You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. Everyone’s heard it. In fact, it has been so common for so long that most people’s understanding of weight loss now looks something like this: Calories In – Calories Out = Body Fat. Sounds good, right? I mean, it’s simple and it makes sense.
But then how do you explain your skinny friend that eats everything in sight and doesn’t gain a pound. I bet she even complains about it.
Myth #1: Eat Less to Lose Weight
And how come every time you diet and lose a little weight, you gain it all back?
Well, when we peak behind the curtain of the “eat less to lose weight” advice we find that it’s based on several false assumptions.
False Assumption #1: Calories in & calories out are independent.
The basic idea here is that you burn the same amount of calories no matter how many calories you eat.
The normal amount of calories you burn is called your basal metabolic rate. It varies greatly and is affected by many factors such as exercise, non-exercise activity, oxygen consumption, and external temperature. The greatest factor affecting your metabolic rate, however, is the food you eat. You burn more calories when you eat more, and less when you eat less. This is known as the thermic (or thermogenic) effect of food.
The Truth: Eat less to lose weight doesn’t work because your metabolism adapts to the food you eat.
Why? Because of Homeostasis, the defining characteristic of the human body. It is your ability to adapt to change. Your body makes adjustments to externalities in order to minimize effects and to return to its original state.
That’s why most dieting efforts usually look something like this: you start eating less and begin to lose weight. Woohoo! But then over time the weight begins to creep back up. Or you just quit the diet because, let’s be honest, dieting is no fun.
And for good reason. When you eat less your body adapts by slowing your metabolism, and then by releasing hormones that signal hunger. So you are burning less calories and are hungrier.
Your body automatically resists weight loss because it wants to stay the same.
False Assumption #2: A calorie is a calorie.
This assumption stems from the first one, because if weight loss is all about calories then it doesn’t matter what type of calories you eat. Let’s take a deeper look at this.
We don’t need science to figure this out if we just think about it for a minute.
Butterfingers are hands down my favorite candy bar. I also love almonds; specifically Blue Diamond Wasabi & Soy Sauce Almonds.
Now you tell me, is it in any way reasonable to think that eating 1,000 calories of butterfingers (which is only 2 king sized bars) will have the same hormonal and physiological effect as eating 1,000 calories of almonds?
The answer is no. Butterfingers ≠ almonds when it comes to your health. Different foods affect your body differently.
The Truth: Eat less to lose weight doesn’t work because what you eat matters more than how much you eat.
Myth #2: Exercise More to Lose Weight
Since the 1980s, physical activity in North America has significantly increased, yet the obesity rate has risen even more sharply – indicating that exercise does not prevent weight gain. Let me say that again, as a society, we exercise more and are fatter than ever. Hmm.
There’s tons of research supporting this.
- Increased activity levels have a small impact on obesity prevalence in US counties.
- Sedentary behavior is not associated with BMI scores in children.
- Extremely active people burn no more calories per day than sedentary people.
So, why? Well, it goes back to your metabolic rate. Exercise accounts for an insignificant portion of the total energy (calories) you burn in a day. The total amount of energy you expend (calories you burn) each day depends on multiple variables and the largest percentage is accounted for by basic tasks such as digesting food, breathing, pumping your heart, and maintaining body temperature – NOT exercise.
The Truth: Diet, not exercise, does most of the work in weight loss.
Quick note, it has also been proven that increased exercise leads to increased caloric intake. When you exercise you get hungrier and you eat more. Not that you shouldn’t exercise, you should. Exercise is important. It’s just not equally important. Diet matters more.
Myth #3: It’s your fault that you aren’t losing weight
We now know that you won’t permanently lose weight by eating less, nor will you lose weight by exercising more.
Most leading weight loss theories are based on these assumptions, which is why they are failing in mass proportions. But instead of looking for reasons why the theories are failing, most “experts” prefer to blame you for failing the theory.
At some point, you have probably believed that it’s your fault you can’t lose weight. You are too lazy. You aren’t actually exercising as much as you say you are. You don’t have enough self-discipline to stick to your diet. Or you are secretly snacking between meals.
These accusations effectively make you a liar. They make you feel guilty and shameful for failing, as if your inability to lose weight is completely your fault.
It’s not your fault that you struggle to lose weight and keep it off. It is the theory’s fault. We need a better theory.
How Weight Loss Actually Works
Two important factors. What you eat & when you eat.
What To & Not To Eat
- Definitely not sugar. I know, I hate it tool. But sugar is uniquely fattening and contributes no nutritional qualities. Food manufacturers are sneaky, so read labels. Here are a few ways sugar is disguised: high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, molasses, hydrolyzed starch, any other type of syrup. If you see it, don’t eat it.
- Your Drinks Are Killing You, Softly. Sweetened drinks gotta go too, which is most: soda, juices, shakes, anything with added sugar. What should you drink? Water. But if you need some flavor (ahem, caffeine) in your life, then drink coffee & tea.
- Stop Eating Refined Carbohydrates. Cereal is not good for you, despite what the heart healthy labels would have you believe (no, not even cheerios). A good rule of thumb is to avoid all processed foods. That includes bread, bagels, cookies, cake, donuts, biscuits, tortillas, muffins, crackers, pasta, and noodles. You can still eat carbs, just eat the good kind. Carbohydrates are found in veggies like tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, brussels, zucchini, avocados, cucumbers, asparagus, spinach, etc.
- If You Need Dessert, Then Do Dessert Right. Eat fresh fruit, or a bowl of berries. Top it with whipped cream (full fat). This will allow some sugar in your diet but the fiber and substance of the fruit will keep you from overindulging and acts as a buffer against spiking your blood sugar. Have some dark chocolate, preferably that is over 70% cocoa – it’s good for you. Just remember that I said SOME.
- Eat More Fat. This may seem weird or counterintuitive because it is completely contradictory to everything you have been told about nutrition your whole life. Fats can actually be protective because when eaten in conjunction with other foods they keep your blood sugar low
There are good fats and bad fats, so be sure to get the right ones.
- Natural oils: olive oil, coconut oil, anything of the like. No vegetable oil.
- Real Butter, not margarine.
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, etc.
- Peanuts don’t count, they are actually legumes.
- Full-fat dairy: whole milk, cream, full fat cheese, and avocados.
- Low-fat dairy is heavily processed, unnatural and high in carbohydrates.
When to Eat
- At Meal Time. Very funny, but really. Set three meals per day and don’t snack in between! Eating between makes it hard for your body to clear the sugar from your blood. Besides, most snacks are highly refined foods like bars, cookies, muffins, or anything else that comes wrapped in plastic.
- Consider Fasting. You have nothing to fear from fasting. You already fast every day! From the time you finish dinner until your first meal the next day you are fasting. Here are a few simple ways to start.
- Skip Breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day – to skip! Wait to eat your first meal at lunch time. This is known as intermittent fasting and is a very common practice. Not only does it give your body more time with low insulin levels and blood sugar, you will also avoid unhealthy breakfast foods like bars, cereals, muffins, biscuits, etc.
- Fast 1 Day per week. Pick one day per week and don’t eat anything for the whole day. Just drink water. Coffee and tea are acceptable too as long as you don’t add cream or sugar.
- Try a Fasting Mimicking Diet. Last year a study was performed at USC to see if the effects of fasting could be replicated with extreme calorie restriction. The answer is yes. The reason this is awesome because it is all the benefits of fasting without the burden of it, because you get some (very little, but some) food.
With a little patience and the right understanding, permanent weight loss is a completely realistic goal. Go get it.
Featured photo credit: By Anh Phan via Unsplash via unsplash.com