When we hear the words “empty calories” most people think of sugar. For the vast majority of us, sugar does act indeed like an empty calorie and, because of this, it typically winds up being stored in the body as fat.
But did you know that even nutrient-dense foods can, for certain people, act like empty calories much like sugar, and will likely be converted to more unwanted body fat?
This means that even if you eat plenty of nutrient dense foods like meats and dairy you may, if you are eating the same things over and over, be forcing your body to convert many of those repeated nutrients into fat.
What your body wants is a variety of nutrients. On a standard American diet we’re getting far too many calories in as sugar–either from starches or simple sugars–and this means that when people get away from that kind of diet by cutting their carbs and eating more protein-rich foods like meats and fish, often they do very well.
But for some, after a while the weight loss slows. This is likely to occur if someone has flooded their body with, say, certain amino acids and fats like omega-3, and now must convert any more into storage forms of fat.
And for others, energy gains enjoyed shortly after improving their diet suddenly disappear, and new problems may crop up. You are likely to run into these stumbling blocks if your new diet is missing nutrients. For example, in those who have gone grain-free and are also avoiding other seeds and nuts I commonly see digestive and skin disorders consistent with omega-6 fatty acid deficiency.
The solution is not to go back to a Standard American diet. The solution is to make sure you are getting as much variety as possible.
If you’re eating the same kinds of foods day in and day out week after week, then you’re continually filling your body’s nutrient stores with stuff it already has in abundance. Cold water fish is high in good proteins and healthy omega 3 fatty acids and other essential fatty acids. But if that’s all you eat, soon those otherwise healthy nutrients will become, in the context of your nutrient profile, relatively empty. I say “empty” not because these things aren’t healthy. I say “empty” because, since your body doesn’t presently have a need for those nutrients, they will likely be stored away in the form of unwanted fat.
During my recent Low-Carb Poop Out Contest I collected stories from a number of people describing how they experienced real benefits by going low-carb, but then, after several months, hit a wall. Even though they’d cut out the empty calories of sugar and high carb foods, they were suddenly feeling lethargic and grumpy, and some found that their weight loss progress had plateaued.
How can this be? They wondered. I’ve traded an empty SAD diet for a nutrient-dense ketogenic diet! I’m getting plenty of protein every single day and I NEVER cheat! What’s going on here!
What’s going on is that, although the switch toward lower carb was a good one, in many cases the new diet they’ve settled into lacks nutrient variety. They’re often eating the same short list of foods repeatedly and sending their metabolisms an unwavering (and very narrow) bandwidth signal of nutritional information. It’s like tuning your dietary radio to one channel and leaving it there even though the station plays The Rolling Stones records all day long. The Rolling Stones are great, but you’ve got to hear some other stuff to keep from getting stuck in a groove.
When you feel cravings that tell you to wander off course from your new diet, sometimes it makes sense to listen to those cravings and interpret them not as a sign that you need to retreat to the safety of prior habits but rather as requests from your metabolism to jump the fence and wander into some less familiar nutritional territory where different plants and new kinds of wild game offer a panel of nutrients your body hasn’t gotten to take in for a while.
This advice even extends to the area of carbs—yes, those calories that are, for most people most of the time, “empty”—and allow yourself an occasional romp into the land of rice and potatoes.
This may seem like breach of the rules and bylaws of the low-carb community, but I’ve seen enough evidence to convince me that a strict, unwavering adherence to an unvaried diet not only fails to keep a diet interesting enough to stick to in the long term, I’ve also become convinced that, although our bodies do best when we spend most of our time in a ketogenic, fat-burning state, many of us see benefits by taking small vacations from carb-austerity diets and allowing ourselves a little more carb from time to time.
The bottom line is this: Our bodies and our metabolisms are dynamic and receptive to everything we do–and fail to do. We are engineered to respond to, and make the best use of, a constantly shifting dietary input, a nutrient stream that changes with availability and season. One of the problems with the typical SAD diet is that is lacks any of this natural variety: it’s essentially a repeat of the same basic ingredients: sugar, vegetable oils and low-quality protein. But switching to a low carb diet that still lacks variety, while better than the alternative simply by virtue of the fact that it’s a shift, if it too lacks variety then every day that you intake the same ingredients your metabolism has less relatively less use for those nutrients and is forced to store them as fat.
In my next post I will expand our discussion of variety, compare the human metabolism to the muscles of a body builder, and discuss the growing evidence for providing your metabolism with a variety of stresses–meaning there may be benefits to sometimes storing sugars as fat.