What You Don’t Know About Low Carb – It’s the Calories OUT

I received an email from yet another trainer telling me the “truth” about weight loss and his special program. He tells me the only way to lose weight is through calorie deficit, either directly (limiting calories) or indirectly (limiting macronutrients which in effect limits calories). He tells me I can cut out fats or proteins or carbs and get the same results.

My trainer tells me when the low-carb diet works, the “reduction in carb intake — in and of itself — had nothing to do with it” because “fat loss ALWAYS comes down to calories in vs calories out.” That’s “calories in calories out,” or CICO.

It’s nonsense.

Here’s an analogy: there are all kinds of automobile fuels out there. Can you fill up your car with biofuel and have it run, or is this inexpensive, nonpolluting fuel incompatible with your brand of car? Regardless what it does to your car, you should be using it anyway…so says politicized government agencies, corporate-funded researchers, and advocates who think it will save the planet.

Or think about what happens if you buy ethanol fuel — is that a good deal if it limits the life of your engine? On the other hand, should you pay extra for high octane premium or is the return for the expense not worth it?

All fuels are not the same — for cars or for humans.

Nutrition Experts?

Now, this post isn’t going to tell you this trainer has no authority to tell me about nutrition. He has as much authority as anyone today. Your average registered dietitian knows little more than a well-read “amateur” with life and client experience. In fact, the RD likely knows less, unless they have done a lot of personal post-grad research, since much of the education of nutritionists still relies on politically-driven standards rather than peer-reviewed science. And let’s face it: even good nutrition research relies on questionable science. Dietary studies are confounded and hopelessly compromised by conflicts of interest.


Research since 2000 and from before the Big Sugar era (pre-1950s) is pretty much saying the same thing: a high carbohydrate/low fat diet is making us obese. And it’s not just the sheer amount of calories. It’s the KIND.

Three important points from current research about what happens due to the KIND not the AMOUNT of calories you’re putting into your body:

  1. Macronutrients have not only energetic effects — calories — but hormonal effects. That is, the macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, alcohols) digest differently and stimulate hormones and enzymes differently, and this leads to different metabolic outcomes.
  2. Macronutrients have immunological effects. That is, particular substances damage our bodies, causing disease states and autoimmune responses. Things like celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and hashimoto’s thyroiditis are exacerbated and perhaps causally-linked to gluten-containing foods. Macronutrients also effect the gut microbiome; that is, feeding “bad” bacteria is causally related to diseases like Parkinsons.
  3. Macronutrients affect how well we absorb some nutrients. Fat soluable vitamins like A, D, E, and K need to be ingested with fat, and not just any fat, but the kind found in meats and nuts (SFA, MUFA) and NOT those from cooking oils and vegetables (PUFA) which actually block absorption. Oils and meals made from grains and plants act as antinutrients, blocking absorption of nutrients (like calcium, iron, flouride). Additionally, the bioavailability of protein is related to whether it is derived from plant or animal sources: we utilize more of the animal protein we ingest and do it faster than the plant proteins we ingest.

What Comes Out Isn’t What Goes In

I see trainers make this CICO declaration all the time because it’s so logical it CAN’T be wrong, right? Yes and no. Essentially if your body has more energy than it needs to run, then it stores the excess as fat. But there is more to this process. There are two sides to this equation.

There is the calories in…and the CALORIES OUT. It’s that second part that is ignored by low-carb naysayers. How do we know the value of the OUT? We guess based on height, weight, gender, activity. Know what? That is utterly meaningless. It’s meaningless because the moment you alter your diet or your activity, your metabolism changes. The OUT portion of your metabolic equation is always in flux. Your body will fight to maintain homeostasis — what it’s used to — but day-to-day, it has to manage with what you give it and demand from it.

Let’s unpack this:

  1. Fat loss vs weight loss. Cutting calories of any kind will indeed reduce your weight. You’ll be losing fat stores and muscle stores if you reduce protein intake, which calorie counting encourages. When you drop muscle (lean mass) you reduce your metabolism. That means you need even less calories to maintain, so you need to cut intake even more. You have changed the Calories OUT portion of the equation by changing the calories IN portion. It’s a cycle that bottoms out somewhere dark and gloomy when you say to hell with this and stuff your face with the nearest sugary thing.
  2. To save and build muscle you need to get enough protein. This requires maintaining a significant percentage of protein in your diet. It also means training your body to use fat for fuel. As long as you’re stuffing lots of carbs into your body, your body will preferentially burn and store these carb calories and demand more of this easy fuel. In this metabolic situation, your body resorts to breaking down the protein you eat & your muscle for fuel rather than fat.
  3. Can’t you just increase the OUT side of the equation with exercise and be done with it? I mean, competitive athletes eat gobs and have nary a love handle. Thing is, pros don’t eat indiscriminantly. They balance calories, macronutrients, supplements, and design specific training that utilizes their intake. Think about this: how many construction workers, roofers, mail carriers, etc have you seen who are ripped? How many of these active workers are as fat as those of us who sit at a desk all day? Even people who are moving all day are not utilizing all the calories they’re eating. And I guarantee anyone with a noticeable gut is eating more carbs than other macronutrients.
  4. The brilliance of the low-carb diet is it changes the calories out side enough that the calories in can stay the same (or even increase as it did for me). And it doesn’t take exercising hours every day to achieve it.
    • Reducing circulating insulin by going low carb trains your body to use your fat stores for fuel and prevents the storing of more fat from carbs.
    • Being a fat-burner allows you to stay fuller longer, as well, so it cuts back on frequent eating that keeps insulin high. This may or may not decrease calorie intake. For me, it didn’t. In either case, it will provide greater chance for long-term success.
    • Being a fat burner allows you to intermittent fast, and this puts you into a protein sparing space. That is, unlike calorie restriction that keeps you undereating frequently so that your body breaks down your muscles for fuel, fasting keeps you eating full meals less frequently which has been shown to spare muscle by NOT using amino acids for fuel.
    • Maintaining protein intake while low carb also increases your metabolism so that you use those “excess” calories instead of storing them.

We have more to learn with regard to the hormonal interactions taking place, the effects of food on the gut biome, and dietary impact with regard to individual genomes. Let’s just quit listening to only half the story.

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