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.
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.
In short: 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. 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.
Back to the point
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.
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. Turns out that number two is what’s usually going on.
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. 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 striclty 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.
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.
However, Not Everybody Has it as Easy as Everybody Else
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. 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. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about this by reading the article Metabolic Rate Overview.
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.
- Permanent Metabolic Damage – Q&A
- All Diets Work: The Importance of Calories
- Why Do Obese People not Lose More Weight When Treated with Low-Calorie Diets?
- The 3500 Calorie Rule
- Lean Mass or Total Weight to Set Calorie Levels – Q&A