Myth or Not? Eat Fewer Calories If You Want to Lose Weight
“This study shows that conventional wisdom — to eat everything in moderation, eat fewer calories and avoid fatty foods — isn’t the best approach,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in an interview. “What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating.”
Just Keeping Eating Fewer Calories to Lose Weight – Myth or Not?
I still remember for years and years telling my dad that weight loss was simply a mathematical equation. Burn more than you eat, just eat much less food, and you’ll lose weight for good.
My dad was getting frustrated with me — I mean, for the past few weeks he’d eaten nothing but a bagel around noon, and then a couple handfuls of cashews, some fruits and a light dinner. How in the hell was it possible that a 220 lb man was still over eating?
Many of you probably have gone through a similarly frustrating process. You’re told to eat less, so you eat less. You start feeling hungry all day. You get irritable and grouchy. Your sleep is crappy. You have low energy the entire day. Forget trying to exercise on a calorie-restricted diet when you’re hungry — it’s just not happening.
Free bonus download: I included a bonus case study home food experiment I did where I prove that it’s more about what you eat, not just how much. This is the basis of 100’s of pounds lost in my students. Click here to download it.
Sound about right?
And all this time I was wondering why, if humans biologically are similar to animals, we are having such a hard time keeping our weight stable.
A lion just eats as much as it wants, when it wants right? So why wasn’t it obese? If humans “eating naturally” until we were full was causing us to gain weight and increasing our risk of virtually every disease and every cancer, obviously, something was wrong.
The Very Low-Calorie Myth – It’s Just 500 Calories Less Per Day, Right?
This whole “eat less to weigh less” and “fat is bad” thing came into fashion with a seemingly logical, mathematical fact: that 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories, while 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. So eating 1 gram of fat would yield 9 calories and 1 gram of any other food would yield 4 calories. In a world where more calories = more weight, fat = scary!
So the natural next step becomes, “let’s just eat 500 or 1,000 fewer calories a day!”
Here’s the thing: what you eat is incredibly important in addition to how much you eat.
Here’s a simple example: have any of you eaten oatmeal for breakfast? No matter how stuffed you are, you’re starving an hour later and you need to eat, right?
Back in college, I ate oatmeal every day for 4 years. I always hated getting hungry an hour after being stuffed, so before my exam days (to make sure I could focus better) I would eat 2 or 3 eggs on a piece of toast. That would hold me through all the way to noon or later when I could make lunch.
The truth is that both of these things are calorie-wise just about the same, close to 200 calories. One left me hungry after an hour. One kept me full till lunch. Protein baby. Science is awesome.
How can you eat a huge piece of chicken and get stuffed, only to find out it was 3-400 calories, and on another day eat a box of Milanos while you’re crying about your ex-boyfriend, but still have room? That box of Milanos was 1200 calories. And you were ready to go to town on the next one!
Dramatically Reducing the Calories You Eat (& Starving Yourself) Does Not Work Long-Term
Okay, we’ve all done it. Anyone trying to do weight has done it I’m sure. Are you guilty of starving yourself?
In part, I think starving yourself is so common because A) it’s a very very pervasive myth in society that in order to lose weight you need to eat less. It sounds logical, so people don’t verify it before passing it on. So we just stop eating.
B) We see these little anorexic victoria’s secret models and hear the rumors about them starving themselves — and seeing how the vast majority of us are slaves to the media– we go ahead and do the same.
But aside from the fact that starving yourself is not healthy, there’s one major reason why dramatically cutting calories is bad: it doesn’t work!
The more you reduce your calories the lower the chance you’ll stick to it.
No kidding. When you’re on a diet that leaves you hungry you want to eat. Thank you science.
Now how about for those extremely rare individuals who manage to suck it up, be miserable, snap at their spouses, and make it through an 8 or 12 week calorie-restricted program?
The vast majority of these people end up triggering something known as the “rebound effect” where the body has adapted to a lower baseline caloric load and has been altered sufficiently that when you throw the “normal” level of calories at it, it often goes back to the pre-diet levels plus some.
B) If you actually do adhere to one, you’re likely to trigger a rebound effect where you’ll gain all of the weight back, plus some.
They don’t work.
So what does? How in the hell can I lose some weight if I’m not supposed to starve myself like an emaciated Victoria’s Secret model?
The Many Problems Associated With Losing Weight By Progressively Eating Less Calories
There are several problems associated with dramatically reducing how much you eat:
Loss of muscle mass – When your body isn’t given enough energy to survive, it will start drawing energy from your muscles because they are calorically expensive to maintain. In the reverse, the high caloric demands of muscle make them very important in weight loss. One of the main reasons we get fatter as we age is due to the decrease in muscle mass and associated hormones.
Loss of testosterone – Muscle mass is important for keeping fat mass levels lower. Testerone levels decrease with caloric restriction, making it much harder to maintain muscle mass
Decreased leptin levels, and low energy – Leptin is one of those hormones that helps signal to your brain that you’re full/hungry. Low leptin levels register as “I’m hungry!” .. which isn’t surprising if you’re starving. Also, low energy sets in with low calorie intake, because the body is trying to limit exertion. Good luck trying not to binge eat!
When You Eat the Right Kinds of Food, It Will (Often) Take Care of Eating the Right Amount
You get hungry (And feel full) because of hormones in your body, most notably 4:
Leptin – regulates appetite and metabolism, tells us when we’re “full”
Ghrelin – tells us we’re hungry (stress and lack of sleep can alter ghrelin and increase hunger, FYI)
Adiponectin – Another “I’m full” hormone
Peptide YY — Another “i’m full” hormone
Of the 4, in regard to peptide YY, protein and fat release a lot of Peptide YY and thus make you feel full much more than carbohydrates.
Not rocket science I know, since just about everyone can “feel” the difference after eating eggs versus eating oatmeal for breakfast. But it’s nice knowing the science confirms this 😉
In fact, I did a little experiment on the site called “Why We’re Fat” – where I compared eating a “real food” meal, to other junk foods.
Both of these “meals” are the same calorie-wise. But the real meal on the left will leave you full for several hours, while the junk food on the right barely lets your stomach register that it has eaten.
My premise? Rather than dramatically reducing your calories (skipping breakfast, lunch, etc), when you eat the right food, you’ll also be eating the proper amount of calories. It won’t reduce them severely enough to cause adverse effects, but it will set your body in the right range for weight loss.
In fact, if you cook the food yourself and eat “real food” it’s very hard to actually overeat.
The Ultra Low Calorie Myth – What This Means For You
Do you ever think to yourself:
There’s gotta be a better way. I don’t get it, am I really supposed to starve myself, be grouchy as hell, and force myself to go to the gym 5 days a week? If that’s what dieting takes, maybe I don’t want it.
I’m a huge advocate of the 80/20 rule especially when it comes to your health.
What are the chances you’ll actually stick to a perfect diet 7 days a week? For most of us? Zero. No chance.
What about 4 or 5 days a week? Pretty good.
What about a 80% clean diet, 7 days a week? Also pretty good. There’s room for error.
What we’re looking for is the minimum effective dose — the things you can do that will give you the largest returns, with the least stress, headache, and time lost.
So here’s what I give you for today, the new 5 commandments of your health. Say goodbye to starving yourself.
The New 5 Commandments of Calories and Health:
The new 5 commandments:
Focus more on what you eat, rather than how much you eat. Stop counting calories unless you’ve absolutely tried everything. Stop splitting hairs. When you eat more of the right foods, you’ll end up losing weight. (Side note: It will also reduce calories in a healthy way, and not dramatically to very low levels.)
Fat is good. Do not avoid it.
Protein and fat stimulate hormones that keep you full, so you naturally eat less and are more satisfied. Win/win. Eat them.
What took years to do cannot be undone overnight. If you gained 50 pounds over 20 years, don’t expect to lose it in 2 weeks. If you were skinny your entire life, don’t think you can become Thor in a year. You can’t!
How I Recommend Losing Your Next 20 Pounds Instead
If you want to focus on fast weight loss (that’s healthy) without counting calories, I would recommend changing little habits (not dieting).