrate driving insulin driving fat gain. Let’s invoke a little theory to practice (couldn’t resist for a moment. Suppose you were a sumo wrestler, and your livelihood in the sport depended largely upon your ability to gain/maintain weight — primarily fat weight (as that is the easiest to put on). Now, at 9 cals/gram, loading up on fat would be the obvious choice — more bang for the mouthful, right? But curiously, these guys wolf down high carbohydrate meals (at a measly 4 cals/gram). Why? Quite simply, to take advantage of the hormonal/enzymatic response elicited by the ingestion of carbohydrates.

    –> I would think that whatever dieting strategy someone in that situation would take would be more geared towards picking foods that they were able to overeat most easily. Its easier to consume 10k cals of juice, candy and cereal than it is to consume 10k cals of whole eggs and meat.

    Can you explain how someone would gain more weight by eating excess carb calories as compared with fat? Can you explain or point to research behind the idea that excess calories in a low insulin environment will ramp your metabolism up to the degree that there is no longer an excess? How does the change in metabolism differ between an excess with and without considerable insulin release?

    ……………………………

    BTW, the thermogenic effect of the food itself deals with the energy required to digest the food in question. This is a negligible effect, and not worth, imho, consideration.

    –> Agreed on this point. I thought you may have been referring to the thermic effect of food which would be impossible to make up for the food consumed.

    • Ian,
      “Weight gain is weight gain. It gets more complex than just calories in/out when you are talking partitioning etc but in terms of just weight gain (thats what the study, and thus this conversation, is about).”
      Totally agreed on the partitioning point. And yes, it’s much more than a simple calories in/out question. Now you and I have something we can agree on 🙂

      “Also how does skeletal muscle have a negligible effect on weight gain/loss? It contributes plenty to someone’s total body weight.”
      No doubt correct. I was under the assumption we were confining our discussion to adipose gain/loss.

      “Can you explain how someone would gain more weight by eating excess carb calories as compared with fat?”
      I think that I have made my case already in this thread, though you’ve made it clear you don’t agree. And that’s fine, as disagreements like this serve to advance the science.

      “Can you explain or point to research behind the idea that excess calories in a low insulin environment will ramp your metabolism up to the degree that there is no longer an excess? How does the change in metabolism differ between an excess with and without considerable insulin release?”
      I have no studies to point to, because this area of research has not — and this is the crux of my angst against the Harvard study — been sufficiently studied. All I have to go by is a study of physiology and metabolism, coupled with empirical evidence. But in reality, what more do I need? I’ve got the body, an easy to maintain lifestyle and a rockin’ blood profile. I’ll let the science guys quibble about the hows and whys.

      • And something I would add, on a practical note, is this: I think we can all agree that measuring total body caloric expenditure day-in and day-out is, at best impractical, and more likely impossible. The only way such a thing can be done is within the confines of a lab. Really, then, this turns the entire argument of “is a calorie just a calorie” into no more than a theoretical geek-fest — which is fine, I like to geek-out on this stuff as much as the next guy — but this blog is about practical exercise and diet applications. So the fact remains that whether it’s by hormonal/enzymatic manipulation (as I contend), or via a simple thermodynamic process of the “output” exceeding the “input” (which I reject), the Paleo lifestyle that I advocate works. Just so that we’re clear on that point going forward. I’m certainly game for any intellectual/theoretical banter, but I don’t want the practical usefulness of what I’m advocating to get lost in the shuffle. I want people to make Paleo choices meal-to-meal, day-to-day and workout-to-workout, because this is how people live their lives — one choice after another. String a bunch of good choices together, and you’ve got yourself a successful lifestyle/program in the works.

  19. Definitely agree that ultimately practical application of information is what counts and that “geeking out” on the science behind everything can be completely separate from figuring out how to go about things in real life. I also have no doubt that your approach works for you and those you’ve worked with but that, of course, doesn’t necessarily prove the science one way or another (think Usain Bolt and his mcnuggets…) and doesn’t mean other approaches that directly or indirectly use the science behind dieting/nutrition can’t be at least equally successful.

    • Ian,
      Yes, and case-in-point with Usain Bolt — some phenomenal athletes remain so, even in spite of lackluster diet and training habits. Of course this only adds to the proliferation of bad diet and training knowledge. How long before we see the “McNugget” diet hit the streets?

  20. I’ve always seen it as a pyramid.

    At the top there are the Gods. I have worked with professional athletes that could eat tim cans and tree bark, and still do well, at least for a while. There are only a handful of these folks, relatively speaking.

    Then there are the near-Gods, who can optimize their physiology through drugs or diet, and can reach the God level of physical performance. There are a lot more of these kinds of folks.

    Then there are the rest of us 🙂

    Now my expeience is that as you get older, you tend to progress downwards through these levels. It’s harder and harder to maintain high-level performance without strict attention to diet and training patterns.

    Part of the problem, as Keith says, is that the people we try to emulate are often quite different from ourselves. And in truth, I think it was Thomas Huxley who said that humans are more different from each other than some species.

    And Roger Williams, in “Biochemical Individuality,” argued that we can differ almost by orders of magnitude in our needs for various vitamins. It’s all dependent on how efficiently we digest and use food, how big or efficient our kidneys are, or our livers, or our pancreases.

    I would argue, however, that these differences are maginified when we eat ourside of our genetic sweetspot, as we have been doing since the Neolithic or so. I think we’re generally pretty resilient, or can become so, if we stick to Mark’s Primal Blueprint.

    Once we get outside of that, we are testing the extremes of our physiological capabilities, and various thing start to break down, like our immune system or our heart or our pancreas…

    • “…we can differ almost by orders of magnitude in our needs for various vitamins. It’s all dependent on how efficiently we digest and use food, how big or efficient our kidneys are, or our livers, or our pancreases.” As an example (though it is not a vitamin), look at the wide variance between people in insulin sensitivities.

  21. Ok now that we’re done agreeing with each other 😉 can you explain what it is that you know based on your study of physiology and metabolism that indicates eating an abundance of dietary fat increases basal metabolism to any significant degree? That the rate of fat gain when overfeeding with carbs is greater than that of overfeeding dietary fat?

    • Ian,
      Hold that thought for a bit. I’m trying to run down a study that compared the body composition differences between breastfed babies and formula-fed babies that will help me in clarifying my point. It will probably morph into a separate post/comment thread.

  22. Got to this one quite late, but I’m surprised, as always, that ASP doesn’t get more attention from the low carb crowd (of which I identify with). I’ve noted before (http://skylertanner.com/2008/05/04/mix-it-up-no-need-to-separate-foods-during-meals/) that the body is capable of fat storage in a total absence of insulin. It’s less efficient, but it can do the job. This is why you take a fatty fatty fat fat and put them on a low carb and you take away the most efficient avenue of storage. Brilliant!

    I’ve also seen mention that, when told to cut carbs but feed endlessly on fat and protein, appetite and caloric consumption drops. All things to take into consideration.

    Best,
    Skyler

    • Skyler (Ian, as well),
      While the ASP action you site is true, the flip side of this is that the low insulin environment allows for the release of stored FFAs into the blood stream. We have to consider this phenomena in its entirety; not as a snapshot, but as a time-lapse. Now, what can really muck-up the situation? Combine highly refined carbs. in the presence of a high fat intake. Now in this situation, everything in the hormonal/enzymatic landscape is geared for storage.

  23. Breaking news 🙂

    This just came in from Loren Cordain’s email newsletter, the content of which I don’t always agree with, but it’s definitely worth getting.

    This is the money shot, so to speak:

    “Within the context of this study, it would seem that insulin resistance can be improved on a diet consisting of less than 37% of energy from fat, with this fat coming predominantly from monounsaturated fatty acids.”

    Insulin Resistance from Fatty Acids

    Insulin resistance is thought to be an important contributing factor to the modern diseases of civilization such as metabolic syndrome, blood lipid disorders, hypertension, obesity and type II diabetes.1 Although genetics play a role in insulin resistance, the observation that obesity and diabetes are increasing at alarming rates worldwide suggests that there are vital environmental factors that also need to be considered.2

    Although carbohydrates play an integral role in insulin resistance by elevating glucose levels, there is also strong evidence that the amount and quality of free fatty acids consumed contributes to insulin sensitivity.3 It has been shown in rats that under certain circumstances, free fatty acids are required for glucose-stimulated insulin resistance. Essentially, when rats are infused with a high level of glucose, in the absence of fatty acids, the insulin response is non-existent.4 In contrast, when this occurs in the presence of high levels of free fatty acids, glucose-stimulated insulin resistance is extremely elevated. It was shown in these studies on rats that the amount of saturation of the fatty acid was also correlated with insulin secretion.5 The more saturated the fat, the higher the insulin burst. Thus, in rats, it seems that free fatty acids are vit al to produce glucose-stimulated insulin resistance, and, of these, saturated fats have the most detrimental effects.

    Whether this occurs in humans was investigated by Vessby et al. (2001), who established that the amount and quality of fat in the diet could also be important for the development of insulin resistance in our species. A group of 162 healthy subjects were given an isocaloric diet high in either saturated or monounsaturated fat for three months. As in rats, insulin resistance depended on the amount of fatty acids consumed and the saturation of those fatty acids. When the amount of energy gained from fat was greater than 37%, it was found that insulin sensitivity was impaired in both the saturated fat group (-7.8%) and the monounsaturated fat group (-3.3%). However, when the amount of energy coming from fat was less than 37%, a significant difference was found with saturated fat still decreasing insulin sensitivity (-12.5%) and monounsaturated fat increasing it (+8.8%). Within the context of this study, it would seem that insulin resistance can be improved on a diet c onsisting of less than 37% of energy from fat, with this fat coming predominantly from monounsaturated fatty acids.

    Vessby B, Uusitupa M, Hermansen, K, Riccardi G, Rivellese A, Tapsell LC, Nalsen C, Berglund L, Louheranta A, Rasmussen BM, Calvert GD, Maffetone A, Pedersen E, Gustafsson IB & Storlien LH (2001) Substituting dietary saturated for monounsaturated fat impairs insulin sensitivity in healthy men and women: the KANWU study. Diabetologia 44: 312-319.

    • I think the first thing that ought to be considered when confronted with conflicting (for lack of a better term) data like this is, what is the “novel substance” (in evolutionary terms) in the mix? I think we can all agree — whether or not we can agree that “a calorie is a calorie” — that the human genome has not (yet) evolved to handle highly refined, high GI value carbohydrates. The second question to ask is, is it realistic to think that glucose will ever be present in the bloodstream without the presence (even in limited amounts) of FFAs? Fat is the “currency of deposit” in the body, and is (or should be) in a constant trickle-release from those stores into the bloodstream. I wonder, too,what the researchers would make of the stellar blood profiles of folks who eat a diet high in saturated fat, but low (notice “low”, not absent) in carbohydrates — but absent, though, in highly refined carbohydrates.

  24. Though it is great to know that, when i’m eating lots of sugar and carbs, I can help better my insulin sensitivity by eating monounsaturated fatty acids, it is disturbing to me that this study seems to suggest that, once again, fat is at fault.

    The premise here is that, assuming you eat lots of refined carbohydrate (or you get injected with glucose frequently), you will have increased insulin resistence (a bad thing) if you also eat lots of saturated fat and other ‘bad’ fats. This study does nothing to disprove the notion that, in humans, the best possible way to improve your insulin resistence is to stop eating those refined carbohydrates all together.

    I don’t see anything in the conclusions of this study that can show me different. Even though the rats required fatty acids to have an insulin response ‘under certain circumstances,’ no evidence was offered that humans can eat glucose and have zero insulin response in the absence of fat.

    The bottom line in my estimation is that if you simply avoid the intense carbohydrate load in the first place, this wouldn’t be a concern and you could continue to eat both kinds of fat, and be full and energized, without worrying about an insulin response.

  25. I think the first thing we have to consider is how the body somehow operates outside of fundamental natural physical laws. There are tangents going on all over the place here but the real issue at hand is whether or not the body can violate the laws of thermodynamics. You seem to be claiming it can, I have yet to see that happen or have anyone describe in any way how its possible. Until someone clearly lays out how its accomplished I think the law of conservation of energy probably wins this one.

  26. Ian, the logic behind this notion (that the body is not a simple thermodynamic mechanism) is simple really. Clearly, if you simply mix calories in a glass of water, those calories don’t just become fat. Something in our bodies has to take calories and store them as fat. This is a hormonally driven process, as is almost every major process in the body, from blood clots to bone growth. If you stop these hormonal messengers from telling your cells to convert those calories to fat, then it just won’t happen. It doesn’t matter how much electricity have flowing through my wires. If I don’t hit the ‘on’ switch, the light bulb stays dark.

    It’s similar with muscle gain. Simply adding abundant amino acids won’t cause someone to explode into hypertrophy if there is no stimulus. You need an appropriate stimulus and the corresponding release of human growth hormone to trigger muscle building.

    The hormonal nature of fat storage is irrefutable. We have hormonee that cause calories to be stored as fat, and if those hormones are not released, fat will not be stored. Insulin is the most powerful of these hormones. It doesn’t matter if 10 thousand calories float through your system . . . if your body doesn’t release insulin and the other fat storage hormones, those calories will simply be excreted. By restricting our intake of refined carbohydrate, we severely curtail the amount of insulin in our blood. This can be easily demonstrated by the innumerable studies.

    This is the basis for the Paleo/EvoFit/Primal blueprint approach on fitness. We focus on how we can influence the hormonal cascade to get our results. We try to avoid the release of fat storage hormones, and to encourage the release of muscle building hormones. Oh and guess what, it works really well!

  27. All irrelevant to what is being discussed- we are talking weight not just fat. I don’t think anybody is saying that calories are all that matter for body composition, they are saying calories are what count for weight… that was the contention and thats what should be discussed but you guys keep trying to go off topic.

    Now if you can prove that the body doesn’t obey the laws of thermodynamics by all means go ahead and explain how its done because I’d love to hear it.

    • Ian,
      I can see your point, if we don’t first define a time period. I agree that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change phase. If we’re talking about a finite window of time, though, calories (energy) can either be manipulated and stored as fat, or be allowed to circulate in the bloodstream for use as fuel. My contention is simply that carbohydrates (especially the refined/simple variety) elicit a pronounced insulin spike that drives those calories in to fat stores vice leaving them available for immediate use. This “use” may be in the form of an increased BMR (heat generation) or any form of added activity, i.e., the impulse to “do” vs. the inclination toward lethargy. So, I agree that you’re correct that energy in = energy out over the course of a lifetime; my timeframe, though, is narrower. What if we limit our discussion to what happens to ingested calories over the course of a week? Or a year?

  28. What happens over the course of a week or a year? Same thing. The timeframe is irrelevant- conservation of energy does not have a temporal aspect to it. Energy is conserved always… I’m not seeing your point.

    • Ian,
      The time aspect allows the energy you ingest to either become fat (lean tissue as well) or be burned (heat dissipation, activity, bmr, etc.). Those are only two groups of things that can ultimately become of an ingested calorie, right? You can either burn it outright, or have it be stored, one way or the other, as a potential energy source. I think your point has been all along that those calories just don’t evaporate — they go somewhere (unless I’ve totally missed your argument). I’m saying the body acts like a capacitor (hence time is relevant) vice a simple thermodynamic machine. I’m saying that the hormonal/enzymatic atmosphere elicited by the calorie make-up establishes the properties (store/discharge) of that capacitor.

      Maybe it would help if you tell me what you think happens to an ingested calorie so I can see where you’re coming from. Our problem is probably more in semantics than in substance.

  29. Yes the calories go somewhere- they can’t be created or destroyed so you can either store them (in one form or another) or you can use (convert to another form of energy) them.

    You say the hormonal aspect determines how much is stored versus “discharged” which is fine but that doesn’t negate the fact that energy is energy (“a calorie is a calorie”) and it can’t be created or destroyed. So calories in versus calories out always balances with weight loss/gain (true tissue gain/loss, not water retention, etc).

    • Hmmm. Can we be in agreement then, that the affect of one calorie upon the body does not necessarily equal the affect of another (hormonally/enzymatically speaking)? That some can be stored, either short-term or indefinitely, as fat, while others can be burned rather rapidly?

  30. Yes we can agree that the total affect on the body of one calorie doesn’t necessarily equal the affect of another but that was never the contention.

    A calorie is a calorie when it comes to weight, not fat/muscle/partitioning/etc, just weight- simple as that. The study was looking at weight loss and thats all I have been arguing but for some reason you and other keep bringing insulin and fat storage and a bunch of other irrelevant aspects into the conversation. If weight isn’t dependent upon energy balance then you need to show how the the first law of thermodynamics is broken… once you do so, you can go collect your nobel prize.

    • Ian,
      My misunderstanding, then. When it comes to weight loss, I assume (wrongly, I suppose) that people are concerned with fat loss, and fat loss alone. Why would anyone want to lose lean tissue? Anyway, my bad for assuming. I’ll keep working on busting the first law of thermodynamics, though, because a Nobel on the book shelf would be righteous.

  31. I just got here and read through all this. I think y’all are talking past each other.

    The phrase “a calorie is a calorie” isn’t used to refer solely to the first law of thermodynamics. It refers to a package that includes the first law, the notion that the human body is a closed system, that dietary composition has no effect on BMR, etc.

    We’re not advocating that the first law is bunk. We’re saying, the human body isn’t a closed system, so the first law isn’t the sole determining factor in weight loss. We’re saying, nutrient composition can have a profound effect on metabolism, ie that not all calories have the same effect on BMR. We’re saying, independent of BMR, changes in nutrient composition cause changes in hormone levels that affect things like fat storage.

    And we’re saying that a diet study that considers 35% of calories from carbs to be “low carb” isn’t accurate; that a study that only subtly varies protein intake isn’t very meaningful. The Harvard study is a train wreck because it purports to say a lot about low carb (and by implication paleo) diets when really all they’ve done is compare minor variations on the Standard American Diet.

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