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How Much You Eat Matters More Than What You Eat

Bill Dobbins

High Carb, Low Carb. High Fat, Low Fat— It's calories that count. For Weight Loss, How Much You Eat Matters More Than What You Eat.
In the modern world, with too much food available and people doing less exercise than any time in history, it’s no surprise that concerns about how to lose body fat seem almost endemic. But those seeking to get leaner are often confused by the number of different weight-loss strategies, recommendations, and programs they are constantly exposed to. You name it, somebody has based a diet program on it. Diet books are a growth industry. However, it has often been noted that, at least in the short term, almost all published diet programs work—in the sense that they promote the loss of overall body weight. They may not all be effective in terms of fitness—that is, resulting in both loss of fat and maintenance of or increase in muscle mass—but they do allow you to shed pounds. Why? How can so many different approaches to diet based on contradictory beliefs about how the body works all yield results—that is, the reduction of overall body mass? Why can you lose weight on one diet and also lose weight on a diet that makes completely opposite assumptions about the way the body works? In other words, what element do all these diets have in common?

Science hasn’t always been much help in the matter. There have been research studies in the past designed to study the effect of various diets on weight loss, but many have been contradictory or inconclusive. However, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition some time ago seems to shed light on this complex subject. According to this study, it isn’t the composition of the diet that is the main factor when it comes to losing body fat. The most important thing, according to this study, is calories. Or, to put it another way, when it comes to losing body weight, the amount of food energy you take in (balanced off against energy expenditure) is what really counts the most, rather than what kind of calories (protein, fat, carbohydrate) your diet consists of. No matter how “good,” “clean,” or “healthy” your diet program is, you won’t lose body mass unless you reduce your caloric intake. One exception to this, of course, are the serious athletes whose training is so intense and involves so much volume that they have to eat thousands of extra calories each day in order to keep their body weight up. But individuals in that special category will probably not bother to read this article.

Many people use the term calorie on a regular basis without understanding what it actually means. In simple terms, calories are really just a measure of heat—which is another way of saying energy. If you burn food and measure the heat given off in the process, that energy is measured in terms of calories.

Different macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) contain different amount of caloric energy:

  • Protein contains 4 calories per gram of energy, as does carbohydrate.
  • Fat, on the other hand, is more energy dense at 9 calories per gram.

Each of these nutrients has a different biochemical structure and performs different functions in the body. But once broken down by the digestive system, all food is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with protein also containing nitrogen. While the three macronutrients are used differently by the body, at a fundamental level, a calorie of energy is a calorie of energy, regardless of the source from which it comes. This statement challenges a lot of widely held assumptions—that carbohydrate makes you fat, for example, or that ingesting fat in the diet will cause you to store body fat at a disproportionately high rate. The study mentioned above was developed to determine whether any of these commonly held assumptions were true, or whether success in dieting was more a matter of caloric intake than specific nutritional balance. 

Of course, if you’re trying to lose body fat rather than just body weight, how much protein you eat is also important. You can’t build or maintain muscle mass if you deprive yourself of sufficient protein. However, the research subjects involved in this study were given adequate amounts of protein and they exercised regularly (which is also necessary when it comes to conserving lean body mass). They were all put on reduced-calorie regimens, with each group taking in the same amount of calories per day, but their diets were composed of slightly different amounts of protein and considerably different amounts of carbohydrate and fat.

These were the two diets used:

  1. 32% protein  15% carbohydrate  53% fat
  2. 29% protein  45% carbohydrate  26% fat

The result was a similar degree of weight loss in both groups over a six-week period, indicating that

“it was energy intake, not nutrient composition, that determined weight loss in response to low-energy diets over a short time period.”

Actually, this result shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, as stated above, fat stores in the body represent an energy surplus. Therefore, the logical way to reduce your body’s stores of fat would obviously be to create a situation of energy deficit—that is, to take in less energy than your body requires over a given period of time.

Of course, there are health hazards associated with eating too much fat, including greater risk of heart disease and certain cancers, but this research doesn’t involve high-fat, high-calorie diets. Rather, this is about low-calorie diets that contain a greater or lesser percentage of fat versus carbohydrate:

  1. The subjects were required to exercise during the course of their diets. Exercise not only burns up additional calories but also helps keep muscle in good condition. Obviously, exercise is a primary part of a bodybuilding program.
  2. The caloric intake for each subject was distributed over four meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, bedtime snack) rather than the traditional three. Bodybuilders as a rule eat at least four meals a day, and sometimes more.
  3. While the protein content of the two diets varied, it didn’t vary by much and in both cases was sufficient to prevent the loss of muscle tissue due to protein deprivation. No matter what kind of bodybuilders are on, it almost invariably involves high protein.
  4. The combination of low calories plus exercise created a sufficient amount of energy deficit to result in significant weight loss over a relatively short period of time.

Actually, when you stop to analyze it, the results of this study don’t mean that individual A is correct in his or her diet and individual B is wrong. Quite the opposite. The meaning is that any approach to fat-loss, muscle-sparing dieting with which you are comfortable—high or low carbs, high or low fat, eating dairy, not eating dairy, eating fruit or wheat or not eating those foods—is probably going to work as long as:

  1. you create an energy deficit with a combination of low calories and exercise,
  2. train your muscles sufficiently and correctly, and
  3. eat enough protein to sustain your muscle mass.

“I’m not that surprised by the findings of this study,” says Milos Sarcev, bodybuilder, gym owner, and nutritional expert. “Over the years, I’ve seen competition bodybuilders—whose training and diet programs are among the most rigorous in the world—try a lot of different diets. I’ve seen some very strange approaches to eating and weight loss. But the one thing they all had in common, if they were successful, was taking in less food—reducing calories. Some bodybuilders did more cardio, some less. But to get in shape, they all had to eat less. That’s the unchanging common denominator.”

As a matter of fact, this study is unlikely to change the dietary practices of most people seriously into exercise and fitness. These days, most tend to keep their protein intake high, limit both fat and carbohydrate intake to reduce calories as much as possible, and further encourage an energy deficit by daily aerobic exercise. Those three factors—training, protein, low calories—are what make the modern fitness/bodybuilding diet work so well.

However, the findings of this research should help to reassure those who are concerned that eating any significant amount of fat at all will cause their bodies to produce excessive fat, or who believe that allowing more than a tiny amount of carbohydrate into their diets will lead to an inevitable weight gain. When it comes to losing weight, the valid approach seems clearly to be to eat enough protein to maintain muscle mass and reduce calories sufficiently (by eating less and exercising more) to cause a reduction in body fat. In other words, with certain restrictions, in losing weight, how much you eat is more of a factor than exactly what you eat.

Milos Sarcev image courtesy of Instagram.

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