Remember the sexy dance Jamie Lee Curtis did in True Lies? Now, instead of Arnold, her co-star is a cup of Activia yogurt where she talks about probiotic digestive system regulation something something.
I bring up Jamie because she was the first one I ever heard say “eat less, move more” as the secret to weight loss. It was about 20 years ago and she was on some talk show discussing how she achieved her fabulous body, and the host and other guests were mesmerized with how simple it was. “Oh, yes! Eat less, move more! Such great advice.”
At the time, I thought it was great advice too.
At the time, I’d already been through my own struggle with my weight. I’d lost a lot of fat and put on a bunch of muscle. I’d gone from completely sedentary to a workout warrior, and changed my eating habits. So, yeah, “eat less, move more” sounded exactly right, because that’s what I did.
Technically, that’s what I did. Technically, that’s what most people do. Sure, there are other variations on it, such as moving a shit-ton more and eating the same, or not moving any additional amount and just eating less, but weight loss, in essence, is about changing the individual energy balance equation so it reads negative.
Technically, eating less and moving more is a viable solution for weight loss, but spouting it off like it’s actually useful advice is bullshit. And I created an analogy and memed it for the purpose of exposing it as bullshit, then posted it to my Facebook page.
The meme did end up being popular, because it does resonate with those who have obesity and have heard “eat less, move more” ad nauseam as advice, often given unsolicited. They’ve heard it hundreds if not thousands of times; the ELMM mantra has been pervasive in weight loss culture for many years.
So why is obesity still rampant if saying “eat less, move more” works so well? The answer is: because it Doesn’t. Fucking. Work.
Why doesn’t it work? Because obesity is complicated, and therefore the solution cannot be boiled down to a simple sound bite. The meme created a lot of mythical thinking in the heads of those who criticized it, so let’s break them apart one at a time.
MYTH: Criticizing ELMM Means You Think Calories Don’t Count
I often thought Jimmy Moore of Livin’ La Vida Low Carb infamy was all kinds of not smart. I even publicly eviscerated him once in an article about high fat diets where I poked fun at his alleged hunter-gatherer diet when he said, “butter is gathered.”
It would appear as though Jimmy’s keto fog couldn’t allow him to remember that article, however, because he took the meme to mean I was on his side by saying calories in – calories out (CICO) is not accurate. Even though I’ve been endlessly flogging CICO for years, providing ample evidence for it. So Jimmy shared my meme on Instagram and with this additional commentary:
See, Jimmy is one of those misguided folks who think carbs alone are what make you fat, not calories. And he wasn’t the only one who thought that’s what it meant. Every time I mention CICO there are low carb zealots who experience collective apoplexy CUZ INSULIN!
MYTH: Denying Efficacy of Saying “Eat Less, Move More” Means Denying Personal Responsibility
Ah, the old “You just lack willpower” argument.
As I mentioned, obesity is incredibly complex and the solution will be equally complex. Obesity rates among children have skyrocketed in the last few decades. Are little kids suddenly lacking in willpower compared to previous generations? Or, perhaps, did the environment go through just a wee bit of a major fucking shift?
If you think people with obesity are just lazy gluttons, consider this graphic:
At the population level, here is what I believe are some solutions to the obesity epidemic. At the individual level, there are myriad solutions, almost all of them complex, and none of them are as simple as saying “eat less, move more.”
Again, technically, ELMM is what is required, but it’s useless advice because the majority of people either don’t know how to live a lifestyle that involves consuming fewer calories and increasing physical activity.
MYTH: Being Against the Parroting of “Eat Less, Move More” Means Being Against Empowerment
This is a strawman argument.
Because I don’t like the spouting off of ELMM must mean I think people don’t have the ability to take charge of their weight and their health, or that I deny the dangers of obesity (I don’t), or that I think Health at Every Size is right (I really don’t).
All it means is that I think weight loss is a helluva lot more complicated than a sound bite, and trying to boil it down as such is the opposite of helpful.
My friend and respected obesity researcher Dr. Yoni Freedhoff uses a different analogy than the drowning one. He says saying “eat less, move more” is no more helpful to battling obesity than saying “buy low, sell high” is to wealth.
How do you know when that stock is at the bottom and about to rise? How do you know when it has hit its peak and it’s time to sell? Look at the Contributors to Obesity graph again and tell me weight loss is any less complex.
Obesity is complex, and so are the solutions. What’s more, although there are best practices, the solutions must be individualized.
Here are but a few things to consider that “eat less” implies:
- Do you have psychological issues that contribute to food intake?
- Do you know what a healthy diet is?
- Do you know what foods contribute to satiety and which foods lead to overeating?
- Do you know how to cook? Do you know how to manage your time to shop for and prepare healthy meals?
- Do you know how to get the rest of the family on board so you’re not doing this in the face of adversity?
- Do you know which foods trigger your bingeing? Do you know which treats you can use as occasional indulgence to stay on course?
- Do you know how to read food labels and avoid the health washing?
- Do you know how many calories you are burning in a day and how to effectively track caloric intake?
- Did you know that even when people do endeavor to track caloric intake they usually dramatically underestimate it anyway?
- Do you know what kind of eating strategies are effective and which ones are fad diets?
- Do you know how to restrict calories rationally and not engage in an unsustainable crash diet?
And here are a few things that “move more” implies:
- Do you have an illness or mental health issue that makes activity more challenging?
- Can you manage your time effectively to integrate more physical activity?
- Can you afford things like gym memberships, personal trainers and equipment?
- Do you know what your body is capable of handling in terms of physical activity so as not to get injured?
- Do you know how to integrate physical activity wisely and not drive your appetite off a cliff?
- Do you know what kinds of activities are most likely to assist with improving your eating habits and contribute to a consistent caloric deficit?
- Do you know how to develop habits so you are active on days you don’t want to be?
- Do you have friends and family who will support you in being more active?
- Do you know how not to be taken advantage of in what is often a corrupt industry?
So perhaps sustainable weight loss is a wee bit more complicated than “eat less, move more.”
The Need for Nuance
Author Neal Stephenson wrote: “The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.”
It requires intellectual rigor to look beyond the black and white, beyond the memorization of facts, and towards understanding the nuances and issues that contribute to the obesity epidemic.
It’s time to realize that offering “eat less, move more” as a solution to obesity is a form of fat shaming, which, rather than assisting people with weight loss, usually leads to weight gain. It’s not that different from telling someone with crippling depression to “snap out of it.”
Perhaps you still disagree with my “drown less, swim more” analogy. That is your right. But I will ask: “Who are you?” What is your education and expertise? How well do you understand this dilemma beyond “I lost weight using ELMM, therefore anyone can”?
Because there are obesity experts who agree with my analogy. I will close by sharing a comment that was left by one such expert on the meme, for your consideration:
James, I never comment on these threads, though I read pretty much everything you post. But this post made a thousand bells sing in my head!
I do research and clinical work at a pediatric obesity clinic and the metaphor you used is PERFECT. We do a lot of motivational interviewing and focus on small, realistic, sustainable changes that fit more naturally into patients’ lives and that they would enjoy (especially since they’re children).
The eat less, move more sound bite is at best not helpful, and at worst demonizing to the struggle of weight loss and healthy living. I’m going to bring up your metaphor tomorrow and it’ll be part of our team discussion for the day. And hopefully, you, my team, and others will continue talking about how to move towards a more respectful message that recognizes the complexity of obesity.
UPDATE: This article was named #1 Fat Loss Article of the Year for 2016 by The Personal Trainer Development Center.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.