Do Calories Count When Low-Carbing? Yep.

Browse a little around this site, and you’ll probably notice that most of the information and stories I have under the category of Nutrition promote the low-carb lifestyle. Actually, it all does, for the simple fact that, after considerable research and personal experience over the past ten years (thirty years, if you count the time I unsuccessfully tried to manage the Atkins diet shortly after it was introduced), I’ve come to the conclusion that low-carb eating is an amazing tool whereby many of our culture’s nutritional ills can be made to simply disappear from our plane of existence. I’ll have more over the next several posts to describe how I came to believe the way I do.

But for now, let me get to the meat (ha ha) of this post, which is my assertion that calories count in a weight loss program—even a low-carb weight-loss program. Actually, it isn’t my claim, per se; I borrowed it from a nifty little web site that, in my opinion, is perhaps the most comprehensive science-of-low-carb web sites around. It’s called Low-Carb for You. This site is fairly bursting with articles that explain in scientific detail why human beings ought to be eating a low-carb diet full-time.

I was browsing through Low Carb for You this evening, and I ran into this particular post: Calories Count. The title caught my eye, because—being a committed adherant to the low-carb lifestyle—I had always believed exactly the opposite was true: that one could eat as many calories as one wanted, provided the number of carbohydrates one ate was sufficiently restricted. This was a new twist on a subject I thought I was pretty informed about. I opened the article in my browser and began to read.

But let me digress for a moment to mention something pertinent: I had been extremely successful losing weight while working the Weight Watcher’s program, averaging about two pounds per week. Then, when I was within ten pounds of my goal, I switched horses, as it were, and embarked on the Protein Power Weight Loss Program. (To learn why I switched programs, take a look at this article, and this post, both of which, taken together, discuss my rationale). The two programs are, intrinsically, on the opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum: Weight Watchers is low-calorie, low-fat, high carbohydrate; Protein Power is higher protein, moderate-to-high fat, and, of course, low carbohydrate. Here’s the curious part: after I began eating low-carb, my weight loss rate slowed to a crawl. Some weeks it seemed as if I wasn’t losing any weight at all. It didn’t seem to matter how restrictive I was on my carbohydrate count, by the time six months had elapsed, I’d only managed to lose an average of two pounds per month.

Naturally, I was befuddled, and disappointed. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go back to Weight Watchers (for reasons I explain in my other post). I searched the web but could find no believable explanation for why someone limiting his carbohydrate intake to below “intervention” levels should not be losing weight more quickly. Some low-carb advocates I contacted offered that I was “probably gaining muscle weight,” but that didn’t explain why my body-fat percentage was still hovering out of acceptable bounds. Still others made vague observations suggesting that “limiting your calories” was a possible solution to consider, but I dismissed these as ridiculous. After all, I thought, this was low-carb, doggone it. Calories don’t count!

Well, as it turns out after reading this fascinating article, I discovered I had been right all along—but only partly. While it is true that limiting carbohydrates will lessen, often dramatically, the production of insulin—the hormone responsible for storing excess sugar and fat in the cells—that’s only half of the weight-loss equation. Shrinking the insulin response merely makes it so less fat is stored, meaning you’re not as likely to gain weight. But it has nothing to do with retrieving fat out of the cells, which is necessary for actual weight loss. For that, one must create an energy deficit in the body—i.e., expend more calories than you take in.

Calories, in fact, do count.

But before you conclude that I’ve just advocated eating a typical low-fat, low-calorie, high-carb diet, as has been prescribed for decades by the FDA, and rush off to the store to pick up some non-fat ice cream, stop to consider a couple of important ideas. First, there is a substantial body of evidence (again, take a look at my article here) indicating that the low fat, high carbohydrate diet is exactly the wrong way for us to eat—even if we are successful in losing weight. (One important reason is that a low-calorie, high-carb regimen robs the body of critically-needed lean muscle mass.) The second point to consider is this: given that weight loss from both dietary plans results from the same thing—caloric restriction, there is additional evidence showing it can actually be easier to lose weight by restricting your carbohydrates, not calories.

But wait a minute, I can hear you thinking, didn’t you just say that you needed to limit your calories to lose weight?

In fact, I did say that, and I haven’t changed that assertion.

How is this possible, you ask? The author of the Low Carb for You article explains it this way:

Typically in a low-calorie versus a low-carb scientific study, the low-calorie group is given a target number of daily calories while the low-carb group is given a target number of daily carbs. When the results are tabulated, the net caloric intake will be compared between the two groups. Rather surprisingly, the two groups will have ingested almost the same number of calories. Examples are the recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the A to Z Weight Loss Study published last year in JAMA.

He continues:

Why do low-carbers unconsciously limit calories when they count carbs? One reason is the action of the signaling hormone leptin, discussed in the previous two posts. As low-carbers become more sensitive to the signals provided by leptin, they have an improved ability to perceive satiety. Their brains detect the leptin released by their fat stores and turn off the hunger signal at a caloric level that will allow them to use some of their fat stores for energy. The study group that eats a low-calorie diet without carbohydrate restriction will have a harder time getting the satiety signal. The participants in that group will have to turn off their eating at an intellectual level. When they have eaten the allowed number of calories, they have to consciously make themselves stop eating.

Of course, it goes without saying that the weight-loss program that is easiest to stick with is likely to be the program that dieters have the most success with.

I’ll have more to say about low-carb versus the “traditional” ways of eating in future posts. Thanks for visiting, and I welcome your comments.

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