Can a Lower-Fat Diet Prime You to Burn Sugar?

Salad with tuna, tomatoes, olives, and hard-boiled eggs
Why are low-carb dieters afraid of glucose?

Does a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet cause you to become a sugar burner? If you eat less fat on a low-carb diet, does that really prevent you from burning fat? Low-carb theory suggests that dietary fat is necessary to burn body fat, even though the liver can't use fats for energy, and if you don't eat a high-fat diet, you'll burn glucose instead of fatty acids. True or False? 



One of my favorite bloggers was Regina Wilshire of the Weight of the Evidence Blog. She is a professional nutritionist who used to be quite popular among low-carb dieters back when I was in my low-carb weight-loss phase in 2007.

After coming down with carbon monoxide poisoning, she stopped blogging for several years, but resurfaced in 2012. At that time, she was hanging out with the Paleo crowd and doing posts that focused on nutrition, rather than strictly low carb, due to the evolution the low-carb diet had taken during her absense.

She said she wasn't happy with the direction the whole low-carb movement had taken, and believed in an individualized approach to nutrition that included balanced eating. No extremes except under individualized conditions where that was the only way to reestablish health.

I didn’t discover that she had returned to blogging until I read a comment by Jimmy Moore at his blog. He was mocking Regina's professional opinion about why he might be having success with his high-fat version of the Nutritional Ketosis diet, what the authors of that low-carb program called maintenance.

Most of the aspects of the Nutritional Ketosis Diet that are floating around the web today is pure fabrication. The real Nutritional Ketosis doesn't prescribe 80-percent-fat diets for those trying to lose weight. The whole 75 to 80 percent fat movement began with Jimmy.

I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. It's no secret that dietary fat percentages are grossly inaccurate, and that tracking actual fat grams was a better indicator of how much fat you're actually eating, so I went to take a look at what had Jimmy so upset.

Pink Figurine that is Upset
Why was Jimmy so upset?
He believed that a lower-fat diet primed you to burn sugar!




Apparently, Regina was suggesting that Jimmy might have actually lowered his fat calories by switching from grams to using dietary percentages, rather than actually raising them as he claimed. If he had actually cut back on calories, this would explain his sudden weight-loss success much better than his proclamation to eat more fat.

Since the whole premise behind Jimmy's tweaked version of Nutritional Ketosis was raising your fat percentage to a whopping 80 percent of your calories and lowering your protein percentage down to a mere 15 percent for weight loss, he couldn't deal with the fact that he might actually be eating less fat and calories than he was eating before.

If this was true, if using percentages was masking how much fat he was actually eating, his whole high-fat theory for weight loss would be blown to bits.

The ridicule thrown Regina's way seemed to be Jimmy's method of defending his position that lower fat diets prime you to burn sugar.

But how true is that?

If you're restricting carbs, which drives Nutritional Ketosis, and keeping your dietary fat low, by eating lean meats, the body has no choice but to use a portion of your body fat to make up for the fat missing in your diet.

This is exactly what the authors of Nutritional Ketosis teach -- that lower fat is what you eat during the weight loss phases of the diet.

Pinterest Image: Grilled Fish



Why Grams are Better than Percentages 


One of the things that received a lot of attention within the low-carb community in 2012 was your fat percentage of calories. Today, with Jimmy's version of Nutritional Ketosis still being more popular and widespread than the original Nutritional Ketosis diet, the misunderstanding about percentages continues.

The truth?

Percentages can be very misleading.

You can actually lower the number of fat grams you eat per day and raise your fat percentage, depending on your intake of the other macronutrients: carbohydrates and protein.

Jimmy claimed that he was eating at maintenance before going on his tweaked version of the Nutritional Ketosis diet. Most of the people who defend his 75 to 80 percent fat theory leave out this little detail. Regina did not.

Jimmy significantly lowered his protein intake from what he was eating before, which automatically raised his fat percentage. He didn't have to eat more fat because lowering his protein and carbohydrates both lowered his calories.

As long as your protein is at 15 percent and your carbs are at 5, the fat you eat will automatically dial in at 80 percent, no matter what the actual fat grams are.

For this reason, percentages don’t mean much, especially when you consider that you can hit your target percentages and still find yourself nutritionally deficient in certain nutrients because percentages rise and fall in relationship to the other macronutrients you’re eating.
Red and White Target, with Arrow Hitting the Bull's Eye
Percentage targets are meaningless, as far as nutrition.
You can eat to percentage targets and still be malnourished.



How many calories you eat also affects percentages.

For example, my personalized low-carb diet consisted of 60 grams of fat, which was 60 percent of my calories because I was only eating 950 calories a day. Protein was a minimum of 72 to 80 grams, which was about 35 percent. Carbs were 5 percent, at 20 carbs.

The low-carb community called this starvation -- even though it fit into the Atkins guidelines for percentages -- because they were looking at the absolute grams of fat I was eating, and comparing it to themselves, rather than looking at the percentages.

Absolute grams of protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fats are far more revealing regarding your nutritional status and health than worshiping percentages are. Although my protein dialed in at 35 percent of my calories, it was just barely enough to hold onto my lean body mass.

It wasn't enough for optimal health and nutrition.

This is why I lost muscle when I dropped those absolute grams down to 60, even though 60 grams of protein was 25 percent of my calories and higher than what Jimmy was recommending. Raising my fat calories didn't make any difference. I continued to lose muscle at a fast pace.

The body sees and uses absolute grams. It doesn't see percentages. In my own experience, dietary percentages are meaningless.


Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods


No matter which diet you choose to follow, good nutrition always focuses on eating nutrient-dense whole foods. A weight-loss diet full of junk foods, processed foods, or an excessive fat intake is just as deficient in nutrition and health as a high-carb diet often is.

Just because sugar or refined starches can raise your basal insulin levels, that doesn’t mean that adding melted butter to your coffee or grabbing a bunless burger for lunch at your local hamburger stand every single day is healthy for you.

In fact, Dr. Phinney, one of the authors of the Nutritional Ketosis plan finds the whole idea of bullet-proof coffee silly. Bullet-proof coffee may, or may not, have its proper place in your diet, but thinking that you need to eat more fat to burn more fat is a gross misunderstanding of how the body works.

On the other hand, health isn't just about how many carbohydrates, fats, or protein grams you eat. And, it’s not just about points or calories. It’s about giving your body everything it needs to function at its best.


Tired Woman: Laying on Back with Hat Over Her Face
What good is dieting if you're too tired to do anything?

If your insulin levels are low, but you’re too tired to do anything, because you don't have the genetics that allow you to easily burn dietary fats for fuel, how is low carb more healthy than someone who feels better and is more energetic eating a higher level of carbohydrate and a little less fat?

If you’re tired and hungry, you aren’t going to have the motivation you need to stick with your weight-loss and exercise plan. A diet you can’t live with for the rest of your life is useless, so the whole accusation of burning glucose over fats is useless, too.

What matters is which type of diet is best for YOU.

Being a Sugar Burner Isn’t Bad


One of the reasons I originally investigated the Nutritional Ketosis fad (and yes, Jimmy Moore's version of Nutritional Ketosis is the FAD version) was because many people believe that being a sugar burner is a bad thing.

This idea of right and wrong low-carb diets comes from being converted to a particular low carb way of life or following the current trends, and then thinking that because something works great for you, everyone else should be doing it too.

The thought process behind the accusation comes from a conditioned mindset. A need to belong to the popular group of the moment, and a stronger need to pull others into this popular group mindset.

Ever since the Kimkins Diet fiasco several years ago, where it was discovered that Kimmer had never followed a low-fat, low-carb diet before, the focus of the low-carb community has been strongly on burning fats over glucose, even to the point of obsession.

This belief was the only way these dieters could deal with being deceived.

Before the Kimkins era, being a sugar burner rather than a fat burner was never, ever discussed in a negative light because your metabolism doesn’t burn just glucose or fats. It burns whichever fuel source is readily available for use.

This is why Dr. Atkins never limited protein on his original diet. He didn't see a need too. Eat too much protein, and the body will simply use it for calories. Extra protein is benign. It's neither good or bad.

The whole idea that protein turns into glucose and should, therefore, be limited to avoid sugar burning is a relatively new idea that started with Jimmy's n=1 experiment. It is an "idea" that Jimmy had, a theory, and not fact.

The originators of the Nutritional Ketosis Diet talk about getting adequate protein in the range of 15 to 25 percent of your calories, or even more. That 15 percent bottom figure that is quoted so often today is the bare minimum that you need to eat to avoid protein deficiency.

And even then, as my own stats above show, 15 percent can result in muscle wasting, depending on your caloric intake.

Just like all of the junk ideas that surfaced during the Kimkins era, burning glucose for fuel only became disagreeable once people began looking for something to explain why the Kimkins diet worked so well.

Since the object of the blame was to shoo people away from a low-carb, low-fat diet and pull them back into the low-carb, high-fat fold, (to save them from doom), the low-carb community had to come up with an explanation for the success that people had when they ate lower fat and calories.

Explanations are generally fantasy. They are an attempt to provide information when accurate information isn't there. In this case, the explanation also had to make people afraid of using the body’s normal metabolic pathway, so what they came up with was this:

A low-fat diet, regardless of the number of carbohydrates you eat, means you’re burning sugar (or glucose) for fuel rather than fats. 

This explanation doesn't make any sense.

On a low-fat low-carb diet, you actually burn more of your excess body fat for fuel than those who eat a high-fat diet. This is what the recent scientific research shows and what Dr. Phinney says, as well.

But still, people swallowed the explanation without reasoning it out in their mind for themselves.

They embraced the fear and started attacking anyone who wasn’t eating as much fat as they were. In fact, they embraced this false idea so strongly, that many continue to throw that same accusation at people who choose to eat less fat today, as if they’re doing something unhealthy.

And wrong.

They aren’t, but most low-carb dieters believe they are wrong due to the amount of false information about Nutritional Ketosis that's still available on the web today. People continue to hold up the 80-percent fat diet as the Holy Grail for weight loss, even though Jimmy and others have moved on to water fasting now.

Low-Carb, High-Fat diets (LCHF) are not healthy for everyone. For LCHF to work well, you have to have the genetics that will allow your body to ramp up its production of fat-burning enzymes to handle the excess fat. If you don't, LCHF will either make you feel ill, cause you to gain tons of body fat, or both.

In addition, your basic insulin level can actually drop too low on a very low-carb diet. If that happens, your body can see the lack of insulin as a stressful, life-threatening situation. In that case, your liver will go into a gluconeogenesis frenzy that doesn’t shut off.

This is what happens to me when I try to go too low in carbs.

Whether you're better at burning fats or sugar depends on how your body reacts to carbohydrate deprivation. One diet is not necessarily better than the other. 

Body Fights for Balance


Weight Scale with Stick Figures Getting In on Both Sides

When you place your focus on nutrition, health, and nutrient density, rather than points, calories, or carbohydrates, you can avoid many of the starvation responses the body has to guarantee its physical survival.

Our ancient ancestors did NOT eat a low-carb, high-fat diet. That’s just as foreign to our metabolism as a high-grain, high-carb, low-fat diet is.

In fact, when you take the time to really look at the body and how it operates, every body system fights for homeostasis. The body struggles for balance. If you take a step that forces the body to go out of balance, it will take a counter step to bring balance back. This holds up for excess energy, as well.

Extremes are never right!

Health isn't about whether you burn sugar or fats for fuel. Health is determined by your overall lifestyle.

A Lower-Fat Diet Doesn't "Prime" You to Burn Sugar


I’ve been playing the weight-loss game for most of my life.

Although I wasn’t fat as a child or teen. I weighed 107 in high school, but that quickly changed when I turned 18.

At 18, I had my appendix removed.

Back then, an I.V. wasn’t saline solution. It was pure glucose. And because the medication they used to knock me out made me deathly ill afterward, I was hooked up to that glucose pump for several days after the surgery.

My guess, based on everything we know about insulin resistance to date, is that the amount of glucose they gave me was more than my insulin response could deal with. I began to quickly put on weight right after the operation.

This is not to say that my diet wasn’t at fault. Growing up, I ate an extremely high-carb, high-fat diet, and very little protein.

When you combine malnutrition with insulin resistance, the result is almost always obesity, due to the adaptive measures the body takes to conserve energy, which is exactly where I eventually ended up.

Dr. Atkins walked into my life the month I was first married. I was able to get my weight back down to a normal level in as little as 6 weeks, before becoming fat adapted, but I wasn’t able to maintain it. Like most Americans, my now ex was addicted to high-carb, high-fat junk food, so that’s what we had in the house.

It wasn’t until I started attending Weight Watchers meetings back when it was an exchange program that I learned about balanced nutrition and nutrient-dense foods. Up to that point in my life, food was just food.

In the 1980s, Weight Watchers said you had to eat three pieces of fruit per day. You had to eat a minimum of two cups of vegetables. And yes, you ate less fat. Way less fat than a normal diet.

Did that well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet “prime” me to become a sugar burner?

That’s what the low-carb community would say.

Especially since the time I spent on Atkins in the 70s wasn't long enough to become fully fat adapted. In the low-carb community mindset, fat adaption is the normal metabolic path and sugar burning is the deviant, which made them fat.

Maybe, that's true. And maybe, it's not.

But regardless of man's past biological pathways, today we are ALL born already primed to burn sugar.

Even if you go through the steps to become proficient in burning fats for fuel, if glucose is around, the body will shuttle fat into your fat cells and still burn that glucose first. This is what it means to be primed to burn sugar.

A low-carb diet doesn't prime you to burn fatty acids. If it did, then carbs would be stored instead of fat.

The main difference between predominantly burning sugar and predominantly burning fats is how quickly the body turns to your fat stores when glucose runs low. And that's about genetics. It's not something you can actively control.

You can encourage the body to burn more fat by keeping glucose-foods low, which is what the original Weight Watchers Exchange Plan did, but that doesn't mean the body will burn fat willingly.

Your nutritional state and your mental, emotional, and spiritual state will all contribute to how stressful dieting is on the body.

The trick is to find the diet that provides the least stressful situation for you and contains foods that will allow you to maintain a healthy weight, regardless of whether it primes you to burn sugar for fuel, or not. Burning sugar is not relevant for health.

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