Sunday, March 15, 2009

Carbs - their part in my downfall

Eve has started blogging about the fattening effect of carbs and is pointing out that low-carb regimes like Atkins are not as crazy as some would have us all believe.

I thought I would weigh[1] in with my story. A few years ago I woke up and found myself weighing 18 stone with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a stressful, largely exercise free lifestlye.

I tried the standard approaches, precise calorie counting, fruit for lunch, nothing after 6...all that stuff. No joy. I stumbled upon Atkins and the geek in me was intrigued. I have a soft spot for contrarian conceptual models that put received wisdom through the wood chipper. I decided to give it a go although I was very skeptical. Especially when I read the sentence in the book that says something like "Remember to eat regularly. You may forget to eat.". Yeah, that will happen...

But it did. I found that I had essentially complete control over hunger pangs. With Atkins, if you are hungry you eat. That's it. It is just that you are very careful *what* you eat. Hunger pangs are not part of the recipe. You control them so that they do not control you.

So, the weight started to come off. I joined a gym and the weight started to fall off. I lost 2.5 stone without a single hunger pang. "This is trivial", one part of me said while another part of me was thinking "Perhaps my insides are turning to mush. Perhaps by arteries are disintegrating or getting clogged with lumps of cheesey egg roll wrapped in chicken skin?".

I went to the doctor for a checkup and my blood pressure and cholesterol were both significantly better than they were before. Now as a geek, I'm always wary of conflating correlation with causation. I don't know if was purely the weight loss that dropped the BP and cholesterol. Maybe the diet was not a part of it. Perhaps the diet was the primary driver of the weight loss? I don't know...and neither, it seems does medical science.

I have my weight under control now. Every now and then I fall of the wagon and it starts to climb up again - especially now that I live in the epicenter of the processed carb universe - the USA. Every now and then I drop some more carbs from my intake and the extra weight goes away. No panic. No problem.

Yes, yes I know that I really should get some exercise too but, heck, who's perfect? I'm working on it. Quit nagging! Yes, yes, I know that the scientific/medical community is very much split on this whole low-carb issue and maybe I'm killing myself.

I've seen scientific controversies before and been involved in a few (if you allow "computing" to be classed as a science that is). This one looks very familiar. It smacks of Thomas Kuhn. It also smacks of "Big Carb". Consider me a walking experiment if you like. If the low-carb lifestlye kills me, the lack of activity on my blog will let you know I was wrong and the "fat makes you fat" brigade were right :-)

[1] Ho ho ho


Will McGugan said...

I had a very similar experience with the Atkins plan. I had been a vegetarian for many years. so pasta and bread were a staple for me. I always had a very healthy appetite and my weight consistently went up year by year.

Dieting was near impossible because my appetite would get the better of me. After learning of the Atikins plan I figured I would give it a try, and like you, it appealed to the contrarian in me.

Long story short, it worked very effectively. Have you ever counted the calories you consumed when on a low-carb diet? My experience is that I ate less calories in total than I did on my regular carb-filled diet (without consciously planning to).

I suspect it doesn't work in the way that the literature suggests -- all that nonsense about ketosis and such. I reckon the fat and protein just satisfies your appetite to a much greater degree than carbs.

Sean McGrath said...


I have the same feelings you do on the 'why' side. For whatever reason - only medical specialists will ever be able to figure this out - Atkins reduces your appetite. That is the secret sauce.

Reduced appetite results in less intake. Less intake results in less calories (of whatever kind). Less calories results in less accumulation of energy reserves (fat).


Laurence Rowe said...

Interesting report in the Economist, apparently the obesity epedemic may well be down to processed foods.

John Speno said...

Welcome, brother, to the world of heathy skepticism. It's a fun and delicious way of life.

Anonymous said...

I've tried a South Beach/Atkins diet only briefly before. If you really wanted to, you could gain weight using a low-carb diet.

Here's my hypothesis: diets that restrict the kinds of foods that people can eat may lead people to eat less total calories per day than they would without the diet.

I've seen lots of people say this before but at the same time I've heard lots of people give other reasons for why diet X works.

When I was on Aktins/South Beach briefly there were little things that I did differently, such as, drinking water or diet soft drinks from a vending machine because really that was the only thing the diet allowed me to do. Or maybe I was in a restaurant and wouldn't eat the free bread at the beginning of the meal. All these little 100-300 calorie savings start to add up and it turns in to weight loss.

Right now I'm on a diet that is basically just "eating less calories than my body needs." There are no restrictions though, I eat fat, carbs, sweets, snacks, junk food, whatever I want, but I just have to eat less. I no longer eat seconds or thirds at a buffet or at any meal for that matter (or at least I try to), I may eat less bread before dinner, or eat it all but pass on the second helping of free bread, I may drink diet coke or water when out for dinner instead of beer, I no longer put cheese on top of the pasta we eat at least once a week, I eat cereal and grains with fibre in them, etc...

It takes a lot more will power but in some ways it's actually easier because I can eat whatever I want. It's taken me 10 years to get the will power to do this. The other thing I do as part of this diet is track my weight. I have a target line (that has me losing 40 lbs in 2009) and a bunch of dots corresponding to my weigh-ins that are done at least once per week. I find it really helps keep me motivated. When my weight goes down a bit I feel good about myself and I also relax the diet a bit and eat a bit more. If my weight goes up a bit I get discouraged a bit but then I focus for a week and get it back down again. So I'm only 3 months in to 2009 and I've lost 20 lbs. I haven't been this light since about 1999.

In the long run I think focusing on eating less calories rather than restricting which types of foods to eat is the way to go. By just limiting calories you eat a more balanced (and presumabely healthier) diet and the mind learns to control the appetite and urges (which I feel right now...all this talk about food).

Anonymous said...

I've been on and off of Atkins / South Beach for about 5 years now. It was tough at first - but I stuck with it and managed to lose the 60+ pounds I wanted to lose in just a little more than 6 months.

Will - If you are on Atkins and use the ketone testing strips, you'll see that that's what your body is doing. The point is that their explanation is more or less correct. (Somewhat simplified,
but essentially right.)

David - Yes, reducing overall calories will help you lose weight, but doesn't help you control your appetite. _That_ has been the most significant benefit of it for me. I don't feel hungry as often, and get full on less food, making it easy for me to keep the weight off.

Eve M. said...

Hi Sean-- Thanks for the encouragement and for telling your story, and thanks to your commenters for telling theirs! It turns out that it's not voodoo at all; that's been one of the fun things about reading "Good Calories, Bad Calories" -- finally getting a consistent scientific explanation for the facts on the ground. I'm planning to blog the scientific basis of all this in my new series at (including examining some of the primary research), which I bet will be fun for geeks.

Sean McGrath said...


Great. I'm looking forward to reading your analysis on


Conlaoch said...

Check out "Letter on Corpulence" by William Banting. Google will find you many free versions of this to read, but here is one with scans of the original document...

Even back in 1869 they knew that carbs and mass processed foods were bad.

Or look for a book called "Did you ever see a fat squirrel by Ruth Adams" (bout 5 bucks used on amazon).

Ruth's book chronicles many studies that have been done over the past 100 years that verify that processed carbs are bad. And then she shows how the large companies that market the carbs and sugars have changed the way food is advertised so as to make the common person believe that the new food pyramid is good for you.


Anonymous said...

'Or look for a book called "Did you ever see a fat squirrel by Ruth Adams" (bout 5 bucks used on amazon).'

If you ran up and down a tree all day, you would be skinny too no matter what you eat.

Take the same approach to get into exercising. Small steps; very, very small steps. I like Tai Chi, but whatever it is, it has to make you feel better and you have to like it. Eat a small amount when you are hungry, and do a small amount of stretching exercises when you feel tight. If you exercise 10 minutes a day, 3 times per week = 30 minutes per week = 25 hours per year. And if it makes you feel better you will want to do more which is the key.

Anonymous said...

If you eat carbohydrates with high fiber content you are probably fine.

Personally there is not a single bread at Wally Mart that I find acceptable. I buy bread at a health store. Replace your bread by something like this:

Same goes for pasta, rice, etc. Only eat the whole grain, high fiber kind. Of course the flavor and extra chewing takes getting used to. If you don't like that, you have to keep avoiding those foods.

Anonymous said...

Ken Whitesell: but are you going to have to stay on Atkins forever to keep your appetite down? Is that safe? If you go off Atkins are you going to have a big appetite again?

I'm not convinced that any diet can work in the long term unless it actually tackles the mental part of it somehow.

John Speno said...

I think being on low-carb diet is the safest way of eating there is. Where safe is defined by maintaining one's quality of life, avoiding diseases such as CHD, cancer, and diabetes and reducing overall mortality. I guess we'll see how it works for me. So far, it's been great. Get back to me in 50 years or so.

Luckily for me, I really enjoy eating lots of meat, eggs, cheese, nuts, etc. I worry not about calories, cravings, cholesterol, fiber, and exercise.

Coffee Addicts said...

Fast food diets were really the cause of obesity epidemics.Why not government sanctions fast food chains?