Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Why low-Cal is smarter than low Carb

(I previously posted this in the Good Eats Yahoo! Group, so if you've seen it before, that's where.)

Everything you eat is made up of five things. Proteins, carbs, fat, fiber, and water.

Every gram of protein you eat contains 4 calories.

Every gram of carbohydrates you eat contains 4 calories.

Every gram of fat you eat contains 9 calories.

Fiber and water contain no calories.

If you eat more calories than you burn, you're going to gain weight. If you eat fewer calories than you burn you're going to lose weight. Despite all the different kinds of "trick" diets, "special" diets, whatever, this is the basic formula for weight loss.

That's it. More = store, less = lose. It's that simple. It's science.

Okay, so if that's the case, you're left with two requirements if you want to lose weight: You need to burn more calories, and consume less calories.

Naturally, the best way to burn more calories is by exercising. Not only do you burn the calories you expend while you exercise, but if you get your heart rate up to aerobic levels for twenty minutes a day, you can increase your body's base metabolic rate for hours afterwards. So you'll burn a ton of calories.

Weight training is also good. Not only is it good exercise, but if your body has more muscle, you will burn more calories every day just by having it. Muscle is high-maintenance tissue, and calories have to be burned just to keep it going. Fat just sits there, requiring no maintenance at all.

You can also burn more calories based on what you eat. For example, if you drink eight glasses of ice-cold water a day, your body will have to burn calories to warm that water up to 98.6 degrees. You burn enough calories to lose a pound of fat in two weeks that way.

Also, eating fiber can increase your metabolism. Fiber contains no calories, yet requires energy to process. Hence some foods have "negative calories," like celery and other greens.

Or, eating multiple times throughout the day can keep your body in a constant state of digestion. This digestion burns calories. But if you're not eating a lot, it won't "weigh you down."

Some diets take this to an extreme, though, trying to regulate the entire metabolic system entirely through food, without requiring exercise.

The Atkins plan is based on the idea that by eliminating carbs, your body has to expend more energy in order to convert protein and fat into a "carb-like" state, so it can use them for energy.

Does this work?

Well, if you eat one gram of carbs, there are only four calories. A gram of fat has nine calories. So it will be harder to eat "less" calories of something that contains nearly double the calories per gram. In other words, five grams of fat would have more calories than ten grams of carbs.

Dr. Atkins will point out, though, that part of those extra fat calories will be burned up just to get that fat you ate into a useful state.

This is true. However, it's only true if the fat calories get burned the minute you eat them. If they don't, and the fat gets stored, all nine calories get planted directly on your waist. It takes no energy to store fat as fat.

On the other hand, while the carb calories do not require calories to be made useful for energy, it does require calories to convert the carbs into fat. So if you've had a little too much, not all four grams of carbs will see their way to your waist.

Anyways, here's the big caveat--not all weight loss is good. Just because pounds went away, doesn't mean you lost fat. You can lose water weight, you can lose muscle, and you can lose fat. Really, the only one you're worried about is fat. If the weight you're losing is muscle, that's actually bad.

And there lies the problem--fat is actually the hardest one to get your body to burn. Right now, today, if you started starving yourself, your body is not going to start using fat for nourishment. It's not.

If your body thinks you're starving, it's going to hold on to your fat like mad, because it doesn't know how long this "famine" is going to last.

When your metabolism goes into Emergency Mode, it does everything it can to avoid burning your fat. It generally plunders your muscles and the sugars stored in your muscles first. So while the pounds DO come off, you're losing muscle, not fat. And since pounds of muscle take up considerably less space than pounds of fat, you're not going to get any smaller around the middle.

This "Emergency Mode Metabolism" is called Ketosis, and it's the direct result of not having enough carbohydrates. For years, athletes used the same "Ketostix" that Atkins dieters now use, but for the reverse purpose--in order to AVOID Ketosis, because they knew it for what it was--not the time when your body becomes a "fat burning furnace" but the time when your body most stubbornly starts holding on to fat, and cannibalizing muscle.

Now, if you persist in a state of ketosis long enough (and you'll know when you're in it, because, among other things, your breath will be unbearable) your body WILL be forced to start burning the fat. And the inches will start to come off behind the pounds. You'll think things are great.

But the problem is, your body is coming at your fat cells with a starvation mentality. It doesn't know when it will see carbs again, and so it is still yielding up the fat reluctantly. It's slowing down your metabolism, so that you burn fewer calories a day, so it can tenaciously cling to as much of that fat as it can.

But the worst comes when you end the diet. Because as far as your body is concerned, you have just come away from a period of famine. And as far as your body is concerned, another famine may strike again at any moment.

Consequently, it will vigorously begin to store as much food as it possibly can as fat, saving up for the winter, so to speak. And you will actually gain more weight than before the diet, because now your metabolism is running slower, as I mentioned, and your body has less muscle on it, which means it burns fewer calories to maintain the muscle.

The sad truth is that your body just doesn't want to give up fat easily. The most fat you can hope to lose is 1-3 pounds a week. If you're losing more weight than that, you're not losing fat. You're losing water and muscle.

A good, healthy diet should look something like this:

Exercise every day. Weight train a few times a week.

Eat small portions throughout the day. Either eat six small meals, or three reasonable meals and have three small healthy snacks.

Eat unprocessed foods. In other words, foods that are as close to their natural state as possible (A twinky, for example, is not found in nature).

Have some of each of the five things at each meal. (Protein, Carbs, Fat, Fiber, Water.) Despite the Atkins people, your body really does need more Carbs than protein.

What will happen? At first, you won't lose as much weight. But you will lose
inches. Your clothes will fit better. This is because you'll be gaining muscle as you lose fat. The muscle is denser, so you have the same number of pounds in less space.

(Notice that this is the opposite of the Ketosis plan, where the pounds come off before the inches. This time, the right weight is being lost.)

Then, pounds will follow. As you have a greater amount of muscle, your base metabolic rate will increase, and you'll be burning more calories just standing around.

Because you're constantly providing nutrients to your body, it won't feel as obligated to store the fat as tenaciously. And since you're constantly digesting, even that will burn more calories.

And then your body really will be a metabolic furnance. You really will be burning more calories. At a relaxed, safe, calm pace. The same gradual process that you took when you put the weight on.

If pounds are coming off but inches aren't, you're losing muscle, not fat, and you need to up your carb intake.

The good news is that the reverse is true as well--if the inches are coming off, but the pounds aren't, relax. Your weightlifting is paying off. You're gaining muscle at about the same rate you're losing fat. Your weight may be the same, but your state of health definitely isn't.

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