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Weight loss: was it Calorie restriction or Paleo?

by (3509)
Updated about 17 hours ago
Created February 21, 2011 at 7:52 PM

Over a four months period, after starting Paleo I lost some twenty pounds, and got to optimal weight that I have effortless kept since then. Last week I was talking to a friend of mine, who is a doctor and eats decently well (though not paleo) and he insisted that my weight loss should have come from caloric restriction: he claims that by adopting paleo I was eating much less calories, since I dropped wheat, pasta, pizza, bread, sugar, etc. My question (beyond this anecdote) is the following "do we have evidence that in fact paleo is better in terms of weight loss than a diet perhaps similar in calories (though not as healthy) " Please do not tell me that "paleo is much more healthy" since I know that, and I practice it, searching for optimal health, not just as a weight loss method! anyway I am curious to know how to answer my friend??s view: that my weight loss was the result of eating LESS calories not necessarily of eating Paleo.

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1781 · February 23, 2011 at 6:37 AM

Just don't stray too far from a toilet.. ;)

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1781 · February 23, 2011 at 6:34 AM

@Finn, I think there is a big difference in calories from fat or sugar. The method of storing sugar as bodyfat via insulin is well known. However the pathway to storing dietary fat as bodyfat (especially coconut oil) on a low-carb diet is very different. Other hormones are involved that can store dietary fat as bodyfat in the absence of insulin.

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1781 · February 23, 2011 at 5:23 AM

I remember reading a blog called Magicbus where several people tried a month long experiment of increasing their fat intake up to and over 6000 calories. Interestingly none of them gained any weight and one chap lost half a pound. http://magicbus.myfreeforum.org/login.php A very strange board tho. ;)

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7821 · February 23, 2011 at 1:11 AM

Thanks ignacio :). @Dana It depends on the diet. High protein diets, even calorie restricted, will spare lean mass. Body builders the worldover exploit this. My point is more broad than this, however: calorie counters ask how you'll generate a deficit, when I ask how you're going to live your life - if you can live your life such that your body regulates your weight, that sounds better than counting and weighing.

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500 · February 23, 2011 at 12:09 AM

I was planning on doing it for a few weeks, but it was really quite miserable. I wasn't trying to say much - Just responding to the challenge of trying to eat excess fat to test if someone would gain weight, in my experience I did and I wasn't curious enough to test it long term considering how gross it made me feel. Also, considering my BMR is around 1700 and I was eating 3500 and burning off very few excess calories, 1 pound would have been an accurate prediction of how much I should have gained over a 3 day period. Carbs cause plenty of metabolic problems, but fat isn't magic.

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18671 · February 22, 2011 at 6:48 PM

Good point, Ignacio. I sometimes express criticism more easily than appreciation, and I need to work on that. It's really neat that Finn tried this. I contemplated such a thing for mere seconds before backing out.

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3509 · February 22, 2011 at 3:12 PM

Finn I have noticed that my weight changes depending on whether you measure in the morning, or at night, etc so I think one pound gain is not really significant. However I admire you for trying to leave out of bone marrow only, wow, that sounds real tough! Sherpamelissa your story is really interesting, but did you keep your activity level constant or are you more active on paleo (which could give an alternative explanation for the difference in weight results) ?

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3509 · February 22, 2011 at 3:39 AM

pfw great post! You made a great remark when you said "Paleo is what caused your calorie restriction" BTW I found your blog excellent too!

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18671 · February 22, 2011 at 1:41 AM

Finn, to really carry out that experiment, you would have to do it for a few weeks. For one thing, a single pound is below the accuracy of the measurement -- there could be a difference is the stage of elimination of your last meal, variation in water retention, etc. I can get on my scale 3 times in a row and get 3 different readings. A single pound is meaningless. Second, changes in diet sometimes cause quick changes in water retention or other factors that don't scale linearly. It's quite possible you could go up a pound in three days and stay up one pound indefinitely on that diet.

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60 · February 22, 2011 at 1:21 AM

Another thing, it's important to differentiate between healthy weight loss (fat loss through proper nutrition) and unhealthy weight loss (lean body weight loss through starvation). Thermodynamics has a larger impact on lean body mass than on fat retention or gain.

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60 · February 22, 2011 at 1:15 AM

All other factors aside, thermodynamics does work. If you starve yourself you will lose weight, and if you gorge you will gain weight. My take away from Taubes is that the larger factor in eating for health and performance is first and foremost quality of food. So again, the chaos that the 100 calories worth of Twinkies is creating inside your body is far worse than the actual amount of energy consumed.

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1997 · February 22, 2011 at 12:52 AM

Tracking my fairly SAD/moderate carb eating (I did try to avoid excessive carbs) said I was consuming 2200-2500 calories a day. I went paleo and lost my first 8-10 lbs over a few weeks while still eating 2200-2500 calories every day. By 4-6 weeks out, I found I was eating more like 1800-2000 calories a day. I don't track anymore but I'd guess I'm eating more like an avg of 1600/day now due to intermittent fasting, and have not lost any weight in the last 2 months.

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18701 · February 22, 2011 at 12:28 AM

I have been eating 1200 calories per day for 6 years. I just raised them to 1500 for maintenance. Pre-Paleo if I went up to 1300/1400 calories I gained weight. It's pretty exciting to be eating 1500/1600 per day. I tested this thoroughly to find my maintenance calorie set point.

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18701 · February 22, 2011 at 12:26 AM

I lost most of my weight with calorie restriction and cardio. I was only lucky enough to find Paleo right at the end!

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500 · February 21, 2011 at 11:37 PM

I've actually tried eating nearly 100% fat in excess to test that theory - I gained weight. I ate nearly 3500 calories worth of bone marrow for three days, and I gained almost a pound. I discontinued it because it was incredibly unpleasant. I'm also mostly sedentary, and I find I have to keep my calories well under 2000 if I want to see weight loss. I have to "restrict" to one meal a day if I want to see significant loss, but I eat my fill and I don't find myself hungry afterward. Left to my own desires, I would probably eat small bits every 15 minutes because I felt "hungry."

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500 · February 21, 2011 at 11:22 PM

And I don't disagree, but the question was regarding weight loss, not the specifics of fat loss. You can lose weight with calorie restriction and cardio, plenty of people do it. I read your post... Sometimes I think people need to go back and reread GCBC, because a lot of people seem to get the idea that Taubes is saying you can consume calories in "excess" and lose or maintain weight. He isn't. If you consume calories in excess of what your body needs, you will store the excess as fat. It doesn't matter if those calories are coming from fat or sugar.

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3509 · February 21, 2011 at 10:00 PM

I agree that perhaps calorie restriction is not the best wording, maybe I should have said "just eating less calories"

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762 · February 21, 2011 at 9:48 PM

@johnc: Taubes' point is not to contradict thermodynamics, I believe, but to note that 'you lost weight because you ate less' is fine but the converse 'you gained weight because you ate more' doesn't make sense given the observation that overweight people on average eat less than skinny people. As you point out, this observation is suspect because most people don't know there caloric consumption in that detail.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:04 PM

If I have my carbs low, I find that if I then do somewhat strenuous activity, I make myself hungry. However, on low-carb I find I don't eat a lot, because my appetite's just not there. I suspect my body's happy with the fatty acids I've freed up. On the other hand I run the risk of shorting my micronutrient intake--the real reason, I suspect, that weight loss slows down when a dieter starves themselves. So I welcome the increased appetite. It does nothing to slow the weight loss.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:02 PM

You still lose weight with low-fat eating or flat-out starvation, but much of what you lose is lean mass, which is the last thing you want to lose.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Try eating 5000 calories' worth of coconut oil tomorrow. Just try it. It's not restriction if you weren't going to eat it anyway.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Your goal is to lose fat, not to lose weight. Weight's almost irrelevant here. Calories out doesn't just mean you're exercising it away. Putting amino acids into muscle is "calories out." Putting fatty acids into hormones is "calories out." Not everything is either burned or put into fat tissue. You're an organism, not an engine, and that "fuel" you're eating is also spare parts.

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558 · February 21, 2011 at 8:48 PM

I definitely eat a lot more fat and take in significantly higher calories eating paleo than I did on my SAD. It's not just that I've lowered my carbohydrates; I've actively increased calories from other sources.

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18701 · February 21, 2011 at 8:23 PM

Personally, I believe you can keep your calories the same and drop carbs and see some weight loss. Some of that depends on what you were eating before too though.

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3509 · February 21, 2011 at 8:14 PM

I do not count calories. But since I dropped any wheat based products, and from other grains too, I am sure I reduced a lot my carbs intake. Would that be enough to lose weight or you also need to decrease your calorie intake?

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7821 · February 21, 2011 at 8:30 PM

It was both.

If you had weight to lose, and Paleo "worked", your body decided that you needed to lose weight, made you less hungry, and so you ate less. The entire point of Paleo is to present your body with foods it knows how to handle, and so allow your body to regulate weight/appetite appropriately.

You don't have to pick which one worked; they are not mutually exclusive. By eating the right foods, you let your endocrine system count calories for you. To put it in terms calorie-zealots would understand, Paleo is what caused your calorie restriction. If all went optimally, it was an effortless, hunger-less calorie restriction which you did not have to calculate, which is why Paleo is a great way to eat.

If you had eaten an equivalent calorie diet which sucked nutritionally, you would have seen similar weight loss. You may also have been hungry all the time and would have had to weigh and measure everything you ate; it's also possible that a nutritionally poor diet would have caused metabolic disruption that would manifest itself as less weight lost, but that sort of thing is so highly individual that it's hard to prove with studies. For weight loss, it may be equivalent, but for lifetime health maintenance it would have been terrible relative to Paleo.

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7821 · February 23, 2011 at 1:11 AM

Thanks ignacio :). @Dana It depends on the diet. High protein diets, even calorie restricted, will spare lean mass. Body builders the worldover exploit this. My point is more broad than this, however: calorie counters ask how you'll generate a deficit, when I ask how you're going to live your life - if you can live your life such that your body regulates your weight, that sounds better than counting and weighing.

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3509 · February 22, 2011 at 3:39 AM

pfw great post! You made a great remark when you said "Paleo is what caused your calorie restriction" BTW I found your blog excellent too!

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:02 PM

You still lose weight with low-fat eating or flat-out starvation, but much of what you lose is lean mass, which is the last thing you want to lose.

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39821 · February 21, 2011 at 8:36 PM

I've come to really agree with Taubes with regard to a particular carb intake corresponding to a particular hormonal milieu, if you will, that determines adiposity in humans. The idea is that X carbs equal Y insulin which upregulates Z lipoprotein lipase. Maybe the biochemistry isn't fully understood and maybe Taubes doesn't have it completely correct, but my experimentation is completely in line with it. Assuming activity is kept constant, I have a particular BF% at 150g, 100g, 50g and so on.

One thing I will say is that while Taubes is right that activity is almost useless (for weight loss) for someone on the SAD, it's highly effective for accelerating fat loss on a paleo diet. On the SAD, you increase activity which increases appetite, which either results in self-imposed starvation, or refueling with carbs, and even worse, fructose. On a paleo diet, that increase in appetite doesn't necessarily swell carbs in general since we tightly control it no matter how much activity usually. If I am in a 30g a day phase, I'm going to be there whether I workout or hike or sit around (I usually adjust it depending on activity, but my point is that I control it either way, instead of letting my diet control it). So we meet the increase in appetite with fat and protein and we get full, we feel great and we are perfectly well nourished but without the extra carbs, we don't redeposit our effort's worth of fat.

As I stated in that other thread, the critical point for human adiposity is the intersection between carb intake, activity level and BMR. You most easily restrict carbs (and hopefully fructose first and foremost), you next most easily increase activity (which in addition to burning fat, increases the size and number of mitochondria in your muscle cells, which increases your capacity for burning fat via the beta-oxidation pathway), and you lastly increase BMR through resistance training and eating a lot of food in general. The result of this 3-pronged approach is whatever BF% you want.

While it's true that low carb can result in low appetite which technically could lower calories, fat grams are more than twice as dense calorically, and we all eat a heck of a lot of fat, so I'm not sure that our calories are dropping significantly, and certainly not proportional to our fat loss. The big difference is that cutting calories on SAD leads to a prolonged starvation, muscle loss and eventual regain of fat whereas paleo leads to more muscle anabolism (which is a greater buffer against future fat gain), more satiety and lower fat. The choice is clear.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:04 PM

If I have my carbs low, I find that if I then do somewhat strenuous activity, I make myself hungry. However, on low-carb I find I don't eat a lot, because my appetite's just not there. I suspect my body's happy with the fatty acids I've freed up. On the other hand I run the risk of shorting my micronutrient intake--the real reason, I suspect, that weight loss slows down when a dieter starves themselves. So I welcome the increased appetite. It does nothing to slow the weight loss.

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558 · February 21, 2011 at 8:48 PM

I definitely eat a lot more fat and take in significantly higher calories eating paleo than I did on my SAD. It's not just that I've lowered my carbohydrates; I've actively increased calories from other sources.

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60 · February 21, 2011 at 8:12 PM

Calories in/out (thermodynamics) vs. food quality is addressed in depth in Gary Taubes books Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat.

It boils down to this: 100 calories of beef is not equal to 100 calories of Twinkies in health, body composition, or performance terms.

Also it is nearly impossible to compute how many calories you are burning at any given time let alone over the course of 24 hours so the idea of setting a target to be above or below is guess work at best.

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60 · February 22, 2011 at 1:21 AM

Another thing, it's important to differentiate between healthy weight loss (fat loss through proper nutrition) and unhealthy weight loss (lean body weight loss through starvation). Thermodynamics has a larger impact on lean body mass than on fat retention or gain.

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60 · February 22, 2011 at 1:15 AM

All other factors aside, thermodynamics does work. If you starve yourself you will lose weight, and if you gorge you will gain weight. My take away from Taubes is that the larger factor in eating for health and performance is first and foremost quality of food. So again, the chaos that the 100 calories worth of Twinkies is creating inside your body is far worse than the actual amount of energy consumed.

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762 · February 21, 2011 at 9:48 PM

@johnc: Taubes' point is not to contradict thermodynamics, I believe, but to note that 'you lost weight because you ate less' is fine but the converse 'you gained weight because you ate more' doesn't make sense given the observation that overweight people on average eat less than skinny people. As you point out, this observation is suspect because most people don't know there caloric consumption in that detail.

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501 · February 22, 2011 at 10:46 AM

At the risk of down votes, it's all calories-in-vs-out. Paleo is probably more satiating and healthy, and in the end it causes us to eat less. At best there might be a small metabolic advantage from food quality. One caveat is that protein has metabolic costs, and probably should be calculated at fewer calories than 4 kcal/gram. There's no magic. In fact, we often read about small, inactive women not losing weight on paleo. When they show their food logs, they tend to be simply eat too much food. Whereas, the same food energy would cause weight loss in someone more active or a large male. There is no evidence for some other mechanism at work.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:18 PM

I'm still working on my weight loss but here's my experience so far. I'm pretty sedentary at this point, and I'm over 200 pounds at 5'6". But I can lose weight at around 2900 calories a day. I don't get weight loss plans that have someone eating 1500 calories a day. I don't need to do that at all. And that's while sedentary. Imagine if I were Crossfitting.

I can't fathom that someone would put on weight if they were eating 5000 calories a day from fat, and nothing else. And that's if they could eat all 5000 calories. Most people peg fiber and protein for this role but the true satiety-inducing macronutrient is fat. It even causes the release of a satiety-inducing chemical from your small intestines. You might hit 2000 calories before you hit the wall, if you're lucky.

I wouldn't call it "calorie restriction" though. "Restriction" implies that you really wanted to do something but you were prevented from doing so. If you don't want to eat, how is that restriction?

And if you do want to eat, and your diet's generally healthy? I don't think it's a sign of discipline to keep yourself from eating when you are genuinely hungry. I think it's a sign of masochism. Especially if you've been working out, that's your body's way of telling you it needs more of something. For pity's sake, give it what it needs.

Food is not just fuel. We're organisms, not machines. Food for us is like fuel plus spare parts. One of the details the calorie theory buffs often miss is that the food we use for renewing or repairing tissues and organs is also "calories out." I have yet to see any calorie model that addresses this. Even BMR is only about energy use.

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1781 · February 23, 2011 at 5:23 AM

I remember reading a blog called Magicbus where several people tried a month long experiment of increasing their fat intake up to and over 6000 calories. Interestingly none of them gained any weight and one chap lost half a pound. http://magicbus.myfreeforum.org/login.php A very strange board tho. ;)

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500 · February 23, 2011 at 12:09 AM

I was planning on doing it for a few weeks, but it was really quite miserable. I wasn't trying to say much - Just responding to the challenge of trying to eat excess fat to test if someone would gain weight, in my experience I did and I wasn't curious enough to test it long term considering how gross it made me feel. Also, considering my BMR is around 1700 and I was eating 3500 and burning off very few excess calories, 1 pound would have been an accurate prediction of how much I should have gained over a 3 day period. Carbs cause plenty of metabolic problems, but fat isn't magic.

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18671 · February 22, 2011 at 6:48 PM

Good point, Ignacio. I sometimes express criticism more easily than appreciation, and I need to work on that. It's really neat that Finn tried this. I contemplated such a thing for mere seconds before backing out.

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3509 · February 22, 2011 at 3:12 PM

Finn I have noticed that my weight changes depending on whether you measure in the morning, or at night, etc so I think one pound gain is not really significant. However I admire you for trying to leave out of bone marrow only, wow, that sounds real tough! Sherpamelissa your story is really interesting, but did you keep your activity level constant or are you more active on paleo (which could give an alternative explanation for the difference in weight results) ?

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18671 · February 22, 2011 at 1:41 AM

Finn, to really carry out that experiment, you would have to do it for a few weeks. For one thing, a single pound is below the accuracy of the measurement -- there could be a difference is the stage of elimination of your last meal, variation in water retention, etc. I can get on my scale 3 times in a row and get 3 different readings. A single pound is meaningless. Second, changes in diet sometimes cause quick changes in water retention or other factors that don't scale linearly. It's quite possible you could go up a pound in three days and stay up one pound indefinitely on that diet.

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18701 · February 22, 2011 at 12:28 AM

I have been eating 1200 calories per day for 6 years. I just raised them to 1500 for maintenance. Pre-Paleo if I went up to 1300/1400 calories I gained weight. It's pretty exciting to be eating 1500/1600 per day. I tested this thoroughly to find my maintenance calorie set point.

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500 · February 21, 2011 at 11:37 PM

I've actually tried eating nearly 100% fat in excess to test that theory - I gained weight. I ate nearly 3500 calories worth of bone marrow for three days, and I gained almost a pound. I discontinued it because it was incredibly unpleasant. I'm also mostly sedentary, and I find I have to keep my calories well under 2000 if I want to see weight loss. I have to "restrict" to one meal a day if I want to see significant loss, but I eat my fill and I don't find myself hungry afterward. Left to my own desires, I would probably eat small bits every 15 minutes because I felt "hungry."

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3509 · February 21, 2011 at 10:00 PM

I agree that perhaps calorie restriction is not the best wording, maybe I should have said "just eating less calories"

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500 · February 21, 2011 at 8:24 PM

If you're losing weight, it's always going to be either calorie restriction, or increased output. Paleo tends to be more successful than other diets because it reduces carbs and with it, appetite. Even if you aren't "low carb," you're low carb, and most of what you're eating is fat and protein - which is going to satisfy you quicker, for longer. Diets that are low in fat and protein, and emphasis low calorie and sugary foods like flavoured yogurts, unlimited fruits, grains, lean poultry and fish, etc.. work for weight loss... For a while. If you are reducing your calories and exercising you can certainly lose weight this way. It's just going to be a painful and long process, and you'll most likely quit and regain the weight you lost and then some. Paleo is ultimately more successful because it doesn't feel like you're struggling to lose weight.

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1781 · February 23, 2011 at 6:34 AM

@Finn, I think there is a big difference in calories from fat or sugar. The method of storing sugar as bodyfat via insulin is well known. However the pathway to storing dietary fat as bodyfat (especially coconut oil) on a low-carb diet is very different. Other hormones are involved that can store dietary fat as bodyfat in the absence of insulin.

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18701 · February 22, 2011 at 12:26 AM

I lost most of my weight with calorie restriction and cardio. I was only lucky enough to find Paleo right at the end!

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500 · February 21, 2011 at 11:22 PM

And I don't disagree, but the question was regarding weight loss, not the specifics of fat loss. You can lose weight with calorie restriction and cardio, plenty of people do it. I read your post... Sometimes I think people need to go back and reread GCBC, because a lot of people seem to get the idea that Taubes is saying you can consume calories in "excess" and lose or maintain weight. He isn't. If you consume calories in excess of what your body needs, you will store the excess as fat. It doesn't matter if those calories are coming from fat or sugar.

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Your goal is to lose fat, not to lose weight. Weight's almost irrelevant here. Calories out doesn't just mean you're exercising it away. Putting amino acids into muscle is "calories out." Putting fatty acids into hormones is "calories out." Not everything is either burned or put into fat tissue. You're an organism, not an engine, and that "fuel" you're eating is also spare parts.

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20787 · February 22, 2011 at 4:40 AM

I agree it has to be both. You can't really separate them. On paleo, healthy food naturally resets the weight your body wants to stay at to a more healthy level. For many, that means your body asks for less food and you feel full on less calories. Also, paleo eaters tend to feel better and more active, so they tend to burn more calories than previously. So calories go more toward activity and less towards flab. I think it's accurate to say that paleo often results in higher levels of satiation or lessening of hunger. Which is a big reason why it works so well, because you don't feel hungry even though many end up eating less food. Hunger and cravings are what make most other diets miserable. -Eva

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18701 · February 21, 2011 at 8:05 PM

Without knowing exactly what you were eating it's hard to say for sure.

It's possible it could be calorie restriction depending on how many you were eating plus your activity level. It's more likely that it was your fat/carb/protein ratios. I find that besides calories, that is the thing that affects my weight loss the most. Whenever I've been stuck I have been able to keep my calories the same, but adjusted my ratios for more weight loss.

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1997 · February 22, 2011 at 12:52 AM

Tracking my fairly SAD/moderate carb eating (I did try to avoid excessive carbs) said I was consuming 2200-2500 calories a day. I went paleo and lost my first 8-10 lbs over a few weeks while still eating 2200-2500 calories every day. By 4-6 weeks out, I found I was eating more like 1800-2000 calories a day. I don't track anymore but I'd guess I'm eating more like an avg of 1600/day now due to intermittent fasting, and have not lost any weight in the last 2 months.

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18701 · February 21, 2011 at 8:23 PM

Personally, I believe you can keep your calories the same and drop carbs and see some weight loss. Some of that depends on what you were eating before too though.

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3509 · February 21, 2011 at 8:14 PM

I do not count calories. But since I dropped any wheat based products, and from other grains too, I am sure I reduced a lot my carbs intake. Would that be enough to lose weight or you also need to decrease your calorie intake?

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91 · February 21, 2011 at 8:24 PM

Even on a paleo diet a calorific intake of 5000 calories will cause anyone to store fat. The restriction of unhealthy carbohydrates has a major impact on the inhibition of fat storage as well as the mobilization of fat for energy. Therefore, there is a certain fat loss benefit of the paleo diet that enables fat loss even on a maintenance amount of calories. However, a substantial amount of fat loss would only occur (in most circumstances) through a calorie restriction.

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1781 · February 23, 2011 at 6:37 AM

Just don't stray too far from a toilet.. ;)

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3618 · February 21, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Try eating 5000 calories' worth of coconut oil tomorrow. Just try it. It's not restriction if you weren't going to eat it anyway.

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78407 · June 12, 2013 at 2:33 AM

BULLLLLSHITTTTTTTT... eat 5K calories of olive oil a day and nothing else. Then ask your doctor to explain the weight loss.

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