Caloriegate: What if overeating doesn’t make you fat and the “Eat Less Move More” message is wrong?

Calories don’t “count” in the way everyone thinks they do. This changes everything

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Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution Is Getting Routed. How Do We Fight Back?

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It’s been 40 years since the late, great Robert Atkins pulished his famous treatise on the near magical efficacy of low carbohydrate diets. Dr. Atkins foresaw a glorious revolution based on his low carb approach. If only enough people understood and believed his message, the human race could liberate itself from the plagues of obesity and chronic disease.

Atkins was, essentially, right. The low carb approach works. Good science supported it and still does. Likewise, the stories of millions of successful Atkins dieters should not be ignored. Atkins and diets like Atkins have helped countless folks who failed miserably on more culturally normal diets, like low fat and low calorie.

But it’s been 40 years! If low carb is so damn effective, why aren’t we ALL low carbers?

Look around. We’re losing the war.

  • Atkins is grounded in evolutionary theory. But the Paleo diet — the concept that we should eat what we evolved to eat for 99.9% of our evolutionary history — gets dismissed as a “fad diet” by the medical and journalistic communities. (What??)
  • We’ve tried exposing the bad science that critics use to bash low carb.
  • We’ve tried surfacing and promoting good science that supports low carb.
  • We’ve tried blogging, writing editorials, debating, dreaming up colorful metaphors, signing petitions, and more. We’ve done everything but march on Washington. And I doubt even THAT would make much of a dent.

Why? Why are we losing the war?

What we need are not new strategies or tactics. As the inimitable Will Rogers once said: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Well, guess what? We’re in a hole. So let’s put down the shovel for a second and just think.

I assert that we’re losing because of the way the obesity debate has been framed. The rules of the Diet Wars are stacked against low carb/paleo, permanently.

Our problem isn’t our science. It’s our marketing!

To succeed in the grand debate, we need to shift how the basic problem of obesity is framed. Any marketing guru will tell you that. (See here, here, here, and here, e.g.)

That’s what I’m trying to do with this Black Box concept — the raison d’etre of my blog. Once people accept that the Black Box, not calories, “counts,” they will need to fall back on SOMETHING. And that “something” must include:

  • Good science (which leads to low carb diet);
  • Our evolutionary predispositions (which leads to the paleo diet concept).

We need the Black Box, or something like it, to change the frame.

It’s time for the low carb/paleo world to close ranks behind the Black Box (or something like it). We can still debate the merits (or lack thereof) of the carbs/insulin hypothesis, “safe” starches, food reward, omega 6s, the special poisonousness of wheat, etc etc. All good. But if we want to WIN, then we MUST remove the Calories Count mentality. It is the final redoubt of our enemies, who use it as a cudgel to dismiss our science and our stories.

We will never be free while the Calorie Wizards have us under their spell. So I implore you: join the Black Box revolution, and let’s finish the job Dr. Atkins started for us.

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19 Responses to Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution Is Getting Routed. How Do We Fight Back?

  1. John says:

    I dispute your identification of the emperor. I believe the NHLBI’s ATP is the emperor and the USDA nutrition panel is the black helmet dude. Everything falls back to heart disease: we can’t recommend fat because it kills us. Tear down that barrier, and Darth has no defense.

    I’m not sure a social media effort will ever do much. Gry Taubes’ current attempt to sign up expertise for a NYT letter to the editor is a more forceful and credible approach. But I think it will take even more, maybe even a direct legal challenge.

    There’s some huge, scary warships backing these established ideas. We have millions and millions of acres of grainland, hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, hundreds of bllions of dollars of investment in established food processing facilities, millions of jobs in food processing and food distribution, and we have too many people to feed. The overriding government policy is to provide a cheap and plentiful food supply. They will not put food supply at risk. Yes, the emperor does have a higher power.

    • Adam K says:

      Thanks John. My friend and fellow LC-er Zach said the same thing: it’s all about the heart disease because people fear fat so much. There’s something to that.

      You’re also spot on about the huge, scary warships. There’s no way we’re going to outgun them. And the very structure of our society is set up in a way that makes it seemingly impossible for us to win.

      But we gotta try something different. :)

      There are lots of strategies and tactics we can deploy. For instance, instead of trying to convince the health establishment to change its ways (not likely!), let’s end the practice of “attacking walled cities” and aim our efforts elsewhere. Softer targets. More intrinsically receptive audiences. For instance, connect with the libertarian crowd, which is already prone to suspicion about government intrusion in our lives. There’s an Achilles Heel somewhere — we just need to probe to find it!

    • Travis Koger says:

      I agree with your food supply point. So what about that food supply of grains and other plant based products that currently enjoy large subsidies, become a fuel supply for cars and other engine based products instead. This would mean that no one would lose on the shift in industry consumers and as everyone knows, it would make a perfect renewable resource. Consider if companies such as BP or Shell etc become agricultural behemoths rather than mining/drilling? ;)

      • Adam K says:

        Brilliant. Thinking like this is going to get us out of the mess.

        How can all vested parties in the obesity debate WIN? By all, that includes corn syrup manufacturers, Big Food, Big Pharma, etc. By reframing our problems to look for win-wins, we might find allies in very strange places…

  2. Nads says:

    I don’t think we are fighting a losing battle at all. So many people I know have just started LCHF (low carb high fat) or no-sugar eating. Most have been encouraged by me :) I’ve got about 20 or more at the moment (handy time, after the new year).

    Anyway, I think it’s taking off. It sure is in the Scandinavian countries. Soon we’ll see trends of lowered heart disease in Sweden.

    Surely so many more scientific studies are being done right now!!!??? Ones that actually ask the questions that are relevant, instead of just assuming “facts”. Surely the days are numbered of the Heart Foundations and their stick-in-the-mud ideas?? Surely those who have tried the low carb way of eating will prove to their doctors that this thing does work and they will have cholesterol tests to show it!!

    Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Adam K says:

      Thanks Nads! Appreciate the encouragement.

      Glad to hear about your successes. 20 people is no small number. I hope they appreciate what you’ve given them by introducing them to LCHF.

      The Sweden trend is heartening (so to speak). People on the front lines, like Dr Andreas Eenfeldt, may indeed be turning the tide.

      From my own experience, I’ve found that getting doctors to listen — even to cold hard #s — can be quite difficult. Even after my HDL bounced up to 110 and my triglyerides plummeted, my doctor still voiced “concern” about all the saturated fat I was eating. Come on, doc!

      We’re going to get there though. We’ve got to experiment, see what works. Clearly, you’ve been doing something right, in terms of spreading the message. If other LCHF-ers can learn from people like you, then we’ll be in business.

  3. Nads says:

    Facebook, and forums, are amazing things. They can start revolutions alright, and they have! Didn’t they just recently in the middle east? Or was that sms? Not sure.

    Anyway, it’s really good that people have a few different approaches to try eg Atkins, LCHF, Paleo, Primal, though it does fragment us somewhat.

    I’d really love to go on that low carb cruise. Unfortunately I’m in Australia :(

    Has anyone else found that finding out the rubbish they made us believe about fats and cholesterol and losing weight being untrue has made them a skeptic and conspiracy theorist about a lot of different things? Like Vitamin D and sunshine exposure for example. In Australia we’ve had it rammed down out throats never to go out in the sun without full clothing protection, hats, sunscreen etc. But hell, now I find that most people are vitamin D deficient, particularly obese people. OMG, just stop telling us what’s good for us!!!! Bloody governments. And I work for a government health agency on the front line. I hate seeing all my patients on statins. Perhaps that’s why they are my patients? If they weren’t on the statins they may not need my help!

    It is frustrating. I could feel your frustration in your blog. Hang in there. We will get there, and meanwhile, we are healthy!

    • Adam K says:

      True true. Important to count our blessings. The revolution is, indeed, blossoming online. We’re going to win this thing, eventually. And when the tide turns, it’s going to turn fast.

      It is quite amazing, when you survey it — the depth and vastness of the bad information out there. It does tempt one to jump on the bandwagon of all sorts of other conspiracies. But that is a temptation to be resisted! Just because we’ve been mislead on fats, cholesterol, carbs, calories, sunshine/vitamin D, and who knows what else doesn’t mean we should mindlessly consume all contrarian positions. It’s a difficult balance, especially since we have to eat SOMETHING.

      I believe it’s important to create a rallying point. Something that the whole low carb/paleo movement (and, ideally, beyond) can get behind. The fragmentation is the problem because it blurs the message. How do we simplify without oversimplifying? Tricky stuff.

      Keep up the good work, and hope you’re enjoying the summer down there. (Or, to take the contrarian position, UP there!)

  4. Nads says:

    Yes, that’s so true about not jumping on the bandwagon of all anti-establishment things, particularly in the food sphere. When authors I know have done that it makes me think they are just against everything, and dilutes the important message.

    Summer! It’s come today. 37 degrees, that’s body temperature, so above 98 in your language.

    I’m off to read your Caloriegate download. And make some San Choy Bow for dinner.

    • Adam K says:

      sounds yummy. off to bed here in L.A.

      hope you enjoy. Please feel free to share your comments, thoughts, criticisms, what have you. This project is a work in progress!

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  7. Eric says:

    I am sure you have all heard of the Pareto principle. Well, the 20% of us who seek the knowledge are finding and using the truth to our benefit. We may never be able to get the 80% to see the light.

  8. Phil says:

    Change takes time. Specially when it goes against common beliefs. Look at Galileo for example; when he said the Earth revolved around the sun. He was tried for heresy, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Now days we laugh at ideas like that, and these, the earth is flat, man can’t fly, we’ll never run a mile in less than 4 minutes, and others.

    Yes, the Atkins diet is about 40 years old, but it’s only been in the last few years that the newer (and older) science is making it’s way to the general population (and some doctors). Thanks in large part to Gary Taubes. As new books and documentaries come out that are based on this newer science, they will convert a few people, and those people will convert a few people, and so on, and so on. After a few generations, this whole conversation will seem silly.

    It’s a sloooowwww process, and all we can do is refer people to good books, videos, and websites. I’ve found that the documentary, Fat Head, is a good primer to make people want to learn more. The nice thing is you can watch it for free on Hulu.com, or imdb.com. A couple of other good videos you can find online are; The Big Fat Fiasco, and Science For Smart People, by Tom Naughton. The Oiling of America, by Mary G. Enig and Sally Fallon.

    It cracks me up when I hear someone say they tried the Atkins diet, lost weight, went back to their old way of eating, gained it all back plus more. Then they say Atkins didn’t work for them. Hmmm, the problem with common sense…it’s not very common.

    • Adam K says:

      Thanks for the comment, Phil. Agreed. It is a slowwwwwww process. Frustratingly so, at times. It’s really interesting to be present at a moment like this. In 20 or 50 years or whenever, when Atkins has more or less triumphed (as it inevitably will), people will look back on our era, dumbfounded. How could so many smart people get such a simple thing wrong?

  9. Carl says:

    I’ve had some success with low carb dieting. For 15 years, I tried the portion controlled balanced diet with little success. Finally started restricting carbs (the usual suspects – sugar, wheat based products, corn meal based products, potatoes, rice). I lost 45 lbs, and it seemed like a miracle. I didn’t count calories, or even have to try too hard, the pounds just melted off.

    The only problem was that I wanted to lose 55-60 lbs. For some reason, the effortless weight loss stopped with me about 10-15 lbs short of my goal. My % body fat is OK, but not great (23-25%), so I clearly have room to go. I’m still 15 lbs heavier than what I weighed in my late 20′s. I didn’t change the way I was eating, it was/am still low carb – the miracle just ran out of steam.

    I did try very low carb – you know, the bratwurst and lettuce diet. I felt like crap, listless, and in a brain fog much of the time. I know, it is supposed to pass. BUT I felt like crap AND I didn’t lose any more weight, so I lost interest in that approach.

    So I am now inclined to believe that there may be more to this than just never eating carbs, that at some point, you do have to worry about calories, to get to a certain degree of leaness.

    From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to gain weight when food is plentiful is a survival trait. It is necessary to stay alive in circumstances where food isn’t always plentiful and readily available, i.e., nature. Now the claim is that a low carb diet is what we are meant to eat in a evolutionary sense. So why wouldn’t we be able to gain weight (add fat) on the food that humans normally ate for thousands of generations? Why would that survival trait, the ability to store energy in the form of fat by overeating, only work for the kinds of foods that we didn’t encounter very often (carbs)? I’ve never seen that question addressed in the paleo literature.

    • Adam K says:

      Hi Carl, thanks for your comments. Your experience sounds very interesting, and I bet it’s not an uncommon one! In terms of the whole “at some point you do have to worry about calories” argument… my thought is: maybe. The quantity of food we eat, irrespective of what that food does to our fat tissue, hormonally and enzymatically, COULD matter, theoretically.

      But I’d be willing to bet on something else.

      Insulin may be the 800 pound gorilla of fat tissue regulation, but it’s not the only hormone that could matter. Others could include cortisol, testosterone, etc. Also, “stuff” beyond carbs can influence insulin (and the other relevant hormones/enzymes). This “stuff” can range from medications to artificial sweeteners to the time of the year to who-knows-what. And that’s just the insulin part. THEN you need to consider arguments like those proposed by Peter at Hyperlipid. The theory there, from what I can tell, is that the mitochondria of people who’ve become obese can lose functionality. If that’s true, then shifting around diet/exercise composition (what you eat, how much you eat, what you do for exercise, how much you do it, etc) might not ever get you 100% results, since the problem is situated in these broken mitochondria in your cells.

      in summary: I agree that there may be more to this than just never eating carbs. much more! The question then becomes: to what extent is insulin really the 800 pound gorilla? What is step 2, after you’ve perfected your diet (by means of low carb, paleo, or whatever)? These are hugely important questions. Answers certainly vary from person to person. And I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the science is inconclusive.

      In terms of your evolutionary question… it’s an incisive one. Here’s my thinking, for what it’s worth. We are all trapped in this idea that obesity is a disorder of energy balance. So we tend to think up questions like “hmm. why might the body store “too much” energy?” And our thinking flows downhill from there. We then focus on overeating, thrifty genes, psychological mechanisms, leptin, etc.

      But I believe this is the wrong frame. Viewed from the proper frame (what I believe is the proper frame), questions about energy storage don’t come into play. Think of obese fat tissue as like cancer — it’s tissue growing out of control. If someone has a huge tumor growing, they must eat more to make that tumor. but the “overeating” is besides the point. The problem is that this specific tissue is growing out of control. Obesity is very much like cancer, when you view it through the frame that I’m suggesting is correct.

      The best way I can summarize it is like this: obesity is not a problem of YOU overeating… it’s a problem of your FAT CELLS overeating. The distinction is hugely important. You can literally starve but remain obese, just as you can starve a cancer patient, even as his tumor continues to grow. Once you conceptualize obesity like this, questions to the effect of “why might XYZ bad foods cause me to store excess energy” cease to be meaningful. Instead, you’re forced to reckon with more effective questions, such as “why might XYZ bad foods make certain tissues in my body SICK (i.e. grow too much, not enough, etc)”

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