Can You Actually Get Fatter On A Low-Carb Diet?
We all know low-carb is great for weight loss, but can you gain?
When people first start livin' la vida low-carb and come to me with all their wide-eyed inquisitive questions about this and that regarding this truly amazing lifestyle change, I am always happy to share from my own experiences eating this way for the past four years as well as asking some of my low-carb expert friends who are studying, researching, and working daily within the scientific community into why and how the low-carb diet works so well to help people lose weight and improve their health.
One question I received from a reader in the Netherlands has been partially addressed before in a previous blog post. Longtime readers may recall in December 2006 I wrote a blog post entitled "Can Low-Carb Evolve Into Making You Fat?" It was about a ridiculous study done on caterpillars fed a high-protein/low-carb diet that claimed that their metabolism actually changed over time to begin storing the few carbohydrates they did eat into fat. Preposterous to say the least and many of my low-carb expert friends agreed.
But what if it was possible that livin' la vida low-carb could actually make you fatter somehow? It this even within the realm of possibility? That's what my reader wanted to know when he sent me the following e-mail:
I've been reading all the low-carb/high-fat diet books including Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes and I'm following all the major low-carb blogs, too. Of course, I am applying what I've learned and started with The TNT diet from Dr. Jeff Volek and Adam Campbell ever since late October 2007. So far, I have lost 9 kilograms in 3 months and 10 centimeters from my waist. However, ever since I hit that weight of 87 kg, I have been stuck there. So, I have a question for you:
Is it possible for you to actually get fatter on a very low carb diet?
I am like you--I really can't tolerate more than 50 grams of carbs a day. So I only eat avocados for my fruit and I eat the right kind of vegetables. For the rest I eat all kinds of fatty fish (herring, salmon, sardines) as well as beef and pork. I also like sugar-free whipped cream and sometimes I eat mixed natural nuts. I think that's 50-60% fat and the rest is protein with the vegetables. I also take a good multivitamin, fish oil, and potassium.
So I'll ask it again: Is it possible to store fat with such a diet? I measure myself every now and then and my waist size can fluctuate from 84 cm to 89 cm. That's happened a lot lately. I travel a lot visiting clients and I only eat nuts with some cranberries. But that has resulted in the extra centimeters.
Can you eat too many calories on low-carb? As far as I can tell, I never eat much more than 2500 calories (most of the time it's more like 2100) and I am 6'2" and weigh 87 kilograms. For exercise, I run three times a week for an hour.
As I understand it, Gary Taubes says being overweight is NOT caused by eating too many calories, but is caused by too much insulin released in the body from eating too many carbs. So why am I getting fatter?
WOW, what a loaded question and one that is certainly worth taking up as an important topic again here at my blog. I've addressed this sensitive subject of weight gain while on low-carb before and I even talked this week about how my weight has gone up by about 30 pounds ever since I started weight lifting in December 2007 (thanks to everyone who has offered their various opinions about this, by the way! I really appreciate it!). But can you REALLY get fatter on a low-carb diet? Is it metabolically possible to gain weight while eating this way?
To answer this question, I asked one of the most knowledgeable and highly-respected low-carb scientists of our day Dr. Richard Feinman from SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, New York and Co-Editor-In-Chief of Nutrition & Metabolism to answer my reader's question. Here's what Dr. Feinman wrote:
Gary Taubes' position is an exaggeration. The way we describe it to medical students is that insulin (via carbohydrate) is like the handle on a faucet. The handle regulates the flow from dietary fat into stored fat. If you turn down the handle, the flow is drastically reduced but if you supply enough fluid pressure from the reservoir, you will increase the rate through the faucet--it's not a perfect analogy but you get the idea.
Remember that there is always insulin--whereas insulin turns off production of glucagon (the hormone that signals low glucose). And glucagon turns on insulin production. For many people--my guess is probably half the male population--keeping carbs low makes it very hard to overpower the inhibition in the fat storage mechanism but for some people the level of total calories that is required to continue to lose weight may be very low indeed.
The impact of the ideas behind Livin' La Vida Low-Carb is that fat plays a passive role and that its disposition (storage or oxidation) is controlled by insulin and other hormones which are control elements--it does not mean, however, that fat is not important. You can overpower a low carb diet and, depending on your age, 2500 calories may be a limit on weight loss.
On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, the real advantage of Livin' La Vida Low-Carb is that you don't have to think about food all the time and maintaining your weight is actually a real accomplishment. There are some tricks that may help--I have observed anecdotally and Dr. Mike Eades (from Protein Power) saw this regularly in his clinic that the three things that look okay on a low carb diet but may actually be trouble are cheese, nuts, and peanut butter. But if you are living in the Netherlands, giving up gerijpte Gouda (is that the right term?) might be a major sacrifice.
Hope this helps,
Richard D. Feinman
THANK YOU Dr. Feinman for that explanation. I appreciate the fact that you acknowledge for about half of us, watching calories may be necessary while restricting carbs may be necessary to lose and/or maintain weight loss. I've never personally counted calories while on the Atkins diet, but I know many of my readers who have to if they want to see success on their low-carb lifestyle. It's also important that you stated that "fat plays a passive role" in your diet and that eat too much of it can pile on the calories for those who need to be mindful of their total caloric intake. Outstanding information!
At the same time, your belief that eating low-carb makes it so you don't have to think about food is dead on the money. Listing those three culprit carb foods--cheese, nuts, and peanut butter--is gonna help so many people (myself included!) improve their low-carb weight maintenance plan immensely. Although I don't eat peanut butter (not the ones that are loaded with sugar, though), I have consumed my fair share of cheese and nuts. Perhaps it's time for me to cut back on these things. :)
The response provided by Dr. Feinman was very much appreciated by my reader who answered back with his gratitude about his inquisitive question:
Thanks Dr. Feinman,
In my case, I guess it's nuts and cheese (I don't eat peanut butter) because I observed that especially when I ate many nuts and also in the case of a lot of cheese I immediately stored fat around my waist. But I thought all the time: "This can't be true, because fat doesn't trigger insulin, so why am I getting fatter anyway and I read in many low-carb books that the amount of calories don't matter."
At the beginning of my low-carb lifestyle in the first few months, I really could eat all the fat I wanted. But ever since January 2008, I suddenly noticed a big difference: I was gaining fat/weight with exactly the same diet as the three months before and in those months I had lost weight!? So that was the riddle: how can one first lose fat/weight and after 3 months start gaining fat/weight with the same diet?
I love to eat and a lot of it and again that was no problem the first 3 months of Livin' La Vida Low-Carb (what a sensation: eating a lot and losing fat!). But what a disappointment that suddenly I had to watch the amount of calories and now I am convinced it's the nuts and cheese. So that's how one can be blinded by an idea. And although I saw the difference, I just couldn't believe it, because all the books say you can eat all what you want as long it is fat and some protein and vegetables.
So thanks a lot, and yes some cheese we call "gerijpt" but that's a bit old. I prefer the younger cheese, because it's fattier. Thanks Jimmy, I appreciate your help with this a lot. You once wrote in your blog that you reply to all e-mails and indeed you do!
It's my pleasure, my friend. THANK YOU for your question and I hope Dr. Feinman's advice helps you tweak your diet so you start losing again. Remember, even if you aren't losing weight while livin' la vida low-carb, the improvements you are making to your health are just as if not more important in the grand scheme of things. DON'T GIVE UP HOPE! You're doing fantastic and are well on your way to some awesome accomplishments in your life. I'm proud of you!
Do you have a question about the low-carb lifestyle that's been bugging you? Never hesitate to e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I don't know the answer, I've got a lot of people who support the work I do here who are more than happy to help. By the way, I'll be meeting Dr. Feinman at that obesity conference in Phoenix, Arizona next weekend, so I hope to interview him for my podcast show. He's one truly remarkable man with a depth of knowledge as deep as anyone else when it comes to the subject of low-carb diets.