Can Restricting Calories Cause Us To Gain Weight?

This comment that I made on my own post for stewed pork bellies keeps going through my mind:

What if your body during overfeeding in certain circumstances might actually reduce the surface area of your intestines, decreasing absorption of calories. Conversely, what if cutting back on calories increases your ability to extract every last calorie out of food?

This would mean that every calorie-counting diet will end in disaster as you teach your body to grab every calorie it can. It’s a race to the bottom, with calorie restriction to lose weight resulting in having to cut back MORE until you can’t take it, quit your diet and go back to how you used to eat, but being you’ve got yourself a high-efficiency gut now, your weight balloons.

There is only a little research that fuels this speculation of mine, but it would explain a lot about why traditional diets don’t work – wouldn’t it?

To expand on this a bit more, my source is my friend and frequent commenter, Dave Brown. He left the following comment, with sources cited, on the website of the British Medical Journal:

Almost to a man, the world’s top nutrition and obesity authorities believe that weight control necessitates a balance between caloric intake and energy expenditure. We’re told that because fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as protein or carbohydrate, eating too much fat is a major factor in the obesity epidemic. Another half truth.

Sifting through weight control literature, one encounters occasional evidence that the body does not absorb every calorie that finds its way into the stomach. The digestive system is basically a chambered tube with an entrance and an exit. Just as a wood stove does not transfer all energy released through combustion to the environment being heated, the transfer of digested energy molecules is considerably less than 100 percent efficient. Researchers report overall calorie excretion rates ranging from 20 to 60 percent and fat excretion rates ranging from 2 to 42 percent. The soluble fiber fraction in the food is largely responsible for the percentage of calories that exit with the fecal material.

Another important consideration is the fact that, physiologically, the body constantly remodels itself internally to accommodate the quality, quantity  and timing of food intake. For example, the size of the stomach and the surface area of the small intestine tend to increase with food restriction and decrease with increased fat consumption, thus changing the absorption efficiency of the digestive system.

Clearly, there is much to be learned about how the digestive system responds to different mixes of fiber, macronutrients, and micronutrients. Calorie excretion deserves some attention.

The particular point here I find intriguing is:

 the size of the stomach and the surface area of the small intestine tend to increase with food restriction and decrease with increased fat consumption, thus changing the absorption efficiency of the digestive system

Wow. If that is true, then my speculation above – that cutting calories can make you fatter – might be correct, and would mean that restricting calories for weight loss might be self-defeating and everything we think we know about losing weight is wrong.

I’m reflecting on this after an AWFUL week of dieting. I have typically eaten high fat during the day, the routine being heavy cream in my coffee, 3 ounces of extremely fatty pork belly in a soup of pure fat which I consume instead of discard, and if I’m still hungry, I might have a bit of mayonnaise, or some cream cheese wrapped in a slice of ham just to make it easier to eat.

At home, however, the diet goes out the window. I’ve had large bowls of pasta, my daughter’s made-from-scratch cake, brioche, a Fillet-O-Fish sandwich, and a number of decidedly NOT low carb fare – and my calorie count is 3,300 calories over what my Loseit! app, a calorie-counting app that buys in to the standard ‘calories in, calories out’ , says would be required for me to lose 0.5 pounds per week – and there is 2 more days in the week to go.

But I’m down to 205.2 from the beginning of the week where I was 212.

I’m not recommending anyone do this – this was not intentional on my part, nor do I necessarily think this is a healthy thing to do. I wanted to avoid the pasta and the cake and all the other stuff that one is not supposed to eat on a low carb diet. I don’t think they are good for my health and would like to avoid them.

Some days were close to 4,000 calories. I’ve also had days where my carb count was over 300 grams.

But I ate it and still lost weight.

So what is going on here?!? Now, to be totally honest, 205 is a set point weight for me. I am probably stuck here if I don’t get a handle on my carb intake – but it seems that I can pretty much eat what I want in the evening and stay here – 60 pounds lower than I was a decade ago – if I am good during the day – and that day consists of 800 to 1,000 calories with 80% of them coming from animal fat and dairy fat.

As my ability to set goals and keep them seems to be pretty piss-poor as of late, this experiment wasn’t intentional – and I have no idea what the next week will hold. If the recent past portends the future, I’ll set goals and screw them up, so whether or not this accidental experiment continues is anybody’s guess.

Interesting, though – isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “Can Restricting Calories Cause Us To Gain Weight?

  1. Whoa, 7 lbs down, LCC! Impressive! What do you plan for next week’s food intake? This should be very interesting! I am still at 170.8. Can’t even get back into the 169’s as of late. I have my bloodwork down next week ~ can’t wait to see what that will be like!

  2. Hey it’s Dan here re Darwins Table. I think you have probably named one factor in a very long list as to why we can’t lose weight albeit an important one. I just think that when you look at the evidence it isn’t very comforting. I don’t necessarily believe in the set point. Reason been that when I put on weight I didn’t naturally drop down to what I was before when I went back to my old habits. I am still higher. Also, you are a case in point too been that you are 60 pounds lighter and yet arn’t bouncing back. I often wonder whether plateau’s are a key to success. People always tend to try to lose a LOT of weight. I am wondering when you body hits that plateau if the best thing to do is accept that and start eating normally for a bit (like weeks) to let your body reset itself to the new weight before beginning again. This would tie in nicely with what you are talking about.

    1. Hi Dan – I’ve come to the same conclusions. Plateaus are a place to REST – to regain the strength for the next leg of the journey. Instead, most people get impatient and double-down, mostly by increasing exercise (which is great for you but doesn’t usually lead to weight loss) and calorie reduction, which if my speculation is right, means people are doing the absolute WRONG thing on a plateau.

      What I find myself doing on plateaus is seeing how much I can eat and maintain – low carb for me, of course (I know you take a slightly different approach but a paleo-style diet is a kissing cousin to low carb). When I first lost the weight I went from 265 to 195, then stalled. After getting frustrated, I gave into it. I stayed on the plan, but ate more, relaxed a bit, enjoyed life more. It was only a YEAR later that life circumstances (moving to a new home) seemed to get the weight loss in action again, and I took off the remaining 15 pounds.

      Now, that 15 pounds didn’t last. It came back in a year, and a change of jobs (and increased stress) seemed to pack on some more, but I’ve spent a good deal of the past year around 205. It goes up and down as I experiment with this and that, but it always seems to gravitate here.

      My own hare-brained speculation has to do with the gut bacteria environment. There’s over a thousand species in there as far as I know, and I would imagine like any environment, any change to the food source will alter the quantities of each species because some will be better adapted to the new food environment than another. But how long does this take? And does the second brain in your gut – the enteric brain as it has been called, rewire itself to this new environment? Perhaps things like this take place during plateaus – and not allowing them is what causes trouble.

      Of course I am ‘talking out of school’ but it’s fun to speculate, eh?

  3. I like your gut hypothesis but I do think there are many many many reasons but all pointing in the same direction. Losing weight is hard and plateau’s need to be embraced not fought against. Either that or diets simply don’t work but I guess you are a case in point thta they do.

    Another interesting observation you might like is a study on fish that was done awhile ago. Now the researchers were looking at something completely different but essentially what happened was fish were tricked into thinking that spring was either closer or further away than they thought. Basically by shortening or lengthening the light cycle (these fish were in tanks). Because fish have to reach reproductive condition by spring those fish that thought it was just around the corner increased their growth rate, and those fish that thought it was ages away decreased it and spent their resources elsewhere (they ended up living longer). But fish ate the same calories? So fish could increase their growth and this was completely deooupled from calorie consumption.

    Now fish are cold blooded and so they couldn’t have increased or decreased their body temperature. But we are endotherms and so we can. So if fish can grow twice as big as other fish through whatever mechanism on the same calories – imagine what our biological machinery is capable of doing by simply adjusting our temperatue by 0.1 deg. I’m sure that this is a factor too and once you reach the plateau you body just lowers body temperature to save energy along with many other unnamed factors.

    There are a million other reasons I’m sure too. We are incredibly complex. I’m sure your gut theory is one of those too. My point is we can’t fight our biology – it will win. I think the plateau theory is the only way because it allows our bodies to accept that there is no shortage and then we hit it again.

    Anyway I’m kind of anti diets in general at the moment including paleo. I wouldnt’ say we are bed fellows anymore. I mean I just ate some bread:)

    1. The fish research is interesting, Dan. Perhaps there’s some evolutionary mechanism that promotes caloric excretion as a norm so that when calories are needed efficiency can increase?

      I also agree that we can’t fight our biology – but is it the language of diets itself that is part of the problem as well?

      I don’t like phrases like ‘my struggle’ or ‘fighting fat’ or ‘battling weight loss’. I think it exhausts people and helps destroy any hopes of weight loss even before you’ve had a chance to begin. What if losing weight is more of an awareness exercise, of listening to your body more, giving in more, enjoying food more, taking weight off slower, and doing it leisurely and enjoyably without strain, guilt, shame or self-recrimination?

      In my view, Jillian Michaels is the Anti-Christ (at least her approach is – I have no idea what kind of person she actually is).

  4. Well,I am reading, thinking and wondering. Things High Fat are not going well for me. Appetite is still suppressed which is the only bright spot. Weight is stalled at this new number and I am having no luck returning to the December number (was lower).

    The thing about body temp is interesting–we keep our house very cold in the winter and I was working in a greenhouse (warm) until the end of December and then home for three months (cold). Nothing in my diet changed but the temperature of my house (and me). And I gained weight.

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