Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Does Cutting Calories Work?

I am beginning to hate shoveling. We are preparing for another 10-12 inches of snow tonight, and I still haven't completely shoveled the last big dump of snow that hit us on Friday. I think it's time to move somewhere warm. I'm thinking Gainesville!

I've been trying to answer all the comments that have appeared on my last post, and I've noticed a number of them are referring back to Gary Taubes. Many people have mistakenly taken the main point of his book "Good Calories, Bad Calories" to be that cutting calories wont help you lose weight.

Instead of getting involved in a big scientific debate over this, I'm going to use the scientific method with this one.

I'm a giant fan of Karl Popper, in my opinion he is one the greatest contributors to the scientific method. It was Popper who suggested that nothing in science could be proven correct, it could only be proven incorrect. And that these constant attempts at proving theories incorrect is what moves our knowledge forward.

So, for the theory that caloric restriction does not work for weight loss, and that the only way to reduce weight is by decreasing the intake of carbohydrates, regardless of calories, I would suggest that extreme results that occur with both laparoscopic band surgery and gastric bypass surgery are evidence that reducing the amount of calories the body can absorb results in substantial, measurable weight loss. These finding are repeatable and reproducible.

(An extreme example, but it does prove a point)

Because of the strength of these finding we can say that with surgical interventions that result in the bodies inability to absorb calories from food their is a rapid reduction in total body weight.

Because of this, we can say that the statement that reducing calories does not cause weight loss is invalid. Irrespective of the percentage of carbohydrate intake, the simple act of reducing calories will reduce bodyweight.


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Jordan said...

I don't think the argument is that calorie restriction "does not" lead to weight loss, or that carb restriction is "the only way" to lose weight. But rather that it's more complicated than that. Even Michael Eades, who believes in a metabolic advantage to LC, also believes that one needs a caloric deficit to lose weight. But he also believes that there are animal studies that prove a MA to LC, and he's also mentioned that he's had patients that have eaten ~4000 calories a day on a LC diet, and somehow didn't gain weight. (Nor did they lose weight, of course.)

Also, Regina Welshire says that weight is more about "chemistry" than "math":


Honestly, I don't know who's right! I don't mean to take a side here, I'm just interested in the debate. I'm 250 pounds; I need to lose around 70 pounds or so. So I'm trying to decide right now which way to go. IF, LC, or maybe a combination of the two. (Eades and his wife experimented with IF along with LC.) So I'm not stating dogmatically that there is a MA to LC.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Jordan,

Great comments. I realize that this last post of mine was a bit pointed, so I should clarify that I do beleive we should all be eating a little less carbohydrates for health reasons.

I also beleive that if you are going to cut calories, calories from carbohydrates are a great place to start.

lastly, its important to remember that in situations like fasting, you are still reducing your total carbohydrate intake.

My main point of frustration is the theory that cutting calories will not cause weight loss, which I beleive to be incorrect.

Arguing over the benefits of cutting more of your calories from fat versus carbs versus protein, I have no problems with, as long as we start with the logical starting point of cutting calories.


GK said...

Taubes does not make that claim. He has an entire chapter that looks into calorie-restricted ("semi-starvation") diets. Of course they lead to weight loss. What happens is that the body eventually slows down and makes it sedentary. And hungry all the time. These diets don't "work" because they are not maintainable; the body is screaming for fuel (even somethimes in the presence of considerable fat stores). All the weight comes back once calories are sufficient. You can't be hungry all your life!

Taubes is asking why people on carb-restricted diets _voluntarily_ eat fewer calories.

Brad Pilon said...


Very well put, and an accurate description of what I beleive to be Taubes main points.

However, from the emails I have been receiving, and from what I have read on other blogs and message boards, many people have mistaken his message for "diets don't work, cutting carbs does" which is not what I think he intended and something I don't beleive is entirely correct.


CR said...

Brad, I think you are correct to emphasize this. And if I misstated Gary's argument, that's my fault.

But I think jordan and gk nail it pretty well. It's not that you can't lose pounds by reducing calories, it's just that it isn't successful long term, for all the reasons stated.

It's also the case that in my experience of 30 years with weight loss strategies with a lot of people, cutting carbs as in Atkins or Eades is by far the easiest and most successful way to get to a healthy weight and general overall health.

Now I would say it's different if you are already over-fat, as opposed to being of a normal weight.

If you are not over-fat, you probably don't have a tendency towards the kind of body chemistry that stores fat.

But if you are already over-fat, your body chemistry is such that you will probably have to reduce your insulin levels to get any of that fat to be released for burning, and the quickest way to do that is to reduce carbs significantly.

Sure you can just try starving yourself, but your metabolism will slow down, you will be hungry all the time, and eventually you will probably have to eat more, and you will be attracted naturally to carbs because they are quick calories. Then you're in the cycle again.

For sure, everyone's mileage will vary, but more and more research is verifying this to be the case.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Cr,

I think we are on the same page now.

However, the only other thing I want to point out if that in terms of reducing insulin levels, nothing works better than complete abstinence from food (after all protein also increases insulin levels).

I also completely agree with you that long term caloric restriction doesn't work. But we should always point out (as you rightfully did) that its not the caloric restriction that doesn't work, it's that it is to hard to maintain long term.

These are the main reasons why I wrote Eat Stop Eat.


Jordan said...

Re: protein raising insulin. I've been reading a low carb book called "Natural Health and Weight Loss" by Barry Groves, and he makes the same point. Other LC advocates have, as well. He also writes that fat doesn't have any appreciable impact on blood sugar or insulin. Do you know if this is true or not? I wonder if anyone has ever tried eating a little bit of fat, without protein or carbs, in an "under-eating" period. Sort of a "fat fast," if you will. Could be an interesting experiment.

And as for the long term impracticality of caloric restriction, a LC diet can be hard to stick to as well. I lost a lot of weight with LC a few years ago, but didn't stick with it and gained most of it back. I plateaued for a long time before gaining weight, so what I probably needed to do was... reduce calories! Or perhaps... reduce carbs even more! Hmm.... :-)

Jordan said...

Here's an interesting statement, in the comments section of another blog, on possible individual variation on a LC diet, from Kevin Dill:

"The problem, IMHO, is that the metabolic advantage of low carb is not a universal, or predictable phenomena. Some people, for what ever reason, are very sensitive to insulin, regardless of how they eat. For them the MA of low carb is basically non-existent. Others, being very resistant to insulin, the MA is significant. Folks in between the extremes vary in their response. The problem becomes when you do a randomized study and get results that are averaged, the appearance of any advantage, or disadvantage, is diminished."


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Jordon,

You raise some very good points, but also illustrate part of the reason why I dislike Obsessive Compulsive Eating.

We could discuss and theorize about nutrition forever, but in the end, the easiest effective approach to weight loss is the one that will serve us best.

(I personally think that fasting fits this description).

After all the theories it will always be the approach you can use long-term that will work best for you.


Jordan said...

Point taken. I know that analysis can lead to paralysis. Over the last week and a half, I've cut out all snacks and am now eating three meals per day (normal for others, progress for me!) And I had a "dinner-to-dinner" fast on Monday. Not much, but I am taking action.

I'm still curious about fat's impact on blood sugar and insulin. Sorry if that's OC! :-) I know we're all suffering from information overload these days, but we do need some info in order to figure out which approaches to try. I want to try a few things and see what works. Ultimately my own experience will determine what's best for me.

Thanks for your time, Brad.