After all, I'm the guy who's been saying "we need to fuel people for best performance and condition, not try to starve weight off them" for the past few years, when no one else seemed to be.
The message finally appears to be catching on, and more people are beginning to realise that slashing calories ever lower is as damaging as it is unsustainable. But before we arbitrarily replace the blanket statement of "eat less (and less) move more (and more)" with it's polar opposite, let's assess the situation to ensure that this time, we're actually giving advice that is good and helpful.
First though, let's bust some myths.
Myth: You need to eat clean. It is the quality of foods that matters, not the calories. You don't lose weight eating "junk food", and any of the "wrong" foods will make you gain weight.
- Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds.
- Teacher lost 56 pounds eating only McDonald's.
Of course we should all try to make sensible choices and include many healthy options, but your total energy intake is what influences your body weight.
Myth: Low Carb & Keto Diets are the best / only option for weight loss.
- Low Carbohydrate versus Isoenergetic Balanced Diets for Reducing Weight and Cardiovascular Risk.
- Comparison of Weight Loss Among Named Diet Programs in Overweight and Obese Adults.
- Long-term effects of a low carbohydrate, low fat or high unsaturated fat diet compared to a no-intervention control.
- Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss than Carbohydrate Restriction in People with Obesity.
- Energy expenditure and body composition changes after an isocaloric ketogenic diet in overweight and obese men.
- Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates.
- Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets.
- Differences in Insulin Resistance Do Not Predict Weight Loss in Response to Hypocaloric Diets in Healthy Obese Women.
- Consuming energy primarily as carbohydrate or fat for 3 mo did not differentially influence visceral fat and metabolic syndrome in a low-processed, lower-glycemic dietary context.
This is probably redundant after the previous section anyway, but there's no benefit to low carb or keto dieting over balanced diets of the same energy provision. Some people sure do seem to like them, but personally I would see VLC & keto diets as disadvantageous for most people with an interest in long term adherence for sustainable results.
Again though, the facts are that if you go from an excessive regular energy intake and lack of physical activity to less excessive energy intake and more suitably active, you'll lose weight. Whether you cut back on carbs, on fats, or cut back across the board... from more excessive to less excessive energy intake, and especially from inactive to suitably active, you will lose weight.
Update: Upon demonstrating that Low Carb approaches are not required or preferable for weight loss, it is almost inevitable that a special pleading, goal post shifting argument will be made of the "but if they have Type 2 Diabetes..." variety. Let's knock that one on the head while we're about it, too.
- Low-carbohydrate, low-GI, Mediterranean, and high-protein diets are effective in improving various markers of cardiovascular risk in people with diabetes and should be considered in the overall strategy of diabetes management.
Myth: When Weight Loss Stalls, Add More High Intensity Calorie Burning Cardio Workouts.
- Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans.
- Physical activity did increase energy expenditure as expected, but only up to a point.
As stated above, from inactive to suitably active is a very good idea indeed, but let's assume we're talking about people who are already quite active and participating in training. Adding more and more non-productive high intensity activity to burn calories is not only impractical, but the links above show that it will offer no benefit.
Take home point here: train productively, for enjoyment and for the specific benefits of the choice of activity. Not "to burn calories".
Myth: The 5:2 Diet, Intermittent Fasting, Meal Frequency & whatever else.
- Research has found that the 5:2 diet does work, but is not better than a standard kilojoule- reduced diet.
Again; "energy provision vs energy requirement" is the rule that matters. Forcing yourself onto a different meal schedule may mean that you eat less, but it is still the change in amount of energy intake that influences body condition, and not the change in timing of energy intake.
So far, all of this supports "eat more to lose weight". Should you really though?
Active people require a certain amount of energy and resources in order to be able to recover and adapt to training. If you're restricting to a low level of energy intake with the misguided "calorie deficit" approach, a lack of progress is likely to be due to falling well short of that amount. Introducing more "calorie burning" activity only squanders what resources you have made available in an unproductive manner.
Bottom line here: being under fueled and over worked is not conducive to good results, even when weight loss is a significant aspect of your goal.
Is that what is actually happening though?
As the saying goes; the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
For inactive people who are not involved in sports or training, even a "normal" amount of food will be in excess of an amount that you are putting to use, which means weight gain. In this circumstance, "eat more to lose weight" would almost certainly result in rapid gain of an even greater amount.
Here's where it gets complicated and the issue becomes contentious.
Actually not a myth: Humans are extremely likely to under estimate food / energy intake and over estimate activity levels.
- Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects.
Conclusions: The failure of some obese subjects to lose weight while eating a diet they report as low in calories is due to an energy intake substantially higher than reported and an overestimation of physical activity, not to an abnormality in thermogenesis.
- Validity of U.S. nutritional surveillance:National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey caloric energy intake data, 1971-2010.
Results: These results are indicative of significant under-reporting. The greatest mean disparity values were -716 kcal/day and -856 kcal/day for obese (i.e., ≥30 kg/m2) men and women, respectively.
- A comparison of the accuracy of self-reported intake with measured intake of a laboratory overeating episode in overweight and obese women with and without binge eating disorder.
Conclusions: Findings confirm that those with BED consume significantly more than controls during a laboratory binge and controls tended to be more accurate in recalling their intake 24 h later.
It is important to include these studies for two reasons, the first of which is that people who are fixated on the calorie deficit model are likely to show you them with the inference that they prove that "the problem is that they're eating a lot more than they think they are. If they were eating the amount that they think they are, they'd be in deficit and therefore they'd be losing weight".
Yes, but no.
It's important to notice that these studies are not of athletes or on people of less excessive weight who are participating in sports or training. In my years of experience as a coach, when active people come to me and report that they are working to restrictive and low targets without seeing progress, I tend to believe them and we consistently see much better results as we increase first towards an adequate and then closer towards a more optimal total energy and macronutritient provision... including when weight loss is a goal.
Regardless, we do know that a disparity between perceived and actual intake is very common, so unless we are actually working to a plan to hit our current targets, we can't assume that we are. Intuitive eating is awesome IF you're still making progress, but if your eating habits are erratic, unscheduled, unmeasured and inconsistent... we have no reason to consider the total energy provision to be anything other than an unknown and random amount.
On a related note...
To my way of thinking just adding "more" to a random amount isn't much better than slashing below an unknown amount. Where you end up is anyone's guess.
Let's cut to the chase.
If you're overweight and inactive, first and foremost you need to become suitably active.
People who are already active, assess your consistency at training. If you're working to targets based on requirements for 5 sessions per week but you've only been making 2 lately, eating more is not likely to have the desired effect.
Now, if you're training consistently and especially if you're progressing from a beginners level to an intermediate level, from lower intermediate to upper intermediate and so on... your fueling requirements will increase as the demands on your body to perform, recover from, and adapt to training are greater.
If you have a set of intelligently determined targets for intake, but you've just been winging it as described above, you will need to start actually planning your daily intake in advance to ensure adherence to those targets, and then assess the results.
Good performance at training, good energy levels outside of training and improvements in condition might suggest that your targets are appropriate all along but you just weren't hitting them. If you had "beginner level" targets but you're not really a beginner anymore and you see no improvement in condition, that might be a good sign that you need to recalculate with your new level of consistency and proficiency in mind. If you last 3 or 4 days and then find you are ravenous and eat everything in sight... are you thinking "start over again and this time be more disciplined" right now? Screw that. It's a sure sign that you need to recalculate and increase daily intake accordingly.
When you're training consistently and seeing good progress without paying much attention on the nutrition side, you can safely assume you're getting it right either through good intuition or because you've practiced the appropriate habits for long enough that your appetite is well tuned to your requirements and your body trusts you to listen when it tells you that it needs more. When you're not seeing progress, you need to go back and plan in advance to meet appropriate targets, and then assess the situation.
Best results will always come when training is both consistent and strategic, and fueling is closer to optimal rather than further into deficit. At the very least, you must be working to exceed a minimum adequate requirement. A couple of times with more advanced athletes I have only set a minimum requirement with an official "no maximum limit", and the results were nothing short of amazing.
- Eating more and moving more appears to be better for fat loss than eating less and moving less.
- Homeostatic regulation of body weight is more effective when energy intake and expenditure are both high.
Bottom line: best long term results will come from consistent participation with a strategic and productive approach to training, and anticipation of increased fueling requirements as performance improves.
A little update: if you're looking to get started with an introductory training program & fueling guidelines, see the weight loss tab on my blog right here.