Monday, June 6, 2011

What is a good low carbohydrate diet? It is a low calorie one

My interview with Jimmy Moore should be up on the day that this post becomes available. (I usually write my posts on weekends and schedule them for release at the beginning of the following weeks.) So the time is opportune for me to try to aswer this question: What is a good low carbohydrate diet?

For me, and many people I know, the answer is: a low calorie one. What this means, in simple terms, is that a good low carbohydrate diet is one with plenty of seafood and organ meats in it, and also plenty of veggies. These are low carbohydrate foods that are also naturally low in calories. Conversely, a low carbohydrate diet of mostly beef and eggs would be a high calorie one.

Seafood and organ meats provide essential fatty acids and are typically packed with nutrients. Because of that, they tend to be satiating. In fact, certain organ meats, such as beef liver, are so packed with nutrients that it is a good idea to limit their consumption. I suggest eating beef liver once or twice a week only. As for seafood, it seems like a good idea to me to get half of one’s protein from them.

Does this mean that the calories-in-calories-out idea is correct? No, and there is no need to resort to complicated and somewhat questionable feedback-loop arguments to prove that calories-in-calories-out is wrong. Just consider this hypothetical scenario; a thought experiment. Take two men, one 25 years of age and the other 65, both with the same weight. Put them on the same exact diet, on the same exact weight training regime, and keep everything else the same.

What will happen? Typically the 65-year-old will put on more body fat than the 25-year-old, and the latter will put on more lean body mass. This will happen in spite of the same exact calories-in-calories-out profile. Why? Because their hormonal mixes are different. The 65-year-old will typically have lower levels of circulating growth hormone and testosterone, both of which significantly affect body composition.

As you can see, it is not all about insulin, as has been argued many times before. In fact, average and/or fasting insulin may be the same for the 65- and 25-year-old men. And, still, the 65-year-old will have trouble keeping his body fat low and gaining muscle. There are other hormones involved, such as leptin and adiponectin, and probably several that we don’t know about yet.

A low carbohydrate diet appears to be ideal for many people, whether that is due to a particular health condition (e.g., diabetes) or simply due to a genetic makeup that favors this type of diet. By adopting a low carbohydrate diet with plenty of seafood, organ meats, and veggies, you will make it a low calorie diet. If that leads to a calorie deficit that is too large, you can always add a bit more of fat to it. For example, by cooking fish with butter and adding bacon to beef liver.

One scenario where I don’t see the above working well is if you are a competitive athlete who depletes a significant amount of muscle glycogen on a daily basis – e.g., 250 g or more. In this case, it will be very difficult to replenish glycogen only with protein, so the person will need more carbohydrates. He or she would need a protein intake in excess of 500 g per day for replenishing 250 g of glycogen only with protein.


Gretchen said...

Calories are proportional to fat content. Examples of calories in 3-oz portions:

Farmed salmon, 156
Wild salmon, 121
Eye round beef, trimmed of fat, 141
Eye round half inch fat, 156
Beef liver, 137
Filet sole,68

So eating "plenty of" seafood and organ meats could or could not lower calories, depending on which seafood you chose. Farmed salmon has more calories per ounce than trimmed eye of the round.

You could just as easily cut calories by eating smaller portions of fatty meats as by eating large portions (which is how many people would interpret "plenty of") of seafood and organ meats, and when food isn't fatty, it usually takes larger portions to satiate you.

I think this question of how you interpret any diet is one reason there's so much controversy about diets. You could eat low-fat diet that consisted of nothing but white bread and you could eat a low-carb diet that consisted of nothing but bacon fat. Neither would be healthy.

I agree with you that more hormones than just insulin alone are important.

Dan said...

"He or she would need a protein intake in excess of 500 g per day for replenishing 250 g of glycogen only with protein. "

Can you provide references for this statement? I have seen conflicting information on this. It is my understanding that if glycogen is depleted, the stores will be filled first and foremost, so in reality your protein intake only has to be sufficient for that task. 500g seems very high to me.

Randy said...

The beauty of the low carb diet for most is freedom from calorie counting and eating based on hunger and resultant satiety, low calorie for some may result in persistent hunger, carb craving, and the physiologic consequences of hunger/energy imbalance--especially fatigue. I think it best to use weight loss, lipid profiles, subjective energy to guide the caloric profile of your diet

Jenny said...


"Most" low carb dieters hit a plateau about three to six months in after which the only way they will lose more weight is to cut calories. The exceptions seem to mostly be men.

Not so surprisingly, most of those who promote low carb diets as miracle diets are men.

This has been clear to anyone who reads the low carb discussion boards. It's common to accuse people who stall of cheating, but having stalled for more than 2 years myself, while eating very carefully (and keeping normal blood sugars) I know that it is quite possible to eat a pure low carb diet and NOT lose weight. I got to my goal when I started logging calories along with carbs. And I had to eat an average of 1450 calories a day over many months to get there.

RE SEAFOOD. I've run into three people whose mainstream doctors ended up sending them for chelation thanks to extremely high mercury levels from their "healthy" fish diets. The official numbers you find listed online giving the mercury content of various fish species were collected in some cases as much as 20 years ago. With the increase in pollution actual mercury levels in fish are much higher. Fish is starting to look a lot like a "once a week" food. And farmed fish, because they are fed on the same corn-based feed as meat animals, rather than on smaller fish, no longer supply much Omega-3s.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Re: Calories-in-Calories-out, I always wondered what the "in" and "out" meant. In = the pie-hole, and out= the back door + metabolic expenditure? Sounds too simplistic to me. Then I ask, what's a calorie and how is it measured in a lab versus how is it "measured" in the body?

Gretchen said...

Aaron, here's a blogpost that addresses some of your questions:

dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dave said...

Ned, I am not a competitve athlete but I walk my dog 4 miles a day (maybe 5 times a week) and ride my bike about 6-8 hours a week (usually 2 hours during the week and a longer ride(s) on the weekend.

I usually average about 15-30 minutes above my aerobic threshhold on 1 or 2 of my rides with the others being easier effort recovery rides at about 60% of my Max Heart Rate.

How would I determine or estimate how much glycogen these activities burn?

I thought you were EXCELLENT on Jimmy Moore's Podcast. One of the most knowledgable guests I have ever heard him interview.

David Isaak said...

Hmmm. I dunno. I do pretty darn well on high levels of egg consumption (from free-range hens, of course).

Egg protein is about as complete as you can get, and, if cooked (contrary to bodybuilder mythology, raw eggs aren't as well digested as cooked eggs), they are about as bioavailable as you can get. They are also high in choline. I think folks like Chris Masterjohn would take issue with any dismissal of eggs as somehow inferior dietary elements.

One of the Eades books mentions some aged person who stayed in excellent health even though virtually all he ate was two dozen eggs a day. (Me, I'd prefer a little fiber in the mix, for regularity if nothing else.)

I also have problems when I hear recommendations that everyone eat more seafood. The oceans are already overfished--and that's with the majority of people on the planet consuming very little or no seafood. We can probably produce more organ meats (though not without producing more non-oran meats as well). I have serious doubts as to whether we can sustain existing seafood harvests, much less increase them.

js290 said...

Aaron Blaisdell,

If one was to count calories properly, one would have to count the calories that end up in the toilet. A few more points to ponder... the body is not a closed mechanical system... a distributed, adaptive system with the distributed systems communicating via hormones and enzymes is a better model... energy is always conserved, that's what the Laws of Science tell us... therefore, counting calories is obsessive and superstitious...

David Isaak said...


Liver glycogen is depleted by general activity, but muscle glycogen is depleted only by using the specific muscle fibers in question. So you're getting good leg workouts, but probably not depleting glucogen in any other large muscle groups.

I'm all in favor of walking. I think it has many benefits, especially as we age. But I don't really count it as exercise. "Non-sedentary behavior" perhaps, but not exercise.

If you want to blast glycogen all around your body, you really ought to add some resistance exercise.

js290 said...

re: walking and glycogen depletion

Walking likely only involves the slow twitch muscles which are primarily aerobic. Glycogen depletion is anaerobic.

Ned, good job on the podcast, BTW.

Kindke said...

Agree with Jenny, in all my experience both in real life and online, low-carb diets produce weight loss up to a certain point then plateau out, only significantly reducing calories gets you any further, very weird.

Anne said...

I eat low carb, very low carb, between 30 and 50g carbs per day, but also high calorie because I don't want to lose weight as I'm thin. I increase calories by eating oily fish, lots of eggs and meat and sautéing veggies in coconut oil.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview with Jimmy, Ned, and one I was looking forward to hearing.

Good info about TNF-a, also.

As recommended by Paul Jaminet, it's good to include some 'safe-starch' for protective mucin production, and some 'resistant starch' to feed the ~300 trillion fellow travelers that are working for us on their side of the gut/brain axis.

jim sutton

Ned Kock said...

Thanks for listening to the interview folks, and for your kind words. You may want to drop a little note in the comments area on Jimmy’s site, since the podcast was prepared and is being released by him.

Ned Kock said...

There is an enormous variety of aquatic life in the sea, rivers, and lakes. When I talk about seafood I mean to refer to many representatives of that aquatic life – mussels, clams, crawfish, shrimp, fish, octopus, crab etc. Aquatic mammals are excluded.

When you look at seafood items, generally they are very low in calories. As Gretchen said, animal food calories correlated strongly with fat content. So the reason why seafood items tend to be low in calories is that they do not have a lot of fat.

There are some exceptions, like salmon. But even 100 g of salmon (wild-caught cooked sockeye) will, according to, have only 11 g of fat. A lot of that fat will be monounsaturated (5.3 g); and a significant portion (1.4 g) will be polyunsaturated and of the omega-3 type. The 100 g portion will have 216 calories.

On the other hand, 100 g of cooked fat-trimmed blade roast will have 25 g of fat, and 341 calories. Most of the fat will be monounsaturated and saturated, both of which are great, but the calories add up. In fact, it will not be easy to find any 100 g cut of muscle meat with 11 g of fat or less; cooked beef tenderloin trimmed to “zero fat” will give you that.

Organ meats are generally very lean. No one sells them with the surrounding fat that you’ll see if you butcher the animal yourself. For instance, 100 g of cooked beef liver will have only 5 g of fat, and 191 calories.

Other types of seafood can be extremely lean. For example, 100 g of octopus will have 2 g of fat, and 164 calories.

Ned Kock said...

On the issue of metal poisoning, which Jenny brought up, one can significantly reduce exposure by avoiding large predatory fish. Small to medium-sized non-predatory fish, preferably wild-caught, is generally safe. Examples are sardines, smelts, and even bigger fish like snapper and river drum.

Harry said...

As a nutritional consultant, I have offered people the choice of a number of different eating modalities (including low-carb, low-fat, calorie counting, volumetrics). I do this because people tend to comply better with programs if they've had some engagement with the design, and because different ways of eating are more or less suitable for individuals based on personal, social, and economic circumstances.

Having said that, my experience, and my reading of just about every metabolic ward study, is that calories in vs calories out does in fact predict weight flux with excellent accuracy.

I know that there are many theoretical reasons as to why this may not/should not be the case, but the empirical studies just keep confirming the correlation time after time, after time....


js290 said...


Some really, really smart scientists figured that out ages ago and deemed it a fundamental law of science. Good job finding your trowel blade, though, Ralph Wiggum.

Harry said...


I get the sinking feeling that you're just too clever for me. Ah well.

But nevertheless...

Calories go in (food) > something happens > calories go out (heat).

Now, what the metabolic ward studies show is that if you reduce the calories going in, then the 'something in the middle' bit and the 'calories out' bit doesn't sufficiently reduce to account for the reduced calories in. Result: loss of mass.

In fact, the net mass loss tracks so closely with the reduction in calories that it seems to operate 'as if' it were a closed mechanical system.

Believe it or not, this actually surprises a lot of people (people that aren't as clever as you).

Not only actually speaks against those people who advocate diets that place a lot of importance on the 'something in between' bit and the 'calories out' bit (e.g. the metabolic advantage and/or faecal loss theories). It does so, because it shows that, in practical terms, 'the calorie' (theoretically and categorically misplaced as it may be) is actually a really useful proxy for metabolisable energy in the human system.

Wrong but really really useful...kinda like Newtonian physics...


js290 said...


First, do you even know what a "closed mechanical system" means thermodynamically?

Also, the "something happens" portion of your model can be better described as "hormones." You have your causality wrong.

As long as you exist in the physical world, you can be certain the laws of science will always hold true. Speaking of Newton, do people jump off cliffs to confirm that his law of gravitation always holds?

It's kind of sad to see people who obviously didn't make it through college physics talk about energy conservation as if they've made some important discovery.

Laws of science... been around for a long time... always true...

Anonymous said...

Ned, it sounds to me that you're advocating a low carb, low fat, high protein diet as being the most satisfying and therefore the lowest calorie diet. I buy that high nutriant levelas are a key component, but what is to say a higher fat diet wouldn't be more satisfying that a low fat diet? What is it that promotes satiety? Is it protein, fat, some particular vitamin, bulk? What is it that people crave, an will cause them to overconsume everything else until they get enough of that substance? Does it vary from person to person? I think you've made an unspoken assumption about that the substance is, and it's not fat. What if that's wrong? What if it is fat? Wouldn't your diet cause people to overeat?

Stu Ward

Ned Kock said...

Hi Stu. I addressed the issue of satiety in the interview with Jimmy, probably better than I can do in a comment.

As for LC with more protein and less fat, it seems to make particularly good sense to me. In LC liver glycogen should be regularly depleted, so the amino acids resulting from the digestion of protein will be primarily used to replenish liver glycogen, to replenish the albumin pool, for oxidation, and various other processes (e.g., tissue repair, hormone secretion). If you do some moderate weight training, some of those amino acids will be used for muscle growth.

In this sense, the true “metabolic advantage” of LC, so to speak, comes from protein and not fat. Calories in still counts, but you get better allocation of nutrients. Moreover, in LC, the calorie value of protein goes down a bit, because your body is using it as a “jack of all trades”, and thus in a less efficient way.

Dietary fat is easily stored as body fat after digestion. In LC, it is difficult for the body to store amino acids as body fat. The only path would be conversion to glucose and uptake by body fat cells, but the liver will want all the extra glucose for itself, so that it can feed its ultimate master – the brain.

Anonymous said...

"Aquatic mammals are excluded" - why exclude them - whale meat is delicious - besides, considering diminishing fish supplies,big creatures like whales are direct competitors of humans in competition for limited sea fish resources

David Isaak said...

One interesting question is how "efficient" the body gets at converting protein to glucose.

I've seen quite a few reports of low-carbing Type 2 diabetics who get blood sugar spikes from protein powders.

Of course, T2 diabetics tend to be insulin-resistant. But the fact that they spike so rapidly on easily digested proteins makes me wonder if they aren't also well-trained to make sugar from protein.

A lot of these folks are also from the "keep the carbs low and exercise doesn't matter" school of thought. I'd be interested to see how things might change with some clearance of glycogen from their muscles...

Ned Kock said...

> Wrong but really really useful...kinda like Newtonian physics...

I think what Harry meant to say here was that the notion of calories and its application to dieting was useful compared to a theory X of metabolism (yet to be developed), in the same way that Newtonian physics is wrong but useful compared with Einstein's general theory of relativity.

By the way Harry, you have a very sharp mind, and are being quite modest.

Harry said...

"I think what Harry meant to say here was that the notion of calories and its application to dieting was useful compared to a theory X of metabolism (yet to be developed), in the same way that Newtonian physics is wrong but useful compared with Einstein's general theory of relativity"

Yep, spot on Ned. Whatever theoretical shortcomings the calorie may have (as a proxy measure for metabolisable energy in vivo), the metabolic ward studies prove time and time again that it accurately tracks energy flux in dieters.

So, even with metabolic perturbations (like the adaptive lowering of REE in reposnse to energy restriction), subjects still reliably lose mass when their energy intake is restricted.

Now, given that many dietary 'advisers' say things like "calories don't matter", or "eat whatever you want, so long as it's not macronutrient X", I think it's worth reminding people that whatever you do with diet, if you take in too much energy, you'll store it.


P.S. Thanks for the kind words Ned. Btw, great podcast on Jimmy Moore...I very much enjoyed hearing you canvass the 'disagreement' between Taubes and CarbSane!

js290 said...

What is the thermodynamic efficiency of the human body?

David Isaak said...

"What is the thermodynamic efficiency of the human body?"

I assume you're being ironic, and, yes indeed, that isn't something that can be calculated without making some interesting assumptions. The standard thermo definitions of efficiency are hard to apply to living systems without comng up with new and interesting definitions of "work--" and a lot of these aren't much like what M Carnot had in mind!

David Isaak said...

"...calories in vs calories out does in fact predict weight flux with excellent accuracy."

Yes...except that "calories out" is affected by calories in. Generally you can't fiddle calories in without having an effect on calories out.

The problem is that Cal In/Cal Out is a truism, but also misleading, in that it urges people to consider Cal In and Cal Out as independent variables when they aren't.

gregory barton said...

Ned and Jenny,

On the subject of fish and mercury, Chris Kresser wrote an article which makes the following claims:

"Selenium protects against mercury toxicity, and 16 of the 25 highest dietary sources of selenium are ocean fish;

If a fish contains higher levels of selenium than mercury, it is safe to eat;

Most species of commonly eaten fish in the U.S. have more selenium than mercury."

That was enough to persuade me to put fish squarely back on the menu (even though I'm not in the US).

Ned, splendid interview with JM; worth a second listen!


Harry said...

@ David Isaak

Yep, reduce calories in and you generally get a reduction in expenditure as well (due to reduced resting metabolism, and reduced spontaneous levels of non-exercise activity thermogenesis).


The reduction in expenditure is minuscule compared to the reductions in intake that are possible with deliberate calorie restriction (which is why bodybuilders and POWs reliably get very very lean!).

The bottom line is that, even allowing for the body's adaptive response to calorie restriction, it is still the only reliable way to accurately predict mass loss...and is therefore still the only practical way to ensure mass loss, no matter what dieting modality you employ to achieve it (i.e. calorie restriction).

If you use low carbs to create consistent calorie restriction, it'll work...if you use low carbs to eat at maintenance calorie levels, you won't lose weight. Same goes for any other approach.


Ned Kock said...

David, Harry:

There is another aspect that applies to bodybuilders, which is that strength training seems to increase one’s nitrogen balance:

This is one of the reasons why BBs can lean down dramatically without much loss of lean body mass.

Hunger seems to really get out of control when someone is in calorie deficit AND also in negative nitrogen balance.

Ned Kock said...

Hi gregory, thanks.

David said...

Really enlightening post… but can you be a bit more specific about ‘glycogen replenishment’ and the ‘calories-in-calories-out’ section.

India Pharmacy said...

but I think that it depends in the amount of exercise that you do to equilibrate one with the other.