My Problem With “Eat Less Move More” Part 2

Judging from the comments on My Problem With “Eat Less Move More”, I think I did a poor job explaining my position on Eat Less, Move More. Let me summarize my view.

  1. Calories do count. (Eat Less)
  2. Exercise is vastly over-rated for long-term fat loss. (Move More)
  3. ELMM most likely explains every success. (or in my opinion EL alone)
  4. 90-95% of people fail when they attempt ELMM for fat loss.
  5. ELMM does NOTHING to explain why such a large percentage fail. They openly or through implication state it is a character flaw in the dieter. They either lacked discipline, willpower, lied or deluded themselves to their caloric intake.
  6. The failure rates are too high to attribute to character flaws.
  7. I believe the probability of long term dietary success is higher when the individual is healthy. Restricting calories (and therefore nutrients) to an already unhealthy person has a high failure rate. I believe one should get healthy BEFORE they attempt to get lean.

Seeking Nutritional Alpa

I’m not a dietitian and I do not have a client list. My approach to nutrition assumes incomplete knowledge and comes from an investor mindset. The term alpha in finance means return in excess of the compensation for the risk borne. From a nutritional standpoint, we know that some foods are far more nutrient dense than others. We also know that some foods are more toxic. Those foods might have equal calories. I believe from my own personal experience and talking with others that finding those foods with a greater alpha do a far better job of reducing hunger at equal caloric rates.


Beef Stock is a food with a high nutritional alpha.

I think that a strategy of removing foods with negative alpha (grains, veggie oils, soy) and adding foods with positive alpha will increase the probability of success more than taking on calorie restriction head on. Did for me. The hunger I experienced when eating bread (negative alpha) was much greater than when I gave it up. Losing 20 pounds without bread was significantly easier than losing just 5 pounds when I did eat bread.

The challenge in fighting obesity is not continually explaining the minority of successes, but figuring out how to increase the number of successes in a way that works with the body. Blaming the individual isn’t helpful.

2017 UPDATE: The Role of Exercise in Preventing Weight Gain


Add yours

  1. Amen! I am over weight and have tried all the fads out there. Nothing ever worked and everyone blamed me for having poor self control. I end up going to see a nutritionist who does a metabolic rate test to find out what caloric intake I need to keep my basic organs functioning. I need 2k a day to be a vegetable. Instead of restricting to 1500 or less and feeling like I am about to die if I don’t shove my face full of food, I eat a good 2k a day. I have been eating healthier, less processed and exercising on top of that. I no longer binge and I’ve lost 20 pounds. ELMM is an extreme over simplification of the human body.

  2. charles grashow

    Aug 21, 2012 — 3:58 pm
    Health Halo Can Hide the Calories
    Fast-food fans clueless about calories
    It’s the size of the meal, not the size of the person, that determines how people underestimate calories, Cornell study finds


    1)Calories do count. (Eat Less)
    2)Exercise is vastly over-rated for long-term fat loss. (Move More)
    3)ELMM most likely explains every success. (or in my opinion EL alone)
    4)90-95% of people fail when they attempt ELMM for fat loss.

    Aren’t these mutually exclusive??

  3. @Mel B – Congrats on trying a different approach and your success.

    @Charles – Sorry I couldn’t be clearer articulating my point. These 2 posts had nothing to do with why we get fat or how we estimate portions. They were about increasing nutritional alpha before reducing calories as an alternative strategy for fat loss that I believe would yield a higher success rate.

  4. MAS- I basically agree with your points above and I recommend that same approach to people who wonder about losing weight. And I know your argument is more sophisticated than that calories don’t matter or anything dumb like that. My objection is more about how to think about ELMM.

    Point 5 above is where I’m not totally with you, though I completely agree with your thinking and conclusion of the post. Dismissing ELMM because it doesn’t work isn’t really what it’s about, it’s more of a check on somebody’s collective work. It’s sort of like knowing that both sides of a bank’s balance sheet have to sum to 0. It’s not like the accountants can just know that one fact and become a CFO but if they finish the books and the answer isn’t 0, then they better go back and check their math. If you think you’re doing the right stuff and you’re not losing weight, then you better go back and check your work. I had the same experience in the opposite direction when I tried to gain weight- I would have sworn that I was eating like a pig!

    I think the danger with de-emphasizing the ELMM tautology is that it really gives some pretty easy outs. I starved myself and I still gained weight? Must be a broken metabolism. Low carb helped me drop 50 of the 80 pounds I want to lose and now I’m stuck? There must be hidden carbs in my heavy cream and so on. A bad nutritionist will just push a one size fits all plan onto somebody and then blame the client if it doesn’t work ( and this happens with all kinds of diets not just ELMM- the low carb people are still largely convinced that you can’t gain weight without carbs and the vegans have their own nutritional insanity), while a real professional will keep the feedback loop moving and try to settle on something that works for whoever’s in front of them.

  5. @Karl – I love the accounting analogy.

    For me I think the ultimate diet comes when our bodies are healthy enough to regulate an optimal weight that is lean where we are aren’t focused on hunger and caloric scarcity. Getting the body healthy is one strategy for outsourcing that accounting.

    I have no clue how many calories a day I consume. I’ve never known. As long as I under eat at least once a week and over eat a week, my body stays at a healthy weight.

  6. All very sensible, again. I think Matt Lalonde addressed similar issues in his AHSS12 talk. Haven’t see it yet though.

  7. Hi Michael,

    Just wanted to start off by saying that I’m a big fan of this blog. Lots of great stuff!

    I’d like to offer my two cents on the issue of obesity/being overweight and whether you can attribute that to a character flaw. It’s not central to your argument, but it’s something I’ve gone back and forth on since I first stumbled onto Paleo and Gary Taubes’ work.

    Here’s my long-winded attempt to answer that question. I apologize if it veers too far from the points you were trying to make.

    It’s pretty evident that western culture — and other increasingly-westernized countries — have become obsessed with convenience. As a first-generation American now in my 20s, that mentality is in stark contrast to the way I was raised. Trips to a restaurant or fast-food joint with my family were reserved for special occasions, not every morning, afternoon and weeknight. I grew up eating home-cooked meals and enjoyed Russian food that pretty much lines up with the WAPF’s ideals: meat and fish (albeit fried in white flour sometimes), seasonal fruits and vegetables, fermented fruits and vegetables, cabbage dishes, organ meat, broths, etc etc. There was bread too and dishes like Piroshky, but I’d like to conveniently ignore that fact for now :).

    As a 23-year-old male, I’ve noticed that about one-third to one-half of my friends are now visibly overweight, or have put on 10-15 pounds since the start of college. Hardly anyone I know cooks, even self-professed foodies. Further, I’m not sure any of them really know how to differentiate real food from the crap that comes in a box.

    In short: you could argue — as I have in the past — that my generation (and probably the one before it) has fallen victim to this culture of convenience. It’s not their fault that they find themselves pudgy, overweight or obese.

    However, in the two years since joining the Paleo/WAPF/whole foods/whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement, my viewpoint has evolved. It’s clear that we live in a fitness and health-obsessed culture. Everyone has had a gym membership at one point in time. Everyone owns workout clothes. Everyone has read the latest Top-10-Ways-to-Get-Jacked article from Men’s Health. Everyone knows that sugar and processed foods are probably bad for you.

    Yet they continue eating just as they always have, gaining weight along the way, under the mantra of “everything in moderation.” Sounds reasonable, until you realize that for many folks, moderation means never denying oneself pizza or a cookie at a company function. It means slurping down a sugary mocha from Starbucks every morning. It means a few beers here and there, and post-bar binges each Friday and Saturday night. In short: I’ve noticed that very few people — overweight and otherwise — can say no to a treat. Is it fair to call that a character flaw if the person has already seen a decline in health? Yes, I think so.

    Overweight people may not always be privy to the finer points of nutrition like readers of this blog might be, but they sure as heck can identify most of what’s making them fat: sugar, processed garbage and probably a lack of exercise.

    The unfortunate part is that those who want to slim down are left with nothing more than the eat less, move more advice that you’ve outlined in your latest two blog posts. Some of my best friends have tried this approach, carefully tracking calories through a fitness app and counting their steps with a pedometer. They may lose a few pounds here and there, but the willpower — and progress — seems to fall off pretty quickly.

    I hope I don’t sound overly judgmental, but those are just my observations.

    In summary, I think the problem is two-fold. First, the food industry/our obsession with convenience is the biggest impediment to healthy eating. Second, health and exercise-obsessed people are consciously making poor daily choices that add up to weight gain that accelerates with age. You can only blame the food industry to a certain point. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual whether they should stuff themselves with potato chips to let off some steam after work.

  8. @Maks – Thanks for the nice words. Your observation is dead on accurate. The book the End of Overeating really opened my eyes to just how bad this problem has gotten.

    Food preparation is so important to understanding calories. The more processed and more cooked a food is, the more net calories it has, because digestion requires less work. And people tend to eat past satiety when they consume foods that require less chewing.

  9. @Charles – Sorry your last comment got flagged as SPAM. WordPress does that when multiple links are added. An older posts, I give credit to De Vany for being my mentor. That 1995 essay is what started me down this path. I remember reading it around Christmas 2007.

  10. charles grashow

    Aug 23, 2012 — 2:55 pm

    “A simple way to view this is to ask yourself how many times have you binged on pure fat and protein foods. A salty steak is absolutely delicious. How many times have you eaten one and just HAD to eat another steak or two? How many times have you lathered vegetables with some grass-fed butter and salt and became out of control and couldn’t stop eating them?

    Replace those vegetables with a piece of bread. How many times have you had “just one” piece of bread only to turn possessed and finish the basket? Caveman Doctor tried bread once, and after he went savage on the restaurant to get more, even his simple mind realized that there is a lot more to this food than its caloric content. Something different happens when we eat carbohydrates.

    Looking at things from the perspective that we are made to process the same foods we have eaten for millions of years, this makes perfect sense. Fructose, a sugar that makes our brain go a little crazy for food every now and again, has been found in safe food sources throughout the lifetime of humans: fruit. Fruit, and by fruit I mean mostly fibrous smaller-sized fruits in small amounts(not the modern fruits that are loaded with sugar and the size of your head), has been a safe food for us has been around for millions of years (unlike grains). Therefore, it is not surprising that it activates a part of our brain that says “good stuff here”. Unfortunately, even small amounts of carbohydrates hit the same receptors in our body and make us crave more food, especially more carbs. When we changes this to large amounts of carbohydrates, all bets are off.

    Telling people to eat more carbohydrates and less food overall is not a diet, it is torture. It is the ultimate test of someone’s willpower. When carbohydrates hit our brain and turn our blood sugar levels into a roller-coaster ride, we crave more and turn into gluttons. The recommendations to eat more carbohydrates are the CAUSE of our current gluttonous state, NOT THE RESULT of it – down to the exact date of these recommendations!”

  11. I’m not a naturally lean person, so I understand from personal experience how difficult it can be to lose weight and maintain that loss. Still, to the extent that I have had success, it clearly comes from figuring out ways to eat less, without feeling excessively deprived.

    I have never had much success trying to lose weight by limiting portion size while consuming junky, unhealthy foods. That does require more will power than I have. Instead, I have to avoid those things entirely, and focus on eating things that are lower in starchy carbs, less refined, less energy dense, lower in glycemic index, higher in fiber, higher in protein etc. But sticking even with that approach still requires willpower. And I still need to be careful about eating for reasons other than real need.

    It would be wonderful if I could eat to appetite, e.g., as much as I like, without regaining weight. But I’m not sure that is consistent with our evolutionary history. I think my body is behaving in a natural way, encouraging me to add fat during a time of food abundance, so that I will be able to better survive a period of food shortage. The only problem is that in the modern era, the lean times never come, unless induced artificially, as in eating less intentionally.

  12. I have to agree. Obesity is not inexplicable when you look at the amount of food obese people eat.

    Every overweight, fat, and obese person I know eats too much and does so, day in day out, all day (so did I when I was fat). I don’t know a single overweight, fat, and obese person that eats “like a bird”.

    I also know many people who attenuate the accumulation of fat through physical activity. For instance, I can think of a dozen people that yo-yo ~50 pounds up and down periodically as a result walking alone. They are still obese (who has that much weight to lose, after all) but the activity takes “the top off” and the fat returns once they become sedentary again.

  13. @Txomin – We are talking about two different things. Of course the overweight person got there through caloric surplus. The explanation of obesity is clear. These two posts were about the high failure of obesity reversal via ELMM. My point is we should be exploring the WHY instead of assigning blame. WHY do they eat too much? Character flaw or is something broken “under the hood”?

    My thesis is the average overweight person should assume they are unhealthy and pursue a strategy of fixing that before restricting calories to an already unhealthy body. Fix the sleep, remove the toxins and load up super foods. Do that long enough and the body will release fat with far less effort that going head first at ELMM.

  14. True. If the non-stop eating is done with certain foods, it is harder to gain weight and it is harder to do to begin with. What we are talking about here is food choice in terms of palatability/reward over adequacy.

    The issue of character flaw is tricky, however. Is addiction to heroin/tobacco/coffee a character flaw? Is addiction to food (or certain foodstuffs) any different? I reckon that when it becomes an identity issue (a poor example: I’m Italian and I will eat pizza even if it kills me), you are indeed walking into shortcomings of character.

  15. The issues of gluttony, sloth, and lack of willpower are emotionally charged topics indeed. Many people rebel at the notion that inability to control portion size is some kind of character flaw. I guess I’m at least a little sympathetic – when it comes to potato chips, jelly beans, sugar wafer cookies, Cinnabon breakfast cereal, etc., I rarely can stop after just a little taste.

    But let me pose a question about a different kind of diet failure: If I know that a pepperoni pizza with ice cream is not a healthy meal, but choose to eat that, rather grilled salmon with broccoli, and then fail to get on the path to health and leanness, what kind of failure is that? Is it lack of willpower, and gluttony or some mysterious hormonaly driven behavior that is beyond my ability to control?

  16. @Craig – In the battle between food scientists that design hyper palatable foods and the willpower of dieters, the dieters are losing. The overweight people of today are battling against foods that have been created specifically to bypass their willpower. And every year the food scientists get better at their job, while the dieters become more defeated.

    My solution is assume these foods have compromised health. Then proceed to repair health with whole foods first. Eat to satiety with whole foods until health has been restored and then resume dieting.

  17. I suspect that one of the reasons ELMM doesn’t work is that exercising doesn’t in fact amount to moving because you can conceivably work your ass off 3 X week (how many calories can that possibly burn in the grand scheme ?) and then sit on your ass the rest of the week.

    Now, I would strongly contend that ELMM always works insofar as EL translates to calorie reduction and MM translates to increased overall activity. An exercise session doesn’t generally burn a lot of calories. However, walking, say, five miles everyday does.

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