Get Smart: Metabolism Myth Busting
Truth is so rare that it is delightful to tell it.
Welcome to Stage II, where the only sweating involves carrying shopping bags of fitness gear out to your car.
We’re still in the “getting ready to get started” portion of your lifestyle overhaul. You’ve learned a lot about why junk food is so tempting, the reasons to change, and how exercise is your methadone for breaking highly palatable habits. Now it’s time to “Prepare” before you “Do” the actual exercise and eating thing.
But start getting excited. Stage II involves building anticipation for awesome changes that will happen in Stage III. You may currently consider people who love working out and eating healthily to be insane; get ready to join the asylum.
An important part of preparation is shaking off the garbage that permeates Weight Loss Inc. and insinuates its way into your synapses. There are a lot of myths out there about how to lose weight, and exactly how much weight you can lose in how much time. As we’ve discussed, there is no money in marketing “slow and steady” to make the scale move, so most of what you’ve read and heard promotes an unrealistic mind-set.
Developing a sense of realism is an important part of the preparation process. It’s time to shatter some delusions.
The Myth of Rapid Weight Loss
Remember at the beginning of this book I mentioned someone threatening to sue me? That was Jillian Michaels, star of the abysmal train-wreck fat-shaming TV game show The Biggest Loser, who fancies herself “America’s toughest trainer.” In one of my articles, I pointed out that she lacked the proper certifications for teaching kettlebells, and I quoted three experts who said her technique was dangerous. I also busted wide open the “lose up to 5 pounds a week” weight loss claim she makes on her kettlebell DVD. Using, you know, math.
Oh, and nothing came of that threat of a lawsuit. The statue of limitations expired with no filing.
By the way, the kettlebell DVD wasn’t the first time that Michaels had claimed you could lose up to five pounds a week. She had the same claim on her yoga DVD—you could lose almost a pound a day doing yoga. In other news, Snooki has been nominated for a Nobel in literature for A Shore Thing.
Let’s get one thing straight: the only people who can lose a pound a day are the ones who start off weighing as much as a Smart car and are cattle-prodded by a team of sadists through a massive shift in lifestyle involving large amounts of exercise and significant dietary restriction. In other words: not you. And just because such people can lose weight that fast doesn’t mean they should.
And yet, the ridiculous weight loss claims run rampant.
Go to the diet section of any bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. I did not have to look hard to find these examples of fat-burning miracles.
“Drop up to 8 lbs in just 3 days!” This is taken straight from the cover of The Belly Melt Diet, from the editors of Prevention. This book claims MUFAs—monounsaturated fatty acids—have some kind of magic powers to, I don’t know, change the molecular structure of belly fat and transport it to a parallel universe, or something (Note: sarcasm). Either that or the book’s pages are infected with amoebic dysentery. That’s the only way I know of to lose eight pounds in three days.
“Drop up to 14 lbs in the first 14 days.” This one comes from The Belly Fat Cure™ Fast Track, by Jorge Cruise. You apparently achieve this amazingly rapid weight loss by discovering the “Ultimate Carb Swap™.” That’s two trademark symbols on one cover. Must be because of all the extra awesome Jorge brings with that sexy name of his.
Some authors really like those words “up to,” don’t they? It’s like their weight-loss-claim-get-out-of-jail-free card. Hey, I GUARANTEE THAT WITH THIS BOOK YOU CAN LOSE UP TO ONE THOUSAND POUNDS THIS WEEK! See? I just made an outrageous promise and I can totally get away with it because I included “up to.”
And that’s not all.
If Jorge’s “Fast Track” isn’t fast enough, right next to it was his book The Belly Fat Cure™ (Again) Sugar & Carb Counter. It wants you to “Discover which foods will melt up to [those words again] 9 lbs. this week.” Wait, so this one doesn’t say “fast track,” but it causes faster weight loss than the one that says “fast track?” I’m confused.
So are people who went to high school with Jorge, which might not be his sexy name, after all. Back then his name was George Maurer.1 Or was it Mauier?2 I emailed him to ask which was the correct spelling, as well as to ask if he changed it because he thought the newer, sexier version would sell more books. Or was he, perhaps, in the witness protection program? He never got back to me. Anyway, I doubt that it’s witness protection, because this guy likes going on Oprah and Dr. Oz, which isn’t what I call low profile. With Oprah and Oz’s help, George—or Jorge, or whatever—has sold over six million books and spent a lot of time on the New York Times best-seller list.
And just in case you don’t read the weight loss claim in the starburst in the corner of the book’s front cover, marketers have got you right there in the title now with 10 Pounds in 10 Days by another New York Times best-selling author, Jackie Warner. The subtitle is The Secret Celebrity Program for Losing Weight Fast. I almost had an aneurysm from all those advertising buzzwords.
Just to be clear, we’re talking about FAT loss here. I mean, you can achieve results like these via water loss (low-carb dieting can do that, by the way), but what’s the point of just losing water? It comes right back.
Regarding burning fat, remember what we learned in chapter 2 about the first law of thermodynamics: calories are all that matter. For the average person, losing a pound a day requires running a marathon every 24 hours on a minuscule amount of food. That is neither reasonable nor sustainable. Speaking of sustained weight loss …
What Are the Odds?
Time for the most brutal honesty of the whole book: the odds are against you.
There are a wide variety of studies that look at people who are successful at sustained weight loss, and the results are not encouraging. On average, about 5 percent of people are successful at maintaining a significant drop in body weight, according to Dr. Arya Sharma, a professor of medicine and chair in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta.
Five percent? That sucks.
But wait! This 5 percent is representative of those who try every fad diet, miracle pill and exercise gimmick out there, and that is most people. In our efforts to get leaner, the majority of us are doing it wrong. Remember, weight loss scams are the number-one form of fraud in North America.
The National Weight Control Registry in the United States tracks several thousand people who have successfully maintained weight loss. The average amount lost is 66 pounds, and these people have kept it off for an average of 5.5 years.3 Eighty-nine percent of these successful losers use a combination of diet and exercise. Walking is common, and on the diet side their strategies mostly involve cutting back on sugary and fatty foods. In other words, they take a logical and science-based approach to the whole thing.
And just FYI, 95 percent of them showed an improvement in quality of life—“a general measure of well-being that incorporates physical and psychological aspects,” according to a 2009 report in Medical Health Reviews.4
So that’s what people who are successful do. But what numbers do we have to show how many people will be successful when they eschew all the bogus gimmicks and take a thoughtful and effective approach to weight loss, like those in the registry?
A group of researchers from respected medical institutions all over the US did a study of 5,145 obese men and women and published it in 2011 in the journal Obesity. These results are far more encouraging, but before I get into them, you should know that the participants qualify as tough cases. The average body weight put them into the second stage of obesity, and all of them had type 2 diabetes. The average weight for women was 209 pounds, and for men it was 240.
Yet even these tough cases had significantly improved success rates when their approach to weight loss involved paying attention to food intake, exercising and taking expert advice (i.e., not from Kim Kardashian).
After four years, almost a quarter of all the participants in the intervention group maintained a weight loss greater than 10 percent of their initial weight. Break the numbers down further and it gets even more encouraging. Some didn’t do so well. Thirty-two percent lost almost nothing in the first year, and most of these people weren’t that successful over the next three years either. It’s a fact that a portion of the population won’t succeed at weight loss no matter what. The fact that they didn’t lose weight early on showed they were highly resistant to change. But what about those who did change?
Thirty percent lost about 8 percent of their body weight in year one (about 17 pounds for women and 19 pounds for men), and 40 percent of this group either maintained the weight loss over four years or kept on losing more.
The most aggressive losers fared the best. BUT the word “aggressive” does not mean TV’s The Biggest Loser–style weight loss. Not even close. In the real world, “aggressive” translates to about 15 percent of starting body weight in year one. For the women in the study this meant an average of 31 pounds in a year; for men it was 36 pounds.
That’s just over half a pound a week. And guess what happened? Forty-two percent of these people maintained greater than 15 percent weight loss through the four years of the study. What’s more, an additional 28 percent sustained about half that amount of weight loss for four years.5
So you see, even if you qualify as a tough case, the numbers are far more encouraging when the right approach is taken.
Losing just over half a pound a week does indeed qualify as a tortoise pace. Even one pound a week is reasonable. Getting up to losing two pounds a week is at the outside of “reasonable.”
Follow this plan, and you’ve got a considerable chance at succeeding. There are no guarantees. We’ll stack the deck in your favor the best we can by giving you the highest-quality information possible, but in the end it comes down to you.
I’m not talking about pounds when I say you’re the one with the most to gain.
Now that we’ve dispelled some of the more blatant weight loss myths, it’s time get into the next stage of preparation: understanding how your metabolism works. First, we’ll start with …
You’ve likely seen infomercials for crappy plastic products or workout DVDs that talk about how much it’s going to rev up your metabolism to blast calories and incinerate fat! Burning calories is peachy, but it’s a small part of the overall equation that leads to lasting weight loss.
We’re starting this chapter off discussing the calories you burn rather than the calories you ingest because it’s the same order you’re going to follow for the Virtuous Cycle. Exercise first, then diet.
That being said, I don’t want you to sweat the numbers. Trying to figure out caloric balance, positive or negative, on a daily basis, is an exercise in separating fly poop from pepper. You’re about to find out the soul-crushingly depressing reasons why.
The purpose of this section is to give you an idea of how many calories some exercises burn so you can integrate this bit of knowledge into your lifestyle overhaul plan. Far more important will be gaining a “caloric awareness”—note, this is not the same thing as counting calories—of the food you eat, but we’ll get to that in coming chapters.
Metabolism: The Basics
According to www.medterms.com, metabolism is “the whole range of biochemical processes that occur within us (or any living organism). Metabolism consists both of anabolism and catabolism (the buildup and breakdown of substances, respectively). The term is commonly used to refer specifically to the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy.”
In relation to weight loss, you are mostly concerned with that last sentence and the rate at which it takes place. In the simplest sense, the more work you put your body through, the more energy it requires to complete this work. If it doesn’t get the energy it needs via food (because you’re being careful about “calories in,” it will tap into fat stores to find this energy. “Tapping into fat stores” is good. That’s what you want. If you’re doing it wrong, you also lose muscle to compensate for this energy deficit, but exercise—especially resistance exercise like weightlifting—will ensure that muscle is preserved and it’s fat that gets burned.
The Bad News
Getting in shape, restricting calories, losing weight: all these things lower your metabolism.
It’s a bummer, but you can’t escape it. Sure, you’ve been programmed by Weight Loss Inc. to believe there are miracle methods to boost your metabolism. After all, this type of claim sells books and drives clicks, and weight loss is a big cash business.
None of this makes the claims true.
Here are the basics of why:
- If you lose 50 pounds, that’s 50 pounds less weight you carry with you everywhere you go. Every single activity becomes easier and requires less effort. This means fewer calories burned on a daily basis. It’s simple logic.
- Having a lower body mass also lowers resting metabolism. There is less you requiring caloric expenditure to sustain various bodily functions.
- If you run a mile while in poor shape, you feel ready to barf up your toenails. Your heart is racing, lungs rasping, and you stay this way for a while afterward. This sensation of utter wretchedness means you’re burning lots of calories. Improve your physical condition, however, and running a mile becomes easy. You are more efficient. Your heart and lungs don’t work as hard, and everything gets back to normal soon after you stop. You burn fewer calories. Also, recall the first point about how you might be carrying less weight on these runs as well.
Sorry, but the bad news about metabolism is just beginning.
How Eating Less Lowers Metabolism
When you eat less, your body burns fewer calories because its digestive system has less work to do.
“The calorie deficit decreases after the first day because energy expenditure starts to slow down immediately in regard to this restriction,” explains Eric Ravussin, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. “What is a 500 calorie deficit on day one is less so on day two, and even less on day three, and so on.”
And it just keeps compounding. “By the 30th day of calorie restriction,” Ravussin says, “what started off as a 500 calorie per day deficit has dropped to 300 or 250 calories per day.”
In the strictest sense, the math of there being 3,500 calories in a pound of fat still holds true. However, sustaining that daily level of restricting 500 calories per day below maintenance level requires eating less and less each day to keep up with the drop in metabolism. This is because when you lose weight, “maintenance” keeps shifting downward. But continuing to cut calories more and more isn’t a good idea either.
“If you are doing that,” Ravussin says, “you’re going to reach a level where you won’t have all the essential nutrients for health.”
Combating the Slowdown with Exercise
While metabolic slowdown can be combated with exercise, it’s not a miracle cure. Claude Bouchard—an internationally renowned obesity researcher also at Pennington—led a series of studies in 1997 that provide interesting mathematical insight into caloric deficits.
In one study, seven pairs of male identical twins were kept on “no exercise” maintenance level calories. The researchers then added 1,000 calories of expenditure via stationary bicycling nine out of every 10 days for a 93-day period (a lot of exercise, for certain). They estimated that the participants created a 58,000 calorie deficit during the experiment, but the average weight loss—which was all from fat stores—represented the equivalent of only 46,000 calories.
The reverse happens too, as the team also experimented with 12 pairs of male twins, adding 1,000 calories of food over maintenance level for 100 days. Only 60 percent of these extra calories turned into weight gain. This is because metabolism goes up, but so do, uh, trips to the bathroom.6
In regard to the role of exercise, Ravussin sent me a study he co-wrote, published in June 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, which showed that even when vigorous exercise was included as part of a massive weight loss regimen for the severely obese in order to preserve fat-free mass, this “did not prevent dramatic slowing of resting metabolism.”7
“It’s much easier for obese people to cut 500 calories worth of food than burn it off from running,” he told me.
Yes, it’s easier for the obese to cut food from a strictly caloric sense, but this does not discount the immense importance of exercise in weight loss, in case chapter 4 didn’t drive that point home.
Diet alone to lose weight is a foolish idea. “There are autonomic, metabolic and hormonal reactions that make you regain. It’s a whole body response,” Dr. Alonso-Alonso said. “Physical activity is critical in terms of strengthening executive function to combat these physiological impulses to regain weight.”
He’s adamant. “Unless you pair diet with exercise, the weight is going to come back.”
And if you incrementally push your limits, you can reach a point that exercise begins to make a significant contribution to caloric deficits. It just takes a fair bit of exercise.
Numbers Worth Knowing
As mentioned above, there are 3,500 calories in one pound of stored body fat. Also worth knowing is that one pound of body muscle contains about 600 calories when used as fuel (which is bad). However, because of a complex set of reactions, it takes approximately 2,500 calories to build a pound of muscle.
In order to burn off one pound of fat, you need to consume about 3,500 fewer calories than you burn. This is called creating a caloric deficit. Unlike in government budgets, a deficit is a good thing in the world of weight loss. If you were to look at the numbers over the course of a week, it would take an average daily deficit of about 500 calories to burn off a pound of fat.
Some good news is that weight training causes a portion (albeit a very small portion) of your caloric intake to turn into muscle, which helps in creating an overall negative energy balance (a caloric deficit). But since the majority of people gain muscle slowly (especially women), I wouldn’t get too excited about calories getting partitioned toward muscle building if you’re focusing on losing fat too.
The Easy Way to Calculate How Many Calories You Burn Each Day
Again, I’m not advocating obsessing over these numbers, because there is a lot of guesswork involved. That being said, there is still value in having a basic understanding of your individual caloric bank account in order to make wise decisions about how much to exercise and how much to eat.
So with the understanding that this is mostly guesswork, here’s an easy way to determine how many calories you burn each day. Note that “easy” means “not that accurate.” This method does not account for age or muscle mass (I’ll provide a link to more accurate calculations later in this section). Here is how to get a rough idea:
- If you have a desk job and do little activity during the day, take your weight in pounds and multiply by 13 for men and by 12 for women.
- If your job is more active and/or you have to engage in some physical labor throughout the day, take your weight in pounds and multiply by 15 for men and by 14 for women.
- If you are moving for much of the day, engaged in a lot of non-exercise physical activity, then I’m wondering why you’re reading this book. Still, if this is you, multiply your weight in pounds by 17 for men and by 16 for women.
An Important Measurement—Resting Metabolic Rate
Rough estimate again. To figure out your resting metabolic rate (RMR), take your weight in pounds and multiply by 10 if male or by 9 if female.
IMPORTANT: Then take that RMR number and divide by 24. Got it?
Me as an example: I weigh 170 pounds. Multiplied by 10 (remember, for women it’s only multiplied by 9), that equals 1,700. Divide by 24 and you get 71. What does this “71” number mean? I’ll tell you. It’s how many calories I burn sitting on my butt every hour.
Knowing this allows you to calculate how many calories you burn per hour when you’re not sitting on your butt.
It’s about METs, or “metabolic equivalents.” Your one-hour RMR calculation is 1 MET. Every time you get up and move around, the MET number climbs and you burn beyond your RMR. This is good. Here is a chart that shows an approximation of how many METs there are in various popular activities:
|METs||Sport, Activity or Exercise|
|2.5||Slow walking, approximately 2 mph|
|3.0||Weightlifting: Light effort|
|3.0||Stationary bike: Very light effort|
|3.3||Walking at 3 mph|
|4.0||Water aerobics (aquacize)|
|5.0||Aerobic classes: Low impact|
|5.0||Walking at 4 mph|
|7.0||Aerobic classes: High impact|
|7.0||Stationary bike: Moderate Effort|
|7.0||Swimming: Moderate effort|
|8.0||Circuit training, including aerobic stations, with no rest|
|8.0||Outdoor cycling: Approximately 13 mph|
|9.0||Jogging at 5.2 mph (slow)|
|10.0||Outdoor cycling at approximately 15 mph|
|10.0||Running at 6 mph|
|11.5||Running at 7 mph|
|13.5||Running at 8 mph|
|15.0||Running at 9 mph|
Adapted from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning , 3rd ed., T. Baechle and R. Earle, eds., 495–96. (Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2008).
There is a lot of guesswork when it comes to “calories out.” Your definition of “intensity” plays a role, as does your level of coordination (a runner who looks as if he’s got a scorpion in his underpants burns more calories than an efficient runner with a smooth gait), as well as other genetic and metabolic factors.
Subtraction: An Important Calculation
You know those 71 calories I burn each hour sitting around? If I do something to raise that amount, I need to take that 71 away from the total number to figure out the number of extra calories burned.
Me as an example again: as you learned, I burn about 71 calories per hour on the couch, but if I run for an hour at 6 mph (from the chart we know this elevates my metabolism to 10 METs), I burn a total of 710 calories during that hour. However, when thinking about how much caloric leeway this gives me, I need to remember that I would have burned 71 had I done nothing, so the extra calories are actually 710 minus 71, for a total of 639.
Don’t Sweat the Numbers
You don’t need to run these numbers. That’s not my intent with this chart or these calculations. My intent is to build awareness. I want you to see how many extra calories certain activities burn so you know what type of impact they make in the overall weight loss equation.
In other words, understand that you need to exercise frequently—for long periods and at a high intensity—to have a profound impact on weight loss from a calorie-burning perspective.
I will repeat that the chart and RMR information are just to provide a reality check. They’re to let you know that it takes a lot of exercise to wipe out even one treat. This entire section is about giving you perspective. Don’t start adding up how many calories you’ve burned via exercise each day, because in most cases it just isn’t going to help you lose weight. As you learned in chapter 4, it’s important to remember that calorie burning is a distant second in importance to the positive brain changes resulting from exercise that transform you into a better eater.
Providing Caloric Leeway
Weight loss without exercise, beyond not giving you nearly as many health benefits, is so much harder that it seems insane not to make movement part of the program.
“Exercise ramps up your metabolism so that you don’t need to go to such a low level of calories to lose weight,” eating behaviorist Eric Stice told me. “You don’t get into craving food. Exercise allows for more food to be eaten, which allows for better eating choices to be made because you’re not ravenous.” Again, you need to make sure that caloric balance is still negative in order to achieve weight loss and not get trapped in the reward mentality discussed in the previous chapter, but exercise gives you the ability to have more wiggle room so you’re less likely to have those feelings of starvation that cause you to dive into a pile of salt-and-vinegar potato chips.
“Trying to lose weight without exercise is a horrible idea,” Stice said. “You’re setting yourself up to be tortured or to fail.”
Starting slowly with exercise is not just fine, it’s what we recommend. Just remember that gradual and constant progression is important. It’s not just more calories burned but a stronger will for dealing with food, not to mention an enhanced training response that sculpts your physique and makes you more physically capable and healthier from head to toe.
Shameless Self-promotion Alert!
I wrote a 13,000-word “Metabolism Report” (available free on my website) that boils down to repeating the advice in this section: essentially, “ignore your metabolism.”
The report goes into excessive detail about how metabolism works, and then busts 12 of the most popular myths surrounding it.
Do you think that adding a bunch of muscle mass revs up your resting metabolism? Do you believe that interval training is the holy grail of fat loss? Do you think you should train in the “fat-burning zone,” or exercise first thing in morning on an empty stomach to “mobilize fat stores”?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, maybe you want to get the report. Did I mention it’s free?
Go to my website, www.BodyForWife.com, and click on the Free Report link. You’ll find other useful (and free) stuff on there as well, like easy-to-make, healthy, low-calorie dinner recipes by registered dietitian Lindy Kennedy and her students. They’re free too.
I knew a woman who had to eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs every day to keep from wasting away. Mind you, she was on the Olympic rowing team and training hard for more than 20 hours a week. At the end of each day she reached her limit of healthy “food as fuel” she could cram into her belly to fuel exercise, and the only thing she could mentally tolerate to sustain her weight was a bucket of ice cream. I like the kind with cookie dough.
If you’re training hard for a grueling Olympic event, you get a lot of leeway in the calorie consumption department. Otherwise, you need to watch the “calories in” side of the weight-loss equation to lose or maintain body weight.
Last summer we were on the coast at my parents’ condo for three weeks. Each week I ran 35 miles, spent several hours in a sea kayak, swam a few miles and played a lot with my kids in the water. And I still gained weight.
In the condo we had three good cooks, and we all took turns preparing meals, trying to outdo each other with a gluttonous feast. There were fancy restaurant meals as well. Plus, it was vacation, so … booze.
Even using my vacation as if I was training for competition, I saw the little lines outlining my rectus abdominis disappear. I literally could not outrun all the food and beer.
Macronutrient Myths and Misinformation
Remember Twinkie Guy from chapter 2?
You can eat bacon-stuffed Froot Loops and lose weight if calories are negative. You can eat broccoli wrapped in spinach and gain weight if you manage to stuff in enough to make calories positive.
Paleo, wheat bellies, Atkins, gluten, saturated fat, sugar, insulin … the only thing that matters to weight loss is calories. Of course, there is weight loss, and then there is healthy, sustainable fat loss. We advise the latter because it’s better for you, and it creates a higher-performing and nicer-looking body.
We advocate a diet that maximizes health, keeps calories in check, is satisfying, sustainable and tastes good. Hmmm … that seems kind of important. Let’s highlight this.
Your diet should
- Maximize health
- Keep calories in check
- Be satisfying
- Be sustainable
- Taste good
On that last point, remember the mango versus carrot cake argument. There’s a big difference between “good” and “unnatural taste-bud-explosion amazeballs.”
The problem with so many diets is that they often ignore any or all of these common-sense diet traits in pursuit of some gimmick. Remember the rejection letter at the beginning of this book? Remember that whole Weight Loss Inc. thing I mentioned? Sensationalism sells. The snake oil salesman is alive and well, and he’s still in the health and fitness business.
Screw that guy.
Reaching Out to Real Experts
One thing I’ve noticed about writers and bloggers for gimmicky diets is that they have a tendency to cherry-pick and misinterpret research. I could load this section with references, and people with either irrelevant credentials or no credentials at all would counter with twisted viewpoints to defend their positions (and their profits). Some embrace low-carbohydrate dieting with fundamentalist zeal and feel compelled to smite grain-eating infidels. This is unlike vegans, who never proselytize or guilt-trip anyone about the evils of animal holocaust.
The hate mail for this book is going to be epic.
So instead of loading up the endnotes, I decided to talk to smart people with relevant and respected credentials and a proven track record of helping people achieve realistic and lasting weight loss (and enhanced physical performance). Is this an appeal to authority? I trust the opinions of these experts far more than the advice of some guy who runs a blog that’s jam-packed with ads for low-carb products. That’s why I had the content of this book vetted by a registered dietitian who has consulted face to face with thousands of real clients.
My adviser is Lindy Kennedy; in addition to being a registered dietician (RD) she has a master’s of science in health promotion. I found Lindy because I heard her on the radio. She sounded smart, so I Google-stalked her. And she is smart, and science-based. Most RDs are.
Why am I telling you this? You may need extra nutritional coaching beyond this book. In fact, I support your finding a respected registered dietitian to consult on your diet. They’re not all perfect. Some have gone to the dark side, but, in my experience, the majority of them are solid.
Be wary of anyone calling him- or herself a “holistic nutritionist,” because it’s an unaccredited designation that embraces alternative, pseudoscientific ideas about nutrition. Also, they love flogging supplements.
With so many quacktacular diet gurus out there extolling their way as the best way, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. One way to help identify nutritional nonsense is to know that …
Truth Is Not a One-liner
“We have a lot of different people demonizing different things,” Dr. David Katz told me. “They’re falling in love with their own hypotheses. Sugar! Eggs! Protein! Carbs! A lot of this is an attempt to sell something, but the challenge with the truth is that it is not a one-liner. It’s not just to avoid carbs. These people are salesmen, and one-liners can make you rich.”
It sure made Pierre Dukan, author of The Dukan Diet, wealthy. His book was just another form of low-carb dieting, and unless you count Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Dukan’s is the bestselling diet book of all time, with 10 million copies sold. His diet has sold as many copies as Catch-22, A Brief History of Time, The Cat in the Hat and The Joy of Sex.
Excuse me while I go kill myself.
Well, my wife is a physician who makes a good salary, so I can tell you the truth and not have to subsist on cat food in my retirement. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. Especially if I can get the future Queen of England to follow our program the way she did Pierre Dukan’s.
Another thing worth knowing when it comes to designing your new diet is that …
Wheat ≠ Satan
I asked sport nutrition expert and registered dietitian Nancy Clark about the demonization of wheat in books lately, and she said, “I’ve gone through the demonization of fat, meat, eggs and nuts. This is just one more on the list. What will they think of next? I am not jumping on that bandwagon.”
Regarding the latest anti-gluten craze, Clark explained that celiac disease affects less than 1 percent of the population, and about 6 percent of the population is gluten intolerant. “But that means 93 percent can enjoy it just fine.”
And yet we have neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter making the statement “Gluten is this generation’s tobacco.”8The ridiculousness of this comparison boggles the mind. Only 1 percent of the population is celiac, and yet according to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills 50% of its regular users.9 Could it be Dr. Perlmutter has a carbohydrate-vilifying book to sell? Yup. It’s called Grain Brain. After the success of Wheat Belly the bandwagon just keeps on a rolling. What’s the next grain-based boogeyman? Rye thigh? Oat bloat?
Clark says anecdotal reports of people feeling better when they ditch wheat are easily explained. “When they go off wheat it means no burgers … or cookies or doughnuts, so of course they’re going to feel better.” An excellent resource I recommend to all active people is Nancy Clark’s Sport Nutrition Guidebook. It’s a book about fueling exercise, an approach that promotes weight loss.
I’m going bromance on you about Alan Aragon. He has a master’s of science in nutrition and is sought out by organizations such as the L.A. Lakers, L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks as well as Olympians, physique competitors and average folks looking for nutrition advice. I’ve read a ton of his stuff and interviewed him for a number of articles. When it comes to separating nutritional fact from fiction, I trust him more than most.
I specifically asked Alan about the book Wheat Belly and the current vilification of grains.
“I think it’s silly,” he said. “There is no consistent evidence that wheat is bad. There’s a small percentage of people who are gluten intolerant,” he said, echoing Clark. “The overwhelming majority can include wheat-based foods and live a good and healthy life. It’s the consumption of the highly refined stuff that’s a problem.” Grains need to contribute to a caloric surplus for it to be a bad thing, he said.
Aragon also said the paleo diet—a form of low-carb dieting that its advocates presume our Stone Age, hunter-gatherer ancestors ate—is just another fad. “Paleo philosophy is wrong on a couple of different levels,” he told me. “They say our ancestors didn’t eat grains, and therefore we shouldn’t eat grains. First, our ancestors did eat grains. There is also the logical error that if our ancestors didn’t eat something we shouldn’t either. Well, our ancestors didn’t concern themselves with optimal nutrition, they just wanted to survive.
“It’s just another fad,” Clark said, echoing Aragon’s opinions on paleo. “There’s no science to support it.”
Aragon told me that vilifying any food group misses the big picture. He also attacks those who believe sugar is toxic. “They have no sense of moderation,” Aragon told me. “They err on philosophical levels and on the scientific level. They’re up in arms about fructose being toxic, and the studies they reference showing fructose is a problem are [based on the consumption of] three times what the average American takes in.”
“Active people can tolerate sugar much better than couch potatoes,” Nancy Clark said. This supports Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Joyner’s statement in chapter 3 about exercise trumping a lot of bad behaviors.
“You can push anything to extremes and get abnormal responses,” Richard Mattes, a registered dietitian and distinguished professor of nutrition at Purdue University in Indiana told me. “There are limits to what people choose to do.”
Yes, you can still have your treats. I’ll remind you that this is not an all-or-none approach. Make your indulgences less frequent and because you really want them. Pick something tasty and make it worth the calories.
The major lesson here is that “macronutrient mixture (protein, carbohydrates, fat) is not predictive of weight loss or gain,” Mattes said. “Total calories are the common denominator.” Again, it always boils down to calories.
Fat Is Misunderstood
I often read about the latest diet craze and shake my head. Some push a diet that is 50 percent fat. Well, there’s a good reason not to eat so much fat, so let’s start there.
First off, know that not all macronutrients are created equal. Let’s break them down in chart form:
|Calories per gram||9||4||4|
|Effect on satiety||Low||Moderate||High|
Look at that first column. Fat has more than double the calories per gram than either protein or carbohydrates. This means that when something contains a lot of fat, it translates to a massive amount of extra calories jammed into a small volume of food. Fat is also low for satisfying appetite, and low for “thermic effect,” which means it burns almost none of its own calories during the process of digestion.
Protein, conversely, burns off about 20 percent of its calories just being digested. Don’t let this tempt you to go high protein, however, because when you run the numbers it doesn’t make a significant difference. (See the Metabolism Report available on my website for more details.)
Much of the negative hype over the health effects of certain saturated fats has been overblown. Dr. Katz told me that when new research came out he went back to eating eggs. I eat eggs too. Lots of them. What’s more, “there are a lot of interesting studies showing that dairy saturated fat doesn’t lead to earlier death,” Nancy Clark said. “The fat in cheese, milk and butter doesn’t raise cholesterol. However, if you’re trying to lose weight it’s the fatty foods you want to watch out for because they easily turn into body fat.”
There is also the fact that fat makes things taste good, as explained in chapter 2, potentially leading to overconsumption.
There are certain levels of all three macronutrients needed for optimal health and performance. Demonizing any one of them is stupid, and often profitable if you’re a “diet guru.”
How Much of What?
So fine, you’re saying. I need a bit of everything. But how do I know how much of what? How much of which macronutrient you need is somewhat dependent on activity level. The quick explanation is this: more exercise = more carbohydrates.
“There is not a lot of extra room for carbs when training volume is low,” Alan Aragon said. “When you’re cutting calories for weight loss, carbs are going to have to bear the brunt of the restriction because you can’t cut too far into protein or fat or you’ll lose muscle and inhibit certain hormone functions.” It’s important to note the point about “when training volume is low.” That means this applies only to people who barely exercise.
Focusing on Good Fats
For a person who isn’t that active, Aragon says a good minimum for fat intake is about 20 percent of total calories. Not 50 percent but 20 percent. He also stated that it’s safer for women to go lower in fat than men because it’s testosterone that’s affected the most by decreased fat intake, and men need that more.
“When people restrict fat too much they miss out on the health-promoting and disease-preventing aspects of healthy fats.” These healthy fats are found in things like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, peanut butter and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout and sardines.
Trans fats, which high-processed junk food is full of, are the main things to avoid. Saturated fats in dairy and eggs are okay but to be limited in meats.
Protein by the Numbers
Aragon advocates protein intake between 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day, if you don’t mind mixing metric and imperial measurements. For me, at 170 pounds, that’s between 120 and 170 grams of protein a day. With protein checking in at 4 calories per gram, I need to take in at most 680 calories worth of protein a day, which isn’t a lot, to gain more muscle. Oh, and protein doesn’t always mean “meat.” Besides eggs and dairy, there are plenty of plant-based ways to get it, such as beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and oats, peas, lentils, and vegetables like avocados, broccoli, spinach and sweet potato.
Nancy Clark is a little more restrained in her protein recommendations: “The RDA [recommended dietary allowance] for the average person is 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. For an active person I recommend 0.5 to 0.75 grams per pound.” Clark also stated that she is an advocate of dairy. “I think it’s really high-quality nutrition,” she said. I agree. Milk is my post-exercise recovery drink.
And since we’re on the subject of recovery drinks, don’t go believing you need protein supplements. If you’re juiced to the gills on anabolic steroids and lifting as if your life depends on it to pack on enough muscle mass to resemble some kind of goalie-mask-wearing Road Warrior bad guy, then go for it. For the rest of us, including the dedicated weightlifters wanting to build an esthetically pleasing level of muscle, your protein needs can be met via real food without difficulty. There could be exceptions for vegans, so if you are one, consult an RD.
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs
As I mentioned earlier, more exercise means more carbohydrates. There’s ample evidence that carbs are the best source of fuel for activity. I feel as though my body craves them. But they’ve got to be the good kind. The refined sugars and grains—the junk food and chips and white bread and soda and all that other garbage—is to be avoided. But the healthy kind is great fuel. Whole-wheat whole-grain bread, bagels and pasta are nutrient-dense rocket-fuel go juice for exercise. Fruits and vegetables are awesome for health, satiety and physical performance. (We’ll explain how to know the difference between good carbohydrates and bad ones in coming chapters.)
Alan Aragon says that a low-carbohydrate diet can be good for some people, but it’s not a good choice for a physically active person, and considering the exercise recommendations of this book, it is not a dietary method we advocate.
“One merit of low carb, if you can call it a merit,” Aragon stated, “is a simplification of diet. It becomes easier to remember and to stick to.” Going low carb does mean cutting Froot Loops, so that part is good, at least. Personally, I’m a big fan of going low refined carb.
What Is a Good Diet?
“Michael Pollan’s advice is pretty darn good,” Dr. Katz told me, referencing the author’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”10
That “eat food” part? Katz explained that Pollan is referring to things with a short ingredient list. For example, an apple contains … one apple. That makes it a good choice. That makes it food. An ingredient list that looks as if someone loaded three dozen keyboards into a 12-gauge shotgun and blasted it at the label is not food. It is not a good choice.
The keyboard-shotgun-label stuff makes highly palatable food. But it’s humans messing with nature and adding a bunch of unspeakable crap to override your taste buds and create out-of-control consumption. We want you to stop eating so much of that stuff.
So, yeah. Eat food. And our experts don’t want you to fall for the paleo mentality suggesting that you can live off mammoth meat or something. Remember: mostly plants.
You Decide How Much “Food” and How Many Plants
Although Katz advocates Pollan’s three simple rules as a good starting mantra, he also pointed me to an article of his own called “Separation of Church and Plate.”11
In it he describes how some foods, like bread, can be processed and are still okay. Even meat that’s been cooked is processed. A short ingredient list doesn’t mean only one ingredient. The whole-wheat whole-grain bread I eat has a number of ingredients, and most of them are good. The not-so-good ones are few and in small quantities.
Katz wants us to avoid religious fervor about food. Just understand what is good, and shoot for getting as close to that as you can manage without life sucking or you needing to develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder over what you eat.
Another Katz article had this question as its title: “Can We Say What Diet Is ‘Best’?” And the answer is no, we don’t know what is best.
“And anyone who claims we know decisively what specific diet is best for health is either misguided, selling something or both,”12 Katz writes. He advocates a theme of healthy eating that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts.
I will say it again and again: this isn’t all or none. Do your best, and incrementally try to improve your diet. Find something you can enjoy and sustain. And if you need additional help, find a reputable registered dietitian to consult.
Encouraging Intelligent Feedback
I know I’ll get more candidates for my “Intelligent Feedback” email folder because of this.
Exercise is a critical part of this program, and low-carb diets aren’t so good for enhancing physical performance. I could footnote it up the hoop, but it’s a well-accepted fact and one that many respected experts agree with. If you’re exercising, you need good fuel. Unrefined carbohydrates are good fuel. Remember, we’re creating a Virtuous Cycle with exercise and healthy eating reinforcing each other. Demonizing a food group that fuels exercise is stupid.
Low-carb can work okay for people on low or no exercise, but you can aspire to better than that. You can aspire to not just losing weight but to being physically fit. Lindy, Margaret and I think low-carb dieting is a half-assed way to lose weight.
Our way is better, so choose our way. Choose full-assed.
- Jenni, “By George,” http://aiyh.blogspot.ca/2005/06/by-george.html. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- Laura Ries, “Jorge Cruise,” April 2005, http://ries.typepad.com/ries_blog/2005/04/jorge_cruise.html. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- National Weight Control Registry, http://www.nwcr.ws/Research/default.htm. Accessed November 10, 2012.
- ; J.G. Thomas and R.R. Wing, “Maintenance of Long-Term Weight Loss,” Medical Health Reviews 92, no. 2 (February 2009): 56–57.
- Thomas Wadden et al., “Four-Year Weight Losses in the Look AHEAD Study: Factors Associated with Long-Term Success,” Obesity 19, no. 10 (2011): 1987–98.
- Claude Bouchard et al., Genetics of Fitness and Physical Performance (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1997), 189–90.
- Darcy Johannsen et al., “Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass,” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 97, no. 7 (2012): 2489–96.