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Portion Control -- Do Calories Really Matter?

Posted Apr 08 2010 6:36pm
Portion Control is a hot topic that surfaces now and then on low carb boards. Each time, it sparks quite a bit of discussion and lots of controversy. Those who've had to watch their portion sizes believe in the idea, and those who haven't gotten to that point in their journey yet, do not.

It's human nature to struggle to see the world, as well as each other, through something other than our own experience. But when we start clinging to our false ideas as if they were low carb gospel, we do both ourselves and each other a disservice.

Case in point is calories. 

A low carb diet, irregardless of the plan, is structured in such as a way as to cause newcomers to disbelieve that the calories-in versus calories-out way of thinking is true. On a low carb diet the main focus is on restricting carbohydrates, not calories. So the dieter often begins his weight loss journey married to a few misunderstandings.

As time goes on, those misunderstandings tend to get embedded along with other misnotions about ketones and ketosis, until the pot is so full of myths and truths that we can't tell the difference anymore. 

The natural tendency among low carbers is to ignore the calories when eating zero, and nearly zero carb foods. Which works initially when one has dozens of pounds of fat to lose. The downside of doing that, is it reinforces the idea that calories don't count.

Because...well...we're able to eat all we want to, and still the pounds keep peeling off.

Eventually, if the portion sizes aren't reduced, the low carb dieter reaches a point where calories eaten come into balance with calories expended. At which point, we stall. Maybe our metabolisms have slowed down for whatever reason. Maybe we're not as active as we were in the beginning when we were excited and eager to put a new exercise program into play. And maybe it's something else.

Part of the problem is that Dr. Atkins called the calorie theory a myth. He put that belief in big bold type, so it stuck firmly in our minds. However, if you read that section of the book very carefully, (the 2002 version), that isn't what he believed at all. What he said was
"Now, it has always been supposed that gaining weight results from taking in more calories than you expend through exercise, thermogenesis (the body's heat production), and all the body's other metabolic functions. And, in fact, this is quite true."

So he believed in the calories-in versus calories-out theory. But went on to qualify that belief by saying what wasn't true was the erroneous conclusion that the only way to lose weight was by strictly restricting calories. Dr. Atkins believed that different types of diets produced different kinds of effects, and that by forcing the body to take a different metabolic pathway than the one it was used to, effects could be manipulated into giving the dieter a metabolic advantage -- as far as energy output is concerned.

It's still about calories-in versus calories-out, Dr. Atkins says, because if a person eats fewer calories, as most people do on a low carb diet, they'll lose weight very fast. The metabolic advantage doesn't mean we are free to ignore the issue of portion control. It means that when we begin a low carb diet, more energy output will be dissipated as heat, or possibly even sneaked out of the body unused.

Now, Dr. Atkins really did use the word "POSSIBLY." In fact, he had a tendency to pick his words very carefully. Which is why a lot of folks miss, and even misinterpret, a lot of things he said. Like how the metabolic advantage is temporary. It's what one experiences when they begin a low carb diet. No where does Dr. Atkins claim, or promise, that the metabolic advantage one has of sneaking calories unburned out of the body will continue past the time of keto adaption.

What he says is that the metabolic advantage will allow the dieter to "eat as many or more calories as you were eating before starting the diet and still begin to lose pounds and inches."

The problem with what most low carbers believe is that two to four weeks into the diet, when the brain adjusts to using ketones for fuel, the liver doesn't need to make as much glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis as it did before. At that point, the dieter is left with the same calories-in versus calories-out equation as any other diet. The liver will dismantle only enough fatty acids to make the glucose it needs to fuel the cells without mitochondria. Which means fewer fatty acids will be taken out of storage, unless we need them for energy purposes.

No more wasting of ketones. No more sneaking them out of the body, because the liver only produces the exact amount, plus a tiny bit more for safety purposes, that the brain is going to need. That's it. Metabolic Advantage OVER.

No matter what we want to believe, a low carb diet isn't magic. It's specifically set up the way it is to control hunger to the point that the dieter will reduce his calories spontaneously without having to count them. If you don't do that, if the satiety mechanism isn't working properly such as it doesn't with celiac disease, you can't forever continue to eat the amount of food you were eating when you first started this journey.

Regardless of what you want to believe right now, you will one day need to focus on portion control. Whether that's becoming aware of your portions and keeping paying attention to the volume you're eating, such as with South Beach, or whether you have to actually go to all of the trouble of counting calories -- one way or another, the new slimmer you needs less food than it used to.

The idea behind a low carb diet is force the body to take an alternate pathway where more fatty acids are used as fuel. Giving the dieter a jump-start on fat loss. As Dr. Eades describes it, lower insulin levels is about keeping the door to the fat cells open. But that doesn't mean the body has to use the fat we have stored away. It can easily be getting all of the fatty acids it needs from our diet.

And that's just the thing. Our bodies are smart, and will adapt to whatever we're doing. The name of the game is survival, and our bodies know how to play the game very well. So gluconeogenesis will lessen. Making the dismantling of fatty acids lesson. The amount of calories our bodies need overall as we grow smaller and smaller will lessen too.

So at some point, portion control and reduction in calories becomes a necessary evil for most of us, in order to reach our goals.
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