Comparing Apples to Bacon, or When Healthy Lifestyles Become “Diets”

Calories in/out rant ahead. Be prepared.*

Good morning, friends! And Merry Belated Christmas!

I’m sorry that I haven’t been by the blog in a week…I can only hope that you haven’t either–after all, this is the time of year to be spending away from your computer screens and spending time with your friends, family, and loved ones.

It’s strange to be away from the blog for so long–or what feels like so long, anyway. I’ve been doing a ton of writing, but, unfortunately, none of it for myself. Between the writing I do at work (who knew it was possible to go 8am – 6pm without putting down a pen or moving away from the keyboard while writing about a single topic?), the writing I do for freelance projects (hooray for commuting on the train sans wifi), and the transcription I do for the Relentless Roger & The Caveman Doctor podcast (which you should immediately go download and listen to if you haven’t already….I’ll wait.

Aaaaaaand we’re back.), I haven’t actually had the time to analyze, synthesize, and write down my thoughts on any topic that truly hits home at the In My Skinny Genes blog.

But here we are…just a week away from New Year’s, and everyone’s making resolutions about weight loss, exercise, and control.

At the same time, there’s been a lot of chatter in the Paleo-blogosphere about low carb vs. calorie restriction for weight loss, and I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at what’s been going on:

As some of you may be aware, the inimitable Jimmy Moore of the Livin’ La Vida Low Carb blog and podcast as been doing a nutritional ketosis experiment. (For those of you who don’t know what nutritional ketosis is, you can read up about it over at Jimmy’s blog or at itsthesatiety/myketohaven or Peter Attia’s Eating Academy. Suffice it to say that it’s a way of forcing your body to burn ketones instead of glucose for energy by eating a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet. It has nothing to do with Dr. OZ or raspberries.)

Jimmy Moore is doing this experiment because of his health: for the past 9 years, he’s been blogging about his battle to overcome his obesity and his struggle to understand and control his nutrition and fitness so as to live an optimal life. And this nutritional ketosis experiment, which he’s doing for himself and not for anyone else (in fact, he won’t even post his meals, so it’s not like he’s proselytizing a specific diet plan to anyone else), has been a huge success in terms of helping this very insulin sensitive person fix his health. The weight loss is just a part of that.

Of course, Jimmy Moore’s success has spawned debate. He isn’t counting calories or doing high intensity exercise. He’s just eating a lot of fat–not overeating, but just eating until he’s full–and not a lot of carbs . (Like, tons of butter and avocados and coconut and meat and sour cream and all of the things that conventional medicine tells us will kill us). He has lost a ton of weight, started to change his body composition, improved nearly all of his blood markers, etc. etc., But the main thing that people seem to care about is that he’s lost weight. And if he’s lost weight doing this experiment, then perhaps, they reason, so can I. And therefore, in the Paleosphere at least, nutritional ketosis–eating fat until satiety and not counting calories–is being hailed as the next intermittent fasting.

And so those in the very low carb high fat camp have taken up the battle cry, “Calories don’t count! Eat fat!”

And, of course, Robb Wolf–who is a total fitness BAMF and one of the biggest names in Paleo–recently published a post about calorie counting vs. low carb diets. His argument was based on his own experience with very low carb eating in an attempt to change his body composition. Robb, mind you, was an already slim person with a good amount of muscle mass. This, of course, sparked a whole big debate around the blogosphere. The gist of his argument is that, while LCHF worked for a time, eventually it became difficult to support his body composition goals using that diet. (Robb, for the record, was a Crossfitter and now does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, among other gymnastic and strength protocols.) His argument is well reasoned and based on his own case study: “LC is fantastic for this in that one typically feels satisfied on high protein, moderate fat, loads of veggies. If one is insulin resistant, this approach can be nothing short of miraculous. HOWEVER! If one manages to cram enough cheese, olive oil and grass-fed butter down the pie-hole, this is in fact, a ‘mass gain’ diet.”

Robb says (and I’m quoting here, so sorry for “screaming” in caps lock), “CALORIES MATTERED MORE THAN CARBS FOR BODY-COMP.”

Do me a favor, all of you, and just keep that sentence in mind for the rest of the post.

I read another argument about the efficacy of calorie counting vs. low carb/high fat diets for weight loss over at  Weight of the Evidence. The argument there looks at Jimmy Moore’s 85% fat, ketogenic diet, and asks if it’s more useful for weight loss than calorie restricting.

The argument opens with a quote about carbohydrate recommendations made by the Atkins Diet and other prominent low carb advocates, such as Phinney and Volek (two vey prominent LCHF researchers who have published the modern day HF bibles, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance). The author uses Phinney and Volek’s own words against them in order to make the case that, in the end, calories matter most. For example: “…of course, if one eats too much fat during that low-carb diet, you’re not going to lose weight; there are differences in metabolism, but calories count in the process of eating a low-carb diet” from Steve Phinney, and “Don’t count calories, although we ask you to use common sense. In the past, some individuals made the mistake of thinking they could stuff themselves with protein and fat and still lose weight.  If the pounds are falling off, forget about calories.  But if the scale won’t budge or it seems to be taking you forever to lose, you might want to do a reality check, caloriewise” from New Atkins for a New You.

Reminder: keep Robb Wolf’s quote in mind: “Calories mattered more than carbs for body comp.”

So then “That Paleo Guy,” Jamie Scott in Australia, posted an absolutely brilliant rebuttal to pretty much everybody. His argument is that, yes, calories count. Sort of. If you eat enough of them and don’t do anything about them, then sure, you’ll gain weight. BUT the composition of those calories count just as much, if not more. If you can, go check out his absolutely brilliant currency analogy. (Summed up: Calories in and calories out is not just like putting money in checking or savings, but about what kind of currency conversions you’re doing, whether you’ve devalued the currency by flooding the market, etc. etc.)

I’m not going to go into the finer points of everyone’s articles and just rehash and rehash the same thing over and over again. Why? Because the articles are already written, and there’s no need to opine when the opinions are already well-documented…but also because I think everyone’s kind of missing the point.

And the point is this: What is the purpose of focusing on calories in/out vs. LCHF in the first place?

I want you to think about a time when you, or someone you know, started on the calories in/calories out bandwagon or started a diet or made a resolution to go to the gym. What was the reason you gave, regardless of your actual weight?

(I’d place money that the first reason, no matter what you actually meant by it, was the phrase: “to lose weight.”)

If you recall, the first time we even started worrying about calories was in that diet book, Diet and Exercise with a Key to the Calories by Lulu Hunt Peters in 1918. It was, let me reiterate, a diet book. A book about losing weight for cosmetic reasons.

It was a book that villainized body fat, not because of its health implications but because of its social implications. It was a book about losing weight.

Now, when we talk about calories in/out in the “real world” today, we use the phrase–no matter what we actually mean by it–”to lose weight.”

If we look at Oxygen Magazine and its fit sisters–Women’s Health, Self, Health, and the like, you’ll see the “lose weight/cut calories/eat less fat” message repeated over and over, with “lose weight” used as a synonym for “stay fit.” I have friends who love their fitspo and go to the gym every day and plug away at their cardio machines, because they are trying to maintain or increase their fitness. They tell me, however, that they are trying to “lose weight.” When I was 112 lbs, cutting/restricting calories, and adding an hour of cardio to my weights workouts, it was because I was trying to increase my fitness/maintain my level of leanness (or so my anorexic brain told me)…but the words I’d use to describe what I was doing was “trying to lose weight.”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

“Lose weight” does not always mean “maintain body composition/increase fitness.” That is not to say that the two can’t happen at the same time (look at Jimmy Moore: he’s losing fat and increasing muscle mass by eating LCHF and performing low intensity/heavy lifting exercises)–they’re mutually exclusive. And we’re using them as synonyms. And then making arguments based on not necessarily aligned goals.

So here’s the thing–and then I’ll shut up about the calories in/out thing for a little while–I just want you to consider this:

When you look at all of the bloggers and fitness gurus and tweets by Dr. Oz and fad diets on the Today Show and try to parse out a definitive answer to whether eating fat or burning it with exercise is going to be more efficient…it’s impossible. The problem here is that everyone has the right solution…but maybe focusing on and fighting about the solution isn’t really a solution at all and just an excuse to continue feeding a disorder.

So I think we need to stop arguing about which diet is more efficacious and look instead at why people care so much about either diet in the first place. And I think the biggest issue for me is that when people say “weight loss” they actually want “sustained weight maintenance.” Or they need sustained weight maintenance because they’re already at a healthy weight/level of fitness, but are busy chasing after a disordered, aesthetic goal.

Body composition isn’t everything. Weight maintenance is not the same thing as athletic performance OR aesthetic goals. It can be, but it isn’t always.

You have to ask yourself whether you’re living on ketones because you’re trying to improve your blood lipid profile or because you’re trying to get better at kipping pull ups or because you want to look better in your lululemon sports bra. You have to take stock of whether your diet is supporting weight loss for your health, weight maintenance for your well being, increased fitness for your sport, or aesthetic goals because you want to look like one of the skinny celebrities on the cover of Shape.

Whatever your goal, you have to be honest with yourself and others about why you’re striving for it and what your diet and exercise is actually accomplishing.

If you’re an intense exerciser, you need to eat the food that will fuel your exercise, just as if you’re a light exerciser, you might not need as much food (not calories, but food, there’s a difference thankyouverymuch) to fuel your everyday goals.

Low carb high fat is not necessarily a solution for getting a six pack (it can be but not always), but it is a solution to help you get in touch with your body’s satiety signals, to help reset your neurotransmitters, to help end cycles of snacking and bingeing. It’s not only a solution for weight loss (although it can be if you’re starting with a sad diet or processed food/carbohydrate dense diet), it’s a method for finding and maintaining homeostasis. If it is psychologically sustainable for you (i.e. you’re not looking at it as an “Atkins induction phase” and waiting for it to be over so you can eat a doughnut), then it’s just as good as spending 100 hours on the spin bike, if not better.

Calories in/calories out is a short term solution that people mistake for a long term practice that they ultimately can’t sustain. LCHF is a long term solution that people look at as a short term diet fix. Do you see the problem here?

Jimmy Moore is using nutritional ketosis to lose weight. Robb Wolf was using LCHF to increase fitness/change his body composition. Those are not the same things. Maybe they’re both in perfect health for where they need to be, but that’s not always the case. It wasn’t for me. When I ate a calorie restricted diet with moderate carbs, I could do 10 perfect dead-hang pull ups and run for an hour in the hot sun, but I was also not getting my period and at a risk for osteoporosis. And I believe that there is a large contingency of people out there who read these blogs and don’t have the insight or the self-awareness of the Jimmys and Robbs of the world–people who truly understand their own body’s needs, who both understand how to do the exercise and eat the food that works for them.

Instead, these people–my friends, my acquaintances, my coworkers, my blog readers, my strangers-I’ve-eavesdropped-on-at-Starbucks–these people honestly believe that they have to lose weight because they have to be fit, and they honestly believe that they need both of those things to be healthy. So they’ll listen to any person who can podcast their message loud enough, because they’re chasing this magical dream of “losing weight” so they can have a six pack.

So here are my last words (for now, because I’m sure I’ll end up having more to say about the subject) about calories in and calories out:

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “in shape” does not equal healthy.

Burn all the calories you want. Run yourself into the ground. Restrict your food and grow  yourself a six pack. But DO NOT mistake that for health.

Conversely, eat all the fat you want and don’t think about quantity at all. Gorge yourself on cheese and coconut and never touch a weight. Sit on your butt eating egg yolks. But DO NOT mistake that for fitness.

My unsolicited advice? Eat a diet that helps you clue into your satiety signals and eat until you’re full. Exercise enough to stay fit and healthy without turning muscle into a measure of your worth. Eat fat if it supports your goal. Eat carbs if it supports your goal. Go to the gym or do sprints or take a spin class or do crossfit, but don’t bear your exercise–or the calories you do or do not expend–like a cross. There is more to life than “losing weight,” whatever the hell that means. Find a balance, stop counting calories, and quit quibbling over the minutiae. Or at least stop trying to compare apples to bacon and just eat them instead.

- K.

P.S. I hope this rant made sense. I am writing it before the sun comes up after only about 4 hours of sleep. Just to clarify, in case my thesis got buried: It makes me sad when people sit down to eat together and spend the entire meal discussing a) how guilty they feel for not eating a salad because they don’t like the way they look, b) how they’re eating a salad because they’re trying to count calories because some doctor on TV tried to sell them a fitness tracking device and a calorie counting app, c) how they’re just going to be a “pig” and eat what they want because they’re going to gym later anyway, etc. etc. and that’s how you “lose weight.” I am sick of people conflating “weight loss” for health, and embarking on restrictive diets for aesthetic goals instead of scientifically-reasoned diets to support fitness/athletic goals. Especially when they take a way of eating, like low carb/high fat, and turn it into a weight loss miracle instead of a way of supporting physical and mental health. Does that make sense? I hope so.

*Note: Please don’t read any negativity toward Jimmy Moore or Robb Wolf into this post. I think they’re both incredible and have done SO MUCH to help thousands of people change their lives. I highly suggest following the both of them to learn as much as possible & then go and make educated choices about how you choose to live your life.