A calorie is a calorie (more or less) after all

Just out in Cell Metabolism is Kevin Hall’s most recent paper that shows that low carb diets have no metabolic advantage over a low fat diet. In the experiment, a group of 19 individuals spent 22 days in total in a metabolic ward where their diet was completely specified and metabolic parameters were carefully measured. The individuals were put on both isocaloric carbohydrate reduced diets and fat reduced diets where the order of the diets was randomized over subjects. The short version of the result was that those on the fat reduced diets had more fat loss than the carbohydrate reduced diet although the cumulative difference was small. The body composition changes and metabolic parameters are also matched by the detailed NIDDK body weight model. You most certainly do not lose more fat on a low carb diet.

The results do show that a calorie is not exactly a calorie meaning that the macronutrient composition of the food you eat can matter although over long time periods the body weight model does show that macronutrient differences will always be small. Ultimately, if you want to lose fat, you should eat less and exercise more (in that order). It’s your choice in how you want to reduce your calories. If you like to go low carb then by all means do that. If you like low fat then do that too. You’ll lose weight and fat on both diets. The key is to stick to your diet.

This experimental result is in direct contradiction to the argument of low carb aficionados like Gary Taubes who claim that reducing carbs are particularly beneficial for losing weight and vice versa. Their reasoning is that carbs induce insulin, which suppresses lypolysis from fat cells. Hence, if you ate carbs all the time, your fat would get locked away in adipocytes forever and you would become very fat. However, the problem with this type of reasoning is that it doesn’t account for the fact that no one eats for 24 hours each day. Even the most ardent grazer must sleep at some point and during that time insulin will fall and fat can be released from fat cells. Thus, what you need to do is to account for the net flux of fat over the entire 24 hour cycle and possibly even longer since your body will also adapt to whatever your diet happens to be. When you do that it turns out that you will lose more fat if you reduce fat.

Now this was only for a diet of 6 days but experiments, funded by Gary Taubes’s organization, for longer time scales comparing the two diets have been completed and will be published in the near future. I’ll summarize the results when they come out. I can’t say what the preliminary results are except to remind you that the model has held up pretty well in past.


4 thoughts on “A calorie is a calorie (more or less) after all

  1. isn’t this a corrolary of ‘a dollar is a dollar, right?’ by art markman, cogsci u tx 2008 in psychology today, and the theory of price discrimination. we live in the free market so everything equilibrates at a universal price or calorie–coke or orange juice, whatevuh. its cheaper if i buy a salad at safeway than at my corner cvs —safeway ones have only 210 calories, cvs ones have 350 though you can throw out the dressing which i often do. but the probability of getting assualted or shot or hit by a car increases by 50% if you cross the street to safeway. sometimes its better just to do wihtout.


  2. this was covered on npr –one thing i seemed to hear (i was going out the door) was it was funded by someone into one of the diets—i think low carb. but maybe it was done by independent researchers which i guess is ok though can lead to conflicts of interest


  3. This study was funded by the NIH. The long time experiment is funded by low carb types so if the result contradicts them then you know it’s not being influenced by funders.


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