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Counting Calories

In the early '90s, most diet books focused on the theory that reducing dietary fat was the single most important variable for producing weight loss success. In response to that belief the food industry introduced thousands of new reduced fat products designed to slim waistlines. Ironically, America experienced a dramatic rise in the incidence of obesity during that same time.

No wonder we see a fresh batch of new diet books on the shelf every year. Clearly, there is no shortage of theories when it comes to successful weight management. If you read any of the weight loss books that have been published in the past decade, you might wonder why we have not eliminated obesity as a public health threat.

Unfortunately, in America we have a history of getting things wrong when it comes to weight management. Every January your members are exposed to all sorts of promising new diets, exercise gadgets, drugs and dietary supplements only to suffer through another year of expanding waistlines. America's current obsession is with cutting carbohydrates. In fact, we are so obsessed with low-carbohydrate diets that entire stores are dedicated to selling only low-carbohydrate foods. But despite the barrage of media coverage, advertising and products targeting members about low-carbohydrate diets, many are still confused. Those confused members are turning to your staff — everyone from the front desk workers to personal trainers — looking for information on this red-hot trend. That is why it is important to arm staffers with as much information as possible — even though the best answer may be, “let's ask the nutritionist.”

Following is some objective data surrounding the preoccupation with low carbohydrate diets:


  1. Many American's adopt a low carb diet under the misguided thinking that they can consume as many calories as they want and still lose weight. In some cases, consumers are led to believe that they can consume more calories than they were previously consuming while losing weight in an effortless fashion. This notion is untrue and unproven. At best, it is a theory that someone can go from eating 2,000 calories per day to consuming 2,000+ on a low carb diet and lose body fat. There is no published research showing this. In fact, in his book, “The New Diet Revolution,” Dr. Robert Atkins states that you will probably eat fewer calories when following his low carb diet. Members need to be informed on this issue of carbs vs. calories. Biologically speaking, fat and protein consumed in excess of what your body needs can lead to the formation of larger fat cells (weight gain).

  2. Researchers from Stanford University and Yale University analyzed 107 low-carb studies and found that weight lost while following these low-carb diets resulted primarily from consuming fewer calories, not through restricting carbs. The results of this analysis were published in the April 9, 2003 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

  3. In one of the most well publicized studies to date, researchers at Duke University compared the low-fat American Heart Association diet to the low-carb Atkins diet. The Atkins subjects ended up losing more weight because they consumed fewer calories. In fact, those following the Atkins diet ate fewer than 1,500 calories per day. The weight loss was a direct result of consuming fewer calories.

  4. All of the published studies that have shown greater weight loss by following low-carb diets have generated that weight loss because subjects have complied better with the diet. The greater compliance results in fewer calories consumed. Low carb diets are structured and specific. Numerous published studies have shown the value of structured diets for facilitating greater compliance and greater weight loss. Historically, most low-fat diets have been unstructured (they provide the dieter with greater flexibility and more food choices). More choices typically result in greater decision anxiety and less overall compliance, which leads to more calories consumed.

  5. In the first study of its kind, researchers from Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston compared four popular weight loss diets (Atkins, Dean Ornish, Weight Watchers and The Zone). The findings from this study were presented at the November 2003 American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions in Orlando. There was little difference in weight loss among the four diets. Subjects who complied best with the diets lost the most weight. Once again, weight loss came down to compliance and eating less (cutting calories).

The message is clear. Calories really do still count when it comes to weight management. If members make changes in their diet to reduce carb intake, they still shouldn't expect to see weight loss unless they consume fewer total calories. The only exception to this rule would be the first two weeks of a low carb diet that produces significant water loss.

Richard Wolff is a registered dietitian and is licensed to practice medical nutrition therapy. He has served as a consultant to the American Cancer Society and the Discovery Health Channel. Richard can be reached at 847-456-0451 or at

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