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Low-Carb Shenanigans

January 3, 2011
First of all: A happy new year to all of you!
Last week I talked about my dieting efforts in 2010, and about how low-carb played a major role in those. I lost most of the weight (about 18kg) while following the Primal Blueprint, which is a low-carb/paleo style diet. I had also read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which explained very thoroughly why and how low-carb diets work. Later that year I was starting to have serious doubts – there were several authors and bloggers who were critical of Taubes and low-carb in general. Martin Berkhan for example had published an article called “Low Carb Taliban”, and I had a less than friendly exchange with him in the comments section. Still, his arrogant stance not withstanding, my doubts grew when I also started reading Lyle McDonald’s articles, and finally James Kriegers article on GCBG which, as I thought at the time, sucessfully debunked some of Taubes’ arguments and essentially accused Taubes of the same biased thinking that Taubes attributed to the “calories in, calories out” camp.
A few days ago Taubes’ new book Why We Get Fat came out, and I read it. It’s a streamlined version of GCBC, and it also fixes some problems that I had previously seen in Taubes’ position, and some of which which Krieger also exploited. I’m a little embarassed to admit it, but I think I was wrong in rejecting GCBC. But hey, admitting mistakes is a good thing, no?
I can only encourage everyone who is either overweight or knows someone who is to read the book. Its main message is that it’s not overeating (calories) and/or a sedentary lifestyle that makes us fat, but an overconsumption of carbohydate. Of course there are genetic factors, and some people may be able to tolerate more carbs than others. But at the end of the day, if you have excess fat, chances are that reducing carbs will be the only sensible way to reverse the problem, if at all possible.
The main issue that many people have with low-carb is that it seems to violate the first law of thermodynamics. Actually it doesn’t – and that’s one of the improvements of Taubes’ new book, he states clearly that in any case a caloric deficit is still required to lose weight. The important point is that if your fat tissue is somehow misregulated to store more fat than it should, even if you reduce caloric intake you will have a hard time losing any fat – it’s the “calories out” part that your body is able to manipulate “behind the scenes”. Eat less without correcting the regulatory problem, and you may lose some weight, but only little of that fat – your body will desperately try to protect it and reduce your metabolic rate or even sacrifice lean body tissue to compensate. On the other hand, if you could simply fix the regulatory problem then your body might use the excess fat even without a forced caloric deficit via reduced caloric intake and/or exercise – by increasing metabolic rate, and/or simply by reducing appetite. And as it turns out, excess carbohydrate is likely to cause our fat tissue to malfunction, and reducing carbs can often fix this problem.
Taubes admits openly that this may not work for every overweight person to the same degree – there are genetic factors, and sometimes damage is beyond repair, particularly if people have been overconsuming carbs for decades. But he also points out that it is the only mechanism that has consistently been shown to be effective. Three other points are particularly noteworthy:
  1. Other diets may work, too – but all the sucessful ones typically also include a reduction of carbohydrate intake, so their efficacy could always be attributed to that instead of the caloric deficit or a reduction of dietary fat.
  2. Replacing carbs with fat improves health markers, even if much of the fat is saturated (except for trans-fats, which is considered to be bad by most authors).
  3. In order to keep that fat off, low-carb has to be maintained for life – either you want to get rid of your fat and are prepared to make the necessary change, or not.
As of tomorrow, I’ll be on a low-carb protocol again. No caloric restriction – eat when you’re hungry, and (almost) until you’re full. Judging by my memories from last year, it will be fun. I’m really glad that I read Gary’s new book – I had almost cancelled my order a few weeks ago, because I was so sure that James Krieger, Lyle McDonald and Martin Berkhan were right. Well, you live, you learn. I still think that those guys are right on many accounts – just not on what causes fat loss in overweight or obese persons. Their approaches work – but see point #1 from above. They think that it’s because of a caloric deficit, I think it’s because of carb reduction.
For you, who is reading these lines, it’s not possible to find out for sure who is correct without reading most of the books that I mentioned in the previous post … if you haven’t read any of those and you think you know that low-carb is just a fad diet, I would recommend Gary’s new book. Read it and try to come up with sound counter-arguments – and if you find that hard to do so, and you’re overweight, give low-carb a try for a month and find out for yourself.
In the days to come, I’ll post some more detailed thoughts on some of the key aspects of low-carb diets.

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