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Calorie Counting: The 98-Year Mistake

03/01/2016 23:45 | Updated 03 January 2016

It's January. Millions of people will soon begin a weight-loss-motivated diet. Most of them will fail. The staggering predictability of this try-fail phenomenon begs the question, "Is dieting fundamentally flawed?"

According to one of the world's most prominent endocrinologists, it is. "We need to turn dieting on its head," says Dr. David Ludwig, a Harvard School of Public Health Professor and Founding Director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Boston Children's Hospital. I recently spoke with Dr. Ludwig about his new book, Always Hungry?, which promises to completely change the way we think about dieting.

The Calorie Model

Classical dieting is based on the calorie model of nutrition, which says that gaining or losing weight depends on energy balance. In other words, when you consume more calories than you expend, you gain weight, and vice versa.

The calorie model is simplistic and outdated because it treats all calories as equal, focusing squarely on quantity while ignoring quality. The calorie model implies that losing weight is simply a matter of reducing caloric intake while ignoring food cravings. So where does this idea come from?

Ninety-eight years ago, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health, the first book to advocate calorie counting. It sold over 2 million copies through its 55th edition, printed in 1939. Hunt Peters popularized the idea that fat is bad because fat has 9 calories per gram, compared to just 4 for protein and carbohydrates.

She also introduced the idea that weight loss/maintenance requires deprivation and willpower. According to Hunt Peters, weight-loss diets should not exceed 1,200 calories per day. To overcome hunger pains, she recommended, "lemon or orange peel, or those little aromatic breath sweeteners."

In 1977, the US government released its first Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which further vilified fat while encouraging calorie-restricted, high-carbohydrate diets. As such, for nearly a century, the odds have been stacked against dieters.

The New School

"Overeating doesn't make you fat. The process of getting fat makes you overeat," Dr. Ludwig explained during our conversation. In feeding studies, he continued, you can induce weight gain or weight loss by over- or underfeeding subjects, but once these studies end, bodyweight usually returns to baseline. Baseline bodyweight has a genetic component, but is heavily influenced by diet and lifestyle, as evidenced by the fact that obesity prevalence continues to increase.

"Something is triggering our fat cells to store calories, leaving too few for the rest of the body," Dr. Ludwig explained. When this happens, we feel hungry, metabolism slows, and we gain weight. So what's the culprit? Based on his extensive, peer-reviewed research, processed foods, particularly those high in carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, potato products, cookies, candy, sugary beverages, etc.), are to blame. These foods promote insulin spikes, which program fat cells to store more calories. "Insulin is the ultimate fat cell fertilizer," says Dr. Ludwig.

So the problem isn't eating too much, it's eating the wrong types of food, which puts us in an unwinnable battle. One of the primary misconceptions to overcome is the idea that fat is unhealthy. To the contrary, a diet with higher levels of fat is one of the keys to effective weight loss.

Always Hungry?

Dr. Ludwig's new book encapsulates his decades of groundbreaking research on weight loss and metabolism. After examining scientific research showing why traditional diets fail, Always Hungry? delves into a practical, results-oriented action plan. How does it work?

The Always Hungry? plan, which was pilot-tested on 230 adults, starts with a 2-week reset, which excludes all grains, potatoes, sugar, and other processed carbohydrates. During this reset, fat accounts for 50% of total calories (roughly double the amount recommended by the USDA's MyPlate).

During Phase 2, fat drops to 40% of total calories, while the plan expands to include whole grains, like brown rice, steel-cut oats, and quinoa. This is when excess pounds start dropping, which for some people could be 5 to 10 pounds, or for others could be 50 pounds. Finally, during Phase 3, small amounts of processed carbohydrates are reintroduced. This enables you to find your "tipping point," or the amount of processed carbohydrates at which you personally start gaining weight. The Always Hungry? plan isn't about eliminating sugar and other refined carbohydrates absolutely; it's about understanding your unique physiological limitations and living within them.

As a professional chef, I greatly admire this book's carefully crafted recipes and meal plans, which were created by a professional whole-foods chef. You won't have to worry about eating bland meals or about calculating fat and carbohydrate ratios. All the legwork has been done for you. The meals can be prepared in 30-minutes or less and many of them incorporate leftovers from the previous day, saving you even more time.

Losing weight and feeling more energized requires a more sophisticated, scientific approach. We must forget about counting calories and focus on calorie quality. It's 2016. Let's finally put this 98-year dieting mistake to bed.

Christopher James Clark is an award-winning nutrition science writer and the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Nutritional Grail.

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