If you do a Google search on the phrase “Eat Less Move More“, it will return over 9 million results. If you listen to most health care professionals and personal trainers they will say that the only way to lose weight is to eat less and move more. They repeat that it is simple logic and they can point to every successful case of fat loss as following those principles.
Explaining how just 5-10% of dieters succeed is not a complete explanation for why 90-95% fail when they attempt the same principles. The question we should be asking is not what makes a diet work, but what causes it to fail? Eat Less Move More does a great job explaining success, but that is just half of the equation. Before we can address failure, we first need to explore how we feel about obesity.
Is Obesity a Character Flaw?
It is time for an open and frank discussion about how we view overweight people. When you see someone 50 or 100 pounds overweight, do you make a snap judgement about that person? What words would you use to describe their character? Lazy, undisciplined? We judge the obese because it is a commonly held belief that they choose to remain heavy. After all, if they only ate less and moved more they would be lean. Right?
Obesity and the failure of diets has been framed as character flaw. If obesity wasn’t such a worldwide and growing epidemic, I might agree with them. But every person who walks the planet today is the result of a highly resilient lineage. We are the successes. I also believe that most people do not consciously chose to be overweight and would prefer to be leaner. When overweight people are cast as being undisciplined, it does a great disservice to those individuals who are already struggling both physically and emotionally.
Failure is the Problem
If Eat Less, Move More were such as effective strategy, then the failure rate wouldn’t be so high. Some people find it easy and some find it impossibly hard. I cringe every time I see a reference to some fat loss study that lasted weeks or a few months. Who hasn’t lost weight in the short term only to regain it later? The important question is not how the dieter lost the weight, but what caused it come back. The answer is always implied. The dieter lost the discipline to eat less or got too lazy to keep up with an exercise plan. Failure is framed as a character flaw and not a flaw with the Eat Less, Move More advice.
If 90-95% of dieters fall and most or all of them attempted a variation on the Eat Less, Move More principle, why such a high failure rate? Our so called health professionals blame the dieter, because they lack discipline. This enrages me. Can you imagine if LASIK eye surgery or any other health service had anywhere close to that failure rate? But because the individual ultimately controls what they eat and how much they move, the failure of a diet is always defined as the fault of the individual. We also stop looking for alternate causes of failure.
I am on record as saying exercise is vastly over rated when it comes to fat loss. My position is that appetite will always rise to meet energy expenditure, but not necessarily in the short term. You can go weeks or a few months where exercise appears to be an effective strategy for fat loss, but it’s not. We get injured, we get sick, we travel and the body gets very good at predicting how much energy you’ll burn through and adjusts appetite accordingly.
Earlier this year, I did a five part series on Exercise and Fat Loss where I detail not only why I consider it ineffective, but how it can actually make you fatter. The first three parts are relevant for this discussion.
- Walking Didn’t Lean Me Out
- How Exercise Indirectly Kept Me Fatter
- Fat loss and the Case For Less Exercise
Note that I am not anti-exercise. My concern is that an overweight individual who eats poorly and starts an exercise program may lose fat in the short term, but when that appetite catches up to activity expenditure they will end up eating more of the poor quality foods that made them overweight. Fix the diet first.
In the end eating less is the solution, but again that doesn’t explain why so many people fail. It is clear that some people lose weight easier than others. Are they more disciplined or is something else going on? From my research into nutrition, permanent fat loss is a lot easier when the body is healthy. An idea that Sean Croxton of Underground Wellness puts forth is that you don’t lose weight to be healthy, you get healthy to lose weight. What this means is that if you have nutrient deficiencies, inflammation and hormonal imbalances, your success rate at fat loss will increase if these are addressed before you start eating less.
I like the analogy of the leaky row boat. You can certainly try to paddle that boat across the lake. It will be very hard and you may get there safely or your boat could fall apart before you arrive at your destination. Personal trainers will scoff at the failures as not wanting it bad enough or lacking willpower. The reality is that unlimited willpower only exists in Nike and Gatorade commercials. A better plan would be to patiently fix the boat first. Remove the rotted wood and repair the holes. Once the boat is seaworthy, the journey should be a lot easier. How do you do that?
- Fix your sleep.
- Remove toxins known and suspected. (grains, veggie oils, soy, dairy for some, non-traditionally prepared legumes)
- Eats lots of nutrient dense foods.
- Learn how to cook.
- Exercise minimally, safely and efficiently.
When I followed the list above, weight just started falling off. It was effortless. Besides fat loss, other signs that your body is healing are improved skin, better digestion and deeper sleep. When personal trainers and health professionals blindly repeat the phrase Eat Less Move More they are indirectly blaming every dietary failure as a character flaw in the dieter. They point to the successes without trying to understand the failures.
Aug 20, 2012 — 4:16 pm
I tend to think that anyone who suggests they know the one true road that works for everyone is misguided. This applies equally in diet as other life endeavors.
I’m a 5 percenter in that I lost 20 lbs and have kept it off for a number of years, and I know that slowly changing my entire lifestyle was necessary. For example, I had to learn candy and pudding are occasional treats and I now work out regularly and walk at my lunch break. However, I know people who have tried similar methods and failed.
I think there may be a sort of tipping point that once you cross it is exceptionally difficult to get back to healthy weight and maintain.
Aug 20, 2012 — 8:18 pm
Remove toxins known and suspected. (grains, veggie oils, soy, dairy for some, non-traditionally prepared legumes)
Eats lots of nutrient dense foods.
Learn how to cook.
This will result in a person eating less. You will no longer be eating CRAP.
Aug 20, 2012 — 8:29 pm
@Charles – True, but the point I was trying to make is that there is often a healing process that needs to occur before long term permanent fat loss can happen. That healing might take weeks, months or longer.
Aug 21, 2012 — 12:35 am
MAS, I agree with what you’re saying here and eat less move more can’t be the first and only advice for losing weight, but that basic idea needs to be a credibility check for any plan because whatever you do that works will work because ultimately you ELMM. If low carb lets you effortlessly drop 500 calories a day, then good for you, but don’t forget it’s the calories so that when it stops working you realize why and can adapt. It’s sort of like if you save money by bringing you lunch from home, you need to remember that it’s spending less that’s working so you don’t just start buy 5 dollar lattes with your extra pocket change.
I’ve tried helping a few people with losing weight and it’s pretty clear that most of us (here’s the 95% I’d guess) have a wildly inaccurate view of how much we’re really eating. The proof is of course in the math, if you’re 50 pound overweight you’ve eaten more than you burned. But most people insist that they rarely eat sugar, rarely drink anything other than water, never eat more than a small plate at dinner and otherwise are a paragon of healthy eating. It doesn’t add up, but if there’s any chance that people can fudge the ELMM constraint then they’ll latch onto it. The persistance of the insulin theory of obesity is evidence of that.
So the character flaw that we should be pointing to is our pretty much universal ability to delude ourselves about what we’re eating and how much. Your advice above is excellent, but even there if it isn’t working for somebody it’s because they’re eating more than they’re burning so they need to use that as the lens with which to view their next steps.
Aug 21, 2012 — 5:18 am
Eddy Merckx, Dr. Michael Eades, and the Inescapable Reality of Calories in Fat Loss
How Good is HIIT for Fat Loss, Really?
Aug 21, 2012 — 5:37 am
I Dropped My Metabolism and Now It’s Broken
And speaking of garbage excuses, readers should take careful note of Eades’ pathetic “broken metabolism” ruse. Eades pisses and moans that he and his wife were able to stay slim when they were younger, but then a pesky metabolic defect of unknown identity and origin appeared on the scene and lathered their bodies with layers of stubborn fat.
Take careful note that Eades cannot name this “metabolic defect”, he cannot describe its origins, causes, biochemical nature, nor the organs, tissues or metabolic pathways it has allegedly corrupted. He does not present any personal blood work, muscle biopsy results, or calorimetry data to document the existence of this defect.
That’s because it does not exist.
His metabolic defect claim is simply an exercise in deception, of both himself and his readers. Eades has invested far too much in his metabolic advantage nonsense, and has spent far too much time vigorously defending it, to ever acknowledge that it’s a load of bollocks and that the real reason he has struggled with fat gain for decades despite being a best-selling weight loss author is because he’s failed to acknowledge and obey the inescapable primacy of calories in versus calories out.
Eades and his wife, as well as the overwhelming majority of the overweight population of the world, got that way because they ate too much and moved too little. Pure and simple. In The Fat Loss Bible, I discuss a study carried out by researchers from the Department of Medicine at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York. They took obese folks who swore black and blue they couldn’t lose weight no matter how little they ate. These folks had convinced themselves, and in many cases their doctors, that they suffered unusually slow metabolisms. They believed there was a genetic cause for their obesity and evinced a disproportionately high use of thyroid medications in their quest to correct their so-called “slow metabolisms”.
The dieters who claimed they ate like sparrows and yet still couldn’t lose weight in fact underreported their actual food intake by an average of 47% and overreported their physical activity by 51%! The average daily intake reported by these subjects was 1,028 calories, but their actual intake was 2,081 calories!
Like Eades, these folks had become masters of self-delusion.
So too had many of the 29 female subjects in another study who claimed they could not lose weight on energy intakes as low as 1000-1500 calories per day. When researchers took the women to an isolated country house and fed them a 1500-calorie diet for 3 weeks, 19 of them began shedding their excess chub. The remainder did not, indicating that some people do have lower than normal caloric requirements. In this study, failure to lose weight was correlated with lower basal metabolism, which in turn was correlated to lower initial weight and degree of fat mass. This raised the possibility that a past history of excessive duration/severity of dieting may have been a contributing factor to their low RMRs.
Excessive dieting and crash dieting place inordinate stress on your physiology and your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. As do diets that supply insufficient nutrients, screw with your mineral balance, and leave you glycogen-depleted…you know, diets like those very low in carbohydrate.
Aug 21, 2012 — 8:52 am
Maybe I did a poor job with this post? I clearly state that the successes are all governed by Eat Less. (I disagree that Move More has much of an impact). This post was about the failures.
Every potential dieter will have a probability of success from 0 to 100%. The fact that so many dieters fail over the long term suggest this number is low. Just repeating ELMM does nothing to improve the probability of success. Blaming the individual does little as well.
When I removed bread from diet, I got lean. Was there a caloric reduction? Absolutely. But the problem wasn’t that I was deluding myself on my prior calorie intake. The problem was I was damn hungry all the time when I ate bread. Once I fixed that, my hunger normalized and my weight well naturally and without effort to a normal level.
There are certain foods that make unhealthy and mess with our perception of hunger. Doing command-and-control calorie restriction doesn’t work for most people and it has nothing to do with their character.
Aug 21, 2012 — 2:57 pm
One of the best posts ever written by anyone on this topic. Thanks MAS!
Ann Rosen Korman
Aug 21, 2012 — 4:46 pm
Love your blog!! You have so many diverse topics and always have great ideas. I treat mostly obese women- many of whom have undergone weight loss surgery. As you know, my approach is not mainstream. Every day I see women eating low fat, low calorie diets. They are working out every day – and they are NOT loosing weight. My belief is that you have to speed up the metabolic rate by using the correct foods and the right ratio of foods. Stress is always a big issue and I have learned that “stress” comes from with in and without. To be safe…weight loss needs to come down slowly. Otherwise, a person can end up sick. It is NOT about calories in / Calories out. What I see is that many people might gain a bit of weight at first and then slowly ( as they heal) they will loose weight and their body will get to be where it wants to be. People need to look past the scale – they need to look at their health. The only way people truly loose weight is if they change everything – inside and outside. Also, I feel that women have a tougher time loosing the weight b/c their livers just don’t function as well and men’s livers. Whole other topic. But, you are on it!! <3
Aug 21, 2012 — 5:53 pm
@Glenn – Thanks and welcome back!
@Ann – I didn’t event want to go down the path of increasing calories to jump start slow metabolisms. It is something I’ve only read about with practitioners like yourself and Matt Stone. I do a form a carb cycling and over feeding that has worked amazing for me, so I believe in the concept.
Sep 21, 2012 — 8:03 pm
On the Colpo references here.
I think Colpo does a great job of using good science to call out the BS and also to define what the healthy foods really are (his diet recommendations are similar to paleo).
But let’s face it, Colpo is blessed with good genetics and stays lean effortlessly. He has no clue what it is like to be obese, and philosophically he hasn’t put the thought into it to really see the forest for the trees. He downplays how body weight is regulated by its hormones and really believes its mostly about willpower. But willpower does not explain an ever-increasing obesity epidemic and such a high failure rate. Since we cannot willfully hold our breaths to the point of death, there’s good reason to believe we don’t have complete voluntary control over our eating either, especially with all the hormones we know can work against us and the completely unnatural diets we are now eating.
Sep 21, 2012 — 8:19 pm
@grinch031 – I agree with you completely and have an upcoming post where I give my thoughts on willpower.