What if Everything You Think You Know About Losing Weight is Wrong?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
If you’re someone who’s watching what you eat for weight loss or better health, you probably believe that obesity is caused by eating more calories than you expend each day. And that keeping fat intake—especially saturated fat—relatively low and carbohydrates pretty high is the best way to reduce calories and protect your heart health at the same time.

You’re probably also under the impression that both of these assumptions have been “proven” by tons of scientific research over the last 50 years or so. After all, that’s why the government and most professional medical organizations recommend reduced calorie, low-fat diets for weight loss.

Well, you (and the experts) could be wrong…

At least, that’s the message that’s coming from one of the most talked-about books concerning the relationship between food, obesity, and health that’s been published in quite a while. That book is Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, by science writer Gary Taubes.

Before you panic and start worrying about whether you need to clean out your cupboards and restock them with the “right” stuff, let me say that this is not another diet book or a book on healthy foods, with a list of things you should and shouldn’t eat. Nor does it recommend that you stop worrying about your calorie balance or start eating more saturated fat.

It’s a long and pretty scholarly book that takes a critical look at the quality and reliability of the science and research that’s been done on the relationship between diet, weight, and cardiovascular health over the last 60 years or so. Not exactly light reading--but full of very interesting information.

Is It Really All About Calories?

In Good Calories/Bad Calories, Gary Taubes does a pretty convincing job of showing how the conventional low-fat, reduced calorie approach to weight loss is based on a mountain of scientific research that is fundamentally biased and flawed. He makes two main points:

  • The basic idea that people accumulate body fat because they take in more energy (calories) than they expend was borrowed from physics (the first law of thermodynamics) and applied to obesity research without being scientifically tested or evaluated to see if it made sense to do that. There's no doubt that eating too much is one reason people gain weight, but there's also no reason to believe it's the whole story. Or to rule out other hypotheses without investigation, just because you buy this one--which is exactly what has happened.

  • In fact, there is a lot of evidence that a calorie surplus isn't the only factor that can lead to obesity. Although it has improperly been ignored or discounted by mainstream obesity researchers, Taubes claims, there is substantial evidence for an "alternative" theory of obesity--namely, that it can be the product of a defect in fat metabolism. In other words, many people might add bodyfat because some flaw in the system of hormones and enzymes that regulate the flow of fat into and out of fat cells causes them to store fat much more easily than they can take it out of storage and use it as fuel—even when they don’t overeat.

If that’s the case, Taubes argues, then a low calorie, low-fat diet could potentially be the exact opposite of what’s needed, because it would result essentially in “starving” other cells and interfering with their normal function, while not having any noticeable effect on the size of fat cells. If you're thinking this sounds a lot like what happens when you go into "starvation mode," you're right.

So what does all this mean?

Personally, I think Taubes’s claim that much of the science behind the traditional calorie surplus theory of obesity is "bad science" is pretty hard to disagree with. And many of the recent discoveries related to genetic differences between obese and normal weight people do seem to support the idea that people can gain or lose fat even when their energy balance numbers say they shouldn't.

Taubes speculates that a diet that is relatively higher in fat and protein, and lower in carbohydrates, might be the best solution for people who have some kind of defect in fat metabolism. He bases this on many of the same arguments used by advocates of high-protein diets, like the Atkins diet, about how a high-carbohydrate diet stimulates insulin production, which in turn promotes increased fat storage. He does admit that there is not a lot of evidence to support this position yet, partially because the bias in favor of the low calorie/low fat approach has effectively blocked detailed research along these lines.

But I think he’s getting ahead of himself when he recommends a low-carb, high protein diet as a general strategy for weight loss, for several reasons:

  • The reality still is that most of us gain weight because we actually do eat too much and move too little--and looking for some more complicated explanation will just be a waste of time and effort, at least until we've given the eat less/move more apprach an honest chance and seen for sure that it really doesn't work for us.

  • The fact that the conventional approach could be wrong for some people doesn’t automatically mean that turning it upside down will produce the right approach--even for those people, much less everyone else. If all the new genetic research tells us anything at this point, it’s that this business of storing and burning body fat is far more complex than anyone has imagined, and that there isn’t likely to be one approach that’s right for everyone.

  • Even if science is able to figure out why some people add fat even without a calorie surplus, while others burn more calories than normal when they overeat, it’s not going to change the fact that we each need to figure out how much is the right amount for us to eat, and what kind of foods will give us the results we’re looking for.

The Bottom Line: You're an "Experiment of One."

You can do the individual experimenting it takes to figure out your own best approach, right now, without waiting for the scientists to come up with a bunch of genetic tests to figure it out for you. This will be a lot easier if you avoid joining one theoretical camp or another in the ongoing diet wars, and maintain an open mind about your own situation while you do your experimenting.

What do you think? Do you have trouble shedding fat with a conventional lower-fat, reduced calorie diet? What sort of experimenting have you done?

For those of you who want to read more about this, but lack the time or inclination to read all 600+ pages of Good Calories/Bad Calories, here’s a shorter, more user-friendly article Taubes wrote outlining his argument.

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genetics is very much a part of our health. Learn then see how you can make it better. Report
BONDMANUS2002 3/12/2019
Absolutely Report
SXB990 3/6/2019
Great article Report
I tried the recommended amounts of fat, carbs, proteins, and fiber that SP was giving me here in my meal plan. I worked out, I got in all my water and lost a measly .2lbs each week.
I went low carb (cutting out breads, cereals, pastas...keeping potatoes and brown rice), eat much higher fat and protein, cut out most sugars and am now losing near 2lbs a week....same exercise routine, same calorie range. For me, the advice in this article is dead on. Report
ANHELIC 1/21/2019
Thank you for the information. Report
Interesting Report
Excellent article and this line IMO says it all "The reality still is that most of us gain weight because we actually do eat too much and move too little." Friends are constantly looking to new ways to lose the weight which ultimately they don't do. I finally found that choosing the eat real food, less of it and more plants plus moving more worked to get the weight off and keep it off. Report
I’m a big believer in Gary Taubes theories and have lost 58 lbs in just under 7 months. Don’t miss the carbs and it hardly seems like I’m dieting. My Weight & Blood Pressure is Down& my Dr is thrilled! For anyone that wants to find out more, check out Taubes or Low Carb High Fat LCHF on YouTube. Report
Interesting theory. Basically it sounds like he is promoting KETO. Works for some but depends on your overall health. Report
My diet has worked to keep me at goal for over 45 years. Because it takes effort, to me it's a diet, but to other looking in, it just looks like I eat like a normal person. Thank you Weight Watchers! Report
great read Report
For all the naysayers about Gary Taubes and his books:

Taubes did his undergrad in applied physics at Harvard University (BS, 1977) and went on to get his Masters in Journalism, so, not just "some writer".

His specialty? Bad science: his first book was about cold fusion.

When he finished that he asked some colleagues what a good "bad science" topic would be and they shouted "Nutrition". Some of the worst science out there!

His books are mostly about the history of how we got stuck with things like trans fats and a low fat diet craze that coincided with the beginning of the obesity epidemic. Report
It's time the voice of reason is starting to be heard. Calories in vs calories out is not the answer. You can't out-exercise a poor diet. It starts with food. Feed your body clean, wholesome foods, skip the grocery aisles full of packaged foods loaded with chemicals, avoid sugar and high fructose corn syrup, enjoy a healthier body. Report
My father had retired and I want with him to talk about his diet. I was talk that genes causes some people to store fat easier no matter the intake of calories and fats. That is the why many family members had difficulty losing weight. I learn what works for me is large amount of fruits and veggies of colors and cooking my own food not going out to eat. Report
Sorry but I haven't found Taubes that scholarly at all. Most people he's interviewed have said that he's been quoting them out of context. He's taking advantage of the mistake that the U.S. government made when they recommended eating tons and tons of carbohydrates (a mistake which they have rectified long ago). Report
I have overate, underate, have a much higher sodium intake than I could ever imagine and don't eat as healthy as I thought I did. I just finished the first week and despite all managed to yo yo down 2-3 pounds which surprised me. I can actually lose weight which took me years to find out, I just get on emotional roller coasters and time crunches where I grab anything I can to make myself feel better. It's hard to know when I am hungry, over tired, stressed, etc because I get a weary, and want to get something to get my energy back NOW. I've lived all my life as ADHD and either I'm wired or tired. Now, I'm trying not to be either but don't know what "normal' and feeling "good" feels like much of the time. Report
I do lose weight faster if I go with a high protein-low carb diet. But I still think a balanced approach of healthful food is better for you and also that losing weight slowly is better. Report
The body is an amazing thing...really it is.......you will have to see what works for YOU and your body......the common misconception that it is as simple as eat less move more....NO it is not that simple...at all.....when i first started my weightloss journey i did that i cut my calories to no more than 1200 a day and was doing 2 hours of cardio you would think that the weight would surely melt off......nope ...not at all.....limiting the intake of calories is much more to it than just that.....there is definatly good and bad calories.....i have now uped my calorie intake to 1500-1900 of good ...very healthy calories and only 1 hr of cardio a day and have lost 70 pounds in 6 months ......but what works for one is not definate it will work for all ...you have to tweak it and see..... Report
Yes good article. I think what he's talking about a thyroid defficiency. The thing is that there are so many other things that our body uses fat for...brain protection and functioning..cholesterol balance.. Our bodie have various systems of checks and balances. If someone isn't loosing weight and they should be,I would suggest that they do some research into this then have those systems checked for defficiencies. I have been in this situation myself. It was because I was in starvation mode. My body is different than many women I have conciderable muscle mass and a propensity for muscle memory which is a gegtic trait. This means that I gain weight fast and the bigger my muscles get the more my body needs. Its a great feature when you have worked so hard that you've turned your body into a machine. I can't wait to be in such good shape that I could eat a whole pie and my system will be so strong and afficient that it will just be like bring it on I just stored all that as usable energy, cause I know this is just fuel for the muscle your going to gain tomorrow. My biggest problem would be not having time to eat enough. I'm overwhelmingly busy. Another good reason to get my butt in gear. It's so encredably catheric.. wicked outlet. Report
I couldn't agree more! With harmful chemicals like SLS and polypropelyne glycol in our foods, the need to know what you're putting into your body is greater than ever! Even on weeks that my dh and I couldn't work out, we still lost weight due to the healthy eating habits and actually reading what's on the label of the foods we consume. Great article! Report
Weight loss and gain can never be said to be a straightforward science. Aside from one's basic food intake and activity level, one also has to factor in a bucket load of hormones, from the traditional cortisol and insulin to others like adiponectin and leptin, then you have consider your genetics etc... The basic formula still remains: net weight gain/loss= calories in minus calories out. If you starve yourself you will lose weight. You'll hurt yourself doing it too, but no one can deny that you will lose weight. If you overeat you will gain. The 'calories out' of the formula relies on your metabolism, those pesky hormones both of which you have minimal control over and your physical activity- which you have full control over. Clearly the sensible way to do it would be to decrease calorie intake while enjoying your food, and without starving and increase activity sensibly and in a manner that is sustainable. I lost 60 lb this way- successful experiment I think! Report
Wow lots of good ideas. I think everyone needs to find their own system. My main problem is I don't eat enough for the amount of exercise I do. I have lost 30 pounds since Feb. 1 love that. I have lost 18 inches of hard strength training. I am 63 and it is a daily struggle for me. Report
I lost 100 lbs by eating fewer calories than I burn. Therefore, in my Experiment of One, I have proven (yet again), the first law of thermodynamics.

Keep it simple, for goodness' sake... This constant stream of articles and books seeking to find the "real" reason we're overweight (and it's never our fault) is probably pretty successful in terms of selling books but MOST overweight people just need to eat less and exercise more. Report
I have been thinking about my weight management program as an "experiment" of sorts for a while now. So far my most eye-opening conclusion was that I needed to eat a lot MORE than Spark (or other programs) would recommend. Of course I lose weight when I eat 1,200-1,500 calories a day, but I feel AWFUL. I reset my program, telling Sparks that I wanted to MAINTAIN my weight, and now have a range of about 1,900-2,200. I have lost 9 pounds in 7 weeks on this plan, and I feel GREAT!!! Report
For myself, I'm at a crucial point. I did the low, ultra low calorie / low fat and lost the weight. Ate healthy, still do, and I don't eat more than about 1900 to 2200 calories a day. I've evened out now and have begun my strenght training, and have packed on more muscle, I still have a weight issue around my mid section and even when I was at my lightest, I couldn't get that gut to go. So now I'm forced to go back to the low cal/ low fat to try and remove this last little bit. It stinks because I'll lose the muscle and have to start over again. But I'm determined to remove it. I'll keep reading and an open mind, but I do think each person is equal to a point, and then the last part is where we diverge. Our "normal weight" is something that we as indiviuals have to fight to get too and stay at, once we've tricked our bodies into thinking that our former overweight selves were what we were meant to be originally. It's hard for the body to think that "Oh wait, you mean the extra 15 to ?? lbs weren't what we should have been.... It's so confusing. Report
I, myself, wonder about the effects of recommended levels of carbs on the obese and Type-II diabetics from watching family members and myself struggle when eating all the carbs that are recommended. I wonder if somewhere along the line food abusers mess up the signals that go out when carbs are elevated.

For some reason low-carb and high fat are always linked as a program, but you can lower your carbs and eat healthy fats, such as fish, olive oil, flaxseed. But I think the carb limit that can be tolerated might be different with each individual. I can and have lost weight doing a high carb diet, but I spent every single day very hungry for large portions of that day and I craved more and more carbs. When I keep carbs down in the diabetic zone (I'm not diabetic) I can eat what I need for a healthy weight and not be fighting hunger. Every time I fall off the wagon -- and it's just like an alcholic -- it's because I let myself drift into Empty High Carb Land.

I do wish researchers would be more open minded and less biased so we could get some different research and some real answers. We are a nation of obese people and the standard line isn't working. Most people do not want to be over-weight. They feel hungry. Report
I saw a physician on 20/20 who did Gastric Bypass Surgery. He said patients swore to him that they didn't eat hardly at all, but when he did the surgery, their stomach was stretched out to hold 80 oz. (five pounds) of food. He said "No one has a stomach that huge, unless they have been filling it up and stretching it out to that size." He went on to say "I have NEVER had a patient who didn't lose weight once they couldn't eat all the time." Report
Very interesting article and much has already been said about it. Wouldn't it be nice if someone really did figure out why one child out of six, all raised under the same roof, eating the same foods, and not as much as the "skinny" one next to her, battles a weight problem all of her life? I have always eaten a healthy diet in reasonable amounts, but never stopped gaining weight.
SP is such a great program because once I figured out I had to eat more, I began to lose weight. Now it is 25 lbs. in 6 months. Can't predict what the next six months will yield, but so far, so good. I'll be using that Tracker for the rest of my days!!! Report
Taubes is neither a scientist nor a doctor of anything. He is a freelance writer and has no formal education in nutrition, physiology, or medicine. His expertise is writing what people want to read, just like all professional writers.

Defects in fat metabolism (or carbohydrate or protein metabolism for that matter) is nothing new in either scientiific or medical circles. There is a huge body of scientific literature addressing studies and research in the area dating back to before Taubes was even born. His insinuation that everyone who IS a scientist, nutritionist, physiologist or physician has been wrong all those years is just ludicrous. Certainly there are people with metabolic abnormalies (I happen to be one of them), but, IMO, his writing is nothing more than "comfort food" for those who would rather blame their eating and exercise habits (or lack thereof) on some perceived metabolic disorder that is out of their control, than change their eating and exercise habits.

I have been my own guinea pig for the last 4 years. I have auto-immune thyroiditis which has screwed with my metabolic processes 8 ways to Sunday. Yet I still mananged to lose 150 pounds following the "conventional wisdom" of creating a calorie deficit, eating nutritionally dense food low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and regular exercise. Report
Balance is what works best for me. All things in moderation and make sure I get some form of excercise nearly every day. Report
I was thin and active as a teen and young adult, we ate lots of veggies, fruit and moderate amounts of red meats. My mom didn't like red meat much and was a total veggie fan. I gained weight with each child after I got married and began cooking more varieties of foods, that and marrying a red meat and potato kind of guy. Over the years I have discovered, for me, lowering calorie intake and fat content with increased exercise works well for me. Diets like Atkins scare me as they contribute to poor heart health and I do better with low fat. I don't diet I just revert to a healthy eating style and get off my bottom and move more. Its working great for me as I have lost 41 # since May when I joined SP. Report
I was able to get down to a certain point with the "traditional" approach, but I can tell that the last 20 pounds I had to FORCE off and I'm not even down to a healthy weight yet! I might have to just accept the fact that I will never get down to where other people can at my same height and age.

And that shoudln't be a bad thing! I'm still healthier than I was before and I know what to eat and do to make myself feel good. Report
I think that watching my calories and exercising more is a huge part of being healthier and reaching my goal weight. I think for me though, the most important other nutrient I watch is sodium. If I go over on sodium, the scale shows it. I watch a lot of other nutrients as well though because I want to have a well-balanced healthy food intake. I think that everyone has different things that work for them, but I think we need to make sure we are eating foods that are nutritious and not just sustain us and we need to find a level of fitness that works for us and our busy lives. Report
This is a GREAT artical! I personally need to maintain a low calorie low carb "diet" in order to lose any weight. And I must exercise at least an hour everyday. Report
I have tried lots of different things, and failed for me what works is watching the calories I consume, and moving my body more. I don't realy pay attention to the balance of fat carbs and pro, but usally I am somewhere close to what Spark reccomends. A few months ago I tried the South Beach Diet. I read the eintre book and found alot of the research convincing and was so excited by the prospect that I could lose as much as 15 lbs in the 1st two weeks. I stuck the the strict phase pretty well (I had a problem with some M&Ms once or twice), in the two weeks I did not lose 1 lb, I was very discouraged and couldn't figure out why the diet didn't work for me when it had for so many others, but in the long run I am not upset, the way I am doing means I can eat anything that I want as long as I plan for it and stick to my workouts and this makes me much happier than losing 15lbs in 2 weeks. Report
I love the idea that I am an experiment of one; it is so true for me. Where I do best on a relatively low-carb diet I still watch my fat intake and my diet is very vege friendly. I eat meatless meals most days of the week, and only eat fish or poultry when I do eat non-vegetarian meals.

I keep my carbs relatively smart; whole grain pasta, fruit, I've also decreased my intake dramatically and it is amazing when I stay off the sugar I can eat more carbs and do not get the crash I used it. I think my body burns the carbs more effectively. Report
Your "you are an experiment of 1" is exactly right. On the other website I'm involved in we say "YMMV" ( Your Mileage May Vary) What works for me, might not work for you and vice versa. For me Atkins is the best, but due to being a type 2 diabetic I also have to avoid fruits. But I do have to say that for the first time in my life I'm not hungry between meals, a big plus! Report
My experiment of one has shown that higher protein and low carb is better for me. I don't cut out carbs completely, but I'm an endomorph so I convert carbs to fat easily and my metabolism is slow. If I eat too many carbs, I crash. I'm not really sure on how fat affects me though. Report
Yes, there are great recommendations in this blog, and I'm pleased to see it, for many reasons. I think it's time the "low fat high carb" diet was questioned, along with anything that grossly eliminates an entire food group. The support for a unique approach and questioning the calories in/calories burned are worthy of applause, too!! Well done!
Something Coach Dean mentioned is the relationship between fat and insulin production. Though I haven't been overweight for years, I have struggled with the dreaded 10-15 lbs that just won't go away, and that have become more stubborn as I age. Well, I FINALLY found success by paying attention to insulin levels and the glycemic count of foods. I have discovered that MY REALITY is that white foods and I don't get along. I can live without white anything, frankly, and since that's a lifestyle change I can make, I'm likely to be able to continue this over the long haul. And yes, that means sugar. Once I eliminated it, and consumed only whole grain carbs (along with loads of fruits and veggies), my sugar cravings went away, too.

Oh happy day....!! Report
I can say from experience here and elsewhere, that if I don't eat ENOUGH to balance out what I am exercising, I stand still in my weight loss. I hadn't posted a loss for a few weeks, so I INCREASED my calories by about 500-700 and started losing again.

I know from being obese almost my entire life that it isn't just as simple as burn more than you eat. If you burn too much more than you eat, your body resists losing weight like you are starving.

I had some success with Adkins before, but I hated cutting out fruits and breads completely. Report
Coach...your thoughts are always one to ponder...I agree that each of us is unique and what works for one does not necessarily work for another...I "did" atkins and yes I did lose...and lose quickly...but I am not a carnivore by nature and the plan left me feeling unhealthy. I think that carbs are usually associated with grains and startches...for me eating a balanced diet and moving my arse is best...an experiment of one...! Report
Yes, I had already concluded that diets don't work. If they did there would not be a 5% success rate of keeping the weight off. I have discovered that "worrying" about my caloric intake stresses me out, eating a 1500 calorie diet leaves me hungry & irritable all the time. Now that I've stopped stuffing myself, eating for emotional reasons and bingeing, I find that I am not as thin as I would like to be, but I'm not packing on the pounds.

Increasing my exercise and decreasing my calories did not make me lose weight & my intake of junky, processed foods has never been excessive. I have discovered that making peace with food, learning to love my body and exercising because it feels good is much more effective than any diet I've ever tried.

Our bodies have the wisdom to keep us healthy if we would just listen to them! Report
i think an experiment of one is a great assessment. i've done trial and error. i like trying some of the solutions, but ultimately, staying in the ranges spark has for me works. i think people should try different things and stick with what works without getting discouraged. Report
I can see how this can be true. I do notice that if I eat a low-fat diet that I do not lose weight. I find that I need to eat more fat. I find that I need to fat to actually lose weight. Report
I read the article that was linked to this one, and it was fascinating that spark would have acknowled to put it on for us to review. I found it exciting. I had gone on a low carb diet a while back and lost 65 lbs. But went off because I was scared. So of course I went with what our society is said to believe is better and accepted. Of course I went back to doing the low fat with more carbs and yes I have gained my weight back.
Since starting again with my way of life eating habits, I have started with the low carbs again with low fat and so far lost 23 lbs.
I really enjoyed reading this article and will continue with the low carbs..... Report
Wow! That's interesting! Like many of us, I've always had a problem losing even a small amount of weight... when I'd diet with others (like WW)... they would lose several pounds, while I would lose only a half pound or stay the same.
In the year I've been with SP, tracking pretty much everything I've eaten, I've found what works and what doesn't for me. I've found that "dieting" doesn't work. That "balance" does. AND choosing healthy. Lean meats (and a LOT less of that than what I was used to!). Vegetables and fruits... WAY less sugar and sweets. LOTS of fiber. I don't feel very deprived, and the weight IS coming off... albeit, slowly. Report
Thanks for the insight on this new book. I'm encouraged that some of those in the scientific community are beginning to think outside the box. Thanks to all my SP friends for figuratively weighing in on it as well! Good comments!

Just as the author suggested, we DO need "an Experiment of One." SP, in fact, is as close as most of us have ever come to that grand experiment. Personally, I've struggled with weight issues alone for years, being frustrated and often failing with the "conventional wisdom." Here at SP, my trek has been validated by people who are in much the same situation. Most of us need a "variation on a theme" to be able to take this weight off! We are not cookie cutter losers (weight or otherwise)! The reason SP works is not only because it is stocked with great tools/information, but because we support each other and offer friendly advice to fellow Sparkers in these thousands of "experiments." I sincerely hope someone is studying SP itself!

I truly believe not all diets work for all people. I still haven't found what works for me. I did a high protein low carb plan that seemed to work for a while. My problem with it was that it even limited the amount of fruits and vegatables I ate and had me eating a lot of red meat. I'm still looking for a happy balance that will help me lose weight while eating well. Report
Still learning. Report
It is true that I gained weight by overeating. But I gained a lot more weight by overeating than my sister-in-law who eats more than I do and yet can wear a bikini. So obviously the relationship is not linear.

Additionally, I can lose weight by under-eating. But I lose a lot less weight, and lose it more slowly, than others. And that's pretty frustrating.

So, yes, I agree that it's not the 3500-in / 3500-out relationship that a lot of people believe that it is. So, for those who are not blessed with a magic metabolism... NOW WHAT!? Report