In 2010, a self study by a professor at Kansas State University caught a lot of national media
attention. He put himself on a convenience store diet of candy, nutty bars, sugary cereals, and
Oreos, but reduced his caloric intake to 1800 calories a day. He lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks!
The news headlines had a heyday with his results. The consensus boiled down to calories. Even
junk food, if kept within calorie guidelines, can make you slim!
It’s a good thing this diet was only a temporary experiment for the professor. The professor
may have been able to use oodles of portion control for the experiment and eat only tiny candy
meals so as not to exceed his calorie limit, but who could do that long term? We were created
to eat! The eating experience is as much a part of living as breathing. The natural cycle is to eat,
become satisfied, take a break—then eat to get satisfied again. There’s no getting past it. We
are wired to get satisfied from food, and a few gummy bears and half a Twinkie is not going to do that long term. We’ll talk later about how calories fit into the picture and if we should pay
them any heed at all. But we’ll warn you now that the approach of pulling them back to a small
number day after day is the gateway into yoyo dieting disaster. There is a smarter approach to
the calorie debate and dilemma.
You can bet this professor would end up giving in to real hunger, sooner or later, and stop
limiting himself to such stringent portions. Eating larger portions of those sugary foods would
inevitably cause his blood sugar to spike. The consequent large surges of insulin his body would
have to generate to clear that sugar would then become a long term problem.
In excess, insulin suppresses human growth hormone which is needed for youthful skin,
muscles and bones. It also contributes to higher blood pressure as we learned from the example
of Farm Fresh Tess’s poor husband. It also has an inflammatory effect on all bodily systems. In
the book, The Schwarzbein Principle, Dr. Diana Schwarzbein writes:
“When insulin levels are kept high too long, the result is a physiology that promotes excess
body fat gain, a physiology prone to infections and all the chronic degenerative diseases of
aging: osteoarthritis, different types of cancer, cholesterol abnormalities, coronary artery dis-
ease, less lean body mass with excess body fat, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, stroke, and
Type 2 diabetes.”
In the book, Why We Get Fat, author Gary Taubes makes his case very clearly about the
hazards of high insulin. On page 124 he writes, “The bottom line is something that’s been
known (and mostly ignored) for over 40 years. The one thing we absolutely have to do if we
want to get leaner—if we want to get fat out of our fat tissue and burn it—is to lower our
insulin levels and to secrete less insulin to begin with.”
Notice that both these authors mentioned the hazards of too high insulin. We need to
stress again that when insulin is working for us, rather than against us, it shouldn’t be blamed
for fat gain.
One of the most concerning problems when insulin is stimulated to excessive levels by
carby foods, is what it does to our feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. When insulin is raised
high very quickly, it causes a rush of serotonin to be released from the brain. This can make
you feel good at first. You know the feeling of a sugar high? That’s simply the result of seroto-
nin flooding your body. But, over time, this causes increasingly more rapid drops in serotonin
levels. That’s never a good thing, because we need sufficient serotonin to avoid feelings of
depression and apathy. Serotonin is also our natural pain reliever. Aches and pains in the body,
like headaches and joint aches, become a major problem when we lack serotonin. We have to
wonder if there is an obvious connection between our modern diet, its effect on serotonin, and
the high amount of antidepressants (SSRI’s) that are prescribed to help people with depression.
In the book, Why We Get Fat, author Gary Taubes argues the case against the commonly
held theory that low-calorie diets work. The notion of calories in, calories out, doesn’t hold
water according to this author. He points to studies, history, and science to expose the shaky ground of this widely accepted theory (we disagree with the evolutionary part of his history
and science, but there is much to be learned in his books despite that). Mr. Taubes discusses
in-depth one particular large study that was part of the collection of studies called The Wom-
en’s Health Initiative (WHI). This study involved 20,000 women in the early 1990’s. These
women were instructed to eat a low-fat diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber. They were also
instructed to eat 360 calories less every day. That was 20 percent lower than what public health
agencies advise women to eat. The woman cut their total fat consumption and saturated fats
by a full quarter. They were even given regular counseling to help motivate them to stay on
Eight years later the study found these women did lose weight. A whopping two pounds!
And, these study participants had a lot to lose. The majority were overweight, and about half
were obese, which always makes losing weight quicker to shed. According to calorie reduction
math, these women should have lost at least 22 pounds in the first year and continued a slower
loss after that. Not only did that not happen, the kicker was that their average waist circumfer-
ence (a measurement of abdominal fat) actually increased! This makes it more likely that the
average of two pounds that they did lose was muscle, not fat. The disappointing results flab-
bergasted everyone. These women may have lost weight at first, but the eight year mark was the
big truth teller regarding long term success.
History repeats itself. Zoom forward to the last decade. Television has spotlighted calorie
counting in prime time on the show The Biggest Loser. We have both enjoyed watching the show
now and then, even though we think the fast-forced weight loss is not a sustainable approach.
The show’s dietary approach is low-calorie/low-fat and semi low-carb. It works at first with
sensational “TV worth watching” type results. But, have you ever done a little research follow
up on the contestants?
A few of the contestants still look rather stellar some years later, but more often they gain
some, if not all of the weight back. We watched an episode that looked at the lives of former
contestants. One of them shared her struggle with not gaining the weight back by saying she
had to exercise two hours a day to maintain her new weight, even sticking rigidly to her daily
low-calorie limit. Who could sustain that long term?
A 2009 book called Simple Swaps, authored by the head nutritionist for The Biggest Loser
showcased some earlier season contestant success stories. Most of these success stories had
gained back at least 20 to 40 pounds. None of the failure stories were talked about, the ones
who gain all or most of their weight back. Weighing portions and holding back fat grams in
every meal is no way to live! No wonder this constant counting approach is not sustainable,
even for famous TV contestants who feel like they’re letting a whole country down if they put
their weight back on.