June 14, 2008

An Experiment to Remember

In November of 1944, Physiologist Ancel Keys and some colleagues at the University of Minnesota conducted a fascinating study known as The Minnesota Experiment.

It consisted of 36 healthy anti-war young males in good mental and physical health who were put on starvation diets to the point of losing a quarter of their body weight, and then refed.

Although the original intent was to examine how starvation, and subsequent refeeding, affected World War II soldiers, this study shed fascinating light on what happens on semi-starvation diets.

For the first 3 months, participants consumed 3,200 - 3,500 calories a day (the amount needed to maintain their weight at the time), eventually cutting down to 1800.

The last 3 months, men were assigned different caloric levels to observe what changes the body undergoes during refeeding.

Keep in mind that throughout the entire study, regardless of how many calories they were taking in, the men burned approximately 3,000 calories a day.

By the way, when these men significantly cut their caloric intake -- resulting in losing a quarter of their body weight, as evidenced by photos in which their ribcages stick out -- their diet consisted mainly of carbohydrates, including white bread, potatoes, and jello.

I would love to hear how Gary Taubes and his fervent low-carb supporters explain this within their framework of "carbohydrates make you fat, calories are irrelevant, and exercise has nothing to do with weight loss."

Anyhow, back to reality.

The results of The Minnesota Experiment were published in 1950 in a 1,385-page tome titled The Biology of Human Starvation.

It clearly demonstrates the immense psychical and psychological toll that starvation diets took on these men.

Anemia, edema, dizziness, guilt, self-inflicted harm, shoplifting, loss of sex drive, and "semi-starvation neurosis" were experienced pretty much across the board.

The more repressed food was, the more it was on these men's minds, to the point of unhealthy obsession.

It took at least a year for most of the participants to truly feel physically and psychologically recovered.

For more information on this fascinating study, I highly recommend reading this summary.


David Brown said...

Andy issued this challenge:
"I would love to hear how Gary Taubes and his fervent low-carb supporters explain this within their framework of 'carbohydrates make you fat, calories are irrelevant, and exercise has nothing to do with weight loss.'"

First of all, as I pointed out in a previous comment, it's bad form to attribute an extreme viewpoint to someone one disagrees with. It does nothing to strengthen one's own argument and it is disrespectful.

The three parts of Andy's statement above oversimplify the issues. For example, "carbohydrates make you fat" should be altered to read, "low-fat/high-carb diets tend to promote hormonal imbalance leading to excess fat storage in people metabolically sensitive to carbohydrates."

The "calories are irrelevant" part should read, "restricting fat calories is not a good way to promote fat loss because it tends to promote muscle wasting."

Finally, "exercise has nothing to do with weight loss" should read "exercise is not necessary for weight loss and accomplishes little when hormones are out of balance."

I suggest Andy and others who happen to read this comment visit Tim Farris' blog by Googling "The Science of Fat-Loss: Why a Calorie Isn't Always a Calorie"

Andy Bellatti said...

I'm not attributing any extreme viewpoints -- I am summarizing the main arguments Taubes and his followers adhere to whenever they talk about nutrition.

You may have written "carbohydrates make you fat" in a more eloquent way with some scientific jargon thrown in, but what you are basically saying is: "carbohydrates make you fat."

If Taubes and his worshippers didn't believe that, why would they claim that someone can eat 4,000 calories of pure fat and protein and not get fat but eat 2,000 calories of protein, fat, AND carbs and gain weight?

I love all this back pedaling where suddenly all these low-carb beliefs only adhere to "metabolically sensitive people."

Really? Then how come Gary Taubes blames the entire obesity problem in the US (we're talking millions of people here) on carbohydrate intake?

Matt Stone said...

Taubes' assertions are only incorrect because he equates all carbohydrates as being somewhat equal. But the 'metabolically sensitive' state David Brown is referring to is insulin resistance. If you have insulin resistance then your body essentially overreacts to carbohydrates. The next question to ask would then be, "What causes insulin resistance?"

The answer to that question is not the glucose element of the carbohydrate, which is what complex carbs and sugars ultimately are converted to. The trigger for insulin resistance is the sugar molecule fructose, which composes 50% of sucrose and more than 50% of HFCS (and agave nectar). Screw the glycemic index, it is backwards information for someone who is carbohydrate sensitive. Absorption rate isn't that important. Simple sugar containing fructose paired with a high glycemic load of any kind in someone with insulin resistance is a disaster. From that point on, the more calories of any kind, the faster body fat is manufactured. In fact, fructose, at that point, causes a greater secretion of insulin than any other substance, regardless of absorption rate.

This is also why fructose raises LDL, lowers HDL, increases triglyerides, and more (which are really just manifestations of insulin resistance, caused by fructose in the first place), leading to the American Diabetes Association warning against its use in diabetics since 1996. And fructose consumption, as it has increased (especially since the 1980-ish dawn of HFCS), follows the diabesity curve to a T.

And please, a calorie is not a calorie. When a calorie is ingested it has many possible routes to take. It can be used as energy, dissipated as heat, manufactured into muscle, bone, or organs, or used to make fat for storage. Hormones control what happens to the calories that go in. Some people can sit around doing nothing and eat 4,000 calories and not gain an ounce of fat. Others eat half that much and continue to gain fat even while their lean tissues are starving. Saying a calorie is a calorie is also saying that women have more body fat than men because they are lazier and more gluttonous. This isn't true (no one is lazier or more gluttonous than I am!). They just have less testosterone, a hormone that made me shed a good 20 pounds of fat in a few months at age 12.

And going too low in carbs will drop testosterone levels and raise cortisol (not to mention cut active T3 by a good 50%), making the body a fat-storing warehouse. In addition, carbohydrate tolerance decreases from ketogenic dieting. Everyone knows that you blow up like a balloon once carbs return. This reinforces to the Fatkins worshipers that carbs really are the enemy. Go ahead and lump this into a category with low fat dieting and calorie restriction to lose weight (which really just reinforces a fat storage, feast or famine metabolism -- virtually the same as the long-term consequences of Fatkins dieting), as ideas that can be summarized by the word "oops."

And intense exercise is awful for someone who is insulin resistant. Since glucagon is suppressed by high insulin, it merely raises cortisol levels, breaks down muscle, lowers T3, and increases carb sensitivity while causing ever-greater sugar cravings -- a symbol that 'Houston, we have a problem' in the first place. Of course, they may lose some weight at first due to caloric deficit (starvation), but this starvation study should serve to reiterate what starvation does to the human metabolism. It basically destroys it, leaving them worse off than when they started. Like a yo-yo. Like Oprah and her agave-guzzling monkey boy Dr. Oz.

For links to many of the clinical studies and articles written on the above claims, feel free to contact me at sacredself@gmail.com and I'll send them along to anyone interested.

Andy Bellatti said...

Matt Stone,

The idea that "a calorie is a calorie" takes different people's metabolisms into account.

Yes, some people gain weight with 2,000 calories (while others, due to difference in BMRs, age, sex, etc.) need 4,000 calories to gain weight.

But what it comes down to is that the person who needs 2,000 calories to gain weight will gain weight with that caloric amount regardless of how it is broken down from a nutrient (fat/carb/protein) perspective.

The "calorie is a calorie" belief does not state that EVERYONE will gain weight if they go over 2,500 calories.

lowcarbconfidential said...


As nutrition is an extraordinarily complex science, can we at least show a little tolerance for opposing views and a little respect for each other's sincerity and energy?

I myself lost a significant weight (65+) on a low carb, high fat diet, yet I should be able to withstand debate regarding how this occurred without getting defensive and hurling insults at those with opposing views.

Do we want to win an argument, or do we want to find the truth? If it's truth we're after, let's respect each other - regardless of viewpoint. Chances are, the truth currently escapes us all, and it's only future research that will explain the things we currently quibble over.


meredi said...

Wow, things are getting heated!

Andy, first, thanks for your response to my saturated fat question.

Second, in case you weren't aware, I thought I would mention that Taubes refers to this exact study in (I believe) the second part of his book. I still haven't finished it so I can't even begin to summarize what he says, but since you say you'd LOVE to know how Taubes explains this, I thought you'd know that the answer is indeed a bookstore away ;)

Andy Bellatti said...

Thank you for the heads up, Meredi.

Every time I see "Good Calories, Bad Calories" I recall an article in which Taubes wrote: "neither eating less nor moving more reverses the course of obesity in any but the rarest cases."

How someone can say that completely baffles me, especially since I have yet to see any literature showing that someone can LOSE weight without a reduction in calories.

Anyhow, at this point I am taking this debate off the blog and over to my personal e-mail address.

This blog is intended to inform people of nutrition, not provide advertising space for "Good Calories, Bad Calories."

Andy Bellatti said...


It is one thing to keep an open mind about new topics that need research, but low-carb diets are an old topic. I can't believe people are still hung up on them.

Weight loss is ultimately about calories, as hundreds of published papers have explained.

It has also been well-established that our bodies need a variety of nutrients (including carbohydrates) and foods (including whole grains).

Just like there will always be people who believe in the existence of The Loch Ness Monster, there will also be people who insist low-carb diets are the healthiest way to eat but "big conspiracies" are preventing the public from knowing "the truth."