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Case Studies in Nutrition: Selena How-Did-I-Get-So-Clueless? by Robb Wolf - CrossFit Journal

In Nutrition, Videos

November 07, 2009

Video Article

“Selena” takes in only 1,200 calories a day. She’s 300 lb. and isn’t losing any weight.

What gives?

Robb Wolf asked that question at a recent CrossFit Nutrition cert, and participants came up with the following answer: the calories Selena takes in constantly raise her insulin levels and encourage her body to store fat. Her consumption of artificial sweeteners compounds the problem.

According to Wolf, artificial sweeteners can create insulin spikes via signals between the taste buds and organs such as the pancreas and the brain. Furthermore, the body is wired in ways that allow some people to get insulin spikes just by looking at pictures of food.

In a similar twist, Selena might not need a strict low-block Zone prescription because carrying 300 lb. around all day is a hell of a workout and may require more fuel than you think.

Robb Wolf is the co-owner and founder of CrossFit NorCal. He offers nutrition seminars all over North America.

Video by Again Faster.

7min 25sec

Additional reading: Good Hormones, Bad Hormones: The Energy Balance Equation by Tony Leyland, published March 1, 2008.

Free Download


45 Comments on “Case Studies in Nutrition: Selena How-Did-I-Get-So-Clueless? ”


William Davidson wrote …

Awesome! I'd really like to see more material from Robb. I was also thrilled to see another friend of ours from the Nutrition Cert - Hi Mat!


wrote …

Did Robb steal his little sisters shirt to wear to the cert?


wrote …

I would figure that Selena is being less than honest with you or herself the days she doesn't keep a diary rather than some crazieness with insulin. If she is consistently eating 1200 cal a day and still 300lbs you should ship her off to some medical lab as she is the key to solving world hunger.


wrote …

I have to agree with Michael's comments. The more likely scenario would seem to be that Selena's accuracy in her food journal is WAY off (I'm assuming she's keeping one). Not trying to say that the reason's given don't have some kind of effect, just saying that a 1200 calorie intake for a 300lb person is going to have a much more significant effect on weight loss than anything else.

Would like to learn more, and would be curious to know what studies have been done comparing weight loss due to caloric intake vs. weight loss due to diet composition (exercise being the same between the two).


replied to comment from Dave Wolf

"just saying that a 1200 calorie intake for a 300lb person is going to have a much more significant effect on weight loss than anything else."

Er... specifically in terms of food consumption. Not addressing an exercise component here.


wrote …

I had a very salty meal the previous evening and was "swole".

Michael, Dave-
The food log is accurate. this is some of the seemingly paradoxical of metabolic derangement. Garry Taubes details this information extensively in Good Calories, Bad Calories, most folks do not take the time to read and consider both his analysis of the material and the underlying research it is based upon. Certainly worth a look!


wrote …

Would eating 1200 calories of doughnuts have the same effect of eating 1200 lean chicken, broccoli, fresh fruit. I say we get two identical twins, have one eat 1200 calories of sugar and the other eat 1200 of healthy stuff, put them thru the same workout everyday and see what happens.


wrote …

Of course there would be a very different effect if eating 1200 cals of doughnuts or 1200 cals of lean chicken, broccoli, fresh fruit. Its all about food quality (especially when someone is starting off) and how what one is eating effects thier hormones. As Robb says, one way you know if something is working is if there are improvements in how you feel, perform, and look. When your insulin is high its a lot harder to get anything out of your cells. 1200 cals of lean chicken, broccoli, fresh fruit is going to keep your insulin levels a lot more balanced out and not mess with your insulin sensitivity as much as the other example.


wrote …

Robb, can you post the reference for that study you cited in the Journal of Circulation about sweeteners? Thanks.


wrote …


despite popular perception, calories in and calories out are not sufficient metrics in calculating fat loss. Personally, I would see carbs (or an overall macro nutrient breakdown) as a more useful metric than calories, and food quality as an equally useful metric as macro nutrient breakdown.
One of the most fascinating parts of "Good Calories, Bad Calories" is when Taubes reviews research that showed certain animals gaining fat while on near starvation diets. The animals were hormonally programmed to put on fat at a certain point. And that's what their bodies did, in part if I remember correctly, by cannibalizing other body systems for energy to compensate for the caloric deficit.
I'm not saying that our human bodies are programmed to do anything so radical, but a modern toxic diet can definitely devastate our hormone levels. When a fat person, who is staying fat, tells you they're barely eating a thing they're more often than you might think telling the truth.


replied to comment from David Shaeffer

No, I' wont but, like I said in the video, I'll show YOU how to find it.
Open a browser, get "google" in the page. Input the following:
"journal circulation artificial sweeteners"

Not trying to be a dick but people need to take some ownership in their education.
That circulation piece is just scratching the surface BTW...



wrote …

I've read the extra attachment to the video Robb and although i don't doubt there's something in it at some level and the calorie in=calorie out is not set in stone, i can't believe it has as much of an effect in Selenas case. Her maintenance calories to keep her weight at 300lbs can't be far from 3000 calories a day. That's nearly a 2k deficit she'd have at a consistent 1200cal/day i can't believe that her insulin response would make up that shortfall.


wrote …

That is an AWESOME shirt!!!


replied to comment from Cynthia Lumley

Damn straight! One of the best gyms, some of the best coaching available.


wrote …

We do love our little CJ!


replied to comment from Robert Wolf

Thanks for the reference Robb. I haven't read that book. Time to go feed my brain with some new info now.


replied to comment from Gerard Blais

"despite popular perception, calories in and calories out are not sufficient metrics in calculating fat loss. Personally, I would see carbs (or an overall macro nutrient breakdown) as a more useful metric than calories, and food quality as an equally useful metric as macro nutrient breakdown."

Still skeptical, but reserving judgement until reading "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (I just don't know enough about how the body functions to give a decent arguement one way or the other.)

"One of the most fascinating parts of "Good Calories, Bad Calories" is when Taubes reviews research that showed certain animals gaining fat while on near starvation diets. The animals were hormonally programmed to put on fat at a certain point. And that's what their bodies did, in part if I remember correctly, by cannibalizing other body systems for energy to compensate for the caloric deficit."

Sounds like this will be an interesting read.

"When a fat person, who is staying fat, tells you they're barely eating a thing they're more often than you might think telling the truth."

I would agree with this statement in that a person in this situation 'believes' that they're barely eating anything. If you have a separate party documenting food consumption to keep things honest, more often than not, I suspect you'll find the person is eating significantly more than what they percieve they are eating. This is based on my experience talking with friends and other people going though this (me being one of them) so there's certainly no scientific validity to it. But I would be suprised to find out the general population is any different. (and of course there are always exceptions to the rule.)


wrote …

just want to make sure i'm getting it right but for every 10 lbs take 1 g of fish oil a day?


wrote …

You could use that as a rule of thumb, but it also depends on other factors.

The fatter you are, the more you should take. That's why some recommendations are based on body comp, e.g. 1 gram per 1% of body fat. If you eat more omega 6 FAs, you also want more O 3s to balance that out. Some conditions also favor higher doses, Barry Sears mentioned something about it improving ADD etc.


wrote …


I have the ability to find the article myself, but if you are quoting the study I think you are quoting, then you have grossly misinterpreted the findings. If you are going to cite a specific study to support your hypothesis that artificial sweeteners cause a release of insulin, then be specific with your reference. The burden of proof is on you Robb, not the audience. If you are being purposefully vague with your references, then you must be hiding something. If you don't agree then I have a nice cold fusion reactor I would like to sell you, and if you promise not check my references I will give you a VERY special deal on it...


replied to comment from Paul Van Gasse

For healthy folks that's about .5g/10lbs body weight. The 1.0g is for sick or overweight individuals and that level should decrease over time.


Patrick Mcelhone wrote …


What about this study?

Nakagawa Y, Nagasawa M, Yamada S, Hara A, Mogami H, Nikolaev VO, Lohse MJ,
Shigemura N, Ninomiya Y, Kojima I. Sweet taste receptor expressed in pancreatic
beta-cells activates the calcium and cyclic AMP signaling systems and stimulates
insulin secretion. PLoS One. 2009;4(4):e5106. Epub 2009 Apr 8. PubMed PMID:
19352508; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2663034


wrote …

I thought I had a post up here with links!!!??


wrote …

I've tried posting links a couple of times...sorry guys, no dice.


wrote …

Hi everyone,

I'm Kieran's other half and he showed me this video asking my opinion. It's not worth me making an account here but I feel I need to comment on this, so I'm posting that under his existing account, I hope you don't mind.

I was not impressed at all by what I saw... here is why:

1) The guy in the video is very hostile towards this lady, and instead of giving us salient info and usable data, he spends a lot of time getting the audience to laugh at her ineptness. :(

2) The basic calorie requirement for someone like Selena just to stay at 300 pounds is 3600 calories a day and even if some food is processed more efficiently than others, there is still no such thing a a free lunch, especially not for fatties ;-)

Note the large discrepancy between what she supposedly eats and what she actually needs -- if there are mitigating effects at all(and most nutritionists would dispute that), they will be a lot more subtle than that and certainly not amount to annihilating 2/3 of the daily requirement.

It sounds very much like she got dragged along to please her worried hubby. (Those heart-to-heart talks sound very scary too, eek) So on balance, I think the poor lady lied in order to avoid getting bullied and disappointing her husband whilst saving her marriage and the remnants of her dignity.

3) The laundry list of foods was rather unspecific. What kind of snacks? How many of them, and how much thereof? How many cheese sandwiches @ how many calories? What kind of bread? What kind of cheese?

4) The zone diet isn't for everyone, you have to be very dedicated to want to eat those kind of unusual and to the normal palate unbalanced combinations, so I can understand the lady's refusal to eat the food that hubby cooks. Besides that, she's had a gastric bypass and so, she needs frequent small meals, whereas the zone diet is far too bulky here.

Btw, telling people not to do something is not as useful as telling them what they should do instead and making sure that your advice is achievable for them.

5) There is a 1987 paper that deals with the insulin release and artificial sweetener issue, the abstract thereof is here:
and also a newer one (1997) if you visit a university library as a guest, you should be able to read the whole article for free.




wrote …


When you deal with these kinds of people, you put in so much effort but see really nothing in return, its hard not to feel "hostile."

A basic caloric requirement can be pretty hit or miss, everyone is different. The calorie in vs calorie out equation are very much dependent variables. To change one the other changes as well. The problem with most nutritionists that you state, is past the memorization of the food pyramid they don't know very much. The ones who I have spoken with lack any understanding of simple biochemistry, right over their heads. With them any talk of hormones is out the window and its back to calculators and counting grams of fat.

I am not sure if you watched the video closely but Robb wasn't prescribing the zone diet for this women. It is hard enough to get some of these people to eat quality food let alone weight/measure everything.

Insulin resistance is playing a key role here. Just because she is 300lbs doesn't mean she is eating a truck load. Gary taubes makes a good point in GCBC, when you see a very heavy set women in poor nations with their children who look like they are literally starving to death, do you actually think the mother is hording all the food when she could use some of it to feed her child? Of course not, alot of hormonal stuff is in the works.


wrote …

Robb are you saying that all these hormonal responses and such can halt fat loss even when people are eating


wrote …


less than 40% of there daily mainainence calories?


wrote …

Thanks for the links regarding insulin release and artificial sweeteners. Unfortunately if that is the best data we have now, then I wouldn't take such a strong stance against artificial sweeteners. Those studies are all on mouse/rat pancreas cells, and we know there is danger in extrapolating that to humans. Besides, not all artficial sweeteners are absorbed, and so the pancreas would never be exposed to them. You got something better Robb? Please link it up! I am not trying to argue, just trying to learn...


replied to comment from Kaitlin Lyons

Sorry I re-read my comment and it make no sense. I was commenting on the composition of the diet and taking it to an extreme. IF we had someone eating 1200 calories of doughnuts versus 1200 of meat and vegetables I would assume that the person eating 1200 calories of doughnuts would gain weight and the person eating 1200 of meat and vegetables wouldn't. I am agreeing with what is being presented in that 1200 calories of latte's will have a different effect on Selena than 1200 calories of vegetables. It would be an easy experiment if we had a set of twins willing to commit to the prescribed diets. We could take before and after measurements. We wouldn't need links or data, we'd have our own recorded data on this. The hormonal response may not only have a physical effect but a psychological effect that is causing weight gain. Sugar stimulates the pleasure center of the brain like most other drugs. If she is consuming a lot of it and then withdrawing for a period of time, she may feel depressed like someone coming down off a high.

I also agree that the food log may not be 100% accurate. I tried keeping one for a month and always ended up with conflicting data or missing data because it just isn't that easy to find out how many calories are in grandma's chicken casserole and I am a horrible guesser at quantity to. In the end it proved worthless. Just focus on quality would be my advice.


Are you kidding me? You could not sound more like a troll. Here is a study showing that artificial sweeteners activate sweet receptors and this leads to an increase in intracellular Ca++ and this results in increased insulin release. Your response is "well, it was rat pancreas". Of course it was bench research. Your kind are why I try to stay away from discussions. You ask for studies...studies are provided and you dismiss the studies for some reason.

David, here you go. Here is why I believe this. Are bodies are very, very complex. Have you heard the phase "the half life of medical knowledge is seven years"? I believe that. We humans, think we are so smart...we think we know how the body works, we develop drugs to intervene how we think they should, sometimes it works, but sometimes, it doesn't. Later we learn new things and can not fathom how we ever did the original things. This is true from blood letting 1000 years ago to the current use of statin drugs to lower cholesterol.

Think about this. Wouldn't it make sense that if a ligand can activate a receptor and let us think we are eating sugar, our nervous system would think we are actually eating sugar and our nervous system would release insulin to deal with that sugar? I first heard this from Robb Wolf in April, it made perfect sense. I looked for some studies and all I found were studies, like the ones from above, that said artificial sweeteners do not affect insulin levels. Now, we see a bench study from 2009, that may support this direct neuro mediated insulin release.

Finally, this makes sense in the actual real world. Remember the study in the news about how people who drank soda actually consumed less overall calories then those who consumed diet soda. One explaination could be the soda filled them up, another is that while it was actually calorie free...the diet soda cause insulin release and this insulin drove the person to consume additional calories. To me this makes perfect sense. If it does not to you, too bad. Or you could just stop drinking diet soda. I gave it up and finally lost the urge to overeat CHO, I finally dropped to under 9% BF and my performance has been getting better and better.


wrote …


"Unfortunately if that is the best data we have now, then I wouldn't take such a strong stance against artificial sweeteners."

Do you have a strong stance FOR the use of artificial sweeteners? There seems to be little evidence of benefit. People don't seem to lose weight when they use this stuff. Also, you're looking at a novel chemical being added to the human physiological milieu. From my perspective, you need to have very strong
evidence that it is actually helpful in order to recommend its use. There is nothing I could find that indicates that it has any positive health effect. And, certainly, no one is going to suffer from a sucrolose deficiency.

"Those studies are all on mouse/rat pancreas cells, and we know there is danger in extrapolating that to humans."

There is little danger extrapolating a potential toxicity in the case of a novel chemical. There is, however, a danger when extrapolating safety.
The bulk of the research used for the approval of sucrolose was from animal studies. Are these studies anymore valid? To establish safety, you are attempting to prove the absence of something, which is very different from establishing the presence of something. It takes an infinite number of scenarios to be tested over a very long period (decades) in order to completely validate the safety of the substance. It only takes one negative study to cast doubt on its benignity. In the end you have to decide whether the benefits out weigh the known and yet-to-be known risks.

So, in practical application, you have this information:

Epidemiological observations show little to no usefulness of A.S. for the purpose of weight loss and/or health promotion. The long term negative health effects are unknown. The latest animal studies show unwelcome hormonal effects as they relate to metabolic syndrome. These studies provide a plausible resolution of the epidemiological paradox of apparent caloric restriction without concomitant weight loss. There is no physiological requirement for sucrolose, aspartame, or any other A.S.


There is NO compelling reason to recommend A.S. and compelling evidence NOT to.


wrote …

Thanks for the video and info Mr. Wolf...good stuff! Keep em coming!


wrote …

Yawn. Looks like you guys have let your emotions overtake your objectivity. Look back at my posts. I never was arguing for the use of AS. I don't use the stuff. I don't recommend it to anyone. But evidence that A.S. are TOXIC? Evidence that rat pancreas cells release insulin when exposed to A.S. is hardly a toxicity, for the rats or for humans.

Patrick and Kevin, I am glad neither one of you work at the FDA, because if you did, our public's health would be at stake. There are very ill patients out there who rely on smart people to tell them which medicines are safe, and which ones are toxic. Majority of the time, they get it right. I am thankful that well designed experiments are carried out, not just on rats, before the FDA approves a drug.

As evidence goes, trustworthy anecdotal reports carry so much more weight than test tube rat studies. In other words, Patrick's success story of giving up AS with good results is so much more compelling than those studies.

As for Robb, I hope you start taking ownership for your teaching, and start posting references to support your arguments.



replied to comment from David Shaeffer

Dave, an excessive amount of insulin released from the pancreas IS toxic. And I"m not sure, but I don't think Robb was referring to A.S. in this way, he was only referring to the insulin releasing effects that A.S. have, compounding on the insulin resistance already taking place. He says this after someone in group 2 mentions it.

And the FDA... they're recommendations are to eat grains and stay away from fats. Doesn't sound like a smart or healthy plan to me. the FDA's recommendations is why our public's health IS at stake!


wrote …

Great points Paul!

The FDA also approved Olestra, a man-made fat two big enough to digest. Its like cyber dining, you think your eating fat, but your body knows better. The longest study conducted to "prove" it was safe....39 weeks...on pigs. But c'mon, what doesn't the FDA approve???


wrote …


wrote …

Insulin being released from the pancreas is not toxic. It is essential for life. Insulin is the most potent and most powerful anabolic hormone (more so than growth hormone) in the human body. Too much or too little can be harmful. Just ask a type 1 diabetic next time you see them shooting up with insulin.

I hope we don't need a basic civics class here, but the USDA, not the FDA, approved the food pyramid.

Ben, the FDA doesn't decide if something is good for you. It determines if something is potentially harmful. Your synopsis of the Olestra debacle is slightly oversimplified ( The FDA doesn't necessarily imply that something is good for you if they approve it. The market will ultimately decide if people like a product.

And finally, what doesn't the FDA approve? A lot of things. So much so, that FDA staff receive death threats for not approving things.

Everybody thinks they are an expert these days. I would have never thought that being a true expert in a field would actually harm your credibility. Thankfully a few true experts like Dr. Pazdur are out there, doing their job every day, without any thanks from the people he is protecting.


replied to comment from David Shaeffer

No one said anything about the FDA approving the food pyramid. Their recommendations however line right up with the USDA's pyramid. These recommendations are the reason our public's health is in peril. The great irony is that it fuels their necessity to approve drugs used to "fix" our public's ailing health. If they can take it back to square one and recommend nutrition that supports our public's health, the FDA would be doing a truly noble thing.

But, chances are they won't. there's a lot a money to be made in lying about what's healthy for us to eat and dishing out drugs to counteract the effects.

Here's the first line of the NY Times article you linked:

"Politicians and researchers have predicted for nearly four decades that a cure for cancer is near, but cancer death rates have hardly budged and most new cancer drugs cost a fortune while giving patients few, if any, added weeks of life."

I'm quoting this to support what i said above. The article says that Dr. Pazdur himself eats a diet that he believes in anti-cancer. Seems like he believes he has found the cure. The FDA should quit wasting time and money and lives to fill their own pockets.


wrote …

Paul you are confusing cancer prevention and cancer cure. Sure, a paleo diet may be helpful to prevent cancer, but it will never cure someone who already has cancer. Surgery, chemo, and radiation cure cancer. Next time you meet someone who is dying of cancer, try telling them to give up their medical treatments and eat paleo instead. I am sure they will thank you for that great advice.


wrote …


You lost me when you state "Surgery, chemo, and radition cure cancer." Tell that to the thousands of people who DIE from those treatments.


replied to comment from David Shaeffer

David, I am not discounting what those types of interventions have done for scores of cancer patients, all I am saying is that if our #1 concern is the elimination of cancer, lets go with what good old Dr Pazdur himself believes is keeping him cancer free. Do continue the treatments for current cancer victims, but cancer will continue to be a growing problem if we think that finding a drug is the necessary step to a cancer free existence.

And I have been close to more than a few people that died of cancer. I wish I knew then what I know now.


wrote …

About the declaration that artificial sweeteners mess people up - Science News has an article about this very thing. This is a pretty scientifically conservative newsletter, if they are covering it, it means the information is pretty well accepted among scientists. They cover a lot of drug studies, for instance.

"Taste, scientists are discovering, is a whole-body sensation. There are taste cells in the stomach, intestine and, evidence suggests, the pancreas, colon and esophagus. These sensory cells are part of an ancient battalion tasked with guiding food choices since long before nutrition labels, Rachael Ray or even agriculture existed. While taste cells in the mouth make snap judgments about what should be let inside, new work suggests that gut taste cells serve as specialized ground forces, charged with preparing the digestive system for the aftermath of the tongue’s decisions."


replied to comment from Vanessa Pinter

Vanessa, great article, thanks for sharing!!
Luis Fernandez


wrote …

Crystal Clear explanation... congrats!

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