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Battle With A Friend Over Low-Carb

August 23, 2014

Last night I had a very heated discussion about dieting with one of my dearest friends. I’ve always perceived him to be a naturally lean person, but in recent years he had, by his own admission, gained a few kilos (about 5kg), and over the last 2-3 months he lost that weight by simply eating less.

I on the other hand have been obese (BMI > 30) for the last 15 years or so, and during the last four years have tried different strategies to lose and keep off the excess fat. Four years ago I lost 18kg in just about 6 months on a low carb (ketogenic) regimen, and ever since I’ve maintained that weight (around 100kg) – albeit with larger fluctuations, and I didn’t stay on low-carb, but instead tried many, many other popular approaches. Then two years ago I lost another 10kg – again on low-carb, reaching my all time low (since high school) of 90kg. Unfortunately then my job changed, work lunches/cafeteria became a problem, and I again abandoned low-carb and ate “normally” again.

Since then I have regained most of those more recent losses, and even some of the original ones from four years ago – six months ago I was back at 106kg. At that point I decided to intervene again – this time for good. I didn’t go back on low-carb at first, because as most of you know there are some health concerns surrounding low carb. By now (2014) most people will acknowledge that it’s a proven way to lose weight, but they also see it as a highly inconvenient temporary intervention, which can’t possibly be sustained for maintenance. In retrospect I should have gone back on the low-carb diet straight away. I finally did so two months ago, and since then I’ve lost 8-10kg, depending on whether you want to count some water weight which can be attributed to glycogen stores (carbs).

So as I was saying: A heated discussion took place with my friend. My description of his position may not be exactly accurate, but it was so spot on conventional wisdom, that I’ll simply phrase it accordingly – so this post is not exactly about his personal position, but about conventional wisdom and my response to it.

Conventional Wisdom

Everybody who wants to lose weight [fat] can do so by eating less and moving more. They absolutely can reach their ideal weight that way. If they fail to do so, it’s their fault – a lack of willpower or motivation.

The evidence: It worked for me. Also everybody knows that this is how it works, and it’s obvious: calories in, calories out is all there is to it, a calorie is a calorie.

My Position

People respond differently to the amount of carbohydrate in the diet. In some people eating too much carbohydrate may – through insulin, leptin and other regulatory hormones – block efficient access to body fat stores. If such people simply “eat less and move more” they will ultimately lose weight. However, if their body fat stores are still “locked” due to carb intake, the body perceives this as a major energy crisis. As a result the metabolism slows down, and lean tissue is catabolised. The brain does its best to get its “user” to eat more food, resulting in hunger pangs and food cravings, which is one of the reasons why research shows beyond any reasonable doubt that most dieters fail – they regain most of the lost weight, and then some. Those who do manage to maintain the new weight find that their metabolism remains “slowed down”, so they have to live with the hunger pangs and food cravings for life.

On the other hand, when those “carbohydrate intolerant” people switch to low-carb, losing body fat becomes much easier. Access to body fat stores is no longer blocked, and depending on how much fat they have to lose, they find that they can eat substantially fewer calories than they expend, and the body “supplements” these calories from stored fat without slowing down metabolism, and without hunger pangs or food cravings. This also means that when they want to transition to weight maintenance, they can simply eat more calories (from fat, since carbs and protein are fixed) – it isn’t necessary to remain in a caloric deficit for life, and neither are hunger pangs and food cravings.

Also about “ideal” weight: This is also different from person to person. You can’t simply use a general formula to calculate your target weight and then “implement” it – there may be obstacles in the way which you can’t influence.

The Evidence

It worked for me. Plus there are many well written books explaining this in more detail, referencing studies published in respected journals, suggesting that a calorie is not a calorie. The body metabolises fat and carbohydrate in very different ways. Cultures which have traditionally been eating a lot of starch for many millennia have adapted appropriately, one of those adaptations is the number of copies of the Amylase gene, for example. Studies show that in people with a large number of copies of that gene, when eating starch, their insulin doesn’t spike nearly as much as in people with fewer copies of the gene.

In any case it should be obvious that whatever complex factors exist, optimising one’s body composition may require a personalised approach, and what works for one person might not work for another. Once the underlying mechanisms are understood – maybe not entirely, but at least to the point that we realise that carbohydrates are not just calories, but also inputs for regulatory mechanisms of our metabolism – it should be obvious to see how person A can reach optimal body composition on a high carb diet, and person B can find it to be impossible. The common denominator to losing weight is reducing caloric intake, but as I showed above, the macronutrient composition of these calories can determine whether the resulting metabolism is conducive, or obstructive, to efficient fat loss.

Regarding the “ideal” weight issue: Twin studies show that genetics play a huge role there. Also, our bodies are not blank slates at any given point in time – in my case, for whatever reasons (surely including mistakes on my part) I happened to become obese, and it may be the case that even though it would have been possible for me to stay lean for my entire life, it may not be possible for me at this point to reverse the weight gain completely – at the very least there are going to be issues with loose skin, should I be able to reverse it. I can set a goal of 80kg for myself, but whether I reach it may not depend solely on my willpower and determination. Still, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t set that goal and find out what happens.

Afterthoughts

Nutrition has become a pet peeve of mine, and maybe in the discussion I got a little too defensive – I’m also aware that in conversation I talk about nutrition and dieting a little too often. Ultimately I shouldn’t care about the opinions of others – it’s my body. I have at this point lost 20kg of weight, most of it 4 years ago, and I managed to keep it off since then. I hope my friend manages to keep off his 5kg for life, on a high-carb diet, with no hunger pangs or food cravings. At the same time, I hope that at some point he (and society at large) accepts that some people may have to restrict carbs in order to thrive. Sweden has. As the first industrialised nation it has accepted LCHF (low carb high fat) not only as a valid regimen for weight loss or healthy living in general, but also as a valid strategy in treating Diabetes. In my opinion it is only a matter of time until we experience a major paradigm shift. Hopefully it comes in time to prevent serious Diabetes complications for my stepfather, who at this point happily continues to eat carbs while his doctors are “managing” his condition, which is euphemistic medical lingo for “slowly letting it get worse while prescribing expensive medication”.

But I digress … that’s all for now, may we all reach our dietary goals as different as they may be!

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