Why Even Resolute Dieters Often Fail – NYTimes.com

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via NYtimes.com Why Even Resolute Dieters Often Fail

Every now and then, I fantasize that academic nutrition researchers will finally stumble across so much data that they will be forced to give up the calorie religion and simply admit that nutrition science focuses on calories because they were easy for doctors to measure in 1750 , not because they are particularly relevant to weight loss.

The New York Times, which I dearly love in part because they printed a column I wrote a while back, seemed to fulfill my fantasy today when it published a piece today called Why Even Resolute Dieters Often Fail, which included this tantalizing quote:

It turns out that a long-used rule of weight loss — reduce 3,500 calories (or burn an extra 3,500) to lose one pound of body fat — is incorrect and can ultimately doom determined dieters.

– Dr. Kevin D. Hall and his colleagues at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

To be honest, I almost hi-fived myself when I read that. I lost 100 pounds more than 10 years ago and kept it off ever since without counting calories. In fact, for the last two years, in an attempt to prove just how wrong calorie religion is, I have eaten about 4,500 calories per day, including a stick of butter. To really make the point, I stopped exercising too.

You can see the results here. Traditional nutrition “math” says I’d gain 4lbs/week from 14,000 excess calories, meaning I should weigh my current weight (200lbs) + the 416 lbs my diet should have caused me to gain in the last 2 years, for a grand total of 616 lbs. It didn’t happen.

But as I read the Lancet study on which the NY Times article was based, my fantasy was ruined.

After disproving the mantra of the 3500 kcal rule, widely cited in literature supporting low-nutrition (and calorie) diets, the investigators simply quoted nutrition scripture:

[It is a] fundamental principle of nutrition and metabolism: body weight change is associated with an imbalance between the energy content of food eaten and energy expended by the body to maintain life and perform physical work. Any successful intervention targeting obesity must tip the balance between energy intake and expenditure.

In other words, even though they just proved that calories in does not equal calories out, they failed to ask “why?” Instead, they made an easy assumption to keep from violating nutrition scripture: (bolded parts are mine)

Energy intake must have risen to keep pace with increased expenditure associated with increased weight.

Science is fun and easy when you can rely on “fundamental principles” (even though you just disproved them) and then make up data about what “must have” happened instead of measuring it. To add insult to injury, the researches then say:

We show that the bodyweight response to a change of energy intake is slow, with half times of about 1 year.

That’s easy to say when you ignore data points that don’t agree with your nutritional fundamentalism. Here are a few outlying data points that simply disprove whatever associations the researchers found:

  • I lost my first 50 lbs in 90 days more than a decade ago, without cutting calories
  • This month, a stock trader I’m coaching just lost 60 pounds in 60 days
  • Dozens of people talk about losing 10-30 lbs in 30-60 days by increasing fat calories following the Bulletproof Diet principles
  • Read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes for 500 pages more

There is a sneaky sidebar section in the study too, on page 6, that basically repeats the myth that high fat/low carb diets make you feel full, so you eat less calories. This is funny, because in the same sidebar, the study admits that “the well known difficulties of measuring food intake…prohibits adequate comparison of different diets.” Yet, based on faith, the scientists assert that the high fat low carb diets are magically also low calorie. Not true, as my experience shows.

I started to itch when I realized that this nutritious fundamentalism was being targeted towards making public policy, based on the improbable (and untrue) claim that even a few calories a day would cause obesity over longer time periods:

The average increase of energy intake needed to sustain the increased weight (the maintenance energy gap) has amounted to about 0·9 MJ per day and quantifies the public health challenge to reverse the obesity epidemic.

Enough is enough. When do we go after the tenure of academics who publish such nutritional fundamentalism-based pieces with pretty mathematical models based on associations that “must” fit preconceived, but disproven, notions?

This study didn’t account for sleep patterns, which seem to have a larger, but counter-intuitive impact on obesity than calories. When you’re awake, you burn more calories than when you’re asleep, but despite the increased “calorie burn,” when you stay awake longer, it contributes to weight gain (unless you hack your sleep properly…).

The researchers ignored mycotoxin content of the diet, even though we use those mycotoxins to “stimulate weight gain and improve feed efficiency” in cattle, which the study subjects also ate. In other words, mycotoxins make cows gain more weight per calorie of food consumed (which should be impossible if, as the study claims, “a calorie is a calorie.”) It is simply impossible to claim that calories are responsible for weight gain unless you have accounted for this known food additive (ranchers put implants of it cows we eat).

And what of temperature? Ambient environment temperatures can effect your basal metabolic rate by between 5 and 20% (1, 2, 3, 4) creating profound effects on caloric consumption, independent of activity levels. Then there’s altitude, which affects basal metabolic rate by between 6 and 28%.

Don’t you think that an up to 50% variance in caloric burn, regardless of exercise or caloric intake, would be important to know before asserting that caloric intake is the relevant variable here? I do.

Good scientists should seek out, understand, and isolate outliers (like the 60 pounds in 60 days case) and all likely variables.  To do otherwise is not only bad science, it dooms another generation of Americans to further nutritional experimentation.

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By Dave Asprey