Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; he spends his daytime hours at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. Yehuda is co-author of best-selling jQuery in Action and Rails 3 in Action. He spends most of his time hacking on open source—his main projects, like Thor, Handlebars and Janus—or traveling the world doing evangelism work. He can be found on Twitter as @wycats and on Github.

On Food and Weight Loss

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!

17 Responses to “On Food and Weight Loss”

I would love to hear more about which vegetables you’re eating, and how you’re preparing full meals where veggies are the primary ingredient. Your food posts have prompted me to look into CSA’s here in Brooklyn, and it turns out I’ve actually got a few options. Some of these ingredients they ship I’ve never cooked with though, so I’m curious how you’re finding ways to use the items that come from the CSA.

What about alcohol intake wycats?

Are you sure making your own food is cheaper, when you factor in cooking time? Surely if you spent that time working, and outsourced much of your cooking, you’d come out ahead financially. I’m not saying you should do that, just disputing your way is cheaper.

Eating only low carbohydrate food is not healthy either. Carbs are essential, especially for brain functions. The best diet is no diet, meaning eat something of everything in moderation spread throughout the whole day: carbs, fats, proteins, minerals, waters, etc. It’s all about balance.

There’s also a huge misunderstanding about fats; these days I can’t find my full cream milks, yoghurts, cheeses etc. anymore, it’s all 98% low-fat and all that, it’s ridiculous. Fats are good, but you need to know which ones are essential and which ones kill you; in that respect the book “Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill” is an essential read.

I notice that more people are waking up. Programs like the Ministry of Food by Jamie Olivier, MasterChef in Australia, Hells Kitchen in the US, etc. are all propagating the same message: simple fresh food tastes the best and is the healthiest.

Outsourced food isn’t real food. Period. If you taste real food it’s more addictive than that outsourced crap.

The “calorie is a calorie is a calorie’ motto has always seemed incredibly oversimplified, based on how complex the human body is. It also doesn’t take into account the health benefits of getting your calories from sources rich in micronutrients.

@lawrence “Eating only low carbohydrate food is not healthy either. Carbs are essential, especially for brain functions.”

You’ll note that I don’t actually eat only low-carbohydrate food. I eat plenty of vegetables, a moderate amount of fruit, and occasional bread or sweeteners. Human beings evolved quite nicely for millions of years before we discovered the ability to make bread or refine sugar, and while carbohydrates themselves are important to our functioning, bread and sugar are not.

I’d also point out that our bodies are capable of synthesizing carbohydrates, while it cannot synthesize certain essential amino or fatty acids. This is probably due to the fact that our evolutionary ancestors did not always have access to adequate carbohydrate, and the evolutionary winners developed mechanisms for surviving on much lower carbohydrate levels that I am eating (again, 60-80 grams daily is hardly Atkins-levels).

@elliot The time I spend cooking had previously been spent watching TV. I suppose it’s hypothetically possible to work at 7pm, but I’d really rather do something relaxing after a long day at work.

Also, the whole point of this is that outsourced food isn’t as good :P

What if our evolutionary ancestors were not from Earth… ;-)

I think our ability to synthesise carbs is more an indication that if the body does not have access to glucose it dies instantly. I.e. the availability of glucose is critical. This is a feature of all animal life btw, not just humans.

The jury is still out about whether carb synthesis due to low-carb intake should be considered a healthy conversion as it dismantles proteins to achieve this (including essential ones) and takes fat into an alternative metabolic pathway known as ketosis. I can’t say who’s wrong / right, just be aware of it.

@David too right…

I guess we’ll be able to assess your progress in London later this month. Maybe I should bring a camera…

@lawrence I agree that the jury is still out on a number of things, which is why I think that the extremely low-carb intake of Atkins induction is potentially problematic. The authors of “Life Without Bread”, who recommend of 72g, had similar concerns based on side-effects that they saw in certain vulnerable populations. The authors of that book arrived at 72g after extensive clinical practice (10,000 patients), and their recommendation is in fact consistent with the most recent studies on the topic.

Importantly, eating that many carbs does *not* force the body into ketosis, which is another reason for the recommendation (the jury being out on it).

Yehuda, I’m pretty much going down the same path you are, though as a student, I probably cheat a bit more.

Lately I’ve been reading about the so-called Paleo Diet, which seems promising. Have you heard of it?

I almost feel silly chiming in here but I found this book [http://books.google.com/books?id=CX8huSU0n8AC] to be very eye opening and helpful with regards to eating healthfully. It’s all based on scientific fact, which is important to me.

Most of the book reiterates the same facts that the authors of Life Without Bread discovered. What I found most interesting was a chapter in the book where the author rejects a few popular diets such as the Atkins Diet and the blood type diet through scientific fact.

Anyways, my two cents. And way to go with choosing to eat healthy!

I recently heard about “The end of overeating,” and very much need to get that book. My biggest problem has been portion control, which sounds like the exact topic of that book. Unfortunately, it’s checked out until August from my local library!

In regard to “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie,” I think that reader may be oversimplifying the argument. (I don’t think) anyone is saying that all calories are equal in every sense of the word, what they are saying is that with regard specifically to weight loss, calorie control and exercise output are the biggest factors affecting how much you lose. That doesn’t mean that eating 1500 calories of Crisco is equally as good for you as eating 1500 calories of a well balanced diet, but both diets would trigger a similar amount of weight loss.

What I’ve been doing to keep my eating habits under control (losing a total of 25 lbs so far) is using a website to track my eating, creating a food/workout/weight log. I was using fitday.com, now I’m using dailyburn.com b/c it’s way friggin cooler. Dailyburn is really nice, because in addition to being a very nice food log, it also lets you compete against other people (I’m in a competition to lose 20% of my weight by the end of the year!). It’s really helped me think about what I eat, and even has an iGoogle app so that every time I go to my browser home page I can see how many days over the past week I’ve met my workout & eating goals. Once a week I get updates on my “Lose 20%” competition.

I think that keeping a food log is absolutely critical for me, personally, and think it might help someone else out there trying to lose weight. It’s way easy to do, taking maybe 5 minutes out of my day, keeps me honest, and provides a sense of competition with a greater community.

I followed the “Carbohydrate Addicts Diet (Drs. Richard & Rachael Heller)” for years, and am back on it now. http://www.carbohydrateaddicts.com/ is an antique website they maintain.

It adds one tweak to what you’re doing: the body decides how much insulin to produce at the next meal by the amount of carb in previous meals. By eating two low carb meals in a row, then sneaking your carbs into a one-hour window, the insulin stays low, and the carbs don’t go into storage.

Your approach to food resembles what I call “authentic eating.” In other words, eating as nutrition and enjoyment, sans the addictions. I’ve noticed that if I listen to my body and learn to distinguish addiction-based cravings from nutrition-based ones, I eat less, healthy and balanced. Your choice to invest in cooking for yourself adds another layer — being able to combine and portion the ideal taste/nutrition combo that your body desires.

When speaking about calories, remember that calorie content was determined by actually burning food in furnaces. In the 19th century. See http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/abstract/136/12/2957

It’s amazing that the whole food industry is built on the belief that the human cell burns food the same way fire does. If you listen to your body you know that “a calorie is a calorie” is not quite true.

It is possible to add authentic exercise to authentic nutrition. Fitness approaches exercise the way “food science” approaches nutrition — by asserting that the human body is a machine. This model works, to an extend. What I observed in the “natural athletes” around me and later discovered for myself is that physical activity that brings joy results in exercise with a very different quality. For me, that’s dancing and fighting (or, acrobatics and martial arts), both providing excellent body exercise and a pathway to mastery.

The direction and quality of attention is crucial in both nutrition and exercise. Our culture seems to be oblivious to both, so we eat and exercise without paying attention.

For more on the concept of conscious exercise inquire in Feldenkreis and see radicallytransformativefitness.com

Coming to this very late but I’d just like to add that not all calories are the same. they can be as different as glucose is from fructose, both appear in many foods including fruit. one is metabolised by the whole body the other is processed only by liver and can be described as a toxin. I think most of the advice you give in your diet is excellent, I’m not convinced about bread especially the high fibre low added sugar varieties. Bread and pasta, rice and potatoes are the staple diet of most of the (non-fat) world.

I thought this YouTube was very intersting
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin. Series: UCSF Mini Medical School for the Public [7/2009] [Health and Medicine] [Show ID: 16717]

Again coming to this late…

Interesting side topic. While I’ve never had weight problems to start with, over the last 2-3 years I’ve gradually adapted some of my diet in a similar way and found the effect on my immune system to be massive.

Likewise, it’s not what you eat, it’s how you eat it. A lot of mainstream sources like seem to vilify certain types of food such as high fat food etc. Personally I believe a lot of down to preparation. If you look at most processed foods, it is done in a way that bulks up the physical mass of the food sacrificing nutritional quality. Chocolate is a excellent example of this, as it is normally processed in a way that renders it into nothing more than concentrated sugar and fat. However raw unprocessed chocolate / cacao is considered a super food. It is all down to preparation, and as some people suggest, the ‘keep it simple stupid’ mantra goes a long way here.

Given that, I personally believe that understanding different qualities in foods goes a long way. A good example is with cooking oil; when you’re in the supermarket just about every oil claims to be the “best”. The reality is that different types of oils should be used in different contexts. (i.e. Extra virgin olive oil tends be best used for dressing, due to strong flavor & low spoke point, rice bran oil is best for frying, sesame oil for stir fries etc).

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