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You Are Not Different

All over the internet, on forums dedicated to everything from weight loss to muscle gain, people will loudly argue that they are different. “My metabolism is different.”, “My nervous system is different”, “My muscles are different”, things of that sort. Everyone is a unique and delicate flower, just like their mom told them.

This usually follows them explaining why the good advice that others have used can’t possibly work for them. They are also usually the ones making no progress who won’t even consider trying something else. THEY. ARE. DIFFERENT.

You Are Not Different

Individuals who have a lot of fat to lose either think that they can magically gain weight eating only a few hundred calories per day, or that they can lose weight just by rearranging their food in some special way. Because their metabolism is different.

Diets play on this of course, hiding the simple fact that they are causing you to eat less in a complicated pseudoscience of macronutrient ratios and such. But there is never any magic to be had when you look at these books critically: it all comes down to making the person eat less, exercise more, or both. It’s just hidden in complex schemes and pseudo-physiology.

Before you think I’m just coming down on overweight individuals, let me say that bodybuilders and athletes want to magically gain muscle and lose fat with a similar rearrangement of nutrients. That by adding some magical nutrient (usually an overpriced supplement) will make them start gaining muscle (or losing fat) without changing the dynamics of the energy balance equation.

In the same way diet books play on the frailties of overweight individuals, supplement companies play on the frailties of the athletes telling them to “Use this product if you aren’t gaining” when the real problem lies with the diet or training program.

It’s very simple, you can’t beat thermodynamics anymore than anything else in the universe. You. Are. Not. Different. You can’t gain bodymass unless your energy intake exceeds your energy output because you can’t make something out of nothing (muscle or fat).

And you can’t lose bodymass unless your energy intake is less than your energy ouput. These are rules that every system in the universe has to follow, including the human body.  These are nature’s rules, not mine to quote the all-knowing Mr. Miyagi. We may not like them, but we have to live by them anyway.

A Quick Tangent About Energy Balance

Energy balance is the difference between your energy expenditure (determined by your metabolic rate, activity and some other stuff) and your energy intake (the food you put down your food hole). The difference between those two (whether expenditure exceeds intake or vice versa) determines what happens to bodymass, whether it goes up or down or stays the same. This is even ignoring the body’s tremendous ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

And, yes, different macronutrients can have different effects here, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m just talking about the energy balance equation as a whole which determines, fundamentally, what happens when you’re eating more or less than you’re burning through daily activity.

You Still Aren’t Different

People all want desparately to believe that the fundamental law of weight loss (or weight gain) really isn’t as simple as calories in vs. calories out. I assure you, I wish it weren’t really the case. I really do.

I’m mentioning that so you don’t just think I’m peeing on your parade. I wish that through some nifty manipulation of macronutrient percentages you could magically get fat loss or muscle/weight gain without changing the energy balance equation.

I’d sell a lot more copies of my books if I told you it was possible. But except for some very minor effects with such manipulations (that will look like magic but are actually easily explained from basic physiological principles), it’s not going to happen and I won’t tell you it can. Once again, it’s not that I don’t want to believe that such is possible, but the reality is that it simply can’t.

Can you sometimes induce some ‘trickery’ into the equation? Sure and here a few examples. Increasing protein can increase metabolic rate slightly, it also decreases hunger. High-protein diets tend to cause greater fat loss for both reasons.

As well, my own Ultimate Diet 2.0 uses a complex scheme of training and diet to work around the system, for a brief 24 hour period during that diet, you can actually consume about double your maintenance calories while continuing to lose body fat. But it’s a transient trick at best.

People who will claim with their dying breath “I can’t lose weight.” or “I can’t gain weight.” can be shown to do so when their caloric intake and caloric output is strictly controlled (meaning in a metabolic ward where every meal is meticulously weighed and measured) to accomplish one or the other. Create a large enough caloric deficit, or a large enough caloric surplus, and something simply HAS to happen. Either metabolism adapts (see below) or bodyweight changes. There are no other options.

It might not be fun, it might not be sustainable, but it will happen. As a buddy of mine once asked: “Why don’t you ever see a fat person come out of a concentration camp?” But that’s essentially what a fat person claiming they can’t lose weight on 500 calories per day is suggesting can happen.

Because in the face of low enough calories and sufficient activity, weight has to be lost. Or the person dies. Nothing else can happen. Yet folks seem intent on believing that somehow the basic laws of the universe apply to everyone but them.

It’s not uncommon to find individuals who will claim that “I don’t eat that much and I gain weight” or “I eat a ton and can’t gain weight.” which seems to put me in my place and prove me wrong. In research, there’s typically been two attitudes towards these types of statements.

The first is that there is truly some metabolic/thermodynamic miracle occurring. The second is that people are just really bad at estimating their caloric intake and expenditure.  It turns out that number two is what’s usually going on.

The Problem with Food Self Reporting

Invariably, when you get an honest assessment of the person’s food intake (just accept that it can be done right now), their estimates are way off from reality. Studies show that people may under (or overestimate) their true caloric intake by up to 50%.

Basically, unless they’ve done it for a while, most people are simply horrible at estimating how much food they are actually eating. It’s the same thing for exercise, people tend to vastly overestimate how many calories they’ve burned.

So when you ask them to compare their food intake to their energy expenditure, they’ll tend to say that they eat very little and burn very much, and be totally off of reality. So what they are expecting to happen to their weight isn’t the same as what’s going to happen to their weight (based on the realities of the energy balance equation).

A lot of the problem is that food intake is measured by survey and people’s memories are notoriously bad, we tend to remember the good days and report those and forget that cake binge or the party last weekend. Health conscious individuals who are concerned with the appearance of health won’t report that trip to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger so that their fat intake will look lower than it really is as well. This makes it tremendously difficult for researchers to get an accurate measurement of how people really eat.

Even the act of writing down your food intake every day makes people eat differently, so studies where subjects are required to keep a written log (instead of relying on memory) tend to be misleading as well.

The only way to really measure calorie intake and expenditure is in a lab where food intake is strictly controlled and measured, and activity is strictly measured. This gets expensive fast. But when you do it, you always find that people simply suck at estimating how much they’re really eating or exercising.

Most Self-Reported Data is Garbage

A friend of mine who does research on alcohol intake tells me that the same thing goes on: college students, who don’t want to look like alcholics in training, will vastly under-report how much they are really drinking on surveys.

Meaning studies that rely on college students to be honest get a very misleading view of reality. If you believe the studies, there is little drinking going on on a college campus. Go visit one on a Thursday night and tell me if that’s reality.

There’s also the issue of people telling researchers what they think the researchers want to hear making it tough to get a really accurate report from anybody. Do you really think that such a small percentage of folks cheat on their spouses (what surveys invariably show) or are people just lying to the researchers? Probably the latter. Humans are simply screwy when it comes to this sort of thing, even when they’re trying to be honest. And animal studies can only tell us so much when it comes to the issue.

This is why, although it’s a huge pain in the ass (at least initially), meticulously tracking food intake for a few days (and by this I mean getting a food scale and measuring cups/spoons) can be exceedingly informative (or depressing depending on how you look at it). When people who swear up and down that they “Just don’t eat that much” sit down and track it, they invariably find that they are eating two to three times as much as they though. Without fail.

Anyhow, and putting it rather bluntly: if there were truly an exception to this simple thermodynamic rule, the government would need to study it because that person would be a living breathing fusion reactor, able to make calories out of thin air ; or able to burn them off to an unlimited degree.

They could use that person’s body to develop free energy machines to provide unlimited energy for the world if one of these people truly existed. They don’t, end of story. But there is a rather big “however” to all of this…keep reading.

Some People Have it Harder than Others

The research, however, is very clear: not everybody has it as easy as some folks do. Some people’s bodies are, in fact, demonstrably more resistant to weight loss (or gain) than others. It’s not that they can’t lose (or gain) weight but it comes off or on more slowly. More accurately, their bodies fight back harder.

Researchers call these folks Diet Resistant and the reasons behind this resistance is just starting to be determined. It probably has to do with how these individuals brains perceive changes in caloric intake which determines how their brains react to those changes.

Some people’s bodies simply increase metabolic rate more quickly (or drop it more quickly) in response to increased or decreased calories. You can see similar variations in terms of what’s lost during dieting; given the same diet and exercise program, some people will lose a lot more muscle than another.

And we all have that one friend who eats nothing but ice cream and soda and never gains a pound. Of course, when you look closely, you find that the person really isn’t eating as much as it looks like overall, or they are only eating that one big meal per day that you happened to see, or they are burning it off because they are constantly moving (in essence, they fidget the excess calories off), or they compensate the next day after eating a lot and eat very little so that overall they maintain their weight.

These people’s brains sense the caloric excess more readily and either blunt hunger harder and faster, or get the person to move more, to burn it off. The same thing happens in reverse, some people’s metabolic rates slow down faster when calories are restricted, or makes them move around less during the day so they burn fewer calories, making further fat loss a lot harder.

So there is no doubt that there are individual differences and efficiencies between people, that probably explains why you can find one person who reports near-magical results with nearly every diet out there: they happened to hit the one that just “fit” their individual metabolism and chemistry. It would be silly to ignore all of that and I do hate being silly.

But that doesn’t change the fundamental rules of thermodynamics which apply to everybody and everything. Given 100 calories, the most you can store is 100 calories. Sure, one person may only store 75, while another stores all 100, but 100 is still the maximum.

It’s a physiological impossibility to store more than you actually ate because you can’t make something out of nothing. There’s lots of things like this, that you simply can’t do. You can’t make gold out of lead, you can’t find an honest politician, and you can’t store 500 calories if you only ate 300.

So when a 300 pound individual, who probably has a maintenance intake of 4000+ calories, says that they gained weight on 1400 calories I have to be very leery of how true that is. Either they are that 1 in 100,000 person with a metabolic rate below 1400 at that bodyweight (who has never been found to exist in any study on the topic over a span of about 5+ decades), or they aren’t being accurate in how much food they are eating or how many calories they are burning each day.

You can probably guess which one I think it is. And, so we’re clear, I’m not saying that they are deliberately lying, either, I want to make that very clear. They are just as bad as everybody else at estimating their caloric intake and expenditure. Which is apparently pretty bad.

Which is why you can’t magically gain weight on 1000 calories per day if your maintenance intake is 2000 calories per day. Either your body will mobilize stored fuels, or it will slow down metabolic rate to 1000 to put you back into balance (and no study has ever shown the latter to occur in the absence of rather massive weight loss). Something has to happen. But weight gain on sub-maintenance calories isn’t one of them.

It’s also why you can’t not gain weight on 3000 calories per day if your metabolic rate is only 2000 calories per day. Either you start storing fuel or your body is speeding up metabolic rate to compensate. Something has to happen.

But at the end of the day, no matter how much you want it to be true: you are not different.


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11 thoughts on “You Are Not Different

  1. I agree with what you’re saying, but “different” comes into play when one is assessing the overall efficacy of a particular program for a particular individual. Anything might work, but not necessarily work well.

    I had a friend of mine try for years to convince me that I could get lean doing minimal cardio. After all, he was lean, and he did very little cardio compared to most lean weight trainers. Problem is, he was naturally lean, and was so before he ever touched a weight. I, on the other hand, am not, and thus I require more physical activity and less food to get to the same place. So while I agree that many people use “different” as an excuse why they’re not succeeding at their goals, the devil is in the details of the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy.

  2. After a childhood, youth, and early adulthood of skinny, a 40’s of “just right”, then on to, well, fat, and now going down, I am perplexed at my stall. Two months of. I spend lots of time reading Sisson, Eades, Lyle here, Paleo, Primal (my model), and nutrition sites that seem at least a tad enlightened.

    I started out losing 10+ lbs. per month and it stopped before the end of month three. By the most conservative of calculations, I’m burning 2,700 cals/day. says 3,300. My exercise is modest, mostly walking 6-8 miles per week on the beach. I have recently added bicycle sprints.

    I have used a digital scale and Fitday for months. Most of the time my daily calorie deficit was about 1,000. At the absolute minimum (alleged max burn, minimal feed), it’s much more. Most days and in the long run I’m doing 60% fats, 30% protein, and 10% carbs, rarely even 50 g. per day.

    I don’t experience (well, very seldom) the effects of under eating. I’ve tried a bit of IF’ing (painful!), carb reloading, screw it all for a couple of weeks, you name it.

    No, I’m not saying I’m different. I’m saying I’m perplexed. To coin a phrase, WTF?

  3. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘Don’t experience the effect of under eating’ but that raises a red flag. It’s very unusual for folks not to feel at least some transient hunger when in a caloric deficit. If that’s not occurring, consider that the estimates on your energy expenditure (which are ONLY estimates) are the issue. YOu may simply be eating too much. Also, water retention can do goofy things. Finally, not everyone does well on high-fat diets. Just things to look at and all of this is discussed in more detail in various articles on the site.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Lyle! I wasn’t expecting it.

    By effect of undereating, I’m referring to how we adapt to fewer calories. No need to say what we know. The only time I ever felt chilled, for instance, was during an IF. My sleep is 7-8 hours a night, I seldom nap, and my mental acuity is sharp. (Some might disagree!)

    Water weight surely balances out over a two month span.

    If, indeed, I am at an energy balance, then every BMR, RMR, and calorie expenditure out there is off by some 25-50%. And I know that isn’t possible.

    The most probably answer, I am convinced, is that I’m in The Diet Twilight Zone. It makes as much sense as anything else……

  5. Great article! I know quite a few people who could definately benefit from reading this.

    I was just curious about how somebody affected by hypothryoidism (or hyperthyroidism) would be affected by all of this. Assuming they are taking medication to bring their metabolism up to an acceptable rate, would their bodies still function normally given they were in a state of under or over feeding?

    Any response would be much appreciated. Thanks!

  6. Hypothyroidism can cause water retention on a large scale and this can certainly mask true weight/fat loss (discussed in other articles on the site). It can also make things more difficult in that basal metabolic rate can be decreased. But it doens’t change the fundamental thrust of what I’m talking about.

    The same goes for hyperthyroidism but in the opposite direction, since metabolic rate is artificially elevated, hyperthyroid folks often can’t gain weight (even if they want to). But it’s not through any magic, the energy balance equation has just been shifted on the output end so that they burn off everything coming in.

    So it still comes down to balance, mind you, just the numbers are shifted up or down (and the water retention makes everything screwy).

  7. “So when a 300 pound individual, who probably has a maintenance intake of 4000+ calories…”

    I’m really trying to nail down my daily maintenance requirement. I’d like to make a tentative spreadsheet based on my caloric requirement, changing my intake accordingly with ensuing weight loss.

    I’m 6’2″ and 350 lbs. I estimate my lean body mass to be roughly 180-190 lbs. Does this mean I have a higher daily maintenance requirement than that 300 pound person? I’ve tried different calculators on the net, but they give wildly varying results. I’ve read on this site that you should multiply body weight times 10 or 11 to get a rough outline. Is that an accurate estimation tool in my case?

    I’d just like to know this number as close as is practical. You know your stuff, so I come here first. 🙂

  8. Thank you, Lyle. I needed to hear this– Back to weighing all of my foods. I’ve gotten sloppy.

  9. I love this article. I hate people talking about how they are unique.

    Everyone wants to be special

  10. Great article.

    There’s a fat bloke where I work who claims he’s eating very little, just a bowl of porridge for breakfast, a 250 Cal Weightwatchers meal plus an apple and orange for lunch and salad for dinner.

    I know he’s telling the truth about his lunch but what about the rest?

    What size is the bowl of porridge? How much sugar does he add to it? Is it made with full cream milk or water?

    If he really does have salad for dinner, how much mayonnaise does he have with it?

    I notice he’s often first in line for the doughnuts when it’s someone’s birthday so he obviously eats too much but won’t admit it.

    I’ve reminded him about the laws of physics before and he’s an engineer so should understand.

    Maybe next time we discuss it, I’ll email him a link to this article.

  11. I started losing weight at over 500 pounds.
    I became my own experiment and tracking was a really important part of that.
    “So when a 300 pound individual, who probably has a maintenance intake of 4000+ calories, says that they gained weight on 1400 calories I have to be very leery of how true that is.”
    Well, sir, let me introduce you to my world.
    At no point in time was I ever eating more than about 3800 calories. I wasn’t showing my tracker to anyone so it didn’t bother me to write it all down and even in my first weeks of Little Caesar visits and Big Macs I never crossed the 4k line. That was a shock to me. I was enormous and I built it on less than 4k a day for many years. I never would have guessed that. If you’d have asked me I’d have said 6-7k calories a day was the norm.

    I lost my first 80 pounds doing about 2400 a day. Some days were more like 1800 and many were more like 2499 but mostly I stuck to the reduction I had set out for myself.
    The next hundred or so came off with a calorie count of about 2000-2200 per day. I still drank, I still ate sugar, but I kept the calories counted and accounted for. I even logged my beers.
    Since then I have worked my ass off for every pound. I’ve lost about 250 and have a good 150 left to go. I plateau for looonng periods of time and then all of a sudden drop ten pounds in what feels like overnight (but is usually more like 10 in a week). I’m now working with a calorie count of 1600 to 1800 that I fight to try to push down to more like 1500 when I can. Even at this level I still fluctuate on losing. 1800 average for a 350 pound female who hits the gym 6 days a week, often with a trainer. And I will have to do this for the rest of my life if the research is to be believed.

    So, what I say to people like you is that you vastly overestimate what it takes to get fat. You vastly overestimate the basic metabolic rate of fat people. Everyone does. I can’t use a single calorie calculator on the market because all of them, like people, extrapolate up for weight. You all take a base rate of calories and say well, for a fatter person you just keep adding them up. And that’s not exactly how it works. Because as you point out, I am not different. Which means that when it comes to those of us who want to change our lives and want to seek information- it’s just not out there. I mean the starting point alone is so far off how does someone know where to start if the basic rate doesn’t even apply?! It’s crazy. But that’s what it is.

    So when you say it’s calories in calories out you really don’t encompass the whole struggle. The real struggle is not finding out that calories in must be less than calories out it’s in finding an accurate picture of how many calories should go in. That picture up there, a 300 pound person on 4k a day, is simply not accurate. In real life, it doesn’t take that many calories.

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