Someone I know gave me a look at a book by a guy named Dr. Gregory Ellis, who is a Ph.D. body builder and an ex-pro footballer, and asked me to take a look at it. The book suffers from being self published and not having the helping hand of a professional editor. It is way overwritten and about three or four times as long as it needs to be (it’s about the size of the Little Rock, AR telephone directory) to make the case Dr. Ellis is trying to make.
Dr. Ellis, like many people who should know better, is a firm believer in the calorie is a calorie is a calorie theory. In fact, he is such a firm believer that it seems to have reached the point of almost being a religion to him. His book contains 26 chapters, and starting with Chapter 3 (I don’t know why he didn’t start with Chapter 1, but he didn’t) and going all the way through the rest of the 26 chapters, he puts this statement at the top of the chapter page:
Calories Count! The Energy Balance Equation is weight control’s Golden Rule: it’s Ultimate, Irrefutable, and Holy Law. Calories consumed cannot exceed those burned off without gaining weight. The myth of the “fast” and “slow” metabolism that varies widely from person to person – is just that, a myth. It’s a myth that Uncle Harry “eats everything in sight and remains slim.” It’s a myth that Aunt Alice “gains weight at the whiff of a hot muffin.” Resting metabolism depends on body size and we can predict it by a formula; we aren’t that different. And large differences in the amounts eaten only come because one person is far more physically active than another. The Law is always obeyed. It’s unbreakable. All are accountable. No one escapes; no one is above the Law. This is the First Principal, failure to learn the Law will lead you to failure in bodyweight regulation. “But,’ you say… there are no Buts! [all bold text in the original]
This same statement – word for word, bold text for bold text – is how 21 chapters out of 23 start, so it’s got to be assumed that Dr. Ellis finds this important.
(It is obvious that he is unfamiliar with or oblivious to the multitude of overfeeding studies that give the lie to this notion, but we won’t go in to that now.)
The reality is that our bodies have the capacity to deal with calories by changing the rate at which we burn them. Calories in and calories out are dependent variables, not independent variables: the one depends upon the other. Let me show you what I mean and explain why it’s often so difficult to lose weigh while dieting.
It always drives me nuts when people use a car or another piece of machinery as an analogy to the human body.
Because in a car the gasoline in/gasoline out equation (the energy balance equation for a car) works the way Dr. Ellis thinks it does in the human body. You put gas in the tank, and if you run the engine harder (exercise for the car), you burn more gas. And it can be easily calculated how much you’ll burn at a given engine speed on level ground. And it can be replicated. As the gas runs low in the tank, the car can’t help itself get better mileage to conserve.
If a car is going to be used as an analogy to the human body, we need to include the driver to make the system perform more human-body-like. We have a body and a brain – the car has a body and a brain (the driver).
A few years back MD and I were driving through the Ozarks in southwest Missouri where I grew up. We had just been to visit Hodson’s Mill, pictured above, the mill where my maternal grandfather used to take corn on mule back to be milled when he was a kid circa the turn of the 20th century.
The countryside is beautifully picturesque with loads of hardwood trees, rolling hills and large bluffs, the Ozark Mountains. We were riding in an SUV, and as we motored along, I suddenly noticed that the gas gauge was banging on empty. Then it dawned on me that it was a Sunday, and it was likely that in rural America there weren’t going to be a lot of service stations open. Especially not out where we were. And I didn’t even know exactly where we were relative to any towns because I hadn’t been paying close attention to the road signs.
I went into gas conserve mode.
As we approached hills, I timed my speed so that we would barely make it to the top, then be able to coast down and halfway up the next hill before I had to hit the gas pedal. I let my coast speed build up to way more than I felt comfortable with given the winding roads and blind curves, all the while trying to ignore MD’s sharp intakes of breath, her legs and feet pushed against the floorboard braced for collision, and her death grip on the handhold.
Even though I was driving a gas-guzzling SUV, I’ll bet I milked 40 miles to the gallon out of that sucker until we finally found an open service station, and the day was saved.
Once we were filled up, and I was back at the wheel driving normally, we probably dropped back down to the 18 mpg range.
If I’m running late and in a hurry, I get a lot less gas mileage than normal. I race up to stoplights, slam on the breaks, floor the accelerator when the light changes – all activities that minimize gas mileage, but get me wherever I’m going a little sooner.
In both of the cases described above, it’s the car/driver combo that makes the difference. It’s the same with our bodies. Numerous overfeeding studies have shown that when weight-stable people are overfed huge numbers of calories over varying periods of time, their body weights change minimally, at best, just a fraction of what would be estimated based on their increased caloric intake. Why?
Because their body/brain combination is performing much like my driver/car example when I’m trying to get somewhere in a hurry. I waste gas in exchange for speed; these overfeeding subjects waste calories in exchange for stable body weight.
Underfeeding or starvation studies show just the opposite. When people are fed calorically-restricted diets, they go into kind of a metabolic slow down process to conserve fuel just as I did with the vehicle when we were running out of gas. These calorically-restricted subjects become lethargic – they move less and they sleep more. Their reduced calories in induces their bodies to reduce the calories going out.
This phenomenon is called adaptive thermogenesis, which is defined as increase or decrease in energy expenditure in response to overfeeding or underfeeding (or even temperature change).
Adaptive thermogenesis is the reason that my friend from Down Under, who is so taken with his metabolic ward studies showing no difference in weight loss irrespective of dietary macronutrient composition, doesn’t understand or believe in the metabolic advantage. In his book he has assembled a number of studies done in metabolic wards (sort of; but that’s a topic for another post) showing that subjects fed primarily fat or primarily protein or primarily carbohydrate all lose the same amount of weight. These papers show that it doesn’t really matter what the protein/fat/carbohydrate composition of these restricted diets are, the subjects all lose the same amount of weight. Which to our friend, who hasn’t really bothered to think it all through, proves that dietary composition doesn’t matter. He, like Dr. Gregory Ellis, believes it is simply a matter of calories, not macronutrient composition. And most of the studies he lists seem to corroborate his belief. But there is a problem. A big one.
Virtually all of these studies are ones in which the subjects are severely restricted in calories. In some the caloric restriction is so great (500 kcal total intake per day) as to be truly starvation diets. When the body is severely calorically restricted, it uses every scrap of food that comes in. It burns protein; it burns fat; and it burns carbs. And it burns them efficiently. During starvation it doesn’t matter what the composition is, the body simply consumes the calories. And, under those circumstances, it makes perfect sense that there would be no difference in weight loss regardless of what the ratio of macronutrients happens to be.
As the caloric intake increases, a point is finally reached at which the body can afford to be a little more discriminating as to what it does with the calories coming in, and at that point the macronutrient composition begins to matter. As the caloric intake increases, as it does in the overfeeding studies, there comes a time at which the body again doesn’t particularly care what the macronutrient composition is – there is simply too much of everything, and so the body blows it all off.
In between these two points, in the caloric range where most of us operate most of the time, macronutrient composition does matter. In fact, in our friend’s book, he actually lists a couple of studies in which there does appear to be a metabolic advantage.
And guess what?
Those are studies in which the caloric intake is up more in the range one would expect while dieting, not starving. And those studies do indeed show that a low-carb diet brings about more weight loss than an equal number of calories given as a high carb diet. These studies were done in Germany under metabolic ward conditions by a researcher named Udo Rabast.
Dr. Rabast did the studies mentioned in this book plus a few that weren’t mentioned because, although they were done under metabolic ward conditions, they didn’t fit the selection criteria of our friend, i.e., they didn’t show what he wanted them to show to substantiate his argument.
The Rabast studies do indeed show a fairly robust metabolic advantage to the low-carb diet. The two studies that were mentioned were sort of included in the book chapter as oddities, I suppose. So how did our friend deal with these studies. He blew them off. He simply stated that since all the other studies he presented don’t show a metabolic advantage, then these have to be aberrations and should be ignored.
Don’t believe me? Here he is in his own words:
Regardless of whether Rabast el al’s findings were the result of water loss from glycogen depletion, pure chance, or some other unidentified factor, they should be regarded for what they are: An anomaly that has never been replicated by any other group of researchers. For a research finding to be considered valid, it must be consistently reproducible when tested by other researchers. As proof of the alleged weight-loss advantage of low-carbohydrate diets, the findings by Rabast and colleagues fail dismally on this key requirement.
Could the “some other unidentified factor” possibly be a metabolic advantage? Methinks so.
There is another study in his list showing a large metabolic advantage that he totally misinterprets, but we’ll leave that one for another day. I want to write on it in more detail because it shows all the problems inherent in these kinds of studies. And in the interpretation of them by people with little experience and/or an axe to grind.
Following a low-carbohydrate diet that is in the calorie range where the metabolic advantage exists makes one able to lose weight without the weight-retaining effects of adaptive thermogenesis kicking in. You can, so to speak, have your cake and eat it too. The body is getting enough calories to keep it from going into starvation mode yet the macronutrient composition of the diet leads to enough of a caloric deficit to ensure weight loss. The best of all worlds.
The phenomenon of adaptive thermogenesis is getting a lot of play currently in the scientific literature. There are a number of researchers who feel that certain factors have changed in our environment making it more difficult for us to lose weight once we’ve gained it. And making it easier to gain in the first place.
I’ll address these factors in a later post and show how you can overcome them.
Photo at top of Hodgson Mill, near Gainesville, MO. Built in 1884 Photo by Hemant