Sunday, December 19, 2010

Potato Diet Interpretation

If you read my post on December 16th, you know that Chris Voigt saw remarkable fat loss and improvements in health markers as a result of two months of eating almost nothing but potatoes. This has left many people scratching their heads, because potatoes are not generally viewed as a healthy food. This is partially due to the fact that potatoes are very rich in carbohydrate, which also happens to be a quickly digested type, resulting in a high glycemic index. The glycemic index refers to the degree to which a particular food increases blood glucose when it's eaten, and I've questioned the relevance of this concept to health outcomes in the past (1, 2, 3). I think Mr. Voigt's results once again argue against the importance of the glycemic index as a diet-health concept.

It's often pointed out that potatoes are low in vitamins and minerals compared to vegetables on a per-calorie basis, but I think it's a misleading comparison because potatoes are much more calorie-dense than most vegetables. Potatoes compare favorably to other starchy staples such as bread, rice and taro.

Over the course of two months, Mr. Voigt lost 21 pounds. No one knows exactly how much of that weight came out of fat and how much out of lean mass, but the fact that he reported a decrease in waist and neck circumference indicates that most of it probably came out of fat. Previous long-term potato feeding experiments have indicated that it's possible to maintain an athletic muscle mass on the amount of protein in whole potatoes alone (4). So yes, Mr. Voigt lost fat on a very high-carbohydrate diet (75-80% carbohydrate, up to 440g per day).

On to the most interesting question: why did he lose fat? Losing fat requires that energy leaving the body exceed energy entering the body. But of course, that's obvious but it doesn't get us anywhere. In the first three weeks of his diet, Mr. Voigt estimates that he was only eating 1,600 calories per day. Aha! That's why he lost weight! Well, yes. But let's look into this more deeply. Mr. Voigt was not deliberately restricting his calorie intake at all, and he did not intend this as a weight loss diet. In my interview, I asked him if he was hungry during the diet. He said that he was not hungry, and that he ate to appetite during this period, realizing only after three weeks that he was not eating nearly enough calories to maintain his weight*. I also asked him how his energy level was, and he said repeatedly that it was very good, perhaps even better than usual. Those were not idle questions.

Calorie restriction causes a predictable physiological response in humans that includes hunger and decreased energy. It's the starvation response, and it's powerful in both lean and overweight people, as anyone knows who has tried to lose fat by decreasing calorie intake alone. The fact that he didn't experience hunger or fatigue implies that his body did not think it was starving. Why would that be?

I believe Mr. Voigt's diet lowered his fat mass 'setpoint'. In other words, for whatever reason, the diet made his body 'want' to be leaner that it already was. His body began releasing stored fat that it considered excess, and therefore he had to eat less food to complete his energy needs. You see this same phenomenon very clearly in rodent feeding studies. Changes in diet composition/quality can cause dramatic shifts in the fat mass setpoint (5, 6). Mr. Voigt's appetite would eventually have returned to normal once he had stabilized at a lower body fat mass, just as rodents do.

Rodent studies have made it clear that diet composition has a massive effect on the level of fat mass that the body will 'defend' against changes in calorie intake (5, 6). Human studies have shown similar effects from changes in diet composition/quality. For example, in controlled diet trials, low-carbohydrate dieters spontaneously reduce their calorie intake quite significantly and lose body fat, without being asked to restrict calories (7). In Dr. Staffan Lindeberg's Paleolithic diet trials, participants lost a remarkable amount of fat, yet a recent publication from his group shows that the satiety (fullness) level of the Paleolithic group was not different from a non-Paleolithic comparison group despite a considerably lower calorie intake over 12 weeks (8, 9). I'll discuss this important new paper soon. Together, this suggests that diet composition/quality can have a dominant impact on the fat mass setpoint.

One possibility is that cutting the wheat, sugar, most vegetable oil and other processed food out of Mr. Voigt's diet was responsible for the fat loss.  Many people find, for example, that they lose fat simply by eliminating wheat from their diet.

Another possibility that I've been exploring recently is that changes in palatability (pleasantness of flavor) influence the fat mass setpoint. There is evidence in rodents that it does, although it's not entirely consistent. For example, rats will become massively obese if you provide them with chocolate flavored Ensure (a meal replacement drink), but not with vanilla or strawberry Ensure (10). They will defend their elevated fat mass against calorie restriction (i.e. they show a physiological starvation response when you try to bring them down to a lower weight by feeding them less chocolate Ensure) while they're eating chocolate Ensure, but as soon as you put them back on unpurified rodent pellets, they will lose fat and defend the lower fat mass. Giving them food in liquid or paste form often causes obesity, while the same food in solid pellet form will not. Eating nothing but potatoes is obviously a diet with a low overall palatability.

So I think that both a change in diet composition/quality and a decrease in palatability probably contributed to a decrease in Mr. Voigt's fat mass setpoint, which allowed him to lose fat mass without triggering a starvation response (hunger, fatigue).

The rest of his improvements in health markers were partially due to the fat loss, including his decreased fasting glucose, decreased triglycerides, and presumably increased insulin sensitivity. They may also have been partially due to a lack of industrial food and increased intake of certain micronutrients such as magnesium.

One of the most striking changes was in his calculated LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol), which decreased by 41%, putting him in a range that's more typical of healthy non-industrial cultures including hunter-gatherers. Yet hunter-gatherers didn't eat nothing but potatoes, often didn't eat much starch, and in some cases had a high intake of fat and saturated fat, so what gives? It's possible that a reduced saturated fat intake had an impact on his LDL, given the relatively short timescale of the diet. But I think there's something mysterious about this setpoint mechanism that has a much broader impact on metabolism than is generally appreciated. For example, calorie restriction in humans has a massive impact on LDL, much larger than the impact of saturated fat (11). And in any case, the latter appears to be a short-term phenomenon (12). It's just beginning to be appreciated that energy balance control systems in the brain influence cholesterol metabolism.

Mr. Voigt's digestion appeared to be just fine on his potato diet, even though he generally ate the skins. This makes me even more skeptical of the idea that potato glycoalkaloids in common potato varieties are a health concern, especially if you were to eliminate most of the glycoalkaloids by peeling.

I asked Mr. Voigt about what foods he was craving during the diet to get an idea of whether he was experiencing any major deficiencies. The fact that Mr. Voigt did not mention craving meat or other high-protein foods reinforces the fact that potatoes are a reasonable source of complete protein. The only thing he craved was crunchy/juicy food, which I'm not sure how to interpret.

He also stopped snoring during the diet, and began again immediately upon resuming his normal diet, perhaps indicating that his potato diet reduced airway inflammation. This could be due to avoiding food allergies and irritants (wheat anyone?) and also fat loss.

Overall, a very informative experiment! Enjoy your potatoes.


*Until the last 5.5 weeks, when he deliberately stuffed himself beyond his appetite because his rapid weight loss worried him. Yet, even with deliberate overfeeding up to his estimated calorie requirement of 2,200 calories per day, he continued to lose weight. He probably was not quite reaching his calorie goal, or his requirement is higher than he thought.

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