The Failure of Low Calorie Diets

The American Paradox

A study (1) published in 1997 shows that, between 1980 and 1990, Americans were consuming 4% less calories and 11% less fats than previously. As concerns fat-free foods, in ten years their consumption rose from 19% to 76%. In spite of this, during the same period, obesity in the US increased by 31%. The authors of this study, bewildered by this contradiction, called their study the « The American Paradox ».

This study simply confirmed the facts: contrary to what most nutritionists sustain, there is no correlation between obesity and calories.

Calories have nothing to do with gaining weight

In his comments on the SUVIMAX (2) study, French Professor Jacques Freg remarked that the information collected reveals that people do no actually consume large amounts of lipids (fats), contrary to what is commonly believed.

This French survey, which involved over 14,000 persons who were followed over an 8-year period (from 1995 to 2003), revealed that men consumed an average of 2200 calories per day and women consumed 1600. Not only was this figure lower than expected, it was also below daily recommended energy intake. In spite of a 6% reduction in calorie intake, the average weight of the people surveyed had increased by 30% during the period studied.

Another study, the ASPCC (3), carried out on a representative sample of French people and published in 1997, proves that people’s calorie intake is actually fairly low. The study shows that people consume fewer calories than the daily nutritional amounts recommended by nutritionists.

Professor Creff had already reported similar findings when he published statistics on the medical check-ups of obese people in the hospital where he worked, the Hospital Saint-Michel in Paris. He had in fact observed that over 50% of the people who are obese eat very little.

Several studies carried out on children (4 and 5 years old) reached the same conclusion: weight gain does not depend on caloric intake.

This is particularly noticeable among the Russians where 56% of the women over 30 are obese and they do not consume more than 1500 calories a day for a daily workload which normally demands enormous energy expenditure.

Statistics highlight the prevalence of obesity among farmers, artisans and factory workers. This is particularly surprising considering that these professions demand more physical effort than others. How can we still believe official nutritional recommendations which tell us that one of the mayor causes of obesity is the lack of physical exercise?

The energy factor does not determine weight gain

Globally, calorie consumption in Western countries is from 30 to 35% lower than 50 years ago. Paradoxically, obesity has risen by 400% during the same time lapse in these countries. In France, there are 4 times more obese people now than in the 1960s.

Approximately, 20% of the people in India have become obese in the past 20  years even if they have for the most part remained vegetarian, have moderate calorie consumption and have not really changed their lifestyles and eating habits.

Two questions come to mind: How can what we now know serve to improve people’s health through better eating habits? Me must first ask ourselves, however how dietitians can continue to ignore this evidence.

Contrary to long-held beliefs, the energy factor (calories) is not a key cause of weight gain. Thus, the principle behind low-calorie diets is totally false. We must accept more advanced findings and work from there to reverse the harm done to our societies by misguided beliefs; but first we must look back on our mistakes.

Looking back on our failures

Low-calorie diets recommended by most nutritionists and dietitians are not only totally useless, they are also dangerous. Statistics, such as those put forth by Prof. Van Gaal, show that less than 5% of the cases succeed.

This a ridiculous percentage and even more so, if we compare it to success figures of 15 to 25% for people who stop smoking and drinking, something which is known to be much harder to do.

Our bodies ajust to reduced calorie consumption

Low-calorie diets are useless since, as we reduce the amount of calories we consume, our bodies’ survival instinct automatically makes the best use possible of the energy we put at its disposal. Our bodies learn to optimize the amount of calories we feed them. This is why, when we go back to normal calorie consumption (something we necessarily have to do since we cannot under nourish our bodies forever) our bodies, which have learned to store fats, simply stock these ‘extra’ calories turning them into extra weight. Chances are that once we have taught our body to make do with low-caloric levels, it will gain even more weight when we go back to a more regular intake.

Prof. Brownell (6) has validated this phenomenon through tests carried out on animals alternating high-protein diets with low-calorie diets. The animals gained and lost weight but each time their diet changed, the results were even more marked than before. The results for first diet were rapid and considerable weight loss. However, with each new diet, it proved to be easier for the animals to gain weight (and to gain more weight than before) and harder to lose the new weight gained. This goes to show how our metabolism adjusts to reduced calorie consumption.

Caloric deficits can, in effect, reduce the amount of energy we burn by up to 50%. The problem is that, when we return (even if only temporarily) to our normal caloric intake, our bodies do not adjust by storing less fats. They continue storing fats as in ‘times of shortage’, that which makes us gain even more weight than before.

The « accordion » effect of continuous low-cal diets provokes increasing resistance to losing weight, as shown by numerous studies. (7). Additionally, low-cal diets are risky because they induce a deficiency in micronutrients (salts minerals, vitamins, oleo-elements, essential fatty acids) which are absolutely necessary for our bodies. Without them, our bodies become weak and suffer from chronic fatigue and our immunity system becomes more vulnerable to illness. Added to this is the fact that insufficient proteins tend to reduce our muscular mass, which is replaced by fat as we gain weight.

Nutritionists are unwilling to accept how misguided they have been

The low-cal principle has been the financial mainstay for numerous industries and people: the food industry, the pharmaceutical industry, public and private weight loss centers, health institutes and spas, thallasotherapy centers, nutritionists, dietitians, just to mention a few…Naturally, it is not easy to get the message across that what these industries and people are selling is not as miraculous as they say and that, what is even worse, it is useless and even dangerous for people’s health.

The issue, which is addressed at some medical conventions, is often carefully avoided by the press. Some well-know personalities have approached the subject directly or indirectly. Professor Arnaud Basdevant affirmed in a radio conference in 1990 that « the best way to gain weight is to follow restrictive diets.” In the 1993 Obesity Convention in Anvers, Professor Marian Affelbaum declared to her shocked colleagues:  “Yes, we have been collectively fooled.” He assumed this fact to the point that he continued mentioning the issue when he retired.

Prof. W.Willett, one of the most eminent epidemiologists in the US, has been one of the few people to have had the courage to denounce the immense damage caused by low-cal recommendations. (8) In his opinion, these recommendations made by nutritionists “are not even worth the paper they’re written on.” He stated that “These recommendations have even contributed to spreading obesity.”

Counting calories is absurd

Counting calories, like most traditional dietary dogmas, is all theory and no facts. In effect it is a heads and tails approach, it is meaningless and totally ineffective.  

The following seven reasons should make this clear:

- macro-nutrients: In order to count the number of calories contained in our food, we have to first determine macro-nutrient (carbs, fats and proteins) content. The problem with counting calories is that, the amount of factors that determine the macro nutrients contained in our foods make for wide variations in caloric content.

Anne Noël’s Charts*, for example, gives sausage meat chair à saucisse for a 100g of 14g g of proteins (14g x 4 Kcal = 56 Kcal) and 38g of lipids (38 x 9 Kcal = 342 Kcal) for a total of 398 Kcal.

Comparatively, the 10,000 delicatessens in France probably have 10,000 different ways of preparing sausage meat chair à saucisse. This means that the caloric content can vary from 15 to 20% from one preparation to another. For certain products, such as mince pie/potted pork rillettes, the amount of calories can vary up to 40% from one preparation to another.

The amount of calories contained in steak varies depending on the animal’s race/stock, what it has been fed on (natural or industrial feed), how it is bred (pasture or stable) and possible chemical treatments (antibiotics hormones…). Its true caloric content can thus vary from 15 to 30% as compared to theoretical chart figures.

As concerns fish, the amount of calories it contains depend on where it was caught (particularly if it industrially bred) as well as from one season to another.

Additionally, the amount of calories contained in our food is also modified by the way we cook it, it is higher or lower depending on if it is deep fried, grilled or boiled.

We can trhen conclude that the calories assigned are purely theoretical. They are therefore mistaken and, what’s more, they differ from one chart/table to another.

- Fibers : theoretical estimates never take into account the role played by fibers in the degree of absorption of the carbs and fats consumed.  The fibers eaten with our meals can reduce the amount of calories absorbed.

- Intestinal absorption : Pr. G. Slama has shown that «starches are not interchangeable. ». Starches as for example fries and lentils, might have the same fat content, thus the same amount of calories. This, notwithstanding, does not imply that these calories will be absorbed to the same degree.
The same thing happens with lipid calories whose degree of intestinal wall absorption depends on where fatty acids are positioned on the glycerol molecule (triglycerides), as described by Pr. Serge Renaud in 1995.

- Fatty acids: saturated fatty acids are harder to burn and have a greater tendency to get stored as fat than mono-unsaturated fatty acids.

Comparatively, poly-unsaturated fatty acids (oméga 3), which are found in fish, are never sotored. Better yet, they stimulate metabolic mechanisms which aid weigh loss by increasing thermalgenesis and stimulatng lipolysis.

- Chronobiology : carb, fatty and protein absorption varies depending, not only on time at which we eat our meal, but also on the season (9, 10 et 11). This discovery has set the principles for a new science: chronobiology.

- Breaking up meals: eating the same amount of food (in terms of calories) split up in three to six different meals provokes different energy consumption levels. The more we break up the calories we consume in different meals, the more calories we burn.

- Chemical environment: theoretical estimates do not take into consideration the chemical environment of the food we eat as they enter our intestine, the order of entry nor the volume of their particles despite the fact that these factors condition food nutrients’ degree of absorption. For example, equal portions of sugar (saccharose) will have very little impact on blood sugar levels when eat after a meal whereas, when eaten before a meal, they tend to raise blood sugar levels.

This list, which is not exhaustive, should suffice to appeal to our common sense and convince us of the need to stop the absurd tendency to count calories as a means to losing weight.

If dietitians and nutritionists refuse to accept clear cut evidence to this effect, it is up to people to watch out for their own interests and health by being informed and informing others.

Scientific references:

(1) Adrian F. Heini “Divergent trends in obesity and fat intake patterns : The American Paradox”. The American Journal of Medicine 1997.

(2) Hercberg S. & coll. “Result of a list of a pilot study of the SUVIMAX project”. Rev. Epidemiol. Santé Publique 1995 ; 43 : 139-146

(3) Rigaud D., Giachetti I., Deheeger M., Borys JM., Volatier J.L., Lemoine A., Cassuto D.A., (1997) “Enquête Française de consommation alimentaire I. Energie et macronutriments. » (ASPCC) Cahiers Nutrition & Diététique, 32, 379-389

(4) Bellisle F. « Obesity and food intake in children : evidence for a role of metabolic and /or behavorial daily rythms » Appetite 1988, 11, 111-118

(5) Rolland-Cachera MF., Bellisle F. “No correlation between adiposity and food intake : why are working class children fatter ?” Am.J.Clin.Nutr., 1986, 44, 779-787
Rolland-Cachera MF., Deheeger M. “Adiposity and food intake in young children : the environmental challenge to individual susceptibility” Br.Med.J. 1988, 296, 1037-1038

(6) Brownell KD. “The effects of repeated cycles of weight loss and regain in rats” Phy.Behaviour 1986, 38, 459-464

(7) Louis-Sylvestre L. « poids accordéon : de plus en plus difficile à perdre » Le Généraliste, 1989 ; 1087 ; 18-20

(8) Science & Avenir (février 1999)

(9) Bellisle F, Rolland-Cachera MF, Deheeger M et Guilloud-Bataille M. “Obesity and food intake in children : evidence for a role a metabolic and/or behavorial daily rhythms” (Appetite, 1988, 11 : 111-118)

(10) Armstrong S, Shahbaz C and Singer G. “Inclusion of meal-reversal in a behavior modification program for obesity” (Appetite, 1981, 2 : 1-5).

(11) Halberg F. “Protection by timing treatment according to bodily rhythms. An analogy to protection by scrubbing before surgery”. (Chronobiologia, suppl. 1, 23-68, 1974).

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