I subscribe to the idea, that the best diet is the one you can maintain in the long run.

For me personally, this entails intermittent fasting and a cyclic approach of higher/lower carbs, plenty of protein and low/moderate fat. My main focus lies on high quality foods, with nutritious and satiating properties, and not discrimination towards a particular macronutrient.

I don’t believe there is any magic to be had when one is excluding fat or carbs from their diet. Both have their place. However, there are people that subscribe to a completely different set of opinions.

After watching the documentary Religulous (melding of “religion” and “ridiculous) yesterday, it dawned upon me how much some religious fundamentalists have in common with certain nutritional fundamentalists. In recent years, I have seen the rise of one group in particular. I prefer to call them the low carb talibans.

When I am using the term ‘fundamentalist’ here, I am using it to characterize religious advocates that cling to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence – I am not talking about religious people in general, and I don’t have anything against them.

1. Religious fundamentalists believe in supernatural beings. Low carb talibans believe you can get fat without a positive energy balance, if you eat carbs.

Similar to the anti-fat proponents 15-20 years ago, we now have one group of people blaming one particular macronutrient as the sole reason for why people are getting fatter.

2. Religious fundamentalists base their beliefs on faith, not empirical evidence. Low carb talibans believe that dietary fat is unimportant for the development of obesity; the most jaded lot believe that you can eat an unlimited amount of fat, without weight gain, as long as carbs are excluded from the diet.

The ‘rationale’ behind this claim, is that the body can’t store fat without insulin (it can). Carbs equals insulin, and that means ditching carbs must mean no fat storage (wrong). They conveniently ignore that

a) eating protein produce insulin
b) fat stores itself with tremendous efficiency without insulin, due to a nifty little thing called acylation-stimulating protein (ASP).

3. Religious fundamentalists believe that forces of evil hide amongst us, trying to lead us into temptation and wrongdoing. Low carb talibans belive that carbs and insulin are to blame for obesity.

We live in an obesogenic environment; we lead sedentary lives and we are surrounded by easily obtainable foods with high energy density. High carb, high fat foods which taste great, and are extremely easy to overconsume. That people gain weight in such a setting is no great mystery, yet the low carbs talibans likes to make it out to be. It is the carbs specifically that made you fat, not that peanut butter jar you went through watching tv last night. Yes, that seems to make sense.

4. Religious fundamentalists believe there is only one way, and all other faiths are heretic. Low carb talibans tries to push their beliefs on others and will seldom accept alternative views.

More than one time, I have seen the talibans make the most ludicrous claims about their approach, often not accepting the fact that some people actually function better on a higher carb approach, and that people involved in anaerobic sports actually need them to perform better.

5. Religious fundamentalists do not accept current ideas of the creation of earth or human evolution, rather they make up their own stories of how we came to be here. Low carb talibans make up their theories regarding human metabolism.

Here’s a quick primer on how it works.

Dietary fat is stored easily as body fat without the presence of carbs or insulin.

Fat metabolism increase when fat intake is increased, but it is primarly dietary fats that are burned off, not fat stored in adipose tissue. For the latter to occur, energy balance needs to be negative. Energy can’t just disappear and an excess is stored*

When carbs are consumed, metabolism switches to glucose dependence; that is, while carbs do not get converted to fat**, they do inhibit fat metabolism to a point where dietary fats are more readily stored.

One can say that overconsuming dietary fat leads to fat storage through a direct mechanism, while overconsuming carbs leads to fat storage through an indirect mechanism, through blunting of fat metabolism/lipolysis. Either way you cut it, the key point is that energy balance is the main determinant for fat storage, or fat loss.

* carbs can only be converted to fat by a process called de novo lipogenesis (DNL). This metabolic pathway is very ineffective in humans and in studies it only comes into play during massive carbohydrate overfeeding. How come people still got fat from eating all those low fat foods back when low fat was the craze? Well, the body has the ability to upregulate key enzymes involved in the DNL pathway, making carb to fat conversion more efficient. And this occurs on high carb/low fat diets. So, there is no tricking the body from gaining weight during caloric excess by excluding fat or carbs from the diet.

** metabolism does increase a bit when energy consumption is increased; just a few percentages, nothing drastic (called ‘luxusconsumption’ or adaptve thermogenesis by some scientists). Ironically, this effect is greatest when the extra energy is provided from carbs, not fat.

Why low carb really works

I have extensive experience with all forms of low carb/ketogenic diets. I’ve done them all, the traditional standard ketogenic diet, the cyclical and the targeted ketogenic diet. I’ve come to the following conclusions:

1. There is a mild hunger blunting effect on ketogenic diets, which may help intially. This has to be weighed against the deprived feeling you get from not consuming carbs and the decrease in performance during weight training. This can be partially amended by doing a cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) or a targeted ketogenic diet (TKD), where you either carb load through the weekend or consume carbs in conjunction with workouts.

2. Making the diet highly restrictive, in terms of completely cutting out one macronutrient, may help with adherance. It certainly takes away the hedonic aspect of eating.

Studies actually show that diets which allow ad libitum intake of protein and fat, usually leads to a spontaenous reduction of calorie intake. Cutting out carbs from the equation may be a sound approach for the average joe, who’s idea of carbs are in the form of cereal and white bread. IME, you’re less likely to binge on egg omelettes and ham, as opposed to chicken and pasta.

3. When people start eating low carb and lose weight, it is partially because they start eating more protein than on their past (failed) diet approaches. Protein leads to better satiety than any other macronutrient. There’s also the issue of being forced to make sound food choices overall, such as increasing veggie intake to make up most of your carb intake in order to stay below the threshold (max 50 g carbs/day usually).

4. And of course, there is also the insulin sensitivity/resistance factor to consider. Some people do in fact feel better on ketogenic/low carb diets, for physiological, not behavioral, reasons. No energy dips, hunger pangs and so forth. ***

*** However, as I see it, people have a tendency to draw the conclusion that they need to follow a low carb approach without having visited the middle road. I’ve had some clients that were convinced they could only do well on low carbs – and it turned out they did just as well, if not better, when I incorporated veggies, fruit and berries as their main carb source. The middle road, with a minimum of refined carbs, is very workable for most people that label themselves as ‘insulin resistant’.

Anyway, rant over.

For an unbiased guide to ketogenic diets, free from voodoo science and ‘make believe’ physiology, I urge you to check out The Ketogenic Diet, by Lyle McDonald. My review is here.

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