Aug 132012

Let’s talk about weight loss for a bit.

Ever since I first learned of the Hacker Diet, I’ve been a proponent of the idea that calories in < calories out = weight loss. It makes intuitive sense. Your body is a giant furnace, requiring fuel. You provide it that fuel in the form of food, which it burns if it needs and stores if it does not. It doesn't matter what you eat; if you aren't providing your body with as many calories as you're burning, you lose body mass. Straight-forward, clean, simple. But what if it's wrong? I recently encountered Why We Get Fat (and What To Do About It) by Gary Taubes. I started reading it Sunday morning, while attempting to recover from a rather unpleasant wine-induced hangover. I hardly put it down until I finished it. In less than 300 pages, Taubes not only completely shredded this basic idea that I thought unassailable, but presented a nigh-unassailable case of his own for the identify of the real culprit behind the worldwide obesity epidemic.

It all comes down to carbs.

Taubes is a journalist, not a doctor, a nutritionist, or a professional scientist. He’s not a formally trained expert on these matters. He is someone who takes the scientific method to heart and is no stranger to investigation and research. Rather than accept what major institutions like the FDA, AMA, and so on proffer as “common sense,” he decided to actually delve into the scientific literature surrounding weight loss, obesity, and so on.

In every instance, calorie control resulted in only modest results, and never showed long-term sustainability. In other words, there is no science to back up this seemingly obvious idea. This came as a huge shock to me, as someone who finds the idea of taking anything on faith to be repugnant. I want facts and data and rigorous testing before I accept something as true.

Taubes spent most of the book smashing apart the calorie control argument, and he did it in such a way that was both engaging to read and eye-opening. I don’t want to get into all of the details of it here; you really should read the book if you’re interested in examining the body of evidence he brings forward. Suffice it to say, it was convincing.

Instead, he points the finger at carbohydrates and the villification of dietary fat. Much like Atkins, he champions a diet of unrestricted protein and fat consumption, with minimal carbs. Why? Because carbohydrates spike your body’s insulin levels. So what? Carbs are the first target for digestion, before fat and protein. For every carb you eat, the fat or protein going with it is stashed away for later. This is how we evolved; it’s how things are supposed to work. Carbs are easy energy; this is common knowledge. The insulin spike, throwing off the entire digestive pattern, is the kicker. And what is the entire Western diet based on? Carbs.

But carbs are “heart healthy!” A diet of protein and fat is going to lead to cholesterol build-up and heart disease! Again, this is mostly bullshit, stemming from bad science. A diet devoid of carbs, but rich in meat and fat actually results in an increase in HDL (“good” cholesterol) and LDL (“bad” cholesterol), and a decrease in triglycerides (also bad dudes). Further, it offers a reduction in blood pressure. What’s more, the question of LDL isn’t as cut-and-dried as “good” vs. “bad.” LDL actually comes in various sizes, and it turns out that the protein-and-fat diet enlarges your LDLs, which actually makes them less likely to create the plaque that can cause arterial blockages. You know what makes them smaller and denser, more likely to cause blockage? Yep, carbs. As it turns out the protein-and-fat diets make you more heart healthy than reducing either. And this isn’t limited to certain types of protein-and-fat foods. It’s universal. Eggs, bacon, all of it — it’s actually good for you. It’s the bread, flour, sugar that’s killing you.

“But calorie control does work!” Hell, I touted this line, and I thought it was working for me! Turns out, this is confusing the matter. Controlling calories almost universally includes cutting back on carbs, along with cutting back on everything else. Fewer carbs in the system means less insulin imbalance, means less material stored as fat. So what’s the deal with the insulin spike? Insulin’s whole point is to regulate your blood sugar level. Carbs, especially simple sugars, spike your blood sugar level. The body flushes with insulin to get rid of them so you don’t die. It can’t deal with digesting and using protein and fat for energy while it’s got to deal with carbs.

Everything about Taubes’s arguments slot neatly into our modern problem of obesity, including the attendant rise in diabetes. I said to my wife while reading the book, “This thing is like Christmas.” Taubes even goes so far as to compare the calorie control mentality as somewhat religious, since it plays on the idea that sloth and gluttony are the only reason people get fat. If they could only control themselves, they wouldn’t be obese. It’s a very Christian view of things; no wonder it’s caught on with such fervor. And here I was, swept up in it. I’m ashamed.

It is a question of control, of course. You’ve got to excise carbs, and that’s not easy. Sugar, especially, is little different from cocaine in its addictive response. I want a big bowl of pasta, some cookies, a milkshake. Why? Because my brain’s reward centers trigger when I eat these things. They’re delicious. They’re also screwing me over. Bacon’s delicious too, as are scrambled eggs (or any eggs). They aren’t trying to kill me.

There’s some saving grace for carbohydrates, in the form of complex carbs. I don’t have the list on hand, but there a number of vegetables such that are rich in carbs, but they’re “complex” carbs. They’re harder to break down, have less of an impact on your system, and have an overall lower “glycemic index” (read: they make your blood sugar spike a lot less, which means you need less insulin flushing through you).

It’s not a perfect solution, though. Insulin secretion and reaction to carbs is also partly genetic. Fat parents give birth to fat babies, and what a mother eats influences the genetic disposition of a child toward accumulating weight. Even if you get your insulin issues under control, it doesn’t mean you’re free and clear; it just lets you re-normalize. Staying completely away from carbs (or near enough; Atkins is the most stringent, limiting the initial stages to less than 20g per day; a single hamburger bun is about 25g) will continue to result in fat loss. Your body will burn the stored fat it has, and now go after the easy carbs floating around while storing the other stuff. Introducing carbs back in may result in a return to fat accumulation. It depends on your genetics, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it. That’s the shitty part, but it also handily explains why some people are effortlessly thin, while others struggle non-stop, even with this knowledge. I suspect I’m probably somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

So, I’m on the no-carb bandwagon now, and off the calorie control one. We’ll see how it works. If, six months from now, I’m in terrible shape, heavier than ever, low on energy, with spiked blood pressure, we’ll know this was horseshit, at least for my biochemistry. If, on the other hand, I’m leaner than I’ve ever been (I was a huge carb consumer, especially before Cody got on me about controlling me eating habits) and feeling amazing in six months…well, that says all it needs to.

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