This is a post that’s been sorta relaxing, sipping scotch in the back of my mind since last August after the Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS11). It has to do with the dispute and controversy between Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat, and Dr. Stephan Guyenet, a long time health blogger at Whole Health Source; and more recently, a full-fledged obesity researcher. In full disclosure, I’ve known and corresponded with Stephan for a number of years; Gary since a few months preceding AHS, and have spoken with and exchanged emails with both of them on the subject of this controversy, at which I was present. I subsequently did a podcast on Angelo Coppola’s Latest in Paleo about that and other AHS “controversies” that I described in this post: Ancestral Health Symposium Controversies Podcast: From High Heels to Gary vs. Stephan #AHS11.
I was intending to do a post on it at the time, but in spite of corresponding with both gentlemen to better understand their positions vis-a-vis the other’s, I just did not feel I had a good enough grasp to tackle it and risk looking like an id—something I’m happy to do on some topics, but not this one. Well…everyone is always free to judge either way. So let’s get ready to rumble, uh, RUMBLE!!!
First, it’s my experience over the last several days that I think finally afforded me the understanding to move forward. I announced my self experiment with adding back about 4 times the carbohydrate I was previously eating here. Two days later, I gave an update and macronutrient breakdown here, demonstrating that I’d gone from about 50g carbohydrate per day to about 200, or 40% of intake, with a goal of keeping it about 40-50%.
This morning, a commenter on my last post posed an interesting, excellent question that—once I’d answered it—got me to pacing and churning…and this post was born. I’m not going to link the comment because I don’t want to ruin the suspense by letting you see my proto-response just yet. Here’s the text of the comment/question.
Doesn’t all this belie your previous experience Richard, not to mention Anthony Colpo’s, that low-carb did indeed work? Do you think you could be where you are today if you had forgone low-carb and ate they way you do now? I’m a bit bewildered here.
The short answer is yes, I do believe that what I’m doing now would have worked. Here’s the shocker though: it may have actually worked even better (with a conciliatory qualification to LC I’ll get to). Tough pill to swallow, but it is what it is, and we learn and we go and we move onward hopefully better for the experience and knowledge gained. No regrets, and I hasten to point out: there is an enormous distinction to be made between an average daily 300-400g carbohydrate consumption from crap in a bag or drive through, and 200g carbohydrate mostly from potatoes or other starchy real food sources.
What’s the distinction? Food Reward & Palatability is the short answer. Again, I’ll get to that in more depth later. First, let me ask you a few questions, aimed at LC/Paleo, or Plain Vanilla LC.
- Do you find it pretty easy to draw a distinction between say, a free range, organically fed whole turkey you bake in the oven, and supermarket turkey franks with a side helping of “animal by-products,” hormones, fillers, texture enhancers, preservatives, nitrites, added sodium, coloring, and cruelty…that you nuke?
- Additionally, do you find it easy to draw a distinction between say, leaf lard from a pastured pig that gets lots of time in the sunshine, and industrially processed, extracted, heated, churned, & turned, deodorized and left out to dry soy oil…in a plastic container?
- Yes and yes? OK, then how come you find it so difficult to draw a distinction between a loaf of Wonder Bread in a wrapper, and 5 pounds of potatoes straight & dirty from your organic farmer’s field….to your door?
So have I abandoned low-carb? Not exactly. Do I think it’s effective? Yes, in a limited capacity for some…even most who are substantially overweight or obese, or where otherwise, it just fits with any individual’s lifestyle of work & play and they feel great and have good results naturally (I’m leaving diabetics out of this post as outliers). Do I think it’s the best approach for fat loss? It depends on the individual. Why does it depend? Food Reward/Palatability shakes out individually, likely on a Bell Curve distribution, that’s why.
Here’s how I think it works in general.
- You’re fat. You go low carb per se. You lose water weight because liver and muscle glycogen is being depleted. This is very motivational; or, rewarding, even “palatable.” So you continue on. By virtue of blanket LC, you’re excluding highly rewarding and palatable fast food, pizza, pasta, ice cream, sugar drinks, Hot Pockets, and all the other crap in favor of meat, veggies, nuts, cheese, and maybe some LC junk food if that’s your thang. Yea, it’s great to eat red meat again, and while some can pack away 16oz ribeye steaks one after the other, most can’t. They’re satisfied, and satisfied sooner, with less caloric intake, more often. It subtracts down. They lose weight. Was LC effective? Yes. Why? Food reward/palatability. And because calories count.
- The problem is that while a few get all the way to ripped leanness this way, huge numbers don’t (including me), and that’s why LC and LC/Paleo have not only to recruit the new and uniformed (do keep it going, Jimmy & Co.), but have growing numbers amongst adherents who range from slightly disillusioned to royally pissed off…because they can’t get rid of that last 10-20 pounds…or more, in some cases.
- In various degrees of frustration and despair, you console yourself with the various cheats—from foods you love and have missed—that got you fat before. But you’re smarter this time around, see? You don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, you “cover” or redeem your indiscretions at the drive through and freezer section with bouts of zero to very low carb over days, and manage to eek out some sort of a homeostasis—maintaining your moderately overweight composition. Or, in many cases, LC as you practice it ceases to be effective in shedding any more fat—even without drive through, freezer section, or Jamba Juice excursions.
- This is not necessarily an altogether bad thing. Better than really fat or obese.
So how do we take the next step, beyond the huge value LC had been to get off that initial 40, 50, 60, 80, 160, 320 pounds (60 in my case)? We recognize that it wasn’t really any magic about LC that got us there. LC simply, effectively, lowered our food reward/palatability and as a consequence, we spontaneously lowered our average daily intake of calories.
So let’s run some example number for shits, giggles…and in hopes of a Second Coming (I didn’t specify what kind).
…Let’s suppose a 250 pound male body, 5′ 10″, 50yo, light to moderate get-off-his-ass level. Daily burn is about 3,500 calories.
He goes Low carb. His target is 160 pounds, 90 pounds away…because that’s the last time he remembers where a hot chick approached him and, well….she did nasty things to him. He’s been told he doesn’t need to count calories or anything—that they don’t matter, eat to satiety—under a certain set of proscriptions having to do with carbohydrate per se.
And it’s exactly what he does. After the initial water weight loss and adjustment period, he settles in. Since he doesn’t count calories, let me do so, hypothetically. …Wow, amazing, and this does go to the asset side of the Balance Sheet. He’s not doing anything like 3,500 calories per day. Not even close. Eating ad libitum, he’s naturally consuming about 2,800 calories for a 700 calorie deficit per day, or about a pound lost per 5 days. He feels awesome, great…because even though in big caloric deficit, he’s still on a very high fat diet and he’s not really hungry too often. He’s euphoric. The pounds are melting off. He’s an LC believer for life. It borders on Enlightenment. It’s tantamount to a religious experience or, a Second Coming.
This goes on for just short of a year, about 350 days if my math is correct. He’s livin’ it up, low-carb style. He’s doing himself, friends, and family a huge favor. Don’t discount that. But in the end, he’s accountable mostly to himself, and in that end, he stalls. He stalls, not at his 160 pound goal where hot chicks might once again do nasty things to him, but at 180 pounds, 20 pounds away. He’s gonna have to do something, or settle for 2nd string in the chick department. How can this be? Low carb is magic. He’s proved it. Over the space of an entire year!
…Or so he thinks.
What he only proved, however, is that calories count. Yea, he may have gorged on the fatty meat one night to the tune of pounds and huge calories and couldn’t wait to tell you. But like my dear late grandmother—while I was growing up in Reno—only ever told us about her jackpots at the slots, and never the amount she fed it regularly…what he didn’t tell you is that the next day, he didn’t eat much at all. He was satiated. It all subtracts down, over time.
As it tuns out, 2,800 average daily calories is about the requirement for a 50 year old guy, 180 pounds, 5′ 10″, who gets off his ass now and then. …Unfortunately, fantasizing about the hot chicks in waiting doesn’t burn a whole lot.
Are you beginning to see where I’m going? Low carb was indeed effective. But it was only a means to the end that really worked. Actually, two means: his food palatability/reward was diminished, he spontaneously lowered caloric intake to an ad libitum level of a 180 pound man (2,800 calories), and he lost the weight. A year later, right on schedule, he weighs 180. After months and months or years and years, he begins to become disillusioned about low carb. But the blindspot, because “calories don’t count on low carb,” is that he never tried 2,600 calories daily on average, the requirement for a 160lb man with his parameters. But, had he done that, he’d have been hungry and low carb is a lot about not having to feel hungry. It’s baked into the low carb—and hopefully gluten free—cake. So low carb failed him?
That’s not fair. Low carb did exactly what it’s supposed to do—once the science is understood and put into context. Low carb righteously and effectively set off a chain of events that led to him reducing intake in order to lose most of the weight he wanted.
But could he have done better? Yes, I believe so. How? By decreasing reward and palatability even further. How do you do that? By introducing a lot more carbohydrate, but from natural sources from starchy vegetables and tubers like potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, taro, etc., etc. But wait! This is risky. I said I’d get to this, above. In my case, yes, I believe I could have done better, faster. But, perhaps step-wise is the better approach? If you reduce palatability and reward so very far, you might just give up on the whole exercise…and so in the spirit of the exercise of the greatest caution—because I want to see the most number of folks make substantial progress—I’m going to continue to support a VLC-LC diet for the really fat and obese. Thing is, if you integrate this, you’ll know exactly what to do when that stall happens, and you don’t have to flail around for months or years anymore pursuing a path that may no longer be effective for you individually.
But just how will this lower palatability and reward, thus lowering caloric intake?
Ah, “grasshopper,” I’m so glad you asked. As I was drafting this and had to link Stephan’s blog, above, I noticed there was a post from yesterday I hadn’t read yet: Palatability, Satiety and Calorie Intake.
…They fed volunteers a variety of commonly eaten foods, each in a 240 calorie portion, and measured how full each food made them feel, and how much they ate at a subsequent meal. Using the results, they calculated a “satiety index”, which represents the fullness per calorie of each food, normalized to white bread (white bread arbitrarily set to SI = 100). So for example, popcorn has a satiety index of 154, meaning it’s more filling than white bread per calorie.
One of the most interesting aspects of the paper is that the investigators measured a variety of food properties (energy density, fat, starch, sugar, fiber, water content, palatability), and then determined which of them explained the SI values most completely.
Now, before you even look, what food has the off-the-scale, outlier, lowest palatability on average vs. the highest satiety?
Do I need to answer that question, potato [s]mashers? Go read it and weep.
Now, being honest, I might have ho-hum dismissed that on any given Sunday, but as it happens, I’m 4 days into eating more potato than I’ve ever eaten daily in my life, and after 2-3 days, kinda crashed. I was like:
“You need to eat, Richard. Your readers are expecting the results of your experiment.”
“But I’m not hungry yet, Richard.”
“It’s 10 AM, Richard.”
“It’s 11 AM, Richard.”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“…It’s 1 PM, Richard. Have the Audacity to Hope!”
I succumbed, but only so far as to eat about 6 oz of turkey breast, a half can of black olives, and then munch on carrot sticks for the rest of the afternoon. Dinner was two full chicken legs/thighs, white rice and a chicken stock reduction with a bit of butter, white wine and a splash of cream.
Four days in, and I’m averaging 300-400 calories below what I was averaging before. I feel more full on average, more satisfied, sleep WAY better, and have a mental go-for-it attitude I haven’t felt since I was on that high-fat diet, in caloric deficit and losing 60 pounds.
I’ve lost between 2 and 3 pounds since weighing in Saturday morning when this all began.