March 22, 2010

Can only contrarians stick with a low-carb diet these days?

Low-carb diets are far and away the most effective at alleviating all symptoms of metabolic syndrome -- high body fat, high triglycerides, insulin resistance, etc. -- because these all spring from throwing your blood sugar levels outta whack, and that is caused by eating too many carbs. Plus they are the least physiologically painful diets to go on because fat and protein satisfy hunger, while carbs cause hunger by driving up insulin and thus locking away fat and depriving you of energy -- so your body screams at you to eat some more. You don't have to count calories in general, you get to eat tasty food, you lose your sweet tooth, and you're more energetic overall.

So why do people who experiment with low-carb eating and see the positive results for themselves give up? My mother jumped on the low-carb bandwagon around 2003 or so and truly seemed like a different person. Approaching 50 years old, she'd lost most of the body fat she'd built up during her 40s and had so much energy she didn't know what to do with it. Exercise was something she wanted to do, not a chore, and even after getting back from the gym she would still have enough energy to jump and bounce around the living room, just to show off how healthy she was. But the low-carb fad died and like most Americans she's now back to eating mostly carbs, although they tend to be low-glycemic. She still competes in ballroom dancing, but her energy level isn't what it used to be. Last summer I got my father on a low-carb diet for a few weeks or months, and he lost weight, wasn't hungry, and never felt cranky. By the end of the summer, though, he'd gone back to his old ways.

These examples are hardly atypical. It's understandable why other dieters would revert, but it's puzzling with low-carb eaters because everything starts to improve and they can see it with their own eyes. It is not a diet that requires a constant exercise of willpower because, again, the food tastes great, you don't have to count calories, and your health picks up. And since you lose your sweet tooth, it's not the eventual caving in to that pint of ice cream. I indulge in sweets once every two or three months, but then I go right back because it only takes one pint of ice cream for me to say "that's enough." After that, sweets are too saccharine to tolerate, and I want to get back to eggs, chorizo, and pate.

Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, has speculated that those who go back to a high-carb diet do so because they lack support from their doctors and other health care people -- indeed, they might get an earful about how this diet is going to kill them right away. That hectoring from the man in the white coat is enough to make the low-carb eater second-guess what's best for themselves. This means that the only people who will take to low-carb eating over the long term are those who are fine with -- and may even take pleasure in -- telling Dr. Know-It-All how far they're veering from his supposed dietary wisdom. Remember this little rant by Denis Leary in Demolition Man?

I think Taubes is right about that, but it actually applies much more broadly to everyone who will ever find out what you eat -- not only those in your social circle but anyone they might tell, other patrons when you're eating out, and so on. They all believe, wrongly, that eggs, sausage, butter, etc., is poison and that grains are healthy. They've internalized this from what the experts in the private sector say and from governmental warnings and propaganda. Most of the time the experts are right, but not here. If nutrition had no government interference, the diets proven to do best would win acclaim.

Once the government steps in, though, it has no incentive to find out what a good diet is -- it's not going to go bankrupt if it makes the wrong recommendations, unlike a private dieting firm. People trust the government when it comes to issuing warnings on safety -- is it safe to fly, to drive without seatbelts, etc.? -- so once the government scares the hell out of everyone about eating animal products, people will take that very seriously and not be likely to change their minds about it. *

So a low-carb eater is going to have to endure the disgusted looks and shaming stares from not only their social circle whose thoughts they care about, but also from the mob of mankind. "Jesus -- beef with butter, then ham and eggs with cheese. I guess he just doesn't care about his health. What a filthy pig." Even below that are the friendly jokes they'll always hear relating to their diet. It's not a brazen insult, but still a stream of remarks about your diet raises the psychic cost of eating that way. "There goes agnostic ordering a burger without a bun," or "So, what, you're too good to eat breadsticks? Are you saying we're bad people for eating them, then?"

And notice how no one -- anymore -- will make jokes about someone's vegetarian or vegan diet. Now they make remarks if you're an anti-vegan! How perverted has the received wisdom become?

I think it's this regard for peer approval, which in general is a good thing that keeps us from going off the deep end, together with our peers' wrongheaded beliefs about what healthy food is, that makes it so tough for most people to stay on a low-carb diet. These barriers make sure that the only ones who will enjoy the diet long-term are those who aren't moved by peer disapproval if they believe themselves to be in the right. Hey guys, I know you all think this is bad eating, but with all due respect you don't know anything about nutrition, so I'm going to politely ignore your attempts at shaming me into the skin-destroying and energy-sapping diets that you all follow because the experts and the government told you to. If you've spent any time reading low-carb people, you can tell that they have this contrarian and slightly libertarian streak.

This explains why it was easy to follow a low-carb plan in the early-mid 2000s. It suddenly became fashionable and therefore pre-approved by a large fraction of the crowd. You wouldn't have felt like a weirdo, unlike now. The views of doctors, health experts, government screwballs, etc., did not change at all during that time or since. What changed was what the crowd believed. So while Taubes was pretty close, it's actually how the mob is going to judge us that determines how easy or tough it will be to do something. We care less about our own health than we do about how others perceive our health-related behaviors.

* This shows why low-carb diets do not win out even among private dieting firms. The average person does not trust a for-profit firm to figure out what healthy is because he distrusts the profit motive. Since the government has no such motive, he will trust them to figure out what's safe. Suppose that seatbelts didn't really reduce mortality risk, but that the government kept a steady stream of warnings about the dangers of driving around unbuckled, in contrast to private firms who said "don't listen to that bull." Consumers would trust the government's warnings and demand seatbelts from for-profit carmakers -- even if the latter were not required by law to have them.

Similarly, when the government warns that dietary fat and cholesterol are harmful, it doesn't matter if it's nonsense. People will believe the government because there's no profit motive for them to lie, and they'll therefore demand diet programs from private firms that are all in the low-fat / low-cholesterol direction. They just wouldn't trust one that said "eat more beef and liver, and less bread and sugar." And once more, people really care about how others view them rather than about their own health, so the private firms that will dominate in the dieting industry are those that are best at giving consumers a diet that will garner the highest approval ratings from the crowd, not those that are best at improving the consumer's blood lipid profile or other objective measures of health.


  1. I knew someone who went on Atkins. He lost a ton of weight but had no energy. How does that work?

  2. This is a good point: different social perceptions would indeed go a long way towards helping people stick to low carb diets. But, I don't think it's the whole story. There is something to "comfort food" (e.g. sweets or fried shit) relaxing you (in the short term) when you're stressed out or down. Sure, when your body has completely adjusted to a low carb diet, the short-term stress-alleviating "pull" of comfort food is weaker, but it only takes a few slips before that pull starts to exert itself more and more strongly, and even in a few days, you're in danger of falling completely off the wagon. Then--and this is especially true if you're more endo than ectomorphic-- I believe you start re-storing the fat you lost quite quickly when you go on a carb binge longer than two or three days, which has a further morale-lowering effect, leading to more carelessness etc. At any rate, I'm speaking for myself (as I'm "contrarian"); I've been ripped and I've been fat, and the psychological dynamic I mention has repeated itself more than once in the past.

    Another problem for me has come during times of trying to build a lot of muscle -- you won't maximize muscle hypertrophy on a very low carb diet (though most bodybuilders avoid carbs at night). Everytime I started neglected cardio and interval training, and "gone heavy," I've tended to gain fat with muscle (lifting heavy weights also makes me really hungry), so now I've just concentrated on sticking to a low carb diet and maintaining a more natural level of muscle.

    One more pt: I believe (don't have time to look it up) that seat belt laws actually don't reduce mortality. People subconsciously drive more carefully when their seat belts aren't fastened, such that seat belt laws have reduced the number of mortalities per accident, but increased the total number of accidents, and I believe the net result was a wash. In other words, incentives matter, etc.

  3. The more refined carbs are, or the more sugar there is, the more addictive they are. Most people don't or can't stick with it long enough to get over the addiction, physically or psychologically. But if you're the type who doesn't care what other people think, you're more likely to stick to what you know is right regardless.

  4. Steve Johnson3/22/10, 7:40 AM

    "Once the government steps in, though, it has no incentive to find out what a good diet is -- it's not going to go bankrupt if it makes the wrong recommendations, unlike a private dieting firm."

    Actually, the worse government does in an area the more it benefits (as long as the whole endeavor doesn't fall apart). Bigger problems mean bigger budgets, more power and more rules to be issued.

    Some areas government can't indulge in this: the FAA for example. People would notice if planes fell out of the sky due to requirements that they be made out of cement.

    Areas where cause and effect are attenuated are ripe for bad government advice. Criticism doesn't get heard because it gets filtered into partisanship which shuts of logical faculties.* In the case of diet advice, most people follow it and fault themselves for the bad results (or never even notice because even though they're getting fat, sluggish and weak everyone else is too). What effect does this end up having on governments who give bad advice? Well, they get to create childhood obesity education programs and community interventions and get on the news for creating "Meatless Mondays" in school cafeterias (a real news item in NYC recently).

    "Can only contrarians stick with a low-carb diet these days?" I think our society is reaching a point where only contrarians can be sane.

    * As an example, Matt Taibbi makes a great case that everyone is ignoring the actual issues in the banking meltdown specifically because criticizing Fannie / Freddie is considered a Republican thing to do and criticizing the operation of Wall Street is considered a Democratic thing to do.

  5. Steve Johnson3/22/10, 7:42 AM

    Oh, a link to that Taibbi piece if anyone is interested and didn't see it when it first made the rounds:

  6. I fell off the bandwagon not because of peers or doctors, who were uniformly happy with the positive changes the diet had on my weight and health, but because it's boring as fuck to eat that way. It got to the point where I couldn't even look at eggs anymore. I was sick of nuts and even steaks had little appeal any more. I liked my scotch, but really missed good beer.

    Now, obviously, the fact that low-carb food is boring is a big plus to the diet if you stick to it -- you end up only eating if you're really hungry, which is almost unheard of in America (or, I suspect, anywhere else where food is plentiful and good.) But damn, who wants to live like that?

    I know intellectually that it's worth it, that feeling great and not being overweight should make up for the fact that it's boring. But when you're looking at one more omelet or one more steak or one more handful of nuts and you just can't take it anymore, it's hard to convince yourself to stick to it.

  7. I think you`re simplifying things.

    The plain truth is that low-carb does not work as advertised for many, many people.

    I now believe that low-carb is extremely effective for SOME people, but for many people it simply isn`t, and that`s why it hasn`t taken off and become extremely popular.

    I am a case in point. I was completely won over by low-carb - I loved the theory of it, I read Taubes book, it sounded utterly compelling and convincing, everything made sense about it and I was an enthusiastic convert.

    For FOUR months I stuck to my regime. The sugar cravings NEVER went away. The carb cravings NEVER went away. I became physically sluggish and morose, I lost my ebullience and high spirits, and just felt in some indefinable way *wrong*. This lasted and lasted and never subsided - I kept on expecting these symptoms to vanish after a few weeks, I thought they were just a transition period. But they weren`t - they wre my body crying out that something was wrong with my diet.

    I remember finally breaking my diet on a whole wheat bagel and peanut butter - four months after not touching bread or sugar, when supposedly I should have had no taste for it - and being filled with a sense of such physical satisfaction and rightness it was indescribable.

    As I continued eating more carbs after that, my natural ebulliance and high spirits returned - I had almost forgotten what that was like - and my physical energy soared.

    While I loved the theory of low-carb and wanted it to so much to work, I have too much respect for reality and results to not accept the verdict of my body.

    I now believe that claims made on behalf of low-carb are vastly overblown and don`t come anywhere near representing the truth. I now think they work for SOME people but not all - and that people are different.

    I still minimize refined sugar, although I don`t deny myself that at all, and eat a limited amount of whole wheat and fruits but way more than would ever be allowed on any low-carb diet, but I dont pursue anything recognizable as low-carb.

    I have had occasion to revise my theory of it as well - it simply makes no sense that in the 15,000 years or so since mans turn to agriculture he has not evolved to handle such a diet but has simply remained tied to a pre-Neolithic diet. That simply makes no sense. In that time frame we have managed to evolve calcium tolerance. Ashkenazi Jews in less than 2,000 years have managed to evolve stupendous intellgience, but somehow in 15,000 years we have not managed to change anything abut our diet preferences? Makes no sense.

    Low-carb is an attractive theory and feeds into our desire to find the one ultimate recipe for success, but like most things its claims are vastly overblown. It`s too bad.

  8. I have been on a low-carb diet for about 6 months. I lost a lot of weight but also am somewhat low energy. I can lift weights and surf but I don't think I could jog a 10K race or anything.

    One of my brothers quit his low carb diet for this reason. He likes to play a lot of club baseball and he really did not have the energy on a low carb diet.

    I often think about this issue. Everybody seems to quit these diets after a certain period of time. I don't really see how I am different, but I don't really want to quit either.

  9. Well, everyone has to eat. So, the trick is, eat what's appropriate for your metabolism, eat what provides adequate nourishment, and avoid consuming too much omega-6 fat and added sugars.

  10. And notice how no one -- anymore -- will make jokes about someone's vegetarian or vegan diet. Now they make remarks if you're an anti-vegan! How perverted has the received wisdom become?

    I sure as hell make scornful remarks about vegans all the time. If I knew one who was male, I'd call him a pussy to his face.

    I went low carb last summer. Not totally fanatical about it, but the results were great! My doc has totally reinforced it - he is tremendously excited that I lost 25lbs.

  11. I wonder if many of you complaining about lack of energy on low carb diets were getting enough fats?

    - Breeze

  12. Another reason to consider for the reason so many people drop low carb diets may be that it requires too much constant personal discipline for most people.

    - Breeze

  13. generic commenter4/20/10, 3:15 PM

    HBD applies as much or more to diet as it does to any other aspect of life related to human biology. For the last several thousand years some peoples' ancestors have been eating radically different foods than other peoples' ancestors and evolving to adapt to it. For example adult lactose digestion starting in northern Europe.

    Low-carb works for some people and not others. If your ancestors ate mostly animal products, for example people whose ancestors lived in northern Europe, then your physiology can probably handle low-carb quite well: higher energy, etc. If your ancestors were early grain growers and ate mostly carbs, your biology and psychology may well suffer on a low-carb diet. Probably few people respond well in the long run to high amounts of sugar, as these are too evolutionarily recent to adapt to. Many people will just have to experiment to see if particular diets work for them or not, and pushing a diet as one-size-fits-all is extremely harmful.

  14. "Low-carb works for some people and not others. If your ancestors ate mostly animal products, for example people whose ancestors lived in northern Europe, then your physiology can probably handle low-carb quite well: higher energy, etc. If your ancestors were early grain growers and ate mostly carbs, your biology and psychology may well suffer on a low-carb diet."

    This statement is nonsense. I cannot stand these made up notions.

    If people go back to eating high carb and suffer fat gain and ill-health once again, that is a choice they make. What person in their right mind would care more about what people think about how they eat than their own health and feeling of robustness? That sounds like a mental/emotional problem to me that requires therapy.

    Sugar is like a drug - very alluring and can in the case of grain, alter one's DNA.

  15. "the government has no profit motive"
    wow, I would love to live under a government like that... lol

  16. I think another aspect to consider is laziness and/or convenience. I successfully kept a low carb diet for more than 18 months and fell off the wagon when my husband got ill. Between doctor's visits, tests, and ultimately a 1-week hospital stay/surgery, I got off track and it has been exceedingly difficult to get back on. Face it, it's much harder work to plan ahead and cook to maintain a low carb lifestyle than a "normal" diet. Not saying it isn't worth it, but life can definitely get in the way sometimes.


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