All one needs to do is take a close look at their social media feed across various venues to see a world strife with nutritional myths. The titles of such articles (and advertisements) are obnoxiously in your face, and extremely commonplace…..
“Detox your liver with apple cider vinegar………………”
“Sugar is addictive and has properties of heroin………………………”
“Dairy of any kind is unfit for human consumption…………..”
“Gluten is inflammatory and should be avoided by everyone……………………”
“Stoke your metabolic fire with frequent meals………………….”
“Diet soda causes weight gain……………”
Alarmist propaganda has been around since the dawn of time. Fear is an excellent motivator, and makes for click-bait which is borderline impossible to turn down. And as we know, in the world of the interwebs, clicks equal traffic, traffic equals money, and money equals vacations, early retirement, and Mai-Tais on the beach.
It’s extremely unlikely this nonsense will die off any time soon. As long as there’s a “21-Day Fix” or a “juice cleanse” to purchase for $49.99, the snake oil salesman will always be there – slithering away, begging you to put a few drops of his elixir on the tip of your tongue.
As consumers, we should be more intelligent than this. The old adage, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” reigns supreme in this case. But the lure of the quick-fix is enticing. We want to believe in absolutes. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy to have faith that all we need to do is utilize this “one, weird trick” in order to make our bellies transform from bulging to rippling. As if the magical insulin fairies will come in the middle of the night, giving us all Brad-Pitt-in-Fight-Club-esque abs, suddenly making “trainers hate us” since we might put them out of business.
All the silly powders, potions, and bullshit claims cannot hold a flame to the dumbest myth in nutrition, however. This myth has been perpetrated time and time again and littered across the media. Fitness coaches, scientists, doctors, and other evidence-minded folks roll their eyes in unison when the “top dog” for nutritional nonsense comes barking out of someone’s mouth:
“I can’t lose weight because I don’t eat enough calories.”
Or perhaps this statement’s cousin…………
“I hold onto fat because my body is in ‘starvation mode’.”
The First Law of Thermodynamics – the Law of the Conservation of Energy – states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. All energy is accounted for somewhere. Please note the capitalization at the start of this paragraph. It’s not the First “Maybe This Shit Will Happen” of Thermodynamics – it’s the First LAW of Thermodynamics. As in, it’s been studied and analyzed so many times in scientific scenarios that the powers that be have declared it to be a LAW – an absolute truth of the earth – undeniable under any conditions.
Now that we understand this FACT – that all energy is accounted for somewhere, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane into our respective high school biology classes. We need one more definition to be clarified for us: the calorie.
A calorie is the amount of energy which is required to cause 1 gram of water to rise in temperature 1 degree centigrade. Again, this is a fact. This is not up for debate. Any food items which contain macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, or fats) have calories. And therefore, they have energy. This is taught to us when we are 15 years old and are stumbling through our high school science courses. How quickly we forget……………
We all require different amounts of energy and have different caloric needs. There are a multitude of factors at play when determining how many calories we need for weight loss, for weight maintenance, and for weight gain. Sedentary lifestyles of Western Civilization have lead to very low caloric maintenances with respect to our ancestors. We live in a world of excess, where corpulent civilians rise from their beds, and aside from brief periods of walking, spend most of their waking hours either seated or lying down.
What do you get when you take a female, sit them at a desk for 50 years, and restrict their activity to bathroom breaks and trips to and from the car? A TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) which can be as low as 1500 calories. In order to lose fat, they will need to eat less than that.
This makes those slick articles with absolute caloric claims (such as you “need” a minimum of 1800 calories for adequate health) complete and total bullshit.
Our bodily functions and various systems require energy to continue their work, and our daily activities require energy as well. And our energy can come from one of two places – either from the food we consume or from the fat stores we have on our bodies. There was once a time, not too many generations ago, where men and women would “fatten” themselves purposefully in the times of plentiful food – in order to survive the harsh realities winter would certainly hand them.
So, putting this all together is rather straight forward. If you are eating fewer calories than your body needs to function, your body will get its energy from another source – in the form of adipose tissue. Bye, bye lovehandles.
We live in an era where fattening ourselves for survival is not necessary any longer. Forced air heating systems coupled with transportation and shelter from the elements have afforded us the luxury of being able to stay lean and trim year-round and not die as a consequence. Because of this, having an abundance of fat is no longer seen as a status symbol – it’s seen as a symbol of disregard, apathy, laziness, or weakness.
So, what’s a guy (or girl) to do? We need to consume less calories than we require for daily life in order to lose fat, right?
One would think, anyways.
Somewhere along the way, we came up with the idea of “starvation mode”. A strange idea that if we consumed too few calories, we would magically grind our fat-burning capabilities to a halt, causing our body fat to remain a permanent fixture on our backsides. Prolonged dieting can have a negative effect on our caloric needs. In these situations, if we would like fat loss to continue, adjustments will need to be made. With less body mass, less calories are required for body composition maintenance. Your body will fight hard to preserve homeostasis – it will resist change. And part of this “fight” is accomplished by reducing its own energy needs. You CAN continue to lose fat in these situations – but you will need to recognize this response pattern and lower your intake accordingly.
And yet, for some reason, certain people simply cannot fathom that they are consuming more calories than they need – and are gaining fat as a result of it. When faced with calorically dense foods, it can “feel” like you are starving and barely eating. Foods which have been created in research and development laboratories have been engineered with one goal in mind: To cause you to overeat. If you DO overeat, you will purchase more of their product at your next trip to the grocery store. And what you have left is a diet full of empty calories, completely devoid of micronutrition and satiety, lacking the steady stream of energy which is required to function at a high level.
You’re not starving. You’re just eating haphazardly and paying the price for it.
This isn’t just some random Reddit user’s thoughts reporting live from his parents’ basement, either. This has been studied time and time again in controlled trials. Every single time calories have been diligently counted and taken into consideration, the First Law of Thermodynamics has held true.
- In this study, the difference between high sugar and low sugar diets was analyzed. The result: Sugar content didn’t matter – calories did.
- In this study, the difference between high and low meal frequency was analyzed. The result: Meal frequency didn’t matter – calories did.
- In this study, the difference between high and low carbohydrate diets was analyzed. The result: The carbohydrate content didn’t matter – calories did.
- In this study, the difference between various macronutrient meal compositions was analyzed. The result: Macronutrient composition didn’t matter – calories did.
- In this study, the difference between obtaining a caloric deficit through diet as opposed to activity was analyzed. The result: The method of obtaining the deficit didn’t matter – the overall calorie deficit itself did.
These are not observational studies from your favorite television physician wannabe. These are actual, legitimate, Pub-Med studies with controlled variables and reliable data.
Of course, if you’re a fan of n=1 studies, there’s the now-infamous story of Mark Haub, nutrition professor from Kansas State University, who went on a 10-week diet of processed garbage and managed to lose 27 pounds AND improve his health biomarkers while doing so. Eating a diet full of Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs is a rather lousy recommendation, but it highlighted the absolute fact (excuse me, LAW) that it is truly about the calories.
Individuals who embark on a weight loss journey and proudly proclaim to their audience, “I’m eating more calories than I was before and I’m losing fat,” are combining a few rather common dietary strategies to make it “feel” like they are now consuming more energy via food. There is an excellent chance they are:
- Snacking less
- Eating more nutritionally dense (ie – “whole”) foods
- Being more active
- Consuming more fiber
- Hydrating more effectively
And when these factors combine – consciously or subconsciously – and you begin to diet intelligently, dieting can (and often does) feel like “magic” – simple and easy. It’s like a cakewalk. Hold the cake, of course.
So, the next time you browse your Facebook wall or your Twitter feed, and you see a friend complain that their weight loss “problem” is a LACK of calories, you are now armed with knowledge. You, too, can roll your eyes. No reason for you to engage the person. Drop this article on them. Educate them. And be nice about it. A simple, “Hey, I read this recently, what do you make of it?” will suffice.
If they stick to their guns, send them my way. I will gladly ask them to create a study which can disprove the First Law of Thermodynamics. If they can prove in a controlled environment that you can create a caloric deficit and lose no fat as a result, the following shit-storm will be epic.
They will be heralded in the scientific community as a true pioneer, a trailblazer of groundbreaking research, and the accolades will follow. They will need to have their Nobel-Prize-in-Physiology speech ready – it’s already a foregone conclusion – they WILL get this prestigious distinction.
And I’ll even buy them a beer. None of that light stuff, either……….I’ll be helping them out.
The excess calories will shrink their waistline.