Monday, September 16, 2013

The Big Three Weight-Loss Myths

I have discovered that conventional wisdom is often wrong. Dietary studies, often funded by multinational food conglomerates, commission some of the most biased, manipulated and unscientific research that you will ever find.

This research is then picked up by the mainstream media who sensationalize the authors' conclusion from the abstract - often misinterpreting the results. Other media outlets pick up on the story and ramp up the sensation even more so to attract more eyeballs. 

The same falsehoods are repeated again and again, and eventually they stick. You know the ones - you need dairy for calcium, healthy whole grains for fibre, foods fortified with vitamin C and folic acid to prevent disease and don't eat too much red meat because saturated fat will kill you, etc etc.   

Unfortunately if an untruth is repeated often enough it becomes a truth in many people's minds. There are plethora health and diet myths out there - from red meat causing cancer to cholesterol causing heart disease. But more on those another time.

For now I have selected what I believe to be the three big weight loss myths that most screw with our public health psyche and actually cause more damage than benefit. Here is the first one:

MYTH # 1: Calories in, calories out

Calories matter. A little bit. But unlike the mainstream media would have you believe, they aren't the be all and end all. 

Yes, in metabolic ward studies where people are in a completely controlled environment they will lose weight when calories are restricted, for a short period of time.

In fact, most people will lose some weight when you create a calorie defecit. But the effects are not sustainable. Starving yourself will only get you so far. 

The human body's primary goal is to maintain balance - homeostasis. 

If you are eating too few calories your body will slow down to preserve energy. Your hormones will adapt to their new energy-poor environment. 

Our genetic predisposition to survive famine will kick in and our internal state will adjust so that our body become extremely efficient at burning calories. This is a bad thing if there is no real famine.

Your body temperature will drop, you will feel lethargic, you will become less active, your mood will darken, you will become less productive and less fertile. 

Like Weight Watchers, this is clearly not an effective long term weight-loss strategy.

How many women do you know who have starved themselves in the name of losing weight? They cut down to 1500 calories a day and lose 5kg. Then they cut down to 1200 calories a day to lose an extra 3kg. What's next? 500 calories a day to lose that last 3kg? This is clearly ridiculous, unsustainable and downright unhealthy. Try it for yourself and see how you feel. Then see how you feel when you cave, raid every fast food joint in your post code and eventually regain all that weight and some.

On the flip side, conventional wisdom would have you think that if you just exercise a little more, say 40 minutes on the elliptical every day, then that extra 300 calories you burn will add up to fat loss over time, right?

Let's do the math. Given that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and that 1 gram of fat = 9 calories, then if you burn 300 calories extra per day you will burn 33.33 grams of fat per day. 

Extrapolated over a month that equals roughly 1kg of fat. So if you just do 40 minutes on the elliptical every day for a year you will lose 12kg of fat!

Amazing! And guess what, that's the same if you weigh 100kg or 45kg, right? And that's the same if you eat 1600 calories a day or 3000 calories a day, right? And that's the same if you get all your calories from donuts and beer or from kale and salmon, right? And of course you won't lose any muscle along with the fat.

No. This is pure bullshit. Calories in do not equal calories out. Not even close. 

I eat between 3,000-3,500 calories a day. (I DO NOT count calories by the way, but I've calculated this a few times). Some days I will eat 1200 calories just of 85% dark chocolate and coconut fat (coconut manna by the spoonful, anyone?). 

If you follow the traditional wisdom of calories, I should weigh about 300kg right now. But I don't. I'm 6"2, 83kg and about 8% body fat. Why? Because my body has become very inefficient at burning calories and very good at maintaining a healthy weight. Also I get the majority of my calories from good fats while also keeping my blood glucose and insulin levels in check (by limiting fast carbs) creating a fat-burning not fat-storing environment. 

I am always hot, I fidget, I have lots of energy to run up the stairs. My body burns through the excess calories. My body thinks, well, we always have enough food so I don't need to store excess body fat. We are in a time of plenty. 7kg of stored body fat is more than enough for me, thanks!

I heard something very interesting on Robb Wolf's podcast last week. Renown personal trainer Jim Laird, who has trained hundreds of women over many many years, explained that he has never once had a woman come into his gym who was eating enough food. 

That is, every single overweight woman he has ever trained was not eating enough calories to maintain a healthy weight. This seems like a paradox but often in order to gain lean muscle and shed fat you need to increase your intake of quality food. You need to up-regulate your metabolism so it burns calories at a greater rate. And the best way to do that is to increase your lean muscle mass. 

Building lean muscle is effectively like adding more capacity to your engine. Imagine transforming yourself from a four-cylindar 1.3L Hyundai Accent that crawls uphill even with the foot to the floor into a 4.0L V8 BMW M3 beast. 

This extra weight from lean muscle adds power to your engine and increases performance across the board. It ups your metabolic rate while also protecting you from injuries and aging. It also adds a buffer so that if you do overeat you won't gain fat so easily. Or conversely, when you under-eat your performance won't suffer and you won't be scrambling for the pantry or convenience store to shove some sugar down your neck. 

As the BMW you can still be efficient at highway cruising speeds but when you want to ramp up your output you can really rev things up and burn through the fuel - which in the case of getting and staying lean, is a good thing. 

ANTI-RULE # 1: Eat more quality calories to lean down

  • Calories in do not equal calories out. This simplistic model is flawed. Your internal and external environment effects how calories are metabolized. Get over the idea that one muffin is equal to 50 minutes on the stationary bike. It just doesn't work like this. 
  • Calories are not your enemy. You want to eat enough highly nutritious calories to enable you to perform your best while also gaining or at least maintaining lean muscle mass. 
  • You can reduce your calorie intake and still gain fat, just as you can increase your calorie intake and lose fat.
  • Some people, particularly women who have dieted in the past may need to increase their calorie intake to get lean.
  • Starvation and sustained calorie restricted dieting is the worst thing you can do to lose weight. 
  • The best way to achieve a healthy lean weight is to build a bigger engine and tune your engine for performance by optimizing your hormones. Keeping insulin and blood glucose levels in check is paramount to fat loss. (How? Lift weights and sprint. Eat more fat and less crappy carbs).

A Final Word of Warning

Please don't misinterpret my point here. I am not saying that calories do not count at all. Calories do count. But the simplistic model of calories in, calories out is a complete myth. 

If you are significantly overweight or obese this suggests two things: One, you are consuming too many calories. Two, you are storing the excess calories as fat. If this is the case you will need to stop over-consuming calories until you reach a healthy weight.

This is different for a lean, healthy, active person. I am probably over-consuming calories. However, I am not storing the excess calories as fat - I am burning them. 

So I am not giving you a free pass to eat as many calories as you want, even if those calories come from "Paleo" foods like almond butter and grain-free muffins (which I don't recommend!) 

I am, however, trying to free you of the idea that in order to get lean you need to eat less and train more. You don't. 

Many of you, particularly those disciplined types who are starving themselves while slaving away at the gym and still not  losing weight may actually need to eat more and train less to get lean. 


Click here for the next installment: Weight-loss Myth # 2: 'Do cardio to burn fat'

[Image Sources:,,] 


  1. This is so wrong.

    You constantly contradict yourself.

    You say this...

    "If you are significantly overweight or obese this suggests two things: One, you are consuming too many calories. Two, you are storing the excess calories as fat. If this is the case you will need to stop over-consuming calories until you reach a healthy weight."

    How can you turn around and say...

    "Calories in do not equal calories out. Not even close."

    If calories don't matter why would you say this...

    "my body has become very inefficient at burning calories"

    Calories in calories out is not a myth. You even say this yourself...
    "in metabolic ward studies where people are in a completely controlled environment they will lose weight when calories are restricted"

    You can say that the calories in calories out equation isn't simple. But you are misinforming people when you say it's a myth.

    There are a number of ways to create a deficit. Some are good and as you point out some are bad. But you need that deficit.

    like you said...
    "My body burns through the excess calories." (calories in calories out)

  2. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your opinion but I think you may be getting slightly caught up in the semantics.

    I hope the article by saying, "calories matter. A little bit."

    I am NOT saying that calories do not exist or that you can completely ignore the quantity of calories you are eating. But calories are a very poor measure of nutrition and I maintain that the 'calories in, calories out' rule of thermodynamics is a terrible approach to weight loss.

    I do believe in such things as calorie surplus and calorie deficit and that if your body is storing excess energy you will get fat. But in the sense that you can treat the human body as some kind of machine is purely fictitious - hence the terminology of the 'calorie myth'.

    If 'calories in, calories out' held true then you would have to treat all food simply as energy - thereby treating a Krispy Kreme donut the same as a 4oz steak. Clearly food QUALITY matters. Same goes for exercise. You should know that high intensity resistance training affects metabolism differently to low-intesnity cardio?

    So please don't get caught up in the terminology. If you disagree with me that is completely fine.

    Yet in my opinion, the 'calories in, calories out' idea is a myth in the sense that it is misleading and overly simplistic.

    1. calories in vs calories out, taking into account your base metabolic rate. that's all you have to do. yes, proper foods give you better nutrients and vitamins, but if you eat 2000 calories of donuts it has the same effect on weight loss/gain as 2000 calories of healthy foods, its just that one has better vitamins/minerals.

      you do not eat 3500 calories/day and maintain 85kg without exercise. if you exercise a lot, that is believable though.

      you are spreading misinformation

    2. This is not true at all

      Donuts will spike your insulin
      And will start to make fat immediately
      Unless you go for a run
      After you eat the donut


    calories in. calories out.

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