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The Alternative Hypothesis: Counting Calories Is Not The Answer

In our collective ongoing…and so far losing…battle against obesity, there are many theories brought forth as to what is the main cause and the corresponding solutions to the fight. In my last post, I explored the “set point” theory of fat loss. If the set point theory holds true, then obese people are basically out of luck. They will always fight hunger cravings and weight gain. This, I imagine, is very depressing for every body who needs to lose a lot of body fat.

In this post, I will explore what is called “The Alternative Hypothesis” that both author Gary Taubes and Dr. Peter Atilla research and explain in great detail. On the surface, the alternative hypothesis seems to defy the first law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, energy in minus energy out will either increase or decrease energy storage. Put simply, the calories consumed that is not used by the body for energy will get stored as fat, along with the corollary of fewer calories consumed than the body uses will draw down fat stores.

Before I get into what this all means, let me quote exactly what the alternative hypothesis is (from The Eating Academy):

Obesity is a growth disorder just like any other growth disorder.  Specifically, obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation.  Fat accumulation is determined not by the balance of calories consumed and expended but by the effect of specific nutrients on the hormonal regulation of fat metabolism.  Obesity is a condition where the body prioritizes the storage of fat rather than the utilization of fat.

Their basic premise is this: people do not get fat by overeating. People overeat because they get fat. Say what? I know this doesn’t make sense, but let’s take a closer look at what they actually mean by that statement. What they are saying is that it is not simply a matter of calories in vs calories out that determines whether you gain fat or stay lean with very little effort. It has far more to do with the types of calories that you consume that will make you gain fat.

According to the alternative hypothesis, the types of calories will have a hormonal impact on the body, which will create an environment where it is easier to either store fat….and over time more fat, or to be able to stay lean and healthy with very little effort, or without excess exercise for that matter.

There are three types of macro-nutrients that we can eat. They are protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and according the the alternative hypothesis, it is eating carbohydrates in particular that will trigger the hormonal response to persuade the body to store fat.

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It turns out that insulin, the hormone that is secreted by the pancreas in response to a high carbohydrate meal, not only shuttles the blood sugar into muscles to be stored as glycogen and the remainder to be shuttled into fat as is commonly known, but it also encourages the body to store more fat. I’ll get back to this and how it relates to the law of thermodynamics, but first I want to talk about insulin and it’s effects on certain enzymes and hormones.

Lipoprotein lipase, Growth Hormone and Insulin

Lipoprotein lipase (LPL) is an eznyme that plays a role in the fat distribution process. LPL will grab hold of the blood circulating triglyceride rich lipoproteins and break them down into free fatty acids which then can be used for energy by muscle cells or stored as fat by the fat cells. LPL is found on both fat cells and muscle cells, and it is called the “gatekeeper” for fat accumulation (Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories. Pg. 439). In other words, the LPL on fat cells are what pull the circulating fat from the bloodstream and into the fat cells. Additionally, it is the LPL on muscle cells that, when activated, will pull the triglycerides from the bloodstream into the muscle to be used as fuel. This, most certainly is what we want.

You will notice that I used the words when activated when I described what LPL on muscle cells do. Muscle cells can have LPL that is not “open”, and LPL on fat cells have the same propensity. What determines whether LPL on muscle cells or fat cells are responsive to the intake of fat has much to do with insulin (there are other factors, but insulin is the major one). The presence of insulin will have an interesting effect on LPL. On the muscle cells, insulin will decrease LPL activity while simultaneously increase LPL activity on fat cells. What this means in layman’s terms is that insulin will promote the storing of fat over the burning of fat for energy. Of course, the opposite is also true, in that when there is little to no circulating insulin, the LPL on the muscle cells will be more open to taking in triglycerides, and the LPL on fat cells less so.

Growth hormone releases fatty acids from fat tissue, but it is not the only one. Epinephrine, Nor-epinephrine, Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), Glucagon, and testosterone among others all promote fat mobilization for energy usage. However, they can only work when insulin levels are low. Insulin is called the “Trump Hormone” because when insulin levels are high, the above listed hormones are lower and less active (Dr. McGruff. Body By Science. Pg 207.). This makes sense when we realize that glucose is highly toxic, and that blood sugar needs to be tightly regulated for us to stay alive. Insulin first if needed. The other hormones later, after the blood sugar is under control. The problem arises when we simply eat too many carbohydrates too often. The body cannot switch from the fat storing hormones to the fat burning hormones.

There are, of course many more complex and interrelated mechanisms that work the hormones and enzymes mentioned above, but you get the idea. There is far more going on here than just the matter of “calories in vs calories out” to weight gain or loss. The body will respond differently to the macro nutrients we eat.

In light of this, the proponents of the alternative hypothesis do not believe that counting calories are the answer…that to lose weight one has to “eat less and move more” to lose fat. They believe that someone who wants to lose fat will have much better success limiting carbohydrate intake, even to the point of less than 50 grams a day if the dieter can handle it, and by doing so, the dieter will lose fat without having to count calories. Many of the low carb enthusiasts even claim that a dieter can lose weight eating more calories than if he tried to lose weight on a high carbohydrate/low-calorie diet. It is this claim that gives the impression that a low carb diet defies the first law of thermodynamics, i.e. excess calories have to be stored as fat.

Does the Alternative Hypothesis override the first law of thermodynamics? 

In a word, no. The researchers do not make this claim. They do believe…know, that excess calories are stored as fat, no matter what the source of calories are. What they are saying is that if someone who eats a low carbohydrate diet without focusing on counting calories is losing weight, even if it seems like he is eating more calories than he should to lose weight, it can be from three things:

  • Appetite suppression. The dieter will feel satisfied for longer periods with less total calories than he would eat on a higher carbohydrate diet.
  •  He will become more active without having to focus on it. Low carb proponents speculate that since there will be less insulin, the body will be more apt to tap into fat stores for energy and therefore will have energy to spend. The dieter will be more active, thus burning more calories than he would on a high carb diet.
  • An increase in basal metabolic rate. Yes, some low carb proponents believe that the body’s resting metabolism will be a bit higher on a low carb diet, thus burning more calories when at rest than on a high carb diet.

Does the Alternative hypothesis pass the test?

Of the theories on obesity put forth up to now, I find the alternative hypothesis to be the most fascinating…and the one that makes the most sense. When you think about it, most of the processed foods made today are very high in simple carbohydrates, and soft drinks as well as “energy” drinks are all high in simple carbohydrates. It is easy to overindulge on them and gain weight. Indeed, many of the processed foods are high in fat as well, especially trans fats which is proving to be disastrous to the body, but they are still very high in carbohydrates too

I wanted to test out the theory myself. Two years ago I decided to switch from my high carb diet to a low carb diet for a few months. If I did not like how I felt or if I did not lose fat, I would simply switch back. To my surprise, I did lose fat. In six months I lost over 14 pounds of fat, and I maintained all of my muscle (my strength levels did not decrease), and I even cut my workouts from 3 times a week to two times a week. Here are the photos:

Gregg before

This is how I looked when I started the low carb diet. As you can see, I am carrying a fair amount of fat.

Gregg after

This is me five months later. I am much leaner and I did not have to count calories to do it. I just cut out most of the carbohydrates in my diet.

My results were remarkable. I never was able to lose fat and maintain my muscle in the past when I would try to lose fat. I would always lose some muscle and strength on a high carbohydrate/low-calorie diet. Not so this time. I have been eating this way ever since and I have maintained lower body fat levels without too much effort.

The Cellulite Study

I have just completed a study on cellulite. I took three women through a diet and exercise program for three months to see if we could decrease the cellulite they had around the hips and thighs. Part of the strategy was a low a carbohydrate diet without counting calories, and it worked very well. All three of the women lost fat and gained muscle, and they did look better at the end of the study, but one of the participants of the study and I learned an important lesson: calories do matter. She lost 12 pounds in the first couple of months, but then she hit a plateau. Upon close examination of her diet, she did keep her carbohydrates low, but she did still over eat. She payed closer attention to her calories and started losing weight again. Interestingly, she was eating upwards to 2000 calories a day (low carbohydrate), and lost weight steadily for the first couple of months. When she hit her plateau, she then dropped her calories to around 1500 to 1700 a day and started losing weight again. If she did a high carbohydrate/low-calorie diet, she could not lose weight at 200 calories a day. She would need to be around 1500 calories a day to start, and drop it even more as the study went on, so there may be some merit to a low carb diet increasing the basal metabolic rate.

Conclusion

Applying the alternative hypothesis to weight loss, and especially for those who are obese and find it very difficult to lose weight, is a good strategy to use. Personally, I think the dieter will have the best chance for long-term success this way. There is no question that it is harder to overeat when carbohydrates are out of the picture, and if insulin does what these researchers say it does, as I believe it does, then a high carbohydrate diet promotes fat storage…and more fat storage in an ongoing feedback loop. Having said that, the alternative hypothesis is not the be all, end all in the fight against obesity. Calories do still count, and if a dieter on a low carbohydrate diet hits a sticking point, he should also look at his total caloric intake and make some adjustments there if need be.

Regards,

Gregg Hoffman

Further Reading:

Atilla, Peter. The Eating Academy. http://eatingacademy.com/

Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories

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4 comments on “The Alternative Hypothesis: Counting Calories Is Not The Answer

  1. Hello, just wanted to say, I loved this blog post.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!

  2. […] with the types of calories consumed than it does with how many calories are consumed. According the alternative hypothesis, high carbohydrate, low nutrient dense foods encourage overeating and fat storage, whereas low […]

  3. […] During the first week we worked together I explained to Andrew the eating plan we use. It is a low carb approach that is similar to plans like the Atkins diet, and the more recent Paleo eating plan. The reason I am a fan of the low carb eating style is that, quite simply, carbohydrate consumption drives fat storage via the release of insulin. A low carb diet limits insulin production, allowing the body to use fat for energy. You can learn more about that HERE. […]

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