I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t be a dumbbell, Adam. Of course, both the quantity and quality of calories matter. Everyone knows that.”
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
Follow the perverse reasoning of the Calorie Wizards at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and logic will compel you to conclude that, at least in terms of obesity, the only relevant factor is calorie quantity.
I invite you to download my free report, Caloriegate, which pulls back the curtain on the Calorie Wizards’ dastardly wizardry. But the basic point of my argument – and the argument of other “calorie haters” out there, like Gary Taubes – is that things are more complicated than meets the eye.
When you are talking about losing excess fat, you are talking about fixing/maintaining an organ. That’s right: the fat tissue is an organ! Just like the spleen, the skin, your lungs, and your gallbladder. The Calorie Wizards tell us that the key to health of this organ is to “balance” our calories. If calorie “quality” matters, it does only insofar as certain foods satiate us more or less or cause us to “burn more or less energy.” By this reckoning, on some level, 500 calories of olive oil equal 500 calories of cream equal 500 calories of lettuce, at least in terms of what they do to our fat tissue (an organ!!).
Really?? Come. On.
“But wait, Adam!” I hear you protest, “Different diets can work, as long as they are calorie restricted. Therefore, at the end of the day, quantity IS what really matters!”
Ah-ha, my friend. You raise an intriguing point.
A well-known Paleolithic-diet blogger, Stephan Guyenet, recently made a similar argument in a series of blog posts on “Food Reward” that ignited much spirited discussion on the blogosphere.
Guyenet pointed to studies that suggest that diets of all stripes — low fat, vegan, low carb, paleo, etc — might ALL work, as long as they’re calorie restricted. Here’s what he said:
“So here we have four diets that are diametrically opposed to one another. On one hand, we have low fat versus low carbohydrate diets, on the other, we have vegan versus high meat diets. All four causes spontaneous decrease in calorie intake in overweight people, all four cause fat loss, and all four improve metabolic markers in overweight people with diabetes risk factors.”
Very interesting, isn’t it?
It seems to all boil down to calories, after all!
So does this line of thinking “refute” the Black Box model and confirm the unspoken, conventional assumption that “calorie quality” is essentially meaningless?
No. Because we must look deeper into the problem.
Gary Taubes wrote about this same issue in a December 2010 blog post. Here’s what he had to say on the subject:
Virtually any diet that significantly restricts the number of calories consumed, even a diet that is described as low-fat (because the subjects are instructed to reduce the proportion of fat calories they consume), will cut the total amount of carbohydrate calories consumed as well. This is just simple arithmetic. If we cut all the calories we consume by half, for instance, then we’re cutting the carbohydrates by half, too. And because these typically constitute the largest proportion of calories in our diet to begin with, these will see the greatest absolute reduction. If we preferentially try to cut fat calories, we’ll find it exceedingly difficult to cut more than 400 or 500 calories a day by reducing fat — depending on how much fat we were eating to begin with — and so we’ll have to eat fewer carbohydrates as well.
Put simply, low-fat diets that also cut significant calories will cut carbohydrates significantly as well, and often by more than they cut fat.
In other words, per Taubes, when people lose fat/improve health on a diet, it’s not because they’re limiting calories or fat but rather because they’re improving the quality and/or reducing the quantity of their carbohydrates.
So is Guyenet right? Is Taubes? Are they both right? Neither right?
Here’s My Take
First of all, don’t let your brain explode. Don’t mindlessly go down this logical rabbit hole:
1. The ABC diet (which happens to restrict calories) works!
2. Therefore, it must work because it’s a low calorie diet (not because of the quality of the “ABC” food).
3. Therefore, only calorie quantity “counts” and quality only matters in terms of satiation or energy burning. The Calorie Wizards were right, after all. Ha-ha! Take that, Adam!
Please tell me you can see the insipidness of the “logic” I just walked you through.
Again (how many times must this be said?) the fat tissue is an organ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The forces that can destroy, fix, and maintain our organs are enormously complex. A tremendous amount of “stuff” is involved. Stuff that involves conscious choice, the brain and behavior. Stuff that involves unconscious mechanisms, like hormones and enzymes. And beyond.
It’s a big hairy mess.
I want to bring this all home for you with a powerful thought experiment. Look at all the different diets we’ve discussed: low fat, vegan, low carb, paleo, etc. Notice any patterns?
All these “low calorie” diets are also “low sugar” diets! Specifically, low liquid sugar diets. (Some people, including Taubes, think the liquid sugars are the worst for you.)
Even Mark Haub, on his famous junk food diet, did not guzzle gallons of Mountain Dew a day.
So if you really want to make the argument that calorie quantity is the ONLY relevant factor — to falsify the Taubesian claim — there’s an easy experiment you can do.
Put people on a low calorie, high liquid sugar diet. Don’t compare low carb to vegan, because both are relatively low sugar diets. Instead, compare low carb or low fat or any “standard” diet with an iso-caloric equivalent high liquid sugar diet. Call it The Mountain Dew Diet.
If people on a low calorie Mountain Dew diet demonstrate sustained fat loss and improved metabolic markers, then I will concede the point that calorie quality is irrelevant.
I leave this experiment to the Calorie Wizards and their supporters!