There are quite a few interesting overfeeding studies. The typical format of these studies is to take subjects and first determine the caloric intake to keep them in energy balance (weight stable). The study will then increase one of the three macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate or protein) and then look at the effects. Often studied are fat accumulation, body composition changes or blood lipids. The change is then attributed to the changed macronutrient.
Both fat and carbs are shown to increase weight and make body composition worse. Protein has been shown to not increase weight and increased protein improves body composition.
The problem I have with the study methodology is that the changes can’t all be attributed to the increased macronutrient alone since the increased macronutrients interacts with the other baseline macronutrients.
Take as an example a baseline diet which provides 25% of calories from protein, 50% from carbohydrates and 25% from fat. For a 2000 calorie a day person that’s 500 calories from protein (125g), 1000 calories from carbohydrates (250g) and 500 calories from fat (55.6g).
Adding 500 calories a day of fat, for instance would change the fat from 500 calories to 1000 calories (111g) while leaving the carbohydrates and protein at the same amounts. So if there’s an increase in body fat how much of a change in body fat can be attributed to the fat alone? How much of the increase in weight is due to the interaction between fat and, say, carbohydrates? Perhaps there’s a carbohydrate/fat limit where if you exceed the amount of carbs/fat it causes much more fat storage due to the combination of the two?
Low Carb Diet Reduces the Variables
The Low Carb Diet essentially reduces the three [macronutrient] variables to two. The calories from carbohydrates are typically 5% on a very low carb diet. So the only two macronutrients left are protein and fat. Yet, even this is no guarantee for weight loss. There are people (think Jimmy Moore) who eat on the very low protein and high fat end. There are others (think Ted Naiman) who eat on the higher protein and lower fat end.
Clearly, what Jimmy is doing isn’t working well for Jimmy and what Ted is doing is working quite well for Ted. Jimmy is an n=1 for overeating fat. Ted is an n=1 for eating more protein. However, Ted controls for total calories and Jimmy seems to have no clue how many calories he eats in a particular day.
The difference may be exercise. It may be diet. I have a hard time finding a picture of a higher protein advocate who looks like Jimmy but I can find plenty of keto personalities who eat a lot of fat and look more like Jimmy (the Two Keto Dudes comes to mind).
A Fear of Protein?
Jimmy and others have been afraid of protein with the fear that eating protein causes the protein to turn to chocolate cake (Jimmy is infamous for making the comparison to chocolate cake at one point). I’ve looked at this subject in many posts in this BLOG (Protein does not turn into chocolate cake).
Ted says he spends most of his day trying to convince diabetics that they should eat more protein. It is true that protein does raise blood sugar by a small amount in a diabetic but the benefits outweigh that small rise and if a person is not a diabetic protein will lower blood sugar (Glucose Response to Protein).
Problem with Protein Studies
Protein studies are used to determine protein requirements. These studies look at nitrogen balance which is either negative (the person isn’t getting enough nitrogen from their diet) or positive (the person is getting enough nitrogen from their diet).
The problem is that protein studies are based on so-called “balanced” diets where carbohydrates are available to make the amount of glucose required by the body (Low Carbs and Gluconeogenesis). These studies don’t include the effects of gluconeogenesis (GNG). If you are eating low carb then protein provides the substrate materials (from your diet) for (GNG). For diabetics their body is already really good at making glucose via GNG (Gluconeogenesis – Later Thoughts).
If you barely eat enough protein to meet the minimum (nitrogen replacement) requirements then your body will get it’s GNG needs from fat. Suppose that the body requires 120g of carbohydrates per day for the brain and other essential organs. If you eat 20g of carbohydrates a day that’s 100 short. If half the protein gets converted to glucose and your body requires 200g of protein to provide that glucose. (Note these are very rough numbers but the idea applies).
So, if you are on a low carbohydrate diet you need more protein than just your replacement needs. You also need protein to meet your GNG needs.
Many Ways to Lose Weight
There are quite a few ways to lose weight. Most of them involve eating less calories than you burn. You can lose weight with Low Fat or Low Carb diets. You can even lose weight with a Low Protein diet. All of these work if you are at a caloric deficit. High fat and high carbs at the same time don’t work at the same time unless your goal is weight gain.
Also, there’s an interaction with the macronutrient type. Some macronutrients encourage fat gain. Truthfully, fat is always stored easily as fat – but only accumulates in a caloric surplus. You burn off what you eat if you are in fat balance. If you eat less fat you lose body fat. If you eat more fat you will gain body fat.
Even people who eat a carnivore diet are eating a large portion of their calories as fat. As an example: Ribeye Steak from Walmart has 22g of protein and 20g of fat in an 4 oz serving. That’s 88 calories from protein and 180 calories from fat. Or 33% of calories from protein and 67% of calories from fat.
Consuming large amounts of fat is unavoidable in the weight maintenance portion of Low Carb diets. There’s a top limit on the amount of protein that you can/should eat. As an example, if you are eating 1 g of protein per lb of body weight and you weigh 200 lbs that’s 200 gram of protein or 800 calories. The rest of your daily caloric needs will then come from fat. If you are eating 2000 calories a day that’s 1200 calories from fat.
The problem is that many people, like Jimmy Moore, eat at a maintenance or higher level of calories and macros when they need to be in a weight loss phase. Jimmy eats low protein and carbs so it’s not protein or carbs that are making Jimmy fat. The extra fat that Jimmy eats accumulates as fat when he eats more calories from fat regardless of whether he avoids carbohydrates or not. Fat doesn’t magically vanish when you eat it and it doesn’t require much energy to store -it is about 95% efficient to store fat (Eat Too Much Fat – Get Fat).
Maximizing Weight Loss
The only way for someone like Jimmy to lose weight is to get enough protein and limit dietary fat. If Jimmy has a goal weight of 200 lbs he should eat 200 grams of protein spread over four meals a day of 50 grams per meal (Protein Gurus – Part 2). That maximizes Muscle Protein Synthesis and provides enough substrate to maintain his blood glucose. Jimmy should then eat enough fat to cover the amount he won’t be eating from his body. Jimmy has at least 100 lbs of fat mass and could easily have a 3000 calories a day deficit. It wouldn’t be at all pleasant but he could do it.
If you want to find out what you can do on a maximum fat loss diet, check out our Keto calculator.
Improved Overfeeding Studies
So how would you improve an overfeeding study? I would isolate the macronutrients and absolutely minimize the other macronutrients. Do a lean protein study (essentially a PSMF study) with variable protein levels. I’d do a carbohydrate variation study with minimal protein and fat. I’d do a fat level study with minimal carbs and protein. All of them in isolation. Wouldn’t be a very balanced diet at 90%, 5%, 5%. Couldn’t be too long a term. May not pass ethics boards. But it could tease out the interactions between the macronutrients.