The secret to reading nutrition information panels – part 5: how to use the right knowledge for weight loss

Before moving on to the main topic of this article – how to use the right knowledge about nutritional values to shed weight – we will quickly deal with the two last items on a nutrition facts label: the protein and salt content.

How to calculate the protein content in our food?

To calculate the protein content in foods, you use the fact that proteins contain an atom that you would normally not find in other macronutrients: nitrogen. When using this method, there’s no need to break down the sample in a somewhat cumbersome way, but it can be directly added to an appropriate reagent, which converts any protein contained in the sample into ammonia. It’s the ammonia content that is to be analyzed in the end. With a clever formula, this content can be converted into the protein content per gram. This calculation is called ‘Kjeldahl method’ and proves to be one of the most accurate and reliable analysis methods around.

The salt content and why it’s mostly incorrect

The salt content (sodium chloride) is not determined directly but is measured by means of the sodium content, which you get with the help of a titration. After that, the value for sodium is multiplied by a factor of 2.5 in order to calculate the amount of salt (sodium chloride). Why? Because sodium chloride (= sodium + chlorine) has a molecular weight of 58g per mole (a molecule unit) and sodium an atomic weight of 23g per mole. Multiplying these 23g by 2.5 will yield the molecular weight of sodium chloride.

This calculation method has often been criticized for lack of accuracy, as the lab analysis result also includes other sodium compounds present in the food sample (e.g. sodium in leavening agents such as sodium bicarbonate) which contribute to the sodium amount contained in the table salt listed on the nutrition facts label, that means, the total sodium content in the food sample is probably overestimated . Hence, if you find baking powder containing natron (baking soda) on the ingredients list, it can be assumed that the value given for ’salt’ is in reality lower than stated.

How can I put this knowledge to effective use when I want to shed weight?

Knowledge is power! And this also holds good for weight reduction. The more you know about the composition of your meals, the better you are able to adapt your eating habits accordingly and to lose weight permanently and successfully.

For starters, this may look a bit complex, especially if you haven’t dealt with this topic before. Ultimately, you also need to ask yourself what is your dream worth to you and how much struggle are you willing to sustain over time to meet your goal? Easy monitoring and documentation of your daily macronutrient and calorie intake is no longer rocket science thanks to a wide range of available apps, and after an initial learning phase, it’s a relatively easy way to integrate them into your daily routine.

For some of us, a dietary shift to a low-carb, LCHF or ketogenic diet would certainly also work well and the desired weight loss can be achieved without using pocket calculator, scale and app. Merely by cutting back on carbs and a related higher intake of fats and proteins in their foods, many dieters have such a strong sense of satiety after eating that they subconsciously maintain a calorie deficit and lose weight pretty easily.

BUT: The same method  does not work the same way  for everyone!

In case of strong obesity and associated leptin resistance (appetite-suppressing hormone ’doesn’t function properly’), weight-loss plateaus over a long period, tendency to emotional eating (eating disorders out of frustration, boredom, tiredness or stress) and for people who just want to lose ’some more pounds’, ‘calorie counting and macro counting’ can make a big difference and, at the end of the day, are often decisive factors with regard to success and failure.

Some people approach the matter with some kind of scientific interest, which is certainly ideal for a successful implementation of the project ’Down with the pounds’.  It is of course exciting to see how one’s own body reacts to different macronutrient compositions while observing some figures and to know how many proteins are lying on the plate in the form of a juicy steak.

In order to make the best possible use of nutrition facts labels, we’re going to examine the following question in more detail:

How can I tell right data from false data in nutrition facts databases and on labels from different manufacturers?

Frustrated because of different values in food tracker apps??

The problem is well known: You’re searching for the nutritional values of a certain food in a nutrition facts database and what you get are 10 different entries, which differ significantly in some respects. So what to do?

There are some rules of thumb which enable you to distinguish ’good’ data from ‘bad’ data.

  1. Is the fiber content listed separately? If not, you’re reading a Big 7 label and not a Big 8, which would be more accurate. Deciphering food labels is a good way to assess the validity of the data given. When it comes to nutrition facts databases, however, there’s just one small drawback: some apps show the American system, where the total carbohydrates are calculated from net carbs + fiber. For instance, if we want to check out one of our breads in the Fatsecret database to see how it scores, we enter 2g of carbs and 15g of fiber and get an error message stating that the carb content can’t be lower than the fiber content. According to the American system, this is pretty logical, but not according to the European one. In such a case, we simply omit the fiber content. Anyway, we are only interested in the amounts of net carbs, proteins, fats and calories. Of course, you’ll always find the value for dietary fiber on all of our food labels, which leads us to the next rule:
  2. Label before database!Data on food labels tend to be more reliable than data in databases, which can be fed by its community. We once were called by a customer who told us that he’d stumbled across the carb content of one of our products in a tracking app stating 20g per 100g and that he just couldn’t get it. The explanation was that somebody had entered the wrong serving size and, voilà, all values were 10 times higher. So: you’d better watch out, check the food label again and enter the value by hand into the database.
  3. In case of differing fiber contents, rather take the higher value:We’ve learned in part 4 of this series, that in the last few years a lot of updates have taken place in fiber analysis when it comes to accuracy and differentiation from net carbs. In particular, vegetables, seeds and nuts usually contain more fiber than stated on many of the food labels – and the amount of net carbs is correspondingly lower.
  4. Use the USDA National Nutrient Database: Here you’ll find one of the most comprehensive and accurate databases for nutritional values: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list. However, you have to consider that the carb values given correspond to the total carbohydrates, so you’d have to substract the value for the fiber content first in order to get the net carbs. Apart from that, the values are pretty up-to-date and better than those stored in most of the European databases.

Do I need a calorie deficit to lose weight?

You definitely DO! Somewhat surprised? This might have something to do with the fact that when following a low-carb diet, calorie counting is usually  demonized (though unjustifiedly). ’Calorie counting – not when on low-carb’, ’Calories don’t count at all’ or ‘Counting calories is nonsense or even harmful’ – ever heard of that?

The idea behind all these statements is in fact the correct correlation that it’s NOT JUST the calories that count – it’s also the macronutrient ratio that is just as important. Unfortunately, this is often presented in a very deceptive and flashy way, which misleads the audience into believing that calories wouldn’t matter at all.

Both things are important and are inextricably linked: in what proportion do we take in all the macronutrients and what is the total amount of calories eaten in this context?

The statement that calorie counting simply won’t function, may be true under certain conditions, at least in a very limited sense:

When on a HIGH-carb diet, you may even gain weight inspite of maintaining an appropriate calorie deficit! That is simply because the insulin level is permanently increased as a consequence of the high carb intake and your body is programmed to store fat – the process to burn off that excess fat becomes blocked.

This goes as far as part of the eaten food is immediately stored as fat and is not provided for energy gain in the cells. It could be compared with a fuel tank that has a hole or membrane to a second, expandable tank. No matter how much fuel you put in, part of it is always lost and collects in the second tank (this would be the little-loved fat stores which would grow enormously). The insulin prevents that the fuel is pumped from the second tank into the first tank. The consequence: you’re always hungry (as the cells don’t get enough energy), tired and, despite all the struggles, you won’t lose a single pound. So both calorie counting and maintaining a certain calorie deficit will not lead to the desired result. Despite all that – if you ate a huge amount of calories instead, the second tank would be filled even faster, which means, you’ll gain weight even more quickly. So not a very good option either.

The solution? When we strictly cut back on carbs, we keep insulin at the lowest possible level so that the fuel can pass through the opening from the second tank (fat storage tank) into the first tank. Now we only need to motivate our body to start the process – this is done by e.g. only half-filling the first tank so that the lack of energy in your body must be covered by the fat storage tank. This is what we call calorie deficit. Anyway, it is neither bad nor dangerous – the human body is perfectly made for building up fat reserves and to burn them off again when needed. 

On the other hand, however, you would also put on weight even when following a low-carb diet simply because you’re eating way too many calories. For example, cancer patients are put on a ketogenic diet not only to ‘starve’ cancer cells, which need sugar for fuel, but also to increase some weight in the patients, who often show significant underweight (due to their illness or chemotherapy). [1][2][3]

But this is exactly what we want to avoid when striving for weight loss … right?

Conclusion: Both calorie counting AND a proper macronutrient intake are important.  

What is the best macronutrient ratio for weight loss?

Rule No. 1: Eat little amounts of carbs to keep your insulin level low.

This can be done relatively easy by measuring the blood sugar level after eating: if it raises from fasting value to far beyond 100 – 110 mg/dl very quickly, the carb content in your meal was too high. You have to determine a tolerable carb intake according to your very specific needs – the higher the insuline resistance, the smaller should be this quantity, generally speaking. In case of doubt, rather cut back a little more on carbs than you’d need to – just to be on the safe side. 

Rule No. 2: Eat the amount of protein your body really needs, but not much more.

Also proteins affect the level of blood sugar and consequently the level of insulin, although much weaker than carbs do. A good rule of thumb are 1.5 – 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass (body weight minus fat stored). As this value depends on the bone structure and muscle mass, it can vary enormously. So it would make sense to check out your optimal protein intake through regular blood sugar monitoring. Protein is a high satiety food and produces stronger and longer feelings of fullness. In addition, it is essential for repair processes in the body and has a positive effect on the immune system, it helps you maintain your muscles and helps build strong muscles respectively and balances your hormones effectively. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to pack the maximum safe amount of protein into your daily meals  without making your blood sugar level jump. Having the protein intake spread out over the course of the day is better than wolfing down the whole bunch in one meal.

Rule No. 3: Once you’ve set your carb and protein intake, regulate your calorie deficit through your fat intake!

The following chart (diagram 1) is adapted from the so-called ‘Low-carb and Ketogenic Bible’ by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney [4].

What you see is the macronutrient distribution of a man (172 cm tall) slimming down from 104 kg to 82 kg. In this example, an average energy need of 3,200 kcal per day is assumed, which reduces over time to 2,800 kcal with an ongoing weight loss of 22 kg.

Diagram 1: Example of energy distribution of macronutrients when losing weight on a low-carb diet

Phinney and Volek recommend (analogous to the Atkins diet [5]) to kick-start your weight loss with a so-called induction phase with a very low carb intake (25g) and a very high calorie deficit (1,600 kcal). This way, you’ll get carb withdrawal over and done with, empty your glycogen stores and lower your insulin level as quickly as possible. Once you’ve finished off with the so-called ‘keto adaptation process’,  stored body fat will be unlocked. This is followed by a longer period (weight loss) with a slightly higher carb intake (38 g) and a downsized calorie deficit (1,090 kcal). When you’re just a few kilos from your goal weight (transition toward normal weight), you need to further cut down your calorie deficit until you finally eat isocaloric (maintaining normal weight).

The diagram shows the energy and macronutrient distribution in the respective 4 phases: first, you see the total energy intake in the form of food + separately, the calorie deficit highlighted in light blue (intake, left column resp.) and the energy used by the body (use, right column resp.), which both can originate from food and from fat stores in the body. According to the above-mentioned example of the two energy tanks, the light blue zone would correspond to the second tank with the fat storage.

Let’s look at the distribution of macronutrients in relation to each other during the weight loss phase (Beware: different than you might have expected!?)

When on a LCHF and ketogenic diet, dieters often mention an ’ideal’ energy distribution of 75 – 80% fat, approx. 20% protein and 5% carbs. And that is absolutely right – however, one part of these 75 – 80% fat does not originate from food but from body fat. Taking the example in diagram 1, you indeed use 74% fat, 21% protein and 5% carbs during weight loss phase (see pie chart above). The real food intake, however, has a different distribution: just 59% fat, but 33% protein and 8% carbs instead. But anyway, you can certainly speak of an ideal and target-oriented macronutrient distribution, after all, our cells don’t really care where the fat comes from which is converted then into energy – from body fat or from a fatty dinner we’ve just enjoyed. Accordingly, most people don’t feel very hungry during weight loss inspite of a high calorie deficit, because after all, the body can use non-food sources of energy to make up for the shortfall – no need to feed the body from outside.

In plain language: When losing weight, there is little sense in drowning your food just to tune your macros to an intake of 85% fat!

As the weight loss is going on, the carb intake is increased gradually while the protein intake remains unchanged. After successful weight loss, the energy distribution of macronutrients falls around 64% fat, 14% protein and 21% carbs.

In any case, it should be noted that this is just an example presuming that the test person shows good insulin sensitivity even after weight loss and can tolerate a daily intake of up to 100 carbs. Depending on the state of health and numerous other factors, you need to eat considerably fewer carbohydrates even after you hit your goal weight (and increase your fat intake correspondingly).

How do I find out what my energy needs are and what kind of calorie deficit do I really need to burn fat?

Quite simply – you’ll have to do some experimenting to find out what works best for you! There’s a huge number of formulas to calculate your energy need (nothing wrong with that for a first rough estimate), but the only thing that matters in the end is how your body responses to that.

My advice: first thing you do is go low-carb (see my comments on carb and protein intake above), eat until you feel full and monitor your daily macronutrient and calorie intake. If you’re already losing weight at these quantities – perfect! Keep at it!

If not: Remain carbs and proteins unchanged and further cut down on the amount of fats until you experience a slow and ongoing weight loss.

The energy need decreases slightly during weight loss (just logical, finally, we are carrying around fewer pounds now). However, those who lost weight in a jiffy when starting with a certain calorie intake will eventually come to a standstill with the same daily intake after a while. Then it is also a matter here of adjusting your daily intake accordingly.

Do I have to get into ketosis to lose weight?

Ketosis is the metabolic state in which the carb intake is kept very low so that fats are broken down and ketone bodies (ketones) are created from fatty acids for the body to use for energy in the brain. Most of our organs can perfectly gain energy from carbs and fatty acids. However, our brain only works properly with carbohydrates OR ketone bodies – fatty acids are simply too big to cross the blood-brain-barrier.

When on a moderate low-carb diet with a daily intake of 50g  – 70g or even up to 100g carbs, this amount is used up by our brains and you won’t get into ketosis or for a short period only. But also this diet is basically a good approach to lose weight as long as you maintain a certain calorie deficit. Depending on the state of health and the level of insulin resistance, you may probably experience that this daily carb intake blocks fat burning in your body as the insulin level is still too high. Here, too, you’ll have to find out what works best for you.

There is no doubt that being in ketosis offers lots of further health benefits to your body beyond weight loss.

[1]

However, if it’s just a question of weight reduction, ketosis is not always necessary – you can still burn body fat.
Those who lose weight very easily inspite of eating a little more carbs, won’t need to worry about not being in ketosis. If this is not the case: further reduce your carb intake until you’ve found the optimal quantity.

What are your thoughts on this topic? How important is calorie counting in your opinion for weight loss and what is your experience with a low-carb diet? We look forward to your feedback!

 

Literatur:

[1] Fux, V., Pfeifer, D., Keto Info: Glutenfrei. Sojafrei. Wissen! BoD 2016

[2] Pfeifer, D., Keto Basics: Glutenfrei. Sojafrei. Simple! BoD 2016

[3] Kämmerer, U., Schlatterer, C., Knoll, G., Krebszellen lieben Zucker – Patienten brauchen Fett: Gezielt essen für mehr Kraft und Lebensqualität bei Krebserkrankungen, Systemed 2016

[4] Volek, J.S., Phinney, S.D., The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living: An Expert Guide to Making the Life-Saving Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction Sustainable and Enjoyable, Beyond Obesity LLC 2011

[5] Westman, E.C., Volek, J.S., Phinney, S.D., New Atkins For a New You: The Ultimate Diet for Shedding Weight and Feeling Great, Random House 2010

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