All Diets Work: The Importance of Calories

In the article All Diets Work: A Qualification I made a quick qualification regarding my original statement that ‘all diets work’; today I want to expand a bit on something I mentioned on in that article. That something is the importance of calories.

Now, I have read a LOT of diet books; too many frankly. Most follow a fairly standard organization (the first chapter always explaining that YOUR FAT IS NOT YOUR FAULT) and, with very very few exceptions, most will tell you that ‘calorie restricted diets don’t work for weight loss’ and that whatever magic they are selling is the key to quick, easy (and of course permanent) weight loss.

Whether it’s insulin, dietary fat, the protein:carbohydrate or insulin:glucagon ratio, partitioning or whatever other bullshit, they will make it sound like caloric intake is not the key aspect in whether or not someone gains weight.

In almost all cases, the idea that food intake must be restricted in any fashion is dismissed; if it is mentioned it is generally as a short aside late in the book that nobody pays any attention to.

This is purely a psychological ploy; it sucks to have to consciously restrict food intake and this causes mental stress. Simply knowing that you can’t eat what you want when you want it blows; I hate it as much as the next person. Many people will feel hungrier simply because they know that they can’t eat what they want when they want it.

Yet the fundamental fact is that the body will NOT have any need to tap into stored body fat unless the individual is burning more calories than they are taking in. Of course this means that either energy expenditure has to go up, caloric intake has to go down, or both have to occur.

So how can these books make this claim? It’s simple: they all hide basic caloric restriction in whatever they happen to be proposing. Basically, this is Lyle’s Rule #1 of Diet books:

All diet books tell you that you won’t have to restrict calories, and then trick you into doing it anyway.

One of my favorite examples is Enter the Zone by Barry Sears. After prattling on about insulin:glucagon and partitioning and how caloric restriction doesn’t work and all the standard hot buttons, he then sets up a diet that will put everyone on about 900-1200 calories/day. But it’s not the caloric restriction causing the weight loss, of course, it’s the magic protein:carb ratio.

All of the rules, the food combining, the elimination of carbs, the elimination of fat, don’t eat XXX at all (where XXX is something that contributes a lot of calories to the diet), don’t eat YYY after 6pm (where YYY is something people tend to overeat in the evenings), etc. are all just ways of tricking people into eating less without having to think about it.

Now, in one sense, I have no problem with this, anything that gets people to eat less without having to think too hard about it is usually a good thing since it avoids some of the psychological stress that occurs with dieting. And, at least to some degree for some time it can work effectively. I remember a specific client years ago, wanted to lose weight and I saw that he was drinking like 4 regular sodas per day. I told him to switch to diet, he cut several hundred calories per day by doing so and lost about a pound a week for quite some time. Without having to consciously feel restricted.

But there’s often a HUGE problem that comes with this type of approach and telling people that calories don’t matter often goes horribly wrong (not to mention being intellectually disingenuous) becuase of a simple factor and that factor is human beings and how their brains work.

Left to their own devices, most people will find ways to take ‘You can eat as much as you like as long as you do/don’t do XXX’ and fuck it up completely.

Take for example the original low-fat mania of the late 80’s. Having realized that dietary fat was most calorically dense than carbohydrate, studies found that when you reduce fat intake, people tended to eat less calories and lose weight. MAGIC!

Except that somewhere the message got garbled and people heard that ‘As long as you don’t eat fat, that’s all that matters’.

Which wouldn’t have been a problem had people stuck with unrefined naturally occurring low-fat foods (it’s nearly impossible to overeat plain baked potato). But when companies brought calorically dense but no-fat foods (Snackwell’s anybody) to market, people got screwed; a diet that should have naturally reduced food/caloric intake ended up not doing so and people either didn’t lose fat or gained it.

There was also the phenomenon whereby people would subconsiously allow themselves to eat more food if they thought it was low-fat. The classic study gave people normal fat yogurt and either told them that it was or wasn’t low/no-fat. The group that thought the yogurt was no-fat ate more of it.

Tangentially, you can see similar things with stuff as innocuous as artificial sweeteners (which should help people reduce calories). On some subconsious level, people compensate for the calories they think they are saving with the sweetener by allowing themselves other stuff with more calories. End result is no result.

I’d also note that the same can happen with activity, a topic I’ll come back to later. People tend to vastly overestimate how many calories they are burning with activity and you frequently see people following a logic along the lines of ‘I must have burned 1000 calories in that aerobics class, I deserve that cheeseburger and milkshake.’ Which given that they probably only burned a few hundred calories in the workout is a problem because they end up eating far more calories than they burned.

In any case, something similar to the low-carb debacle happened with low-carb diets as authors like Atkins told people that they could eat ‘as much as they liked’ and lose weight without caloric restriction. Given that carbohydrates typically make up 50% or more of the daily diet, when you tell people not to eat them, caloric intake falls.

Yes, I know people claim to be eating certain amounts but the few studies on the topic show that ad-lib ketogenic diets have people eating about 1700 calories. So they lose weight. MAGIC!

Except that the message that got heard ended up being ‘Calories don’t matter as long as you don’t eat carbs.’ By the time people figured out way to make fake food with no carbs but lots of calories (I saw lowcarb jelly beans at one point) it all went wrong. People ended up eating more total calories and despite eating ‘no carbs’, there are legions of people on the net who are ‘eating no carbs’ but not losing weight. But try to tell them that it’s their caloric intake and they won’t have any of it. Endless stall excuses are made but, at the end of the day, it’s still calories.

So tying this in with the last blog post, I basically want to make the following point, one that I sort of alluded to when I started this series. For a fat loss diet to have any chance of working, it needs to fulfill at least two primary criteria:

1. It must cause an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure. Most diet books focus on the diet end of things but some use activity to increase expenditure. But if there is no caloric deficit, nothing will happen.

2. There must be adequate dietary protein

Other stuff such as essential fatty acids are also critical but other aspects of the diet (carb intake, timing, meal frequency) is all debatable and arguable and depends on the specifics. I’d note, of course, that every diet (and book) I have written adheres to this on some level or another. Caloric intake is the key aspect, protein intake is the second crucial aspect (in The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook I actually let protein intake set caloric intake in reverse), you get your EFA’s and then you worry about everything else.

Now, most effective weight loss diets will probably adhere to 1 and 2 on some level. Whether the caloric restriction is spelled out explicitly or not is irrelevant, as long as it occurs it’s fine on some level. Most diet books don’t recommend sufficient protein but this is changing in recent times.

So given that tons of diets still adhere to 1 and 2, why do most still fail. Finally, that’s what I can start talking about in the next post.

An Introduction to the Psychology and Physiology of Dieting

In the next series of articles, I want to take a look at some aspects of dieting, both physiological and psychological.

Frankly, in a lot of ways, I think addressing the psychological aspects of dieting is far far more important than the physiology or nutrient metabolism or what have you. Simply put, at this point, with 40+ years of dedicated nutritional research, I think we have a pretty good idea of what is required for a diet to generate weight or fat loss.

Yes, we can always quibble about the details of what the ‘perfect’ fat loss diet should or shouldn’t be but when you start looking, you start to realize that there is no single perfect diet.

Issues of genetics, insulin resistance, food preference, how much and what kind of training, etc. all factor in to determine what diet might be best for any given individual. A relatively lean individual involved in high intensity training daily will have a different requirement for an ‘ideal’ diet than someone at 40% body fat who isn’t exercising.

There is also the additional factor that, when you get right down to it, any diet that adheres to some very basic principles should ‘work’ to at least some degree or another.

If you don’t believe me, go pick up any half a dozen different diet books. Odds are they will all have wildly differing recommendations, at least at first glance. But they will all be able to trot out case studies of someone who did amazingly well on it. How can that be?

When you start breaking it down to fundamental principles, anything that works to any degree will invariably share the same principles. This isn’t much different than how it works with training mind you, if you focus more on the principles of a given training system and don’t get hung up over the details, you generally find that all successful programs adhere to the same basic principles. The details almost cease to matter as long as those basics are right.

To put this in perspective, I vividly remember reading this review paper a bunch of years ago addressing the issue of the optimal diet for obesity. I’d note that this is a paper essentially reviewing 30 years of research data to the tune of lord knows how many millions of dollars.

Their conclusion was something to the effect of “While we may not know the ideal diet for the treatment of obesity, it will probably be based around plenty of lean protein and vegetables, moderate amounts of carbohydrates and fat.”

I call this the “My grandmother knew that” approach to dieting and I’m surprised someone hasn’t written “The Grandmother Diet” since everybody knows that their grandmother knows everything about everything.

In any case, fundamentally, this isn’t a bad sound bite. The problem in modern society is both

  1. Getting people to eat that way in the first place.
  2. Getting them to keep eating that way in the long-term.

And, in a lot of ways, ‘b’ is probably the more important of the two. Everybody knows that all diets will work in the short-term. Where dieting invariably fails for most people is in long-term adherence. People fall off the bandwagon for a variety of reasons.

This is what I’m going to discuss over the next series of blog posts.

How Dieters Fail Diets

Note: The following is the entirety of Chapter 5 from A Guide to Flexible Dieting.

In this chapter, I want to discuss some two of the primary ways that dieters tend to sabotage their own efforts on a diet, that is the way that dieters fail diets. These two ways are being too absolute and expecting perfection and by thinking only in the short-term.

And before you complain about how bad it is form wise to write a short introductory paragraph instead of just going straight into the text, I’ll defend my style choice by explaining that I don’t like starting a chapter with a bold-faced sub-category. So there.

Too Absolute/Expecting Perfection

Perhaps the single biggest reason I have found for dieters failing in their diet effects is that many dieters try to be far too absolute in their approach to the diet something I alluded to in the foreword. When these people are on their diet they are ON THE DIET(!!!). Which is altogether fine as long as they stay on the diet. The problem is that any slip, no matter how small, is taken as complete and utter failure. The diet is abandoned and the post-diet food binge begins. As I’ve said repatedly, this tends to puts the fat (and frequently a little extra) back on faster than before.

We have all either known (or been) the following person: one cookie eaten in a moment of weakness or distraction, the guilt sets in, and the rest of the bag is GONE (perhaps inhaled is the proper word). Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right? Psychologists refer to such individuals as rigid dieters, they see the world in a rather extreme right or wrong approach, either they are on their diet, and 100% perfection is expected, or they are off their diet, shovelling crap in as fast as it will go. I’m quite sure this type of attitude is not limited to dieting, probably any behavior you care to name finds people at one extreme or the other.

As a side note, you can oftentimes see the same attitude with people starting an exercise program. The first few weeks go great, workouts are going well, then a single workout is missed. The person figures that any benefits are lost because of missing that one workout and they never go back to the gym.

Now, I could probably go on for pages about this one topic but I’ll spare you the verbiage. My main point out that there are times (most of them) when obsessive dedication or the expectation of perfection becomes a very real source of failure. Sure, if it drives you towards better and better results, such an attitude will work. But only until you finally slip. Note that I said ‘until you slip’ not ‘if you slip’. In most cases, it’s a matter of when, not if you’re going to break your diet. There are exceptions, some of which I’ll mention below, but for the majority of dieters, I would say that expecting perfection is pretty much expecting failure.

If you take the attitude that anything less than absolute perfection is a failure, you’re pretty much doomed from the start. Now, there are some exceptions, places where results have to obtained in a very short time frame and you can’t really accept mistakes. Athletes who have a short time to get to a certain level of bodyfat or muscle mass, for whom victory or defeat may hinge on their ability to suffer for long enough are one. I mentioned some others in my last booklet, individuals who have to accomplish some drastic goal in a very short period of time; even there I included some deliberate breaks for both psychological and physiological reasons. But in the grand majority of cases, this type of obsessive, no-exceptions attitude tends to cause more problems that it solves.

Keeping with this idea, psychologists frequently talk about something called the 80/20 principle which says that ‘If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do 80% of the time, the othe 20% doesn’t matter’. While there are certainly exceptions (try avoiding crack or heroin for 80% of the time), it certainly applies to dieting and exercise under the grand majority of conditions.

If the changes you’ve made to your diet and exercise program stay solid for 80% of the time, the other 20% is no big deal. Not unless you make it one. And that’s really the issue, that 20% problem only becomes one if the dieter decides (either consciously or unconciously) to make it a problem. Once again, the exception is for those folks under strict time frames, who don’t have the option to screw up. For everyone else, seeking perfection means seeking failure.

Focusing Only on the Short-Term

The second primary way that dieters fail diets is focusing only on the short-term and this applies in a couple of different ways. The first is a reality issue. Ignoring diets promising quick easy weight loss (my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook caused rapid weight loss, a great deal of which was water, but it sure isn’t an easy diet), about the best you can usually do with true fat loss is somewhere between 1.5-3 lbs/week (heavier individuals can lose more).

Sure you can drop a lot more total weight if you factor in water weight and other contributors but true fat loss typically peaks at about that rate (some lighter women may have trouble even losing one pound of fat per week)

For the sake of example, let’s say 2 lbs/week can be reasonably expected for a fatter individual. For someone with a large amount of fat to lose, 50 or 100 pounds, this may mean one-half to a full year of dieting. Possibly more since it’s rare to see perfectly linear fat loss without stalls or plateaus.

Consider the reality of that, you may have to alter eating and exercise habits for nearly a year just to reach your goal. Do you really expect to be hungry and deprived for that entire period? I thought not. If you have a lot of weight/fat to lose, you need to start thinking in thte long-term, you will need to make changes to diet or activity (or both) and maintain them in the long-term.

As a second issue: a lot of dieters seem to think that once they have lost the weight with one diet or another, they can revert to their old habits and keep the weight off. So they change their eating habits drastically, drop the weight and then go right back to the way of eating that made them fat. And, to their apparent surprise, they get fat again. “You can never go back again.” as the old saying goes. If you go back to the diet and exercise habits that made you fat in the first place, you’ll just get fat again.

This actually makes a profound argument for making small, livable changes to your eating and activity habits and avoiding the type of extreme approach that I described in my last booklet. The simple reason being that small changes seem to be easier to maintain in the long-term, even if they don’t generate results as rapidly. And that’s actually sort of the trade-off, the types of small changes that tends to be sustainable in the long-term tend to cause weight/fat loss that is so painfully slow (or minimal) as to be almost irrelevant; and the types of extreme approaches that generate rapid results tend to be nearly impossible to stick to in the long-term. In my last booklet, my compromise was to use the Rapid Weight Loss approach as a short-term approach and then use it to move into a maintenance approach. But I digress.

At the end of the day, here’s the painful reality that all dieters must come to terms with: the only way to both lose fat AND maintain that loss in the long-term is to maintain at least some of the diet and exercise habits you changed in the long-term. Forever, basically even though that’s a little too depressing to consider. Maybe we should just think long-term instead. Hopefully we’ll get genetic engineering soon enough to make it a not-forever kind of deal.

Dieters (or anyone seeking to change a long-standing behavior) must stop thinking of diets as a short-term behavior change, you’ll have to maintain at least some of those changes in the long-term. Now, I’ll point out here that the strategies used for weight/fat loss and maintenance aren’t necessarily going to be the same (nor should they be). As I talked about in the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook, there are situations where an extreme diet can be used initially and used to move into a proper maintenance phase. A lot of diet researchers and diet book authors miss this point, thinking that the diet that you followed to lose the weight/fat must or should be the same as the one you use to maintain that loss.

I do think it’s helpful is the diet that caused the fat loss can be used to move into a maintenance approach (again, something I discussed in some detail in the last booklet and will make mention of in this one) but they needn’t be the same. If eliminating all of the carbohdyrates from your diet makes it easier to lose fat in the long run, and you are able to move back to a maintenance diet that contains some carbohydrates, I don’t see what the problem is. Once again, the diet you use to lose the fat doesn’t necessarily have to be thes same diet as you use to maintain that fat loss. If nothing else, you get to eat more when you move back to maintenance, the types of foods you allow yourself may change as well.

Summing up this section, it’s not that diets per se fail, it’s that diets that are only followed short-term fail. The body is really good at storing incoming calories as fat after a diet and if you return to old eating habits, you can just watch the pounds come flying back on.

To hopefully cement this point in your mind, studies of successful dieters (those who have lost weight and kept it off for some period of time, usually 2-5 years) have shown several very consistent behaviour patterns of which this is one: they maintain the dietary and exercise changes they have made in the long-term. If you’re not going to maintain at least some of your changed dietary and exercise habits in the long-term, you might as well not bother (with one major exception discussed below).

One Exception to the Comments Aabove

There is, however, one major exception to the above that I should probably mention (and that I discuss in greater detail in my Rapid Fat Loss Handbook). There are individuals who, for whatever reason, only have to be in shape for a very short period of time, a day or three at the most, who don’t necessarily care if the results are maintained long-term or not.

Usually it’s a bodybuilder preparing for a contest, or even a model who has a particularly important photo shoot. Or a woman who needs to drop 20 lbs for her wedding or a male who needs to impress people at his high school reunion. Even athletes who have to make a weight class sometimes have to do scary stuff to get where they need to be, usally involving fluid restriction and frequently severe dehydration. But the consequences of not making weight (whatever they may be) are greater than the extreme approaches that tend to be used.

In situations like that, whether it’s healthy or not, extremely restrictive and/or even slightly dangerous approaches are frequently used. We may not like them, we may not condone them but sometimes the ends justifies the means because a few pounds may mean the difference in getting a big paycheck/winning the contest/looking good in your wedding gown or not.

In these situations, long-term maintenance isn’t necessarily the goal. No sane bodybuilder expects to maintain contest shape year-round, and no weight class athlete expects to maintain a severe state of dehydration year round. They get in shape for their event, and relax to some degree for the rest of the time. So the above sections really are aimed at the person looking to lose fat and keep it off long-term.

In that case, where maintenance is just as important as the loss itself, absolute attitudes and focusing only on the short-term hurt far more than they help, and should be avoided as much as possible. In addition to the strategies I’m going to discuss in this booklet, this means taking a very different attitude towards dieting. First you have to let go of your absolutist attitudes, which can be hard. Second, you need to start taking the long-view to both your weight loss and dietary and exercise habits. I’ll come back to this in later chapters.