Low-carb diets work for weight loss. Low-calorie diets also work for weight loss. So, with these two successful strategies available to us, why isn’t obesity a thing of the past? This blog post looks at how weight loss happens – via the Calorie Model and the Carbohydrate Model – and the one thing that destroys them both.
Counting Calories or Carbs – At-A-Glance
- Calorie Model: Take in fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight.
- Carbohydrate Model: Reduce your carb intake, and you’ll reduce levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin.
- The challenge with combining the models is that it robs the body of both primary energy sources (i.e., carbs and fat). This switches on hunger hormones, making life uncomfortable.
- Processed foods compromise both models. Calorie-dense, nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods make up nearly 60 percent of our energy intake.
- The Calorie and Carb Models for weight loss work as long as you base your diet on whole foods.
Is Counting Calories or Carbs Better for Weight Loss? [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- How the Calorie Model and Carbohydrate Model work.
- The effect of processed foods on these weight loss models.
- The importance of whole foods and home cooking.
In the mid-1900s, the Calorie Model was the blueprint for weight loss. It went like this: take in fewer calories than you burn, and you’ll lose weight. OK. That is true. Your body needs energy, so it will break down tissues to supply it if you are not eating it.
Acceptance of this model was when the reputation of dietary fat started to go south, and the reason was easy to see. A gram of fat has more calories than a gram of carbohydrate or protein; quite a bit more. Each gram of fat contains about nine calories, whereas a gram of carbohydrate or protein only has around four calories.
That calorie difference is why low-fat diets became all the rage. After all, calories don’t add up as fast when you cut out calorie-dense fat. Low-fat diets made a lot of sense – on paper. However, we have been trying to follow that logical equation for 60+ years, and obesity rates have skyrocketed.
With the obesity rates climbing rapidly, thinking shifted away from simply counting calories to the hormonal responses that resulted from eating different foods. When it comes to storing and releasing body fat, the hormone insulin is the key player. The growing understanding of insulin’s role in fat metabolism is why the Carbohydrate Model for weight loss started to take center stage.
Yes, gram for gram, carbs contain less than half the calories of fat. But, they cause a much higher rise in levels of the fat-storing hormone insulin. And not only do carbs open the door to fat storage, but they also burn up quickly, leading to a more rapid onset of hunger.
Stuck Between Models
Here we have two models that work for weight loss, albeit from opposing directions. A low-carb diet is high in calorie-dense fat but aids weight loss by controlling hunger and fat storage. A low-fat diet provides fewer calories, helping you control your weight.
Why isn’t obesity a thing of the past? Could it be that we need to combine the two models?
That seems like the logical answer. Unfortunately, when you eat a low-carb and low-fat diet, you rob the body of both primary energy sources. Your body wants and needs energy. When it’s deprived, it switches on hunger hormones, making life very uncomfortable. You can still eat protein, but your body prefers to use protein to build and repair tissues rather than burn it as fuel.
The answer to why obesity rates are going up, not down, requires a bit more digging.
Processed Foods Kill The Weight Loss Models
What’s interesting is that as obesity rates rose, so did the processing of our food supply. Before the upward trend, processed foods were just starting to show up on our grocery store shelves. Today, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods make up nearly 60 percent of our energy intake (1).
Examples of ultra-processed foods include sweetened cereal, cookies, cakes, candies, fries, chips, and soda. These foods and drinks are typically refined carbohydrates that can be made cheaply thanks to subsidized grains and other inexpensive ingredients like sugar and fructose. Unfortunately, it is those cheap ingredients that make these foods so addictive.
Not only do these refined foods make you want to keep eating them, but they are also calorie-dense, which helps explain why the average person’s daily calorie consumption has increased by 24% since the 1960s (2).
There are also processed meats made with unhealthy additives. You do not want to base your diet on hot dogs and lunch meat. But, the appetite-stimulating additives they contain are offset by protein and fat, making them less addictive.
The bottom line is that processing alters the nutritional profile of our food supply, leaving us hungry and undernourished. But here’s the deep-dive problem. Instead of outlawing ultra-processed foods, the disturbing movement seems to be toward building a positive image of them. Perhaps the boldest move comes from Tuft University’s Food Compass.
According to their website, “Food Compass is a novel food rating system developed by researchers at Tufts University.” OK. Good. They go on to say that “These scores could be used in numerous ways, including internally by food manufacturers to improve formulations or by consumers to inform food choices.”
Here’s the problem. This novel rating system ranks numerous processed cereals higher on their nutrition scale than whole foods like eggs, cheese, and meat.
No one has exposed the shortcomings of this analysis better than Nina Teicholz, who put a chart together based on the data.
From Nina Teicholz Food Compass Chart, this university-based, peer-reviewed study reveals that, essentially, we will have a healthier society if we eat more Froot Loops and fewer eggs.
Froot Loops ranked higher on the Food Compass than eggs fried in butter and are therefore healthier. We want to believe this is true. And, we are willing to overlook little red flags, like the fact that “Froot” of “Froot Loops” is spelled F-r-o-o-t.
But if we just take a step back. Say what you will about a pat of butter, but when an egg is left to nature, its nutrients are enough to grow an entire chicken. The colored circles that makeup Froot Loops will grow nothing but fat cells. Yet, we are being told to fear eggs and eat more cereal.
Teicholz points out what is ultimately the most glaring red flag of this new rating system when she reports that “Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition’s Food & Nutrition Innovation Institute, receives funds from 60 companies, including quite a few of those whose products get top ranks in the Compass. This includes Kellogg’s, a Tufts Institute “Gold Member,” which had 40 of its products included in the Food Compass.” – Nothing to see here.
Low-Carb Dieters Beware (Net Carbs)
You can say that the appetite stimulation of ultra-processed foods killed the Calorie Model of weight loss. However, that doesn’t mean that Carb Counters can let their guard down.
Low-carb and keto diets have skyrocketed in popularity because they work. But they only work when you eat whole foods.
When these diets started to take center stage, food manufacturers found the crack in the door that allowed them to get a foothold into the keto craze. That crack was net carbs.
When net carbs first became a thing, the equation was simple (total carbs – fiber = net carbs). For example, a medium-sized apple has 25.0 total carb grams and 4.5 grams of fiber. Therefore, it has 20.5 net carbs.
Fiber is a nutrient that resists digestion, so it just passes through you and doesn’t need to be counted. OK.
Then, other food products were identified that seemed to resist digestion, meaning they could also be subtracted from the total carb count. And the kicker was that some of them were sweet!
Take the sugar out of traditional brownies and add fiber, sugar alcohols, and allulose, and you can have your sweets and lose weight too!
With the new equation (total carbs – fiber, sugar alcohols, and allulose = net carbs), instead of being hampered by the 17 total carbs in each brownie, you only have to count 3 net carbs.
By that logic, you can eat 7 or more “keto” brownies each day, and your keto diet stays right on track. This is why I say that net carbs killed the Carbohydrate Model for weight loss.
Solution – Stop The Madness
In reality, the models are not dead. You can lose weight by being accountable for the number of calories you take in or the number of carbs you take in. Both are important. The levels of each that can be consumed vary from person to person because we are all different sizes, so finding what is right for you does take trial and error. But really, so much of the issue is naturally resolved when you cut out one thing: ultra-processed foods.
There is a way around the madness.
The problem is not that all carbs are evil. Foods classified as carbohydrates run the gamut from ultra-unhealthy to superfood-greatness. It is as unfair to say that carbs alone are the problem when it comes to weight loss as it is to say that calories alone are the problem.
The Bottom Line: Ultra-processed foods make you hungry, making it too easy to eat too much. Therefore, eat whole foods. This will naturally reduce your overall carb intake and hunger, controlling calories with minimal effort.
Whole foods are the solution. I get that it kind of stinks. Processed foods are yummy and convenient. So, it is fine to feel frustrated, but don’t get defeated. You have a lot of say in raising healthy kids and staying out of the doctor’s office.
Give yourself a gift this year by switching to whole foods. Learning how to cook at home is a way to get this permanently ingrained into your routine. Having something in the crock pot or home-cooked leftovers in the fridge is so much better than gritting your teeth and clinging to willpower. Start with learning how to make one meal a week. In one year, you’ll know how to cook 52 things.
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!
(1) Steele, Eurídice Martínez, et al. “Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study.” BMJ open 6.3 (2016): e009892.
(2) Gould, Skye. “6 Charts That Show How Much More Americans Eat than They Used To.” Business Insider, last modified May 10, 2017. https://www.businessinsider.com/daily-calories-americans-eat-increase-2016-07
(3) Elizabeth, Leonie, et al. “Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review.” Nutrients 12.7 (2020): 1955.
(4) Fazzino, Tera L., et al. “Ad libitum meal energy intake is positively influenced by energy density, eating rate and hyper-palatable food across four dietary patterns.” Nature Food (2023): 1-4.