Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I have a theory about low-fat diets and portion control

I have this theory about* low-fat diets and portion control. It goes like this: Eating food that's not dense in calories (i.e. low-fat, high-carbohydrate meals) means you need to eat a larger volume to feel full.

Proponents of low-fat diets would present this as a positive: You get to eat more for the same number of calories! The problem is that it resets your concept of what a normal portion is. Your brain is trained to think to you need more food to feel full, so when you do eat calorie-dense meals, you still want larger portions.

This would explain why the French can eat a much more calorie-dense diet than Americans and have much lower incidence of obesity and heart disease. (This is known as the French paradox, but it's only a paradox if you take for granted that fat, in particular saturated fat, is bad for you.) The portions in France are much smaller, so they eat fewer calories overall. Too, in the absence of a warped sense of portion size, more calorie-dense food is more satisfying.

Anecdotally, I think you can reset your sense of portion size by moving to a higher-fat diet (not low-carb per se, but not low-fat either).

*Yes, all my blog posts are going to start with the phrase "I have this theory about..." from now on.

25 comments:

  1. I read French Women Don't Get Fat--bought it for my mom, but being a bit of a Francophile I was curious about it. I was a little disappointed, but it held my interest. There were no startling revelations. To stay thin the French way, eat three meals a day with little or no snacking, eat small portions of a number of dishes, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, pay attention to the taste and presentation of the food, drink wine with meals, walk a lot, have a horror of fat, wear expensive clothes you can't afford to replace for a while.

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    1. I haven't read it. I kind of like that last tip. Certainly if my favorite jeans don't fit properly I make haste to lose a few pounds.

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  2. I am not quite sure what you mean by "food that is dense in calories," considering a calorie is the quantity of energy to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius (food calorie is the amount of energy to do the same to one kilogram of water). The caloric quantity of an organic compound (organic as in composed of carbon chains) is measured through straight combustion, which is not the way digestion works. (See glucose cycle and Krebs cycle)

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    1. Google "calorie-dense foods" if you really don't know or can't imagine what this means. I assume you're being rhetorically obtuse.

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    2. Surely you have noticed that Americans use "calorie" to mean "kilocalorie" in the context of nutrition.

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    3. The way Americans use "calorie" to mean "kilocalorie" is not relevant (you just need to multiply the former by 1000 to get the latter). What I mean to say is that the amount of calorie does not matter in the context of digestion.

      (Sorry if I seem rhetorically obtuse, not my intention).

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    4. (kilo)calorie-dense foods are foods that have more calories per volume, relatively. So fats are more calorie dense than carbs. Pasta versus butter, for example. That's all it means.

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  3. When I set out to lose weight a few years ago, I went on a diet that consisted of 1. A daily weigh in, 2. Writing down everything I ate 3. Journaling those things on my blog (to stay accountable to my imaginary readership).

    So, I had no preconceived notions about what to eat, except that I grew up in the "Jane-Fonda Workout LP, aerobics, low-fat errything is the way to go" 80's and I thought Atkins was bullshit. Trial and error led me to a relative low-carb (really just low bread/pasta/potatoes) diet with a fair amount of good fat from nuts and avocados and such. Maybe sort of Mediterranean? I don't worry about portion size when it comes to vegetables, and protein is more a matter of economy than self-control. I think there is a "reset" element to it, but I also find that if I do have, like, a stack of pancakes and nothing else for breakfast, I'm ravenous all day.

    The other component for me is that I think I used bread and pasts to more or less achieve the "feeling" of physical fullness- I associated the lack of that feeling with hunger. Now, that sort of fullness feels like being stuffed, and the feeling I call "hungry" now really feels like "whoah, running out of nutrients over here!"

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    1. I was basically trained to be fat-phobic as a little kid (12 or so, when it got big and my mom was trying to lose weight) and it stuck through a good part of my 20s. For years I counted calories and maintained a low weight by being somewhat obsessive, I generally believed you had to be hungry in order not to gain weight.

      My diet changed when I was 29 or so because I developed a bunch of food allergies. By necessity I gave up being vegetarian and stopped eating so many grains, so I started getting a lot more of my calories from meat, dairy, eggs, animal fat, etc. I'm roughly the same weight but I find it so much easier to maintain now -- I just don't think about it. I eat when I'm hungry and stop when I'm full. I am rarely compelled to snack. (I used to REQUIRE a snack between breakfast and lunch and at least one between lunch and dinner, otherwise I'd be ravenous.) This way of eating feels way more natural to me.

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  4. I inherited skinny genes, which is better than dieting, but I also jog, which can lead to problems: an hour ago, while jogging on a breakwater, I fell and cut myself gnarlily in three places! Not sure I can go to work tomorrow...

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    1. I bet we overestimate how much of it is genetic versus habit, environment, etc. Everybody's genes didn't change dramatically in the last 30 years.

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    2. Not to mention massive proliferation of highly processed foods that don't trigger our bodies to tell our brains we've eaten!

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  5. That's right. Ever watch Gimme Shelter or Woodstock? All these skinny people in '69. Most of them were young, of course, but still.

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  6. Somewhere online (Mayo Clinic website maybe?) I ran across the piece of advice that it can sometimes be easier to choose to eat certain foods (i.e. healthy foods, fruits and vegetables and so on) than to try to refrain from eating unhealthy foods (saturated fats, processed sugar, etc.) I've found this to be the case for me at least.

    I struggled (have struggled most of my life) with compulsiving eating, and one of the things this means is that I can't always rely on whether I feel hungry to decide when to eat and when to stop -- the body chemistry that would tell me that sometimes gets messed up and doesn't function as it should.

    It does seem clear to me that eating foods with little nutrition value will cause a person to feel more hungry, regardless of the calorie density of the food. Also, clearly certain substances (high levels of salt, processed sugar, etc.) seem to set up craving cycles in the body chemistry that can become hard to break.

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    1. The idea that saturated fats are unhealthy persists in the absence of evidence. But certainly in terms of processed foods and sugar.

      Did you see this recent piece in the NYT? http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/opinion/sunday/always-hungry-heres-why.html?_r=0

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  7. My diet is to move from protein to carbs as the day goes on. Energy is most easily processed from sugar, followed by carbs, protein, and fat. If you reverse the order of that list you have a better chance to get energy from fat, and protein (what they call 'kitesis' in Atkins-land, an extremist cult, meaning converting body fat into energy) and you do feel more full. Also, sugar intake causes blood sugar levels to rise which demands replenishment. Carbs are relaxing and easy to digest for the evenings; carbs in veggies are enough. I used to eat a lot of cheese but mostly eliminated that but there's fat in nuts and of course meats and fried food. I read books about this stuff when I was tubby.

    The US food industry is designed to brand non-perishable carb-sugar combinations that people get hooked on while they watch tons of TV, because that's very profitable. In France, there's a traditional view that you should walk around and purchase fresh ingredients.

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  8. You never cover Alcohol in this one. (or other's than I can see). So..."You have a theory on Alcohol and it goes like this......

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  9. You could even do the never tiring "Writers and Drinking" thing as well, but I'm just spitballing as I sit at the happy hour bar (at 5:02 pm -I ran here!)

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    1. Jogging to happy hour strikes me as obviously genius, and I am not kidding.

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    2. A twitter friend said he saw someone in Philly jogging while eating an ice cream cone....

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  10. Cheers to intervening in the cult of slandering fat and especially saturated fat. My food theory is if you enjoy it, it is good for you--but my engagement with food is--at least sometimes and as a general orientation--what one might deem obscenely sophisticated, so this slogan may be a tad misleading; but surely feeling bad about having consumed something yummy is just going to make for retributive pudge. I also tend towards--unless super relaxed, which is almost never--what everyone agrees is a terrible practice: one huge calorie fete at the end of my day/evening and, well, coffee before that; I rarely eat pastry with my coffee, even though I often get one concurrently, and then east it twelve hours later in addition to whatever other calorie density I'm diving into. I suspect smoking cloves (plus pot; I feel like only non-stoners get hungry after a bowl--ugh by no choice of mine I have stopped being a stoner) may factor into this habit too--that plus what I don't want to conclude but often have niggling hunches about: that I've simply naturalized some awkward disorder despite not having a shred of dismorphic vision and refusing to exercise for the sake of excercize precisely because I am not interested in triggering bullshit where I equate weight loss with how hard I'm working; Ana and me met in eighth grade via me becoming a runner. On a different note, I was briefly--while in a car--on Rice's campus last night, being given a mini Houston tour by a dude who has almost completed his philosophy phd there and who I feel like I've likely fallen in love with, if that can happen with someone one first met on Thursday (but Saturday was no less dynamic, and we're slated for a hangout tomorrow too so well maybe three meets is enough to make being in love somewhat plausible)...and no I am not a perspective student--we met at a Gay country/western dance-hall/bar and no alas I do not dance, or not with any aesthetic specificity. As always, it's good to check in at your blog.

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  11. Grins--and yep we sure as sure had a third meeting; I'm amazed how well today's parting has gone--thought I'd be crying/weepy a la a very privileged sadness.

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