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Does Cutting Carbs or Calories Burn Fat Faster?

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Posted Tuesday, Nov. 20th, 2012

Carbs or Calories

For as long as anyone can remember, it’s been a raging debate in the weight loss community: is it carbs that packs on the pounds? Or is it just calories?

Both sides have their evidence and both sides are convinced they’re right.

But there is a pair of fascinating new studies that have flown under the radar that may contain the most conclusive piece of evidence yet that weight loss is not just about calories.

And that’s good news if you are like me and don’t want to starve yourself just to get back that slim, trim and sexy figure you once had.

So is it the Carbs?

First some background. Weight loss is driven by hormones, especially insulin, a.k.a. “the fat-storage hormone”.

And carbohydrates—much more than fats or protein—have the most profound effect on insulin, with processed carbs driving insulin through the roof.

The low-carb people—beginning with Atkins—argued that if you can control insulin, you can control weight gain.

And since carbs drive insulin levels up the highest, cutting back on carbs has THE most profound effect on weight.

Low carb advocates have on their side a number of studies showing that 1) people lose more weight more quickly on low-carb diets even when calories are kept the same, and 2) people often lose more weight on a low-carb diet than on a high-carb diet, even when calories are higher on the low-carb diet.

Or Is It the Calories?

But the other side has a bunch of “evidence” on their side as well, namely a few studies that show that as long as you cut calories, you’ll lose weight no matter what kind of diet you’re on—low fat, high fat, low carb or high carb.

However, a set of new studies shows a previously unknown benefit to low-carb eating – a benefit that goes WAY beyond just weight loss.

It also gives strong support to the notion that calories are NOT all that determines how well you do on a diet.

The Queen Mother of All Enzymes…

The secret is in a little-known enzyme called AMPK which my friend Mike Eades, M.D. refers to as “the Queen Mother of all enzymes, a powerful signaling protein that drives multiple metabolic pathways”.

AMPK monitors the energy levels inside the cell, much like a meter measures battery strength.

It kicks into action all kinds of activities that are important for fat loss and for general health, such as fat burning, building more mitochondria (the energy burning structures in your cells), lowering insulin and increasing the breakdown of stored sugar (glycogen).

AMPK got a lot of attention when it was found that calorie restricted diets “turn it on.”

In fact, it’s postulated that one of the reasons calorie restriction works to extend life is precisely because of its positive effect on AMPK action.

To summarize – calorie restriction fires up your AMPK, which in turn fires up your fat burning engines while also extending your life.

Not bad, but who wants to starve themselves and turn into a shriveled up raisin?

Why Cutting Carbs May Unlock Your Longevity Genes Too…

Researches wanted to test the idea that the benefits of calorie restriction – the firing up of your AMPK – actually came from the natural reduction in carbs rather than the reduction in calories.

So they designed two studies hand-in-hand to test that theory, and the results were shocking:

In the first study, calories were kept the same for both groups, about 30% LESS than needed to maintain weight. In the second study, calories were also kept the same, but were 40% MORE than needed to maintain weight.

In both studies there was no change in AMPK activity on the high-carb diet, but a HUGE change on the low-carb diet.

According to the researchers, “… increased dietary carbohydrate content even in the face of calorie restriction prevented activation of AMPK.” They also noted that in the second study, lowering carbs activated AMPK even when the diet was higher in calories.

“Maybe this is the explanation of why it’s so difficult to lose weight and improve health parameters on a low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet”, says Mike Eades.

More Research

Look, these studies aren’t definitive, and they didn’t last a long time, so it’s clear we need more research to know exactly what’s going on.

But together with the massive amount of data showing healthful changes on a low-carb diet (such as reduced triglycerides and better lipid profiles) it adds to the growing evidence that weight loss is not just about calories.

A lot of other things are triggered in your body when you reduce carbohydrates, and so far, all those “other things” are looking pretty darn good.

As Eades points out, “This activation of AMPK even in the face of overfeeding may explain why it is difficult for most people to gain weight on a true low-carbohydrate diet. Even one with a large dollop of extra calories.”

These two studies alone won’t end the carbs vs. calories debate, but while the debate rages on, I’m standing with Eades, who sums it up perfectly…

“Until new research comes along definitely overriding this paper, I’m going to continue my own regimen of restricted carb dieting and recommend you do the same.”

Amen to that.

Remember keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework… and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.

Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS

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