The road to nowhere is paved with excuses.
For thousands of years, a lean, toned, athletic body has been the gold standard of physical status and attractiveness. It was a hallmark of the ancient heroes, gods, and goddesses, and we still idolize it today.
With obesity rates over 35 percent here in America (and steadily rising), it would appear that achieving this type of physique and becoming one of the “physical elite” must require top-shelf genetics or a level of knowledge, discipline, and sacrifice far beyond what most people are capable of.
This isn’t true. Your genetics can’t stop you from getting superfit; the knowledge is easy enough to acquire and it doesn’t require nearly as much willpower as you might think. While you won’t be able to eat large pizzas every day and get by on only a few workouts here and there, you will be able to build lean muscle and lose fat eating foods you love and doing workouts you enjoy.
That’s what I want for you. Together I want us to upgrade not just your body, but your life. Fat loss is a major component of this vision. If we’re going to make it a reality, you’re going to have to finally break free of fad diets, yo-yo dieting, and all the nutritional nonsense that keeps guys weak, overweight, and frustrated. To master your body, you’re going to need to know how to easily and consistently lose fat and keep it off.
To help you develop that ability, I want to start with debunking 10 of the worst fat loss myths and mistakes. Chances are you’ve heard or even bought into at least several of them, and if we don’t address this first, you might be skeptical of or even reject the core tenets .
So, let’s dispel these harmful fallacies and errors once and for all so they can never again block your progress toward the body you want.
“Calories In Versus Calories Out Is Bad Science”
- “Calorie counting doesn’t work,” the overweight MD says in his latest bestselling book
- “It’s a relic of our ignorant dietary past,” the pretty woman who has been skinny her entire life tells Oprah.
- “It’s time we moved on and realized dieting is all about food quality, not calories,” the former triathlete turned guru says on his blockbuster blog.
The sales pitch sounds sexy. Eat the right foods and you can “unclog and supercharge” your hormones and metabolism, and your body will take care of the rest. This is music to many people’s ears who want to believe they can get lean and fit without ever having to restrict or even pay attention to how much they eat, only what.
This is malarkey. In fact, it’s worse than that. It’s a blatant lie because, as far as your body weight is concerned, how much you eat is far more important than what you eat.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Kansas State University Professor Mark Haub, who lost 27 pounds in lo weeks eating Hostess cupcakes, Doritos, Oreos, and whey protein shakes.’ Or a science teacher, John Cisna, who lost 56 pounds in six months eating nothing but McDonald’s.’ Or KM Sedgwick, a fitness enthusiast who got into the best shape of his life following a rigorous workout routine and eating McDonald’s every day for a month.
I don’t recommend you follow in their footsteps (the nutritional value of your diet does matter), but they prove an indisputable point: you can lose fat and gain muscle while eating copious amounts of junk food.
The key to understanding how this works—and to understanding what really drives weight loss and gain—is energy balance, which is the relationship between energy intake (calories eaten) and output (calories burned).
Various foods contain varying numbers of calories. For example, nuts are very energy dense, containing about 6.5 calories per gram, on average. Celery, on the other hand, contains very little stored energy, with just 0.15 calories per gram.
If you add up the calories of all the food you eat in a day and then compare that number to how many calories you burn in the same period, you’d notice one of three things:
- You ate more calories than you burned. (Do this often enough and you’ll gain weight.)
- You ate fewer calories than you burned. (Do this often enough and you’ll lose weight.)
- You ate more or less the same number of calories as you burned. (Do this often enough and you’ll maintain your weight.)
Your checking account is a good metaphor for how this process works.
If you “put” (eat) more calories into the account than you “spend” (burn), you create a positive energy balance, and your body will “save” (store) a portion of the surplus energy as body fat.
If you put fewer calories into the account than you spend, however, you create a negative energy balance, and your body will turn to its “energy savings” (body fat, mostly) to make up for the deficit and obtain the energy it needs to keep functioning.
Remember that our bodies require a constant supply of energy to stay alive, and if they didn’t have these handy energy deposits to tap into (body fat), we would have to provide that energy through a carefully regulated feeding schedule. If we missed a meal, the energy would run out and we would die. The only reason we don’t have to live like that is our bodies can break down body fat (and other tissues when necessary) and burn it for energy when food energy isn’t available.
What do you think happens to your body fat stores, then, if you eat considerably fewer calories than you burn for weeks or months on end? That’s right—they get whittled down to lower and lower levels, and you look leaner and leaner.
These aren’t hypotheses or debunked theories, either. This is the first law of thermodynamics at work, which states that energy in a system can’t be created or destroyed but can only change form. This applies to all physical energy systems, including the human metabolism. When we eat food, its stored energy is transformed by our muscles into mechanical energy (movement), by our digestive systems into chemical energy (body fat), and by our organs into thermal energy (heat).
This alone explains why every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last loo years has concluded that meaningful weight loss requires energy expenditure to exceed energy intake.° This is also why bodybuilders dating back just as far, from the “father of modern bodybuilding” Eugen Sandow to the sword-and-sandal superstar Steve Reeves to the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been using this knowledge to systematically and routinely reduce and increase body fat levels as desired.
So, the bottom line is: A century of metabolic research has proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that energy balance is the basic mechanism that regulates weight gain and loss.
All that evidence, however, doesn’t mean you have to count calories to lose weight, but it does mean you have to understand how calorie intake and expenditure influences your body weight and then regulate your intake according to your goals.
“Carbs and Sugars Make You Fat”
People love simple explanations and compelling conspiracies, and these two quirks explain the popularity of most mainstream diet trends.
The formula for a fad diet is simple:
- “It’s not your fault you’re overweight and unhealthy.” “Jerks keep saying it’s because you eat too much junk and food in general and move too little, but they’re wrong. You’re not lazy and undisciplined. You’re a victim of bad science and worse food.”
- “New research shows you what to blame.” “And we’ve strung it up like a pinata for you to bludgeon into ribbons. Strike it down with all your hatred and your journey to the dark… er, light … side will be complete.”
- “Avoid this thing at all costs and you’ll live happily ever after.” “Celibacy is the only way to escape this bogeyman’s wrath. Renounce it and take charge of your destiny.”
These emotion-based tactics are how marketers sold us on low-fat dieting a decade ago and how they sell us on low-carb and low-sugar dieting today. Cut the heinous carbohydrate and sugar molecules out of your life, they say, and the pounds will just melt away.
It all sounds so neat and tidy until someone like me comes along and points out the glitches in the matrix, like the professor and science teacher I introduced you to earlier in this chapter, or the well-designed and well-executed studies that have found no difference in weight loss whatsoever between low- and high-carb and low- and high-sugar diets.
- Scientists at Arizona State University found no difference in weight or fat loss between people consuming 5 and 4o percent of their calories from carbohydrate for 10 weeks.
- Scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin found no difference in weight or fat loss between people consuming 4 and 3o percent of their calories from carbohydrate for six weeks:
- Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health found no difference in weight loss between people consuming 65, 45, and 35 percent of their calories from carbohydrate for two years:
- Scientists at Stanford School of Medicine found no difference in weight or fat loss between people who consumed 5o and 25 percent of their calories from carbohydrate for one year.
- Scientists at Duke University found no difference in weight or fat loss between people consuming 4 and 43 percent of their calories from sugar for six weeks
- Scientists at Queen Margaret University College found no difference in weight loss between people consuming 5 and to percent of their calories from sugar for eight weeks.
If you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight, regardless of how much carbohydrate or sugar you eat.
There’s a corollary here, too:
No individual food can make you fatter. Only overeating can.
If you consistently consume more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight, even if those calories come from the “healthiest” food on earth.
Look around for easy proof of this one. How many people do you know who are overweight despite their obsession with “clean eating”? Well, now you know why.
“Some People Just ‘Mysteriously’ Can’t Lose Weight”
The number one reason most people “inexplicably” can’t lose weight is they’re eating too much.
Seriously. That’s the climax. The big reveal. The way out of the haunted house. The rub, however, is they often don’t realize it.
For starters, studies show that most people are really bad at estimating the actual number of calories they eat.’2 They underestimate portion sizes, assume foods contain fewer calories than they do, measure intake inaccurately, and, in some cases, simply lie to themselves about how much they’re actually eating.
A particularly egregious example can be found in a study conducted by scientists at Columbia University.” They found that obese people who claimed to have been eating 800 to 1,200 calories per day for years were underestimating their true daily calorie intake by a whopping 2,000 calories, on average.
That’s right, on average, these people were eating about 3,000 calories per day while claiming to have been eating just 800 to 1,200 calories per day.
This inability to estimate calorie intake accurately is why so many people fail with diets that deal in rules and restrictions instead of hard numbers. You can lose weight without counting calories but it’s a bit of a crapshoot, and it becomes less and less viable as you get leaner and leaner.
There are plenty of ways to screw up calorie counting too.
If you eat a lot of prepackaged and prepared foods, it’s fairly easy to accidentally overeat because the calorie counts we’re given for various restaurant and packaged foods are often inaccurate.” In fact, food manufacturers can underreport calories by 20 percent and pass FDA inspection, and you’d better believe many are unscrupulous enough to use this to their advantage.” Maybe those “low-calorie” cookies aren’t so low-calorie after all?
People who know this and stick to foods they cook and prepare themselves are often no better in the end because they don’t measure their foods properly. Here’s an all-too-common scenario:
It’s mealtime and you break out the oatmeal, peanut butter, blueberries, and yogurt, and the measuring cups and spoons. You measure out one cup of oatmeal, one tablespoon of peanut butter, and half a cup each of blueberries and yogurt. You cook it all up, scarf it all down, and move on with your day. Unfortunately, you’ve just eaten a couple hundred more calories than you thought.
How did this happen?
Well, that (slightly heaping) cup of oatmeal that you scooped out contained too grams of dry oats and 379 calories. The “cup” on the label, however, contains only 307 calories because it assumes 81 grams of dry oats. That’s 72 more calories than you thought. And your tablespoon of peanut butter? You packed in 21 grams for a count of 123 calories, but your app’s tablespoon assumes just 16 grams and 94 calories. There’s another 29 “hidden” calories.
Make these types of errors meal after meal, food after food, day after day, and this alone can be the reason you “mysteriously” can’t lose weight.
“You Can Eat and Drink Whatever You Want in Your ‘Cheat Meals”
“Cheat” meals are a staple of many weight loss diets, and they usually entail eating more or less whatever your hungry little heart desires. There’s merit in this idea, which also allows for “cheat” or “normal” meals, mostly as a way to relieve psychological stress and cravings.
There are, however, right and wrong ways to “cheat” on your diet, and many people who struggle to lose weight do it very wrong. For instance, they often cheat too frequently. To understand why this is a problem, we only have to look back to the big picture of calories and weight loss. If you moderately overeat just a few days per month, your overall results aren’t going to be much affected. If you do it a few times per week, however, you’re going to slow down your weight loss considerably.
Another common mistake is indulging in no-holds-barred cheat days. If you let loose for just one meal, you can only do so much damage. Your stomach is probably going to be begging for mercy by the 2,000-calorie mark Eat everything in sight for an entire day, however, and you can easily put down many thousands of calories and erase your weight loss progress for the last several days, if not the entire week.
Yet another way to screw up individual cheat meals is eating too many calories and dietary fat in particular. I know I just said you can only do so much damage in one meal, but if you’re of the hearty eating type, it can be enough to noticeably impact your weight loss.
The worst type of cheat meal is one that is very high in both calories and dietary fat, which is chemically similar to body fat and thus requires very little energy for conversion into body fat (between o and 2 percent of the energy it contains).
Protein and carbohydrate, on the other hand, are chemically dissimilar to body fat, cost quite a bit more energy to process (25 and 7 percent of the energy they contain, respectively), and are rarely converted to body fat under normal conditions.
This is why research shows that high-fat meals cause more immediate fat gain than high-protein or high-carbohydrate meals.
This information is particularly relevant when you’re lean and wanting to get even leaner. You simply can’t afford to be in a large calorie surplus very often, especially not when the surplus is primarily from dietary fat.
Drinking alcohol while cheating is also generally a bad idea. While alcohol itself basically can’t be stored as body fat, it blunts fat burning, which accelerates the rate at which your body stores dietary fat as body fat, and it increases the conversion of carbohydrate into body fat.
In short, it’s not the calories from alcohol that can make you fatter, but all the delicious food most people eat with it, which is hard to resist when you’re hammered.
“Dieting Can ‘Damage’ Your Metabolism”
According to most theories, “metabolic damage” refers to a condition where various physiological systems have been disrupted, and as a result, your metabolism burns less energy than it should.
In other words, it’s a hypothetical state wherein you burn fewer calories than you should based on your body weight and activity levels. Furthermore, the story goes, once you’ve “damaged” your metabolism, it can remain hamstrung for weeks, months, and even years.
It’s called “metabolic damage” because the idea is your metabolism is literally “broken” to one degree or another and requires “fixing.”
The common causes of metabolic damage are believed to be remaining in a calorie deficit for too long, starvation dieting, and doing too much cardio. Therefore, when you’re restricting your calories and stop losing weight for no apparent reason, or when you’re struggling to stop gaining weight after a period of dieting, some people will say that you probably have metabolic damage that needs repairing.
The evidence to support this hypothesis is almost always stories. Stories of people failing to lose weight on a measly few hundred calories per day, and even worse, stories of people gaining weight on very low-calorie diets and intense exercise routines.
And so people everywhere have become convinced that dieting has screwed up their bodies—maybe even irreversibly—and that their only hope for returning to normalcy is special dietary measures.
What does science have to say on the matter?
Well, several studies have shown that the metabolic decline associated with dieting, including long periods of very low-calorie dieting, ranges from less than 5 to about 15 percent.
Furthermore, it took about a lo percent reduction in body weight to produce the larger, double-digit drops, and most of the research on the matter was conducted with people who made the cardinal diet mistakes of eating too few calories and too little protein and doing no resistance training.
We also know that while these metabolic adaptations can persist long after weight loss has stopped, they can also be easily reversed by raising your calories, lifting weights, and eating a high-protein diet.
And that’s true even for people who have already gone to extreme measures to drop pounds in the past. No matter what they’ve done, it can only produce a relatively small metabolic dip that can be easily reversed with proper diet and training.
Even more encouraging is research on what happens to your metabolism over time when you do things correctly.