As a kid, I always seemed to have a sense of good versus evil. Without any understanding of character nuances, I could quickly pick who was a goodie and who was a baddie even if I watched a film designed for adults. Kids stuff was even easier. Take He-Man for example; without knowing anything about his motives or history, it was obvious that Skeletor was bad, and that bad needed to be stopped by good. As I grew up, not much changed. As adults, this kind of simplistic message is still all around us.
Where weight loss is concerned, there are nuances; there are peoples histories, their own personal goals and drives, and their different beginning and end points. The diet industry, however, largely paints a picture so simple that even a seven-year-old Steve wouldn’t have trouble understanding it: low-carb diets are good, and sugar is evil. Like Skeletor, we don’t need to know anything more than carbs are bad, and that to lose weight they must be eradicated for good.
This narrative plays an important part in how people perceive their diet. Once the belief that carbohydrates are the enemy is ingrained, any amount of weight loss is seen as a consequence of carb avoidance, while the negatives are glossed over or ignored. It doesn’t matter that you crave sweets, feel lethargic, or that your friends think you’re a dick when you refuse to go out for pizza; by giving up carbs, you’re fighting the good fight. In reality, despite your food choices or beliefs, your diet is only working for one reason; you’re consuming fewer calories.
If you believe that carbs are uniquely fattening, you shouldn’t feel bad. There are a whole host of people with PhDs, and fancy letters after their name ramming that message down your throat every single day. Despite their titles, they are wrong.
Not content with promoting low carb diets as the only way to lose weight, the sugar alarmists have blamed increased consumption of carbohydrate on the entire obesity epidemic. Their argument might sound legit, but a look at the actual data paints a different story. In the USA, despite the rise in obesity year after year, sugar intake topped out in 1999 and has been declining ever since.
This data is backed up by a brand new paper by Kurt and Benn Sartorius which set out to find if a high vs low carbohydrate diet is to blame for obesity. After reviewing a tonne of human studies, the authors found that “it cannot be concluded that a high-carbohydrate diet or increased percentage of total energy intake in the form of carbohydrates increases the odds of obesity”.
Despite this fact, low-carb diets are still being peddled as the only true way to lose weight. Aside from the convincing narrative and relentless anecdotes, low-carb diets have been compared to other diets a bazillion times, and the result is always the same. In the battle for weight loss, it’s calories that count.
In recent years, studies have compared low-carb diets with low-fat diets in super strict conditions. The use of so-called “metabolic wards”, where the number of calories consumed and burned can be measured with minute detail, has finally proven that weight loss is all about energy balance.
- In 2015, Hall showed that there was no difference in the amount of fat burned between low-carb and low-fat diets if the amount of calorie restriction is the same.
- The following year, Hall again showed that 4 weeks on a high-carb diet lost people just as much weight as 4 weeks on a low-carb diet if a 300 calorie deficit was maintained.
- Finally, in 2017, the same research team reviewed a huge amount of studies and found that when calories and protein are the same, there is no difference in the amount of fat lost between low-carb and low-fat diets.
I explain these facts about low-carb diets on a fairly regular basis, and it’s around this time that I usually hear “it works for me”, and it might, it just doesn’t for the reasons you think.
The following is a fairly common story: someone starts a low carb diet and loses several kilos in the first week. At some point, their adherence wains and they eat a boatload of carbs one night. The next morning they’ve gained back all of the weight they lost in the first week. Give carbs up, lose shed loads of weight, eat them again and put it all back on. This process plays into the idea that carbs are the bad guy, but something else is going on.
Carbs aren’t just burned after you eat them, they’re stored in your muscles and liver to use as fuel at a later time. As the carbs are stored, water is stored alongside them. Cut the carbs out of your diet and you will deplete these stores and a load of water along with it. What’s seen as a huge drop in fat in the first week of the diet is really just a huge loss of water. The jump upwards in weight after eating carbs again is the reverse happening. Manipulating your weight like this can happen without a gram of fat loss by changing the number of carbs in your diet.
If it helps you maintain a calorie deficit, and you are cool with limiting food choices, a low-carb diet is fine with me. The low-carb “experts”, however, aren’t telling people this. Telling someone there is only one way to lose weight is hardly an empowering message, and what’s more, it’s completely false.
You lost weight because you consumed fewer calories than you burned, not because your low carb diet was magic. If you want to get leaner while eating foods you actually like, learn to focus on energy in vs energy out and get the body of your dreams without giving up an entire food group.
Want to lose weight while still going out to eat the foods you love? Get the eat out stay lean system and never worry about eating out again.