Friday, June 06, 2014

Weight gain and loss: Is it about carbs, fat, or just calories?

Donuts are an abundant source of sugar, fat, AND calories
My husband, also a blogger, suggested that I talk about an article that looked at whether the source of calories matter -- does it matter for either weight gain or satiety if participants ate an unrestricted high-fat or unrestricted high-calorie diet? If calorie source matters for satiety, we would expect people on an unrestricted diet to eat less if given the more satiating calorie source.

Looking at short-term and longer-term studies, the researchers found "unrestricted high-fat dietary patterns lead to higher calorie intake than unrestricted high-carbohydrate dietary patterns (although in some studies, volunteers in both groups overeat)" suggesting that it is actually easier to overeat on fat than on carbohydrates because fat is calorie-dense.

Another study was cited showing that when volunteers were purposely overfed in a controlled lab environment, excess calories caused similar weight gain no matter what the source.

As the authors point out in their explanation of "the difference between addition and subtraction," some low-carb dieters might add extra fat to foods rather than just subtracting carbs, which changes the macronutrient ratios but does not decrease the number of calories.  The mirror image of this for the low-fat dieter would be to take the amount of butter you spread on one roll and spread it on two rolls, eating both -- not a good strategy for weight loss.

The Go Kaleo blog has a great discussion on how diet gurus can take even sensible recommendations and take them to silly extremes.

These studies don't seem to have looked at food quality, so feel free to decide they wouldn't apply to your extra-virgin-grass-fed-this or your organic-sprouted-that. I can't tell you you are wrong because there is no evidence one way or another from these studies.

The reality, is, though, that most people who are weight-conscious are probably not eating unrestricted diets.  Most weight-loss or weight-management oriented diets limit or make suggestions on followers' foods, while others limit calories (or sometimes do both through proxies like PointsPlus).  Food limitations often have an effect on the number of calories eaten, even if the follower is not consciously tracking or limiting calories.

My own example is that Weight Watchers has two techniques that its members can use to follow the program:
  • One is counting PointsPlus, which are units based on a formula that takes into account the number of fat grams, protein grams, carbohydrate grams, and fiber. The formula is set up to steer members toward lower-fat foods, and also foods that have higher fiber, and to some extent, protein content relative to the number of carbohydrate grams.  Eating 100 calories of butter will "cost" more points than eating 100 calories of quinoa. 
  • The Simply Filling Technique allows members to eat until they are satisfied from a list of low- or no-fat foods that are mostly minimally processed: Fruits, most vegetables, lean meat and other protein sources, nonfat dairy, and whole grains. Any foods not on the list have to be counted against a weekly PointsPlus allowance.
The Weight Watchers app allows the user to switch back and forth between these -- members are supposed to follow one technique for a whole day and only switch between days.  I used this ability to see what the PointsPlus usage was when I was tracking with Simply Filling,  I found that on days that I was doing this technique, I was also using less points overall but that my weekly points allowance dwindled a lot more quickly.  I just couldn't eat enough of the foods on the list to use many PointsPlus (especially since most fruits and vegetables are 0 in both plans).

Thus I lost more weight on the days that I followed this plan, but also found it more restrictive and harder to stick with.  I am therefore opting to count PointsPlus most days, but focusing on the Power Foods, and if I get stuck or want to accelerate my losses, I can switch to Simply Filling.  I can lose using either technique.

I'm guessing that people who have a large weight loss with Whole30 or other restricted-food plans are having a similar effect -- decreasing the overall calorie intake. At some point, they reach a plateau where their calories consumed even out with the number of calories necessary to maintain, especially as they get good at finding foods they like that fit within the program.  I think any of these plans can work as a tool to lose weight as long as a follower can feel comfortable with the restriction.

Thanks for reading! I'm curious to hear your experiences on any of these plans.


  1. I am wondering if any studies have been run (such as you describe) where they first figured out if they were dealing with insulin resistant /diabetics OR if they were dealing with people who simply needed to watch total calories? Because a person is not a person as far as these studies should go to actually tell us anything. I guess we would have to throw thyroid into the mix too.

    1. I'm sure there have been studies on diet and diabetics. A good study only looks at one question at a time, because too many variables make it hard to learn anything useful.

      I personally minimize sugar because I have read convincing arguments that it has a different effect on the body than other carbohydrates. Each study is just a piece of the puzzle and not the whole story, of course.

    2. They ALWAYS need to look at insulin resistance or not, or the study (testing different kinds of "diets") is worthless. It would be like running a hormone test on a mixture of men and women and not paying attention to which is which . . .

  2. Here's one study that suggests that exercise, with or without weight loss, is the most important factor in improving insulin sensitivity.

    1. That diabetes questionnaire/test thing I posted a while back said something similar. I plugged in all my data with and without exercise at current/low weight and no exercise put me at risk. Very interesting.


  4. It has been my experience that calories are the most important factor in weight loss and weight gain, regardless of the source. When a person is following a low carb diet, which can be Paleo, Atkins, etc., they are likely inadvertently cutting calories. Insulin resistance usually disappears or lessens with weight loss. In fact, I didn't have to lose much weight before that issue was greatly improved. ...lots of buzz words that come and go when it comes to weight loss diets. I believe that the main thing is to cut calories to a level where weight loss occurs. Moderation works the best for me, and the WW plan, if followed as designed, can provide good nutrition and promotes weight loss.

    1. I read somewhere that it is set up to create a 1,000-calorie-per-day deficit, which is why I wonder why people get all weirded out about the small details. Even if you miss the mark a little, it should still provide decent weight loss.

  5. Hopefully that will continue for you all the way down the scale. Would make things a lot easier, I agree.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07