The Science is Good; the Conventional Wisdom is Unwise

Saturday, February 19, 2011

This morning's round of measurements show me 1.25 more inches down - yay! Better, my waist-to-hip ratio is down to .77, which makes me a pear (better than an avacado). I'm pleased!

I've lost 15 pounds and over 8 inches since January 3rd following Tim Ferriss's "4-Hour Body/Slow Carb" plan, which is very similar to a Paleo or hunter-gatherer diet, except Ferriss adds beans to each meal because just eating protein and vegetables does not provide enough calories. There are no grains or dairy on this eating plan (although cottage cheese is fine), and the plan includes one cheat day a week.

Beginning today, though, my personal trainer has put me on a 2-week "Fast Start" eating plan, which is very much like Paleo, with some permitted fruits and fats (olives, raw nuts, almond butter) standing in for the beans. Sticking with this eating plan for 2 weeks also means eating even more protein and snacking more frequently than I have done on 4HB, and skipping a cheat day, so well see how it goes. While 15 pounds is good for 7 weeks, I have slowed down quite a bit. Hey, summer starts in 3 months - speeding up a bit would be great! I can stick with this Paleo plan for the long term, though I'll probably go back to my cheat days and putting cottage cheese in my eggs after the 2 weeks are over.

My only problem thus far has been the frequency of eating. This morning, I forgot to eat my required snack because I'm just not accustomed to eating more than 4 times a day now (as opposed to my old 7 times per day when I was on your classic high-carb/low fat diet), and I'm not hungry much, so I have to watch the clock. I understand the point is to make sure we don't get too hungry or have blood sugar drop too far, but since I've been sticking to a plan very similar to Paleo for the past 7 weeks, my appetite is already lower. When I become hungry, it's actually stomach hunger, which is a relatively new experience for me.

On the subject of appetite and non-traditional eating plans ... I was reading "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes last night, which I'd checked out of the library. I ended up buying it for my Kindle because I want to keep it. Together with several other books I've read about the dangers of our typical, extremely sugar-laden American diet, It's going to be valuable as a resource when I have to respond to Doubting Thomases who think high-protein, carb-restricted eating plans are unhealthy or a "fad," and that we're all going to die if we don't eat Cheerios or oatmeal.

Here, I'm going to share an extremely simplified version of the section of Taubes's book that I read over and over and over again, thrilled to see it all written so clearly.

Added 2/20/2011 - I'm adding a disclaimer to this blog because of some of the comments I've received. I'm not surprised - I knew I'd receive comments telling me I'm wrong and that I'm focusing on "one man's opinion." I want to make clear that Taubes's bibliography is dozens of pages long, and the book is voluminous - this is not one man's opinion. Moreover, Taubes is only one of many authors I've read who write compellingly about the ills that simple carbohydrates bring upon us. The smartest authors I've found (there are many) all invite skepticism and further exploration. For example, I'm following 4HB instead of the low-carb eating plan that Taubes offers at the end of his more recent book because his is too low in carbohydrates, and I don't like the whole "ketosis" thing (more about that below). I just happened to have had my "aha" moment reading Taubes's GCBC book, which is full of information. I'm sharing what works for me and because I see it starting to work for my mother, who is not athletic and who has serious thyroid and health issues relating to her weight. If your experience shows that you can eat bread and pancakes and still lose weight, consider yourself VERY lucky. Believe me, I wish I were like that as well! But not all of us can eat like that, and I think the weight loss industry and FDA have taken their sweet time figuring that out. That's why I wrote this blog. Disclaimer done.

As you read my paraphrase below, remember that EVERY carbohydrate - even whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, legumes, vegetables and fruits, Little Debbie snack cakes - all of it turns into sugar in our bloodstream. Our brains use carbohydrates for food, so we must consume some carbohydrates. I'm not trying to demonize the naturally occurring ones like fruit and tubers. The rest of our organs and muscles need us to eat protein and fat to be nourished.

*Calories in/calories out as a widely understood and accepted concept has repeatedly been demonstrated as an oversimplification of our vastly complicated endocrine systems and how our bodies store and use fat.
*The concept DOES work, however, if you look only at fat cells. When there is too much insulin in the blood - prompted by too much sugar, a hormonal defect, or both - more fat is going into the fat cells than can come out. Picture 25 people trying to push their way into a NYC subway car while one person is trying to get out - that one person is out of luck.
* Because fat cannot get out of the fat cells, organs, muscles, etc. are not receiving adequate nourishment. No matter the size of the person, the body is starving.
* In response to this state of internal starvation, appetite increases.
* The bigger the person = the more nourishment is needed, so the bigger the appetite.
* The person must eat more food to nourish the body until the body gets the nourishment it needs, even if the side effect is to increase weight to an unhealthy level, until the body says "enough, I have the nourishment I need to function."
* Both lean and fat people go into energy conservation mode (i.e., they are sedentary) and are hungry when their bodies are starving.
* When the fat can get out of the fat cells, the person becomes more energetic.

What about exercise? There's no magic calculator in our bodies that says if the treadmill reads 300 calories, then we've actually burned a 300-calorie meal. Exercise cannot burn fat unless the fat is released from fat cells to be used as fuel. With the body in starvation mode, exercise doesn't do much except making us hungrier.

Taubes has analyzed tons upon tons of studies that have shown that carbhydrate-restricted diets, made up of vegetables, some fruit, increased protein and fat, have these effects:
* Insulin goes down.
* Fat is finally able to get out of fat cells.
* Muscles and organs are being nourished by the fat coming out of fat cells as well as the protein and fat being eaten.
* Appetite decreases because the body is no longer starving.
* To quote Taubes (this was the "aha" statement for me), a person "would be eating less because his fat tissue was shrinking; his fat tissue would not be shrinking because he was eating less."

In this scenario, we do end up eating fewer calories because we're not as hungry - but that's not why we lose weight. We're eating fewer calories as a response because we're able to lose weight. It's the reverse of what the conventional wisdom tells us - and yet, to me, it seems so much more logical than counting points and telling myself I'm "satisfied" on half a cup of pasta with non-fat cheese.

Taubes's book also expains that numerous studies have suggested that carbohydrates increase appetite. I don't know if he will explain why (I'm only about 2/3 of the way through the book), but I can tell you that 1/2 cup pasta with non-fat cheese is going to send me to the cookie jar. However, the 4 ounces of ribeye, cup of broccoli, and 1/2 grapefruit I ate for lunch following today's hour-long workout were almost too much for me to squeeze down; and, four hours later, I'm just beginning to get hungry again.

In my own history, I find Taubes's words not only compelling, but very applicable:

* Every time I've gone on a typical calorie-restrictive diet that does not restrict carbohydrates, I become voraciously hungry, need to snack 3 or 4 times a day at least and am still hungry, feel lethargic, am cranky, etc. And, if I lose anything at all, it comes back in a heartbeat. Consider that I've tried Weight Watchers 4 times and have gained weight (and suffered from really extreme hunger!) each time. Obviously, such eating plans don't work for me!

* The two times in my life I've gone on a carbohydrate-restrictied diet -- 9 years ago (when I went from 230 to 165 pounds) and now -- I've had no problem at all staying on the plan, I've lost weight easily, and I had/have a lot of energy. I have even more energy at 47 than I did last time I did this (at 38) because this time, I'm eating whole foods and have cut out entirely grains (except for the aforementioned beans and cheat days). Since this eating plan includes a cheat day 1x/week, that's enough for me to be able to socialize, have holiday meals, etc., and still eat properly the other 6 days of the week.

[In case you're wondering, my weight did creep back up from 165 to 190 pounds after I stopped following the carbohydrate-restricted diet. I chose to stop because my body entered ketosis, and my breath became horrible - I couldn't stand it. That doesn't seem to be happening this time, but I'm doing things differently: I'm eating enough carbohydrates in the form of vegetables, with a little fruit and beans, so that my brain is nourished, and my liver doesn't have to produce ketones to feed it. But, I have kept off 40 pounds just by making sure I exercised and had protein at every meal for over 7 years, and I think that's pretty impressive!]

There are genetic and even evolutionary reasons behind why a body like mine cannot handle much insulin. That's my theory about why this works so well for me, and my doctor didn't choose to argue with me about it. Weight loss on whole foods = good = keep doing what you're doing. I choose to believe what the Paleo guys say about insulin (that humans have been on this earth for millions of years, agriculture for just a few thousand, and we haven't had time to evolve to the point where we can handle all the sugar that goes into our bloodstreams). Also, Taubes suggests some people really do have an obesity gene, which makes their fat cells extremely insulin resistance. I don't think that's me, but I'm sure there are people out there suffering greatly because the conventional wisdom labels them as slothful and gluttonous. Such labels are are surely cruel and may be terribly unwise.

I find the science pretty fascinating. Even if I weren't reading, though, I'd still know that a higher protein, carb-restricted whole food eating plan works extraordinarily well for my body. Two pounds a week and 9 inches off my body since January 3rd - without hunger - don't lie.

Many of the good studies that Taubes cites were done in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, when my mom was a girl, and I hear her words from when I was a little girl: Starchy foods will make you gain weight. We avoided (or ate in moderation) corn, pasta, potatoes, bread, and sweets, although we didn't know why they would make us gain weight.

Michael Pollan, in "In Defense of Food," explains that politics are the reason that the starches we avoided 30+ years ago have become "low-fat, heart-healthy foods" that we're all supposed to be eating. Golly gee - if we were all thin, healthy, with no heart disease or diabetes, I'd believe what the FDA, politicians, lobbyists, and for-profit cereal companies tell us to eat. Their interest lies in profit and ego, however. Looking around me, I can see they are doing us a horrible injustice.

I'm very heartened that my 20-something personal trainer gave me this carb-restricted, whole-food diet, which she follows herself (with a cheat day every week). Maybe this means the new breed of dieticians, personal trainers, and physicians coming out of school now will start looking at what the science and obvious (moneymaking) failures of low fat/high carb diets have been demonstrating for years. Maybe, they will toss out the conventional wisdom - along with the FDA food pyramid and commercials for Frosted Mini Wheats- in favor of making real wisdom more conventional. Then, maybe we'll see a return to the not-so-distant past (as recent as the early 20th century!) when diabetes, cancer, alzheimers, obesity, heart disease, and other diseases of our modern time weren't as rampant.

Hmm, that's food for thought - I think I'll sign off now and go eat my Paleo dinner of a big omelet with vegetables and salad!
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    It's good to hear of your success with the slow carb plan. I admit, I have not been very successful at giving up all the carbs. I love fruit and oatmeal! I am going to give it a try, though. It's taken much time and reading for me to be willing to admit that maybe all I've learned about dieting is wrong, and that maybe some of the things that I think are no big deal, might be a big deal after all.
    2403 days ago
  • LAURA1152
    It's ridiculous that I sat in my doctor's office the other day arguing with her about the cause of my weight loss - she refused not believe it had anything to do with dietary changes! (She chalked it up to my ceasing to take a certain medication at the end of January - ignoring, of course, that I'd already lost 9 pounds before I stopped taking it.) The bottom line is that many of us are not helped and are even harmed by low-fat, high-carb diets, and it would be responsible and appropriate for the FDA and other big voices in the diet world to present alternatives that respect the fact differences in food and fat metabolism.

    I think, in basic terms, we're in agreement, although I disagree with your opinion that this "isn't science." However, since I'm paraphrasing something it appears you haven't read, then it's a useless disagreement. Anyway, thanks for the follow-up comment.
    2405 days ago
    I have a copy if you really want it back. In fact, I surely could do a better job editing it into better literature. But hey, it's just a blog comment, not a PhD thesis.

    My first paragraph says this isn't science. My second paragraph agrees with some of your points. My third paragraph makes a new point. And my fourth paragraph clarifies how I think one should apply this AND actual scientific data to individual situations. This part you even suggest that you agree with. I don't see how any of this is much controversial or argumentative.

    I may write in a more objective tone than you are used to, however I assure you I softened my tone before I posted the comment. Anyway, like eating, this shouldn't be emotional. Not if you want to venture into the realm of science.

    I never directly said YOU were wrong. And I didn't say Taubes was wrong, period. He is, in fact, correct on some points. And on some points he is incorrect. Like the rest of us.

    The Spark approach is about moderation and taking a reasonable middle path, not about cutting things altogether or calling them evil. Finally, the world is not black and white, nor does it happen in Powerpoint. Length is occasionally required in order to have appreciable content.

    Might as well end with my usual cry. BEEFCAKE!
    2406 days ago
  • LAURA1152
    I received a comment on this blog that said Taubes is "wrong," and I deleted the comment because of its excessive length and what I felt was a disrespectful tone, which may or may not have been intended. However, it was wrong of me to delete it; I only realized after I'd done so that others may have appreciated seeing it. It is a public blog, after all. In case others are curious, I addressed the concerns of that comment in a disclaimer I've added to the blog (dated 2/20). Since conventional weight loss plans tend not to work for everyone, I felt it important to share my thoughts and experience and invite you to agree or disagree - however, I take exception to declaring Taubes is wrong unless you've taken the time to read him yourself. The comment's writer does say that everyone needs to do what works for him/herself, and in that, we're in agreement.
    2406 days ago

    Comment edited on: 2/20/2011 10:06:13 PM
    This is great information. Thanks for taking the time to share it. Congratulations on your progress with the diets. I admire your willingness to experiment. I know Ferriss would too.
    2406 days ago
    Great post! Thank you.
    2406 days ago
    Very interesting -- thanks for sharing. I'm doing 4HB and loving the "slow carb" diet. I've resisted the low carb diets in the past for two reasons:

    1. They villainize "carbs" across the board. Carbs are a necessary macronutrient. (It also REALLY annoys me when someone spouts the evils of carbs while munching on fruits or veggies. Hello -- those are CARBS!)

    2. Ketosis. So many of the low carb diets have a phase where they put people in ketosis. Sorry, but my brain uses carbs, and I'm not going to starve it. Ketosis just isn't necessary.

    I love Tim Ferriss precisely because he doesn't do either of the above things. He doesn't waste energy fighting against the stuff he doesn't want you to eat. He focuses on the good stuff and provides solid science and practical applications and results.
    2407 days ago

    Comment edited on: 2/20/2011 10:10:32 AM
    Thanks for sharing your research and personal experience. Calories in/calories out wasn't doing much for me either and I knew there was an answer in science somewhere. I just started and had a difficult first week. But now I think it will be much better. My youngest daughter is considering a career in personal training and I hope to influence her with my success with 4HB. She's helping me with exercise. Cheers to continued success!
    2407 days ago
    Paleo Dinner sounds interesting. I will have to check out the book. Sounds interesting.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Have a great Paleo Supper.
    2407 days ago
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