Saturday, January 14, 2006

Low-Calorie Diets Aren't Necessarily Healthy

Dr. Luigi Fontana believes reducing caloric intake is best for heart health

In the seemingly neverending debate over which method of eating and lifestyle change is best for improving your health, this Washington Post column about new study on low-calorie/portion-controlled diets only further muddies the waters about what people can and should do to lose weight, improve their heart health, and increase their energy.

As a nearly 200-pound weight loss success on a low-carb program, not only was I able to lose weight and keep it off, but my heart health is the best it has ever been and my energy levels are literally through the roof. My body fat is at just 11 percent and my LDL/HDL cholesterol ratio is nearly 1.5/1.0 (that's pretty good, by the way)! If I had known that I would feel this good just by losing weight and keeping it off, then I would have done it a long time ago. Unfortunately, most of my previous attempts to lose weight involved restrictions on my fat, calories, and portion sizes -- none of which worked particularly well for me.

Those low-calorie/portion control diets were not realistic when it came to the basic needs of someone like me who needed to lose a lot of weight: satisfy hunger, maintain energy levels, provide adequate nutrition, and enable the body to exercise. Low-carb living, on the other hand, gave me all of those benefits of an optimum weight loss diet and much, much more! While I do not believe livin' la vida low-carb is necessarily the right path for everyone, it certainly should be an option for people who have struggled in the past with reducing their caloric intake on their journey to lose weight.

But a new study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis seems to provide evidence that a very low-calorie diet can be good for your heart.

Published in the January 17, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the study released by an organization called the Caloric Restriction Society (that sounds awfully morbid, doesn't it?) shows that the hearts of 25 study participants age 41-65 who ate less calories appeared to be more elastic than those in the study who were of the same age and gender eating controlled, balanced diets. Additionally, the calorie-restricted subjects were able to relax between beats in similar ways that younger people do and had hearts comparable to people 15 years younger than them.

Take a look at the slogan that this Caloric Restriction Society uses:

Yikes! Somebody please feed these people something before their brains become as small as the amount of food they are eating in a day! "Fewer calories. More Life?" With a picture of two vastly different sized tomatoes, is that supposed to entice me to cut back on my calories? I don't think so. That's EXACTLY why the low-calorie diets failed me. My appetite was big and it's still big. Simply cutting back on your calories and portion sizes isn't going to be a successful way to lose weight permenatly.

Can you lose weight doing this? Uh, yeah. If you are only eating 1,400-2,000 calories as the study participants did, then you WILL lose weight. But who can keep that way of eating up for very long. These 25 poor people who volunteered (you would have to PAY me very well to get me to do THAT again!) had to put themselves through this torture for an average of SIX LONG YEARS! Can you imagine doing that?! EEEK! I ate a low-fat/low-calorie/portion control diet for one year in 1999 and just about went crazy despite losing 170 pounds! Within four months of getting off my low-fat/low-calorie/portion control diet, I gained it all back. It wasn't sustainable for me.

But principal study investigator Dr. Luigi Fontana concluded from his research that long-term calorie-restriction with a nutritionally balanced diet can improve the heart. He believes the low-calorie approach will help curb the rate of heart attacks, stroke, and cancer deaths in the United States. Advocating a healthy diet of less calories along with a regular exercise routine, Fontana says that calorie-restricted diets help people live longer and get stronger even as they become older.

In fact, Dr. Fontana contends eating a low-calorie/portion control diet can make the heart stronger, reduce cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, reduce risks of developing diabetes, and shrink body fat.

Taking a page from Dr. Nicholas Perricone's bestselling new weight loss book, Dr. Fontana said the markers of inflammation were much lower in the calorie-restricted group than in the control group.

"Our hypothesis is that low-grade, chronic inflammation is mediating primary aging," Dr. Fontana says. "It's not the only factor, of course -- aging is a complex process. But we found less inflammation in these people -- less TNFa, C-reactive protein and TGFb -- as well as a more flexible ventricle in their hearts."

What can you make of this study? Has it convinced YOU that simply cutting back on your calories is the way to go to lose weight and improve your heart health? It is certainly compelling based on this study alone.

But I keep coming back to what comprises a good diet Here's my criteria:

1. Will I lose weight and keep it off eating this way forever?
2. Will eating this way prevent me from being constantly hungry?
3. Am I getting an adequate amount of nutrients in my diet?

If you cannot answer YES to all three of those questions, then whatever "diet" plan you are on will not work to help you lose weight, get healthy, and stay healthy. For me, low-calorie diets are just not reasonable over the long haul and often left me so hungry and irritable that I couldn't even think straight. While I might have been eating 4 ounces of so-called "healthy" foods, I was always left begging for more and more and literally couldn't wait until the next meal. I felt so deprived that I was not satisfied with my lifestyle, despite the enormous weight loss I had accomplished.

Ever since I started the low-carb lifestyle, though, I have never run into this problem. I eat the amount of high-protein, low-carb foods that I want to eat without regard for fat grams, calories, and DEFINITELY NOT restricting my portion sizes. That's just not necessary when it comes to livin' la vida low-carb. Just watch the net carbs and let the miracle of low-carb do what it does in you.

As for your heart health on a low-carb plan, a study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health released in November 2005 found that eating more fat and less carbs resulted in better heart health than the government-indoctrinated message of low-fat/low-calorie/portion control diets. Additionally, another study from the Duke University Medical Center released in October 2005 concluded that getting 30 minutes of a moderate cardio workout daily will keep your heart strong and healthy.

While Dr. Fontana is an advocate of eating less calories and portions, I do want to recognize something he recommends that brings a smile to my face and gives me hope that there are people who understand the importance of reducing carbs in their diet.

"Caloric restriction does not mean eating half a hamburger and half a pack of French fries and drinking half of a sugary beverage," Dr. Fontana noted. "These people [eating less calories] have very good nutrition. They eliminate calories by eating nutrient-dense foods."

As do low-carbers, Dr. Fontana. While we do not necessarily count the number of calories we are eating, a recent study shows that some of the healthy foods we eat help us eat less calories than those who consume high-carb foods. I'm sure you will agree with me that making better food choices is an important factor in ANY diet plan that hopes to produce lasting weight loss and improved health.

There are many reasons why low-fat and low-calorie diets fail, but most of it has to do with the inadequate nutritional content in the foods that many people on those plans do eat. Just because a product packaging blares the words FAT FREE on them doesn't mean you could or should eat them without any regard for the sugar and carbohydrate content in them. Oftentimes, there is even MORE sugar and salt in these foods just to make them taste familiar. That's just not natural!

Dr. Fontana says people who want to lose weight and get healthy need to avoid refined and processed foods, soft drinks, desserts, white bread and other "empty"-calorie foods. AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN! That's good advice for people to follow regardless of your diet choice.

"If you change the quality of your diet by increasing the servings of nutrient-dense food and reducing -- actually, it would be better to slowly eliminate -- all of the servings of 'empty' calorie foods, you improve your chances of living a healthier and longer life," Dr. Fontana says.

I couldn't have said it better myself, Dr. Fontana!

You can e-mail Dr. Luigi Fontana regarding his study at


Blogger dogfaceboy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/15/2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger dogfaceboy said...

I have been a low-carber for many years, even owned a low-carb food store for a short while. I've read just about every book on the subject, too. Only I'm not a success story when it comes to weight loss.

Weight loss is, whether you want to believe it or not, about calorie reduction. It's just that you don't realize, when you're on Atkins, that you are restricting your calories. I'm always surprised to plug in my numbers in Fitday, on a day when I'm feeling completely satisfied, and find that I've used 1,200 calories.

Perhaps you're not eager to believe in calorie restriction (kinds of calories do count, but not to the point that you can eat more of them) because you like food. But I know lots of people out there who eat when they are hungry. And they sometimes aren't!

Sure, they're from Mars. But they're all around us, and they're the ones who have never had to go on a diet.

(Incidentally, 8-10 calories per pound is perfect for weight loss; you get 10 if you exercise, eight if you're sedentary.)

1/15/2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger Science4u1959 said...

Hi, sorry to hear that weight loss doesn't come easy for you. There are many dietary and especially metabolic factors that can make it difficult to lose weight. For example, medications are often a major obstacle.

Of course calories do count, nobody in his right mind denies that. Even on a low-carb diet it is very possible to gain weight, although it is hard to overeat as a result of the "built-in" satiety: foods whose main constituents are fats and proteins have a significantly higher satiety value than foods from starchy or sugary carbs (not to mention the resulting insulin rollercoaster).

What I personally do object against is the sacrosanct orthodox notion that all calories are the same, no matter where they come from, even in the context of the human metabolism. ("A calorie is a calorie is a calorie"). This is an established fact in a laboratory, and easily proven using a bomb-type calorimeter, but when it comes to nutritional science things work differently.

The fact is that the human metabolism is much more complex than a simple calorimeter. It is well known that calories from fat and protein are quite differently metabolized than calories from carbs.

That's why one and the same person can gain weight on a low-fat/high-carb/low-calorie diet and lose weight on a low-carb/high-fat diet with a distinctly higher caloric intake.

So yes, calories do certainly count. Are all calories equal in nutrition? Certainly not. In other words: the calorie theory, although a proven scientific fact, as applied to nutritional science is a fallacy.

But that still doesn't mean calories don't count, nor does it mean that one can mindlessly gorge on a low-carb diet. As you correctly observe, weight loss is always a result of a calorie deficit. But at the same time it is also important how one arrives at that calorie deficit and the nutritional quality of the foods consumed. Low carb obviously enables easier weight loss and maintenance due to the higher satiety value of nutrient-dense foods AND a metabolic advantage.

This, of course, as a result of the different way fats and proteins are digested than carbs. Since the majority of nutrients on a low-carb diet come from healthy fats, proteins, and carbs from high-quality sources, and not from nutritionally empty carbs like sugars, starches and white flour, the results in terms of weight loss and improvement of health are often quite dramatic.

However, metabolic resistance against weight loss is also not uncommon, especially in individuals with the sad experience of many years of yo-yo dieting, or those that sadly have to live with a plethora of medications.

In the former case, the only way to arrive at a sufficient caloric deficit is more stringent or perhaps different exercise, plus some dietary changes perhaps -- as the root cause could also be a sensitivity for certain foods.

In the latter case it is important to seek medical advice from an empathic doctor experienced in nutrition and preferably familiar with low-carb diets, so that changes to medication can be made in a controlled and safe way.

Finally, exercise is always important for weight loss and maintenance -- the benefits go much further than mere calorie-burning.

1/15/2006 11:07 AM  
Blogger Newbirth said...

The other participants in the study, if I remember right, were eating normally, which for many people is not healthy. So OF COURSE the people eating the diet were healthier. They were comparing apples and oranges and need to have both groups dieting, one with more calories.

As for the first commenter, I often eat around 1800 calories a day, not 1200. And I use FitDay, too.

1/15/2006 4:55 PM  
Blogger Logical guy said...

Although I freely admit to no experience in the topic, I think that the "calorie restricted diet" referred to is the one that is supposed to increase life expectancy by reducing oxidants. Some people manage this, and will probably have an extended life. Most others probably won't enjoy it enough to exist for a long time. See

1/16/2006 12:53 AM  
Blogger April said...

Hey there...

Love your blog! And thanks for updating it regularly!

I've been doing CR for two years, and have lost 40 pounds. After a lifetime of not having much luck losing weight, I found that focusing on optimal nutrition and lowering total calories made all the difference for me. I monitor my nutrition using Dr. Walford's Interactive Diet Planner, and I eat roughly Zone-like macronutrient ratios. I feel great, have tons of energy, NEVER get sick, and maintain a weight that is 6 pounds "underweight" for my height with basically no effort. I feel great because I get optimal nutrition while keeping my calories low. I think that so many food cravings are caused by malnutrition. Those of us who practice CR are NOT always hungry, and are not dissatisfied with our food. I tend to be hungry about three times a day -- right before breakfast, lunch and dinner! Then I eat, and I'm full! I love to cook, and I enjoy cooking even more now than pre-CR, because I get pleasure out of optimizing not just the taste of my food but also the nutritional content. I plan to live this way for the rest of my life... in fact, it is much easier than living with the extra weight, food cravings, and illnesses. It's fun to look much younger than I am, wear a bikini with pride, and go home after a long day at work to a delicious dinner that satisfies my tastebuds and my cells.

Those of us who practice CR for longevity are happy people... otherwise, why would we want to live so long? You can check out pics of me and my partner (also a hardcore CR practitioner) at our Christmas feast that was covered by MIT's Technology Review magazine here,312,p1.html.

Weight loss is hard for a lot of us, but the more attention we pay to our nutriton, the easier it becomes. I'm so glad you've found something that works for you, and I will enjoy reading your blog from now on! Your entry about Girl Scout Cookies ROCKED!!!

April CR

1/16/2006 7:11 PM  

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