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The Lowdown on Weight Loss: Low-Carb Versus Low-Calorie Diets

Which is more effective?
The Lowdown on Weight Loss: Low-Carb Versus Low-Calorie Diets Which is more effective?

Although pretty urbanistas are starting to count the days they would be forced to stow their bikinis in favor of rain-friendly gear, the city showers should not be an excuse to be lax in maintaining one’s bod in tip top shape. With a deluge of information on the best way to lose excess pounds and to keep fat at bay, that nagging question remains: is the answer to effective weight loss a low-calorie diet? Or is it smarter to stick to a low-carb diet?

Team Low Cal

It is fairly accepted that to support the body’s basic functions and to fuel day-to-day activities taken for granted in everyday life, the body needs to take in calories—one of the more popular terms of measurement, which quantifies energy. Calories ingested by the body in excess of what is required, say for a certain day or for a certain activity, are stored by the body for future use in the form of body fat. Hence, it appears reasonable to conclude that to lose weight, one must (a) minimize excess calories to minimize storage of additional body fat and (b) encourage the body to tap into currently stored fat to convert into energy.

Of course, calorie requirements differ not only from person to person, but also on a daily basis for each person. However, proponents of low-calorie diets proffer that it is possible to compute for at least an average daily calorie requirement for one’s body. Formulas like the Sterling-Pasmore equation and the Harris-Benedict principle take into account certain factors such as activity level, weight, height, and body composition.

How exactly does one go low calorie? A common approach to this diet is to cut 500 calories from one’s total daily caloric requirements; provided, that the end number does not go lower than 1,200 calories. That means foregoing that morning brownie and flat white at Toby’s Estate or the side of fries that make a gourmet burger lunch all the more filling.

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The expected end result? A 500-calorie deficit per day for a week should translate to a one-pound weight loss, says Dr. Bryan Atienza, a physician at The Medical City and a coach at CrossFit Ortigas. However, Dr. Atienza cautions that to avoid a plateau, a cheat day should be introduced after about three to four weeks of going low-calorie as a break. The idea, he says, is to trick the body into thinking that there is sufficient food available; otherwise, chronically going on a 500-calorie deficit would lead the body to hibernation mode, saving energy despite such deficit in anticipation of more days of scarcity.

Of course, going on a cheat day is not an excuse to binge eat those oh-so-sinful FlourJar cookies. The goal, instead, is to take a smart break from one’s self-imposed fast to prevent a dip in one’s metabolism, not to mention, keep one socially sane.

Team Low Carb

While not automatically mutually exclusive of each other since it is theoretically possible to go low on calories while on a low-carb diet, popular claims of low-carb diet proponents include the mantra that low carb is effective without any need of counting calories. Some claim that this is because of the satiating effects of protein and fat that lead one to consume fewer calories in total, as opposed to carbohydrates, which provide a ready and easily digestible source of energy for the body and consequently burns away faster than protein and fat. Others claim that this is because minimizing carbohydrates also minimizes insulin spikes—the rapid rise and fall of insulin. That quick surge of insulin caused by eating simple carbohydrates (like white bread and sugar-laden drinks) encourages the body to store carbohydrates for later use instead of slowly digesting carbohydrates to use as fuel.

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How exactly does one go low-carb? This is where pop science and armchair nutritionists cause confusion. From the Atkins Diet and its two-week induction phase, the Ketogenic Diet and its keto strips, and the Primal Blueprint and its lower carb interpretation of the Paleo Diet, to the high fat sweeping claims of Jimmy Moore and his Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show, the Dukan Diet and its tablespoon of oat bran, and the No Carb craze and its Inuit-obsession—the deluge of information is intimidating without being enlightening.

For Dr. Atienza, to go low-carb is to limit intake of carbohydrates to lower than 50% of daily calories. He warned against readily accepting as true and safe anecdotes and bold generalizations declaring one-size-fits-all answers. An example of this is the popular recommendation of sticking to 100-150 grams of carbohydrates per day to maintain body weight, 50 to lower than 100 grams per day to gradually lose body weight, and lower than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day to effortlessly lose weight fast. He maintains that using percentages is advisable in order to adequately factor in how unique each person is—from mundane matters such as weight and height to more taken for granted circumstances such as fitness goals beyond weight loss, among other concerns.

The expected end result? Dr. Atienza is of the position that while going on a low carb diet may help in general weight loss, he understands that said diet is more relevant for those individuals looking to lean out—meaning, to lose body fat, not exactly weight. This is because protein intake, which inevitably goes up along with fat intake to compensate for the missing calories from carbohydrates, encourages muscle development. With the right exercise to match one’s fitness goals, a low-carb diet feeds muscles to grow and creates an environment of generally stable insulin levels, minimizing if not altogether discouraging that situation of excess carbohydrates driving up blood sugar levels and promoting storage of carbohydrates into body fat.

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Is there a need to go very low carb for a low-carb diet to become effective? It all depends on fitness goals, says Dr. Atienza, but going to extremes is generally not the best approach.

The Lowdown on the Low Cal vs. Low Carb Fight

To decide which diet to pick, Dr. Atienza proposes to begin with the end in mind—one’s fitness goals. If the intent is to lose weight, going on a low-calorie diet is the way to go. If the plan is to lose body fat, going on a low-carb diet is the best bet.

To win in the long run, however, the smart urbanista should keep in mind that whichever diet she picks should be sustainable and sensible. It should help her glow from within, alert, and alive to conquer each day. Sure, abs are made in the kitchen. But joie de vivre is cultivated from a vibrant sense of abundance.

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