Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; his 9-to-5 home is at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. There he works on Skylight, the smart profiler for Rails, and does Ember.js consulting. He is best known for his open source work, which also includes Thor and Handlebars. He travels the world doing open source evangelism and web standards work.
On Food and Weight Loss
July 5th, 2009
After eating many more vegetables, mostly food I make myself, and cutting out most non-trivial amounts of sweeteners, I began to notice a trend. On a given day, I consume significantly fewer carbohydrates than I did previously. Not as few as the Atkins Diet would recommend for its initial phase (20g of carbohydrates effectively requires rationing vegetables and milk, which I am definitely not doing), but probably something like 60 to 80 grams a day.
This didn’t happen because I’ve been rigorously counting carbs; it happened because when I switched to making most things myself and cutting out sweeteners, I naturally ended up with quite a bit more vegetables (which make up the bulk of a stir-fry, for instance), which replaced the bread and sweeteners that used to make up the bulk of my diet.
I’ve also been able to lose roughly 40 pounds from my peak weight, and have not stopped losing. Again, I’m doing nothing particularly special, except consuming significantly more vegetables (and to some degree, more meat), which is a natural reaction to changing my eating habits to eating more Delicious Food.
The normal argument against low-carbohydrate eating is that “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” I’m not a scientist, so I can’t be sure about whether or not there are metabolic advantages to eating different kinds of food. Although some peer-reviewed studies have shown that low-carbohydrate diets produce more weight-loss, even when energy levels are constant, other studies have not found the same results.
However, this core argument misses out on at least two important factors that are basically self-evident to those who have reduced their intake of refined carbohydrates (and even large amounts of fruits). First, refined carbohydrates (especially, but not only when mixed with fats) appear to have addictive properties. In The End of Overeating, former Commissioner of the FDA David Kessler reports that rats are willing to press a lever for a mixture of pure sugar and fat almost as many times as they are willing to press a lever for cocaine.
This is also self-evident to people who struggle with weight-loss: the addictive properties of a bag of cookies or chips (“bet you can’t have just one”) are significantly higher than the addictive properties of a piece of meat or a piece of squash. And this addiction takes both short-term forms (like when people eat an entire can of pringles) or long-term forms (when the smell of certain foods drives people to eat to excess). Again, Kessler’s entire book is dedicated to the physiological effect of certain foods on our ability to control ourselves.
Second, foods high in refined carbohydrates are significantly less filling than foods high in protein or fat. This is partially the result of the satiating power of fat, and because foods high in refined carbohydrates are significantly less bulky than foods high in protein (like meat) or fiber (like fruits or vegetables).
Again, this is self-evident. Fruits in moderation are beneficial (at least in my anecdotal experience), but eating an entire bowl of cherries or cups and cups of grapes can have some of the same effects as eating many other sugary things. Vegetables, on the other hand, are quite filling and contain few calories (or carbohydrates).
In other words, regardless of the standalone benefits of low-carbohydrate foods, which are debated, “high carbohydrate meals” are effectively a proxy for “high calorie meals” or “high calorie days”. You’ll note that I focused heavily on refined carbohydrates in this post. That’s because it’s very difficult to eat very large quantities of carbohydrates period if you’re getting them from vegetables and moderate quantities of fruits.
In Life Without Bread, the author describes a clinical practice in which he treated over 10,000 patients. He has been mostly successful in treating a range of diseases (from diabetes to obesity) with a low-carbohydrate regimen, but there’s a twist. Lutz considers “low-carbohydrate” to be equivalent to 72 grams of carbohydrates per day, based on the amount of carbohydrates needed in his clinical work, and the possible side-effects of extremely low-carbohydrate eating in particularly vulnerable populations (such as the aged).
Interestingly, the food on my “delicious” diet came about without any effort to specifically change the macronutrient composition of the food I eat, and is pretty close to the carbohydrate intake recommended by Lutz’s clinical studies.
I go through a very large quantity of vegetables every week, and a fair amount of fruit as well, so I’m getting many more nutrients than the typical American diet, and significantly more fiber as well. All I’ve really reduced significantly is bread and sweeteners (which incidentally make up a large amount of the American diet), so it’s hard to claim that what I’ve been eating is unhealthy, even though it does meet some definition of low-carbohydrate living.
P.S. Making your own food is cheaper too!