1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Laura Dolson

Thoughts About Calories

By January 14, 2013

Follow me on:

nutrition"But what about calories?" This is a common and reasonable question when trying to understand how a low-carb diet works. Yet, proponents of low-carb diets don't talk about calories very much. Regina Wilshire, author of the Weight of the Evidence blog (I'm very glad she recently started blogging again) has gone so far as to call it a taboo to talk about calories in the low-carb community. I'm happy to join in this conversation.

To cut to the chase: Do calories matter? Yes, of course they matter. But I view calorie consumption more as an effect, rather than a cause. "Calories In - Calories Out" is certainly true - but it only describes the situation -- it doesn't explain it. As my husband says, "it should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it".

As I wrote recently in the First Month of a Low-Carb Diet, a low-carb diet creates a lower demand for calories in the diet (the body gets some of them from our fat stores instead). Because of this, we don't need to worry so much about the supply of calories to the body, at least early on. People experience this change in appetite as being very liberating - for example, they may speak of "feeling normal" around food. Now, we can have arguments as to why low-carb diets seem to normalize appetite regulation -- the appetite system is quite complex. Suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that carbohydrate reduction affects many of the hormones involved in appetite and weight regulation. In other words, it causes us to consume fewer calories.

However, there is a difference between how the body acts in the short term in regards to appetite and weight regulation, and how it works once weight loss gets to a certain point (that point varies probably due to a number of factors, including percentage of body fat lost, how long the person has been losing weight, and a tremendous amount of individual variation). The problem becomes that weight loss itself often begins to trigger the desire for more food. At that point, to maintain the weight loss, it becomes more important to pay attention to intake. Sometimes people find that diet adjustments can help get their appetites back on track, while others have the choice of either gaining weight or dealing with the calorie question.

To tell you the truth, I blame the diet books for some of this. I know it doesn't sell books to tell people that there may be limits to the diet in question, but when people aren't warned, they can possibly let an opportunity slip by.

For myself, I lost weight eating a low-carb diet for 19 months, although the last 8 months I was only losing about a pound a month. (Interestingly, I once heard an obesity expert say that 19 months is the longest a person on a weight-loss diet would keep losing weight. I was stunned to hear this, since it was exactly how long I lost weight.) At that point, I thought I was stalled, but I wasn't really prepared for the possibility of re-gaining the weight, which is what slowly started to happen, even though I was eating the same amount of carbohydrate. I ended up regaining about half of what I had lost. My weight then stabilized and has been pretty much exactly the same ever since -- over 10 years now. Before I started eating low-carb, I had been steadily gaining weight, so I probably would be much heavier if I had not cut carbs. Would I have been able to maintain the greater weight loss if I had been more vigilant? I simply don't know. I'm not someone who is really willing to battle chronic hunger, day in and day out. It simply takes way too much mental energy, which I would rather use for other things (yes, it turns out that mental energy is literally a limited resource). On the other hand, there may be a point at which it's easier to intervene, and I may have let that point slip by because I was unprepared for it. I do know people who were able to successfully intervene at that point by monitoring calories, and have maintained their weight loss that way. Once the weight is regained, it becomes much, much harder.

Remember I said that I think of calorie intake as more of an effect than a cause? I truly think it's mostly biologically determined. A very smart person recently wrote that we regulate our internal temperature mainly by our behavior. And yet, we maintain that temperature to a very fine degree most of the time. Throughout most of human history, people probably tended to pick up a few pounds in middle age, but didn't tip over into being overweight or obese. Otherwise, their weights were totally stable. Think about that: if your weight is stable from year to year, you are in balance within 10 calories per day. If you think we have conscious control over calorie regulation, this is quite astonishing, really. This is a few extra steps. This is a slight change in metabolism. Two eggs out of the same carton can easily vary by this much.

A lot of smart people think they know why our "weight thermostats" stopped working right, but they all think different things. It almost certainly is not just one thing (although I tend to think that sugar/refined carbs had a hand in it). Some people think something goes wrong in the system that regulates fat, encouraging us to accumulate more. Then we consume a few more calories to support that slightly larger body.

One great thing is that by losing a small amount of weight, we may lose a significant amount of the visceral fat which is certainly the most dangerous, and this is why keeping a modest amount of weight off can improve so many aspects of health, even for the overweight. This is why for me the focus on health has been so important, and low-carb eating is key for maintaining that weight loss, as well as normal blood pressure, blood lipds, blood glucose, etc.

Image © Emily Dolson

Related Resources:
Forum | Facebook | Twitter | Newsletter & RSS
January 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm
(1) John says:

It’s all hormonal, the interplay of which we have yet to fully understand which is why self-experimentation is required). Low carb works well, up to a point, because it zeroes in on minimizing insulin, the fat storage hormone. But go too low carb for too long (i.e., ketosis) and other complications can ensue (e.g., muted sex hormones, LDL abnormality because LDL receptors require some de minimus level of insulin, etc.).
Other hormones govern weight loss beyond insulin – hormones that make you feel full or hungry, for example. If you’re at a plateau (i.e, low carb but still overweight), it’s because you never let yourself feel hunger and thereby lose your hunger hormone signal. This requires you to Intermittent Fast (skip breakfast, daily under-eating, etc.) to reset your hunger/fullness hormones. This is DIFFERENT from counting calories, which Gary Taubes reminds us, is not the source of the problem, but a consequence. For more, on why this works, see Dr. Joe Mercola’s and Ori Hofmekler’s writing on Intermittent Fasting.

January 14, 2013 at 10:13 pm
(2) lowcarbdiets says:

Hi, John -

Are you truly saying that overweight people never let themselves feel true hunger? I wonder why you think this?

January 14, 2013 at 8:23 pm
(3) Peg says:

I really appreciate your frank and open thoughts about calories. I took off 30 lbs 15 years ago and just now seem to be sneaking back up.

I think I’ve slipped more than I realize away from low-carb, and because some of my terrific recipes aren’t at all concerned with calories & fat, they have the potential to pack on a few pounds if not surrounded and supported by the low-carb lifestyle.

I’m thinking it won’t hurt me a bit to, for the next month or so, be very careful of carbs and aware, at least, of calories. (of course, not walking regularly as I always have done may just have a LITTLE bit to do with my current situation…)

Thanks for your thoughts on calories!

January 15, 2013 at 2:52 am
(4) John says:

Thanks for the question. I sincerely hope that what I’ve learned can help those who may want to build on the progress they’ve made. What I’m saying is that there’s a real opportunity for overweight people who have wisely chosen low carb to lose even more weight by addressing other hormones, like leptin and ghrelin. In other words, curbing insulin is necessary, but not sufficient for improved weight loss. For example, Splenda and Xylitol are allowed by most low carb diets because they don’t spike insulin and don’t factor in your net carb count. Great. But they DO mess with your hunger and satiation hormones, leading you to overeat (i.e., consume more calories) making calories relevant again as the effect, not the cause, of your partial weight regain on low carb. Another example: WHEN you eat may be as important as WHAT you eat. Under New Atkins you can eat five times a day, pairing protein, fat and fiber. And as we know, it works nicely relative to the standard way most people eat before they change. But again, it works for many of us only up to a point. The problem is that if I never let myself feel hunger and let it pass, I’ll disregulate leptin and ghrelin similar to the way an artificial sweetener does so. But if I skip breakfast (often when I’m not hungry anyway) and pick up low carb at lunch, I lose more weight because I’ve continued my overnight fast and restored my hunger/satiation signaling. You may think “well, you skipped a meal” so of course you’re losing weight again, but that would miss the fact that after ten days doing IF, you’re no longer HUNGRY for that meal each day (i.e, eating less calories is the result of diminished appetite). Pretty cool.

January 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm
(5) lowcarbdiets says:

This is great, John — I sincerely love this type of discussion, and I thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m actually trying something similar right now, but I’ve only been doing it a couple of weeks, and I want to give it at least a couple of months before making a judgement.

I TOTALLY agree that insulin is not the only issue with obesity, and that leptin, hyper-palatable foods, lots more hormones and peptides, etc, play a role. What I would caution you about is to generalize from your experience to “all overweight people”, or even “most”. There is a tremendous amount of individual variation in all of this, and many pathways to obesity. (Example: Friedman says that 10% of obese people have actual defects in the leptin pathways — not just talking about leptin resistance.) Also, unless you have lost a lot of weight and kept it off for at least five years, you may find that your own body’s responses change over time. I mentioned that I continued to lose weight for 19 months before things started to become more difficult. In the beginning, I wasn’t really hungrier or eating more, but I was becoming more lethargic and fatigued and found myself moving much less, making excuses not to exercise, etc. The body has lots of ways of fighting back. According to the long-term weight loss stats, for people who maintain a significant weight loss for a year, the third and fourth years can become more problematic.

As I said, right now I’m experimenting with intermittent fasting — I’m always open to tweaking and trying new things. I have found this weight I am at now, high though it is, to be extremely resistant to change, and although I haven’t by any means given up, I don’t have high expectations either. I just try to stay in the role of the interested observer when it comes to my own process.

January 16, 2013 at 10:23 am
(6) L2Wbookhand says:

I have thought using protein shakes for what y’all are calling “intermitent fasting.” I understand from a friend who has been successful on the Curves Plan that reducing intake can trigger metabolism increase, if it is followed by increasing calories in a cyclical pattern. The idea that frequent eating increases metabolism is part of this cycle too. We are complex creatures indeed

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.