Mass Action

I’ve started reading Dr. Richard D. Feinman’s book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Second Low-Carbohydrate Revolution. It may be the best book on the topic of low carb diets to date, because of its broad perspective, and its readability. It appears to have at its core the same thesis Zooko and I have been trying to promote on our website, that low carbohydrate diets are good for health in many ways, particularly in ways connected to metabolic syndrome. In the book, Dr. Feinman expresses a problem that comes with that discovery, a problem which has caused us much personal frustration:

“[T]he problem with convincing people of the benefits of a reduced carbohydrate strategy is that it appears to be good for everything, good for what ails you. You can sound like a hard-sell pitchman.” (p 204)

Another passage that particularly struck me was in the introduction. It has given me vocabulary for a concept we’ve tried to express several times.

“[B]iology tends to run on hormones and enzymes, that is, control mechanisms, not on mass action (the principle that chemical processes are determined by how much reactants are put into them). The grand principle in biochemistry is that there is hardly anything that is not connected with feedback.” (p 7, Emphasis ours)

This point was made in the context of the diet-heart hypothesis, which has as a premise that you can control the amount of cholesterol in your blood by how much of it you eat (which is untrue). It is an equally appropriate concept when talking about the calorie control method for weight loss. That method is generally a lost cause, because the important mechanisms in weight control are hormonal. How much you eat is a downstream effect of your hormonal state.

Protein does not affect ketosis via mass action

It also explains well the idea Zooko and I have tried to put forth about protein and gluconeogenesis (GNG, the process of making sugar out of protein). We showed in this post that the amount of material available for GNG doesn’t appear to have any effect on how much GNG actually occurs. Insofar as eating a high amount of protein can lead to reduced ketosis, which would then require your body to get more energy from glucose, which could increase demand for GNG, this must occur through a hormonal/enzymatic cascade.

That would mean that managing ketosis is not a simple matter of calculating some threshold of protein, after which the rest “turns into sugar”, any more than managing weight is a simple matter of calculating some threshold of calories, after which the rest “turns into fat”.

Most people find that if they restrict carbohydrate intake, excess fat is lost. The loss of fat entails a caloric deficit, but that is an effect of the fat loss, not a cause. One could argue about what would happen if people on low carb diets consumed excess calories, but it’s largely irrelevant, because people on low carb diets following their hunger rarely do that.

The same may be true of protein. As far as I can tell, most people on a very low carb diet are in ketosis without consciously constraining their protein consumption. It happens naturally.

While I have heard from some people who need to manually manage calories or protein to stay in their therapeutic zone, even while on a very low carb diet, it doesn’t seem to be the common case. Even in those cases, I have often seen the problem resolve when a high-fat, plant-free, sweetener-free approach is taken. This suggests that there are further (hormonal/enzymatic) mechanisms that can interfere with the hunger feedback loop.

15 replies
  1. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    You always have something very perceptive to say. Thanks for the recommend on Feinman's book.

    This sentence in your post is confusing to me: "The loss of fat entails a caloric deficit, but that is an effect of the fat loss, not a cause." It sounds like you are saying that the fat loss creates the caloric deficit. If so, I am not sure how this could be. Further explanation would be appreciated. Thanks!

  2. John Velden
    John Velden says:

    Your metabolism is controlled by your hormonal milieu = "control mechanisms, not on mass action".
    If you take a mitochondrial uncoupler like dinitrophenol(toxicity aside) you will lose fat mass provided you do not cook your self.
    Does dinitrophenol contain negative calories? of course not! it just makes mitochondria really inefficient at making ATP.

  3. Helen Webster
    Helen Webster says:

    What do you make of the idea of the Food Insulin Index? This is the wiki entry which is concise and helpful:

    "The Insulin Index is a measure used to quantify the typical insulin response to various foods. The index is similar to the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load, but rather than relying on blood glucose levels, the Insulin Index is based upon blood insulin levels. This measure can be more useful than either the Glycemic Index or the Glycemic Load because certain foods (e.g., lean meats and proteins) cause an insulin response despite there being no carbohydrates present, and some foods cause a disproportionate insulin response relative to their carbohydrate load.

    Holt et al. have noted that the glucose and insulin scores of most foods are highly correlated,[1] but high-protein foods and bakery products that are rich in fat and refined carbohydrates "elicit insulin responses that were disproportionately higher than their glycemic responses." They also conclude that insulin indices may be useful for dietary management and avoidance of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and hyperlipidemia."

    I have also read that glucose levels can appear normal whilst blood insulin is running high……

  4. Pete533
    Pete533 says:

    I wanted to post this to Microbiome Nonsense: response to "Chowing Down On Meat" but alas I am not a "team member". I have been diagnosed with something called Microscopic Colitis. During a Colonoscopy the inflammation is not visible to the naked eye, but only with a biopsy. Problem is, I would love to eat a ketogenic diet, only that I find my biggest trigger is animal fat. Low fiber is good, but I seem to only do well with a starch based diet. Which aside from keeping symptoms down, makes me feel like crap. Any ideas? When I was younger (I'm 66) a low carb diet was able to effortlessly reduce my body weight. .

  5. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    In people with type 1 diabetes, protein makes blood glucose go up in proportion to the amount of protein eaten. This is because protein stimulates glucagon, which stimulates GNG, and type 1s don't secrete insulin to compensate. So although it's not a direct mass action effect, the result is similar. The rule of thumb is to inject insulin to cover about half of the protein eaten.

  6. Emmie Warren
    Emmie Warren says:

    I just want to comment on my experience of your statement: "I have often seen the problem resolve when a high-fat, plant-free, sweetener-free approach is taken."

    I have always managed my weight by eating very low carb (<20g), and carefully counting calories, but when 10 extra lbs 'appeared' due to some careless eating, my usual methods no longer worked. I could not seem to shed them.

    I'd always been interested in your carnivorous eating plan, so I decided to try it for a month–just meat, fish, and fats. I quickly stopped counting calories because I was eating SO MUCH–yet those pounds disappeared, and I was back to my goal weight within the month. I'm now in my 4th month and plan to eat this way forever!

  7. Is Sapuan
    Is Sapuan says:

    Hi Amber!
    Your blog is by far the most informative and the most helpful one I could find. I'm going to start this all-meat diet next month & keeping my fingers crossed that it'll be the answer to my diet woes.

    You once mentioned that you usually take 30%-70% protein-fat ratio. How do you actually measure this protein-fat ratio? Does this mean that all the meat cuts you take literally consist of 70% fat in it?

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