A recent blog calling out the belief that under-eating can cause weight gain has struck a chord with me. And so, I shall leverage in an opinion.
Here is the blog if you want to take a look. The dumbest myth in nutrition, by Eric Boch.
Unfortunately, the author has taken a basic scientific principle and cast it as a truth bomb over the complex physiology of how your body actually works.
While I agree with the author that there is a ton of shit information out there in the internet and fitness world that absolute shit, the article in question is actually another part of that pile.
What is the article? Entitled, The Dumbest Myth in Nutrition, is a fantastic example of someone writing who does not understand how applying one specific physics law to the human body does not work and making bold statements like this with poor understanding makes them no better than the people and myths he is attempting to create a counter argument to.
The author lambastes typical fitness headlines, such as ‘sugar is as addictive as heroin,” and, “diet soda causes weight gain,” as glaring examples of, “a world rife with nutritional myths.” Yes, those headlines are nutritional myths. As is the authors own article, which is inclusive of its own scientifically overly broad bullshit.
The author’s assumption is that the first law of thermodynamics, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, is idyllically applicable to losing and gaining weight. Unfortunately, this is absolutely not the case.
According to those making this assertion all that matters is calories in vs. out. If you eat less than you expend you lose weight, if you eat more than you expend you gain weight. This actually is very true.
Eat less calories than you expend you will lose weight. Eat more calories than you expend and you will gain weight. I guess I should offer the author an apology. On this fact he is correct.
However, this broad and overly simplistic view is as alarming as the sensationalist tittles he is purportedly attempting to debunk.
I agree with him, any broad statement is bad. And yes, a lot of people are taking the ‘I don’t eat enough calories so I can’t lose weight’ argument fully out of context. Let’s look a few actual science bombs when it comes to calories and the human body and gaining and losing weight.
#1 – Weight vs. Fat
The entire thermodynamics argument relies on the term weight. True fitness professionals don’t give a shit about your weight. Because your weight is most often irrelevant of your health.
Your weight is the total of your fat, muscle, organs, blood, and all other tissues, in addition to the water stored in your body. We can decrease your weight by taking away any of those elements. Drain your blood, lose weight. Cut your water, lose weight. Cut off your leg, lose weight. Decrease fat, lose weight. Decrease muscle, lose weight.
See how irrelevant your weight can be?
What most people are looking for when we entertain this topic is a reduction in bodyfat. And we shouldn’t be too hard on the general public if they don’t understand the difference between weight and bodyfat.
So yes, if you take calories below your daily required calories you will lose weight. But from where? Your fat? Your muscle? Your organs? Water weight?
You see, this author makes a completely untrue scientific claim hidden down in the belly of the text. “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 love handles.”
Um, overly bold untrue scientific statement there, sir? Maybe it is adipose tissue. Maybe it is muscular tissue. Maybe it is water weight. Your statement about love handles and assertation that it will be adipose tissue puts you on the same level as those whom you so fervently are lamenting against.
Just because you eat less than you expend does not mean you will lose fat.
It means you will lose weight. But there is so much more.
#2 – Metabolic Rate
You see, your body can change and adjust your metabolic rate. I know, makes things uber challenging. You metabolism can speed up or slow down based on your hormones. And your body changes this metabolic rate over time when patterns emerge.
Your body is always looking to conserve energy. It does this by slowing the metabolism to the minimum required. It also does this when a pattern of not enough energy becomes apparent.
So if we take the base law of thermodynamics and always consume fewer calories than we expend your body will slow metabolic rate in order to function on the lesser amount of energy.
Additionally, your body will make up the net energy loss with metabolically active tissue and it will preserve its storage tissue. So yes, it will break down muscle tissue and conserve fat tissue in addition to slowing the overall caloric requirements.
Will you be losing weight? You bet!
#3 – Long term Effects
What is the long term effect of this weight loss? A slower metabolism, decreased muscle mass, and increased fat storage.
All done for you own safety. This is where the term ‘starvation mode’ comes from. While overly simplistic, it is the body’s way of protecting itself in periods of decreased access to energy, aka, food.
Chronic under eating will cause this effect. And as the metabolism slows to match the reduced caloric intake you will have to further reduce the amount you eat to keep the weight loss going. A vicious cycle that is extremely detrimental to the body. Over time it has negative impacts on not just muscle tissue, but also bones, cardiac tissue, the brain, and other organs.
So the long term effect of simply reducing calories results in a slower metabolism and a body that wants to store as much fat as possible.
#4 – How people actually act
To this now, true fitness professionals must look at the way people actually act. In most western cultures we don’t under eat all the time. We diet and then eat whatever and then diet again.
Over time this cycle confuses the fuck out of the body. So if we counsel people to simply keep eating less calories to lose weight they will be stuck in a vicious cycle of the body thinking it is starving and then getting fed. Because of the starvation style signals, when the body does get extra energy, you know, like when on vacation, or birthdays, or the weekend, it will try and store more fat to prepare for the next round of dieting (AKA applying the first law of thermodynamics to your nutrition).
This is resultant from another scientific principle that you seem to have completely overlooked and disregarded, the fact that the body operates under the principle of homeostasis.
Homeostasis means the body is always attempting to stay the same. One hormone goes up another is released to bring it back down. Too few calories coming in and the body reduces the energy needs of the body to match what is available.
Yes, there is no magic number of how many calories people need. It is medically accepted that 1200 calories is the minimum needed to sustain life of most adult humans. But other than that the base needs change.
But applying the first law of thermodynamics to human weight loss is woefully overly simplified and in our culture a poor way to approach health from a long term perspective.
The goal must be fat loss and maintenance of a healthy body fat percentage. The goal should never be weight loss or achieving specific weight goals. That is as stupid as your assertion that , ‘a minimum of 1800 calories for adequate health [parenthesis removed and is added by this author] is complete bullshit.”
So what is one to do?
What then is the best way to take care of your health and diet?
The fact is that ‘starvation mode’ does exist and dropping your calories too low for too long will make these changes to your metabolism.
The other fact is that most people using this as an excuse why they aren’t losing weight are pretty full of shit and using it as an excuse. But for anyone who struggles with fat loss who has been on and off various diets for a long time, this process may vary well be playing a role.
As a coach who has worked with thousands of clients I have seen this time and again with those trying to lose fat. They don’t eat enough too often and then splurge and binge on holidays and weekends. See above why that is bad.
You need to know YOUR base metabolic rate. This is dependent on sex, age, activity level, body composition, and other factors. Once you know that then you can figure out how many calories you need to lose fat.
And stop tracking your weight. Who gives a fuck about your weight. You need to track how much fat you are losing.
The most current literature and the most current practice from some of the top coached in both fitness and nutrition as finding a caloric deficit of around 200 to 300 calories a day is effective for losing body fat. We have found it is also important to make that deficit half from lowering calorie intake and half from increasing calorie expenditure.
So if your metabolic rates requires 1800 calories a day then we would drop your intake by around 100 calories, to 1700, and we would add 100 calories more of exercise.
This is still a simplistic view as hormones, stress, and sex also play a role, as well as the style of exercise that you undertake. But for a good general place to get you started a modest calorie decrease with a modest exercise increase is most effective for fat loss.
Additionally, we only let our clients have even this modest calorie deficit 4 to 5 days a week and we match input and output the other days of the week. This we are also finding effective at staving off the body’s homeostatic need to slow the metabolism while you are trying to lose body fat.
This is how to apply all the pertinent science to the human body and not focus in on one physics principle that is only a small sliver of how the body actually works.