Physical Activity, Appetite & Weight-Loss


There is a lot of important research out there on subjects like exercise physiology and nutrition. I’m not a researcher and I have a difficult time deciphering information that I know is useful to me and my clients. So I appreciate Alex Hutchinson’s Sweat Science blog in Runner’s World. He does a great job of discussing complex research findings in language that I can understand.

A recent Sweat Science post titled the Jute Diet details some tremendously important research regarding the intimate relationship between physical activity and appetite. The research is from the 1950s so I was completely surprised that I didn’t already know this information. From the blog post:

image is from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

image is from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

“What you see is that, above a certain level of physical activity, caloric intake increases linearly and weight is stable. For these workers, the body’s “balance” mechanism is functioning, and those who burn more calories also consume proportionately more calories.

“But below a certain level of physical activity, the appetite balance breaks down. Caloric intake rises again, and these workers are the ones who gain weight. The researchers call this “’he sedentary zone,’ and suggest that the regulation of food intake breaks down in this zone because ‘in his hundreds of years of evolution, man did not have any opportunity for sedentary life except very recently.'”

Hutchinson references other research that supports this idea that physical activity strongly influences body weight. More supporting research can be seen here, here and here. (Beyond that, some of the research shows a dose-response relationship in which more and more vigorous activity yields more weight loss and better weight-loss maintenance.)

I’ve never thought about the effect that exercise has on appetite beyond that it probably increases it. That exercise may make appetite more accurate is very interesting to me.

I have found that I tend to lose weight when I’m training a lot. When I try and track my calories while training I often find that I go over my suggested caloric intake and I still lose weight. I simply eat the amount that feels right and I’m able to maintain or improve my body composition. It’s much tougher to do though when I’m not training hard. That’s been a curious thing to me. This research seems to speak to my observations.

Health & Fitness News: Pain Science, Breakfast – To Skip or Not to Skip?, Carbs vs fat (Whither protein?), 8 Glasses of Water Mythology


Several articles have grabbed my attention. One is a concise summary of the current understanding of pain. Another discusses breakfast and the flimsy evidence supporting its importance. Next, science looks at the efficacy of reducing carbs vs fats for weight loss. Finally, drinking eight glasses of water a day is based on nothing.

Pain and lifting

The issue of pain is a continual theme in this blog. I’ve dealt with periodic bouts of lingering pain. The upside to this is that I’ve learned a lot about pain. Whether we’re an athlete or not, most of us will encounter non-acute or chronic pain.

It can be scary and depressing to us especially if it limits our ability to train. Interestingly, learning about how pain works can actually help us feel better (low-back pain in this case). Pain is NOT simply an indication of tissue damage. It’s very much a product of the brain. How we perceive our bodies (damaged or strong), our pain (threatening and scary or just a nuisance) and our expectations (“I’m broken and ruined,” or “I’ll be fine.”) are major influences on the pain process.

In that direction, has a worthwhile article called 3 Things Lifters and Coaches Need to Know About Pain. It’s concise and fairly easy to understand for non-scientists. I think this information is useful for coaches and trainers who will certainly come across an athlete or client in pain. It may also prove helpful to you if you’re in pain. Here is a summary:

1. You are not your MRI or your X-Ray. Many people have tissue damage or degeneration on imaging but walk around without pain everyday. If you’re dealing with pain or an injury, get a thorough medical history and functional examination done by a qualified health professional, preferably one that works with athletes and lifters (they are out there).

2. Understand that pain (particularly chronic pain) isn’t purely related to biomechanics or injury. Biological and psychosocial factors both contribute to a person’s pain experience.

3. When working with clients, don’t create fear or a nocebo effect by berating your clients on their lifting technique, posture, or movement capabilities. Instead, work through your client’s issues with positive coaching and cueing to build a great training effect.

Read the article to get more detail.

Breakfast and weight loss

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

You’ve heard it. You believe. I’ve preached it to clients. It seems the earth rotates around this statement. But, is this bit of gospel based on anything of substance? Not really.

In The science of skipping breakfast: How government nutritionists may have gotten it wrong the Washington Post discusses research that shows the following:

“In overweight individuals, skipping breakfast daily for 4 weeks leads to a reduction in body weight,” the researchers from Columbia University concluded in a paper published last year.”

Another golden idol knocked from its pedestal! How can this be? Why would the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans tell us something that isn’t supported by good evidence?

The Post article does a good job of discussing the answer.

One of the key pieces of evidence, for example, examined the records for 20,000 male health professionals. Researchers followed the group for 10 years and published results in 2007 in the journal Obesity. They showed that after adjusting for age and other factors, the men who ate breakfast were 13 percent less likely to have had a significant weight gain.

“Our study suggests that the consumption of breakfast may modestly lower the risk of weight gain in middle-aged and older men,” the researchers said.

The advisory committee cited this and similar research, known as “observational studies,” in support of the notion that skipping breakfast might cause weight gain. In “observational studies,” subjects are merely observed, not assigned randomly to “treatment” and “control” groups as in a traditional experiment.

Observational studies in nutrition are generally cheaper and easier to conduct. But they can suffer from weaknesses that can lead scientists astray.

One of the primary troubles in observational studies is what scientists refer to as “confounders” — basically, unaccounted factors that can lead researchers to make mistaken assumptions about causes. For example, suppose breakfast skippers have a personality trait that makes them more likely to gain weight than breakfast eaters. If that’s the case, it may look as if skipping breakfast causes weight gain even though the cause is the personality trait.

It’s a reminder of the very important rule: Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Just because one detail appears alongside another detail, it doesn’t mean the one detail causes the other. (Tall people play basketball. Therefore one might conclude that playing basketball makes people tall. Is that right?)

Similarly we’ve seen a recent revision on dietary fat and cholesterol guidelines. We once thought that fat (particularly saturated fat) and cholesterol were the most evil of edible substances. Based upon flawed science, we were told to replace fat with carbohydrates and we’d all be well. Upon further review, it seems we may have been very wrong.

Low-carb vs. low-fat

Sticking with the diet and science theme, there’s been a lot of discussion on a recent study in Cell Metabolism that looks at low-carb vs. low-fat diets. This was a six-day study in a carefully controlled lab environment. The study had the same group of 19 obese participants spend six days on either a restricted-carb or restricted-fat diet. They then went home for several weeks for a “wash-out” period where they resumed their normal eating habits. The participants then returned and they were switched to the other diet. The same number of calories were cut from both diets, the difference being the calories came specifically from either carbs or fat. The participants were observed in a metabolic chamber and their caloric expenditure was very closely monitored. It was a well-designed study.

The result? The low-fat group lost more fat. Discussion over right? If you saw most of the popular-press headlines you’d think so. But there’s more to the story.

First question in my mind is “What about protein?” Though the jury is still out on some aspects of high-protein diets, several studies (here, here, here and here among others) suggest that high-protein diets can be useful for weight loss. The study doesn’t mention protein at all. Seems odd to me in that carbs, fat and protein are the main macronutrients in food. Why would we want to manipulate and study the effects of just two?

A good discussion of the low-carbs vs. low-fat study can be found at Really-low-fat vs somewhat-lower-carb – a nuanced analysis goes into some of the limitations of the study. This article is quite detailed. Read it all if you’re up for it. I won’t go into all of it but here’s a little bit.

One point to remember that this low-carb diet could be called a “lower-“carb diet in that some low-carb diets go much lower than this one. The article says:

“The carb levels ended up being 352 grams for Restricted Fat versus 140 for Restricted Carb, and the fat levels 17 versus 108. In other words, (moderately lower carb than typical diets) versus (oh my goodness I can count my fat gram intake on my fingers and toes!).

This trial wasn’t designed to explore a real-life 100-gram-and-under low carb diet and especially not a ketogenic diet. Rather, it was a mechanistic study designed so that they could reduce energy substantially and equally from fat or carbs, but without changing more than one macronutrient. If they lowered carbs much more in the Restricted Carb group (like under 100 grams), they’d then have to go into negative fat intake for the Restricted Fat group. And negative fat intake is impossible (*except for in quantum parallel universes). One more note: all participants kept dietary protein constant and exercised on a treadmill for an hour a day.”

So it’s possible that if carbs were lowered further, we might see a different outcome of the study. Also, this was a six-day study. We must wonder what might happen over the course of six weeks, six months or six years.

Another very important point to remember is that this was a very tightly controlled experiment. It didn’t reflect the real world in which people trying to lose weight have to make their own food choices. says:

And to repeat a very important point: this study was not meant to inform long-run dietary choices. In the long-run, the choice between restricting fat or restricting carbs to achieve a caloric deficit may come down to one thing: diet adherence.

While preference for certain foods may dictate which diet is easier to adhere to, this isn’t always the case. For instance, it seems that insulin-resistant individuals have an easier time adhering to a low-carbohydrate diet. Nowadays, new dieters often pair low-carb with higher protein, the latter of which can boost weight loss. And since there are plenty of high-sugar but low-fat junk foods (see Mike and Ike, et al.) but not so many high-fat but low-carb junk foods, low carb intakes can sometimes mean an easier time staying away from junk food when compared to low fat diets.

So we should remember that the dietary rubber meets the road when someone seeking weight loss can modify their diet in any healthy way and then stick to it for the long haul. If it’s less fat then great. If it’s fewer carbs, also great. If it’s some other improvement to the diet then wonderful!

Eight glasses of water a day is arbitrary

Another sacred cow of health and longevity is the admonition to drink at least eight glasses of water a day. That bunk has been debunked but much like a bell that’s been rung, it’s hard to change people’s minds once they’ve heard this information. The New York Times gets into this topic in No,You Do Not Have to Drink 8 Glasses of Water a Day. This one is simple. If you’re thirsty then drink. If you’re not then don’t. (How else would we have made it to the year 2015 if we didn’t have some sort of very good water gauge built into our physiology? Do my cat or dog think about the measured quantity of the water they drink?)

Motivation vs. Willpower


I mentioned in the last post that I was reading and enjoying Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults. Chapter five of his book contains some information that I found very thought provoking. This chapter discusses the process and details of those who’ve successfully maintained weight-loss. The National Weight Control Registry observed several key behaviors in those who lost weight and kept it off.

  • Weighing: If weight-loss is your goal then looking at a scale will tell you if it’s happening.
  • Monotonous eating: Eating very similar meals repeatedly makes it easy to track caloric intake. Further successful weight-losers to vary their eating less during the weekends and holidays. (“Monotonous” may imply boring. I don’t believe it has to be that way.)
  • Exercise: What we eat (and don’t eat) is absolutely vital for weight-loss. It seems that exercise is absolutely vital for maintaining weight-loss

(Interestingly, subjects do report eating healthier eating as part of the weight-loss process, no specific diet was identified as being best.)

More important than habits is the motivation that underlies these habits. Motivation is different from willpower.  Fitzgerald suggests that motivation activates will power, sort of like computer software (motivation) activates the hardware (willpower). He says that “evidence suggests that most people have all the willpower they need to lose weight and that what separates the successful losers from the failures is motivation.

The NWCR study found that 90% of members reported having failed in previous weight loss attempts. In other words, these people failed a lot. It seems the people who succeeded kept on trying due to motivation. This got me thinking about my own views on willpower vs. motivation.

It seems that we often talk about willpower as a negative thing. We criticize ourselves because we don’t have enough of it and we wind up eating a bunch of cake. Or else we see overweight people, drug addicts or smokers and we say they don’t have the willpower to lose weight or quit. The word willpower mostly seems to come up when there’s something negative drawing us towards it and we know we’ll succumb to this evil thing, and then we’ll hate ourselves afterward. The practice of willpower seems a cold, Spartan type of undertaking.

In contrast, something that motivates us is a positive thing that we want. It’s something that makes us look past the temptations, triggers and roadblocks to our success. We may not be perfect in our eating and exercise habits but the motivating factor makes us keep trying. I think in a lot of cases motivation actually makes us want to undertake the healthy behaviors that lead us to our goals. As noted in Diet Cults, it’s motivation that makes for successful willpower.

Not that everything about our motivation is positive. Fear may be a great motivator. For instance, a doctor says, “If you don’t lose weight you’ll have a heart attack in five years.” For a lot of people, that may be the type of revelation that motivates them to lose weight. A similar scenario may play out if we lose a loved one to a preventable illness like diabetes.

Maybe shame motivates us. I recall a client who stepped on a scale, saw the numbers and said, “That’s it!  I can’t do this anymore. I HAVE GOT TO LOSE WEIGHT.”  And he did.

Money is one of the best, most popular motivators out there. Look at participants on the Biggest Loser. They go through an especially ugly hell to win fame and fortune. (I’ve seen all of about 3 minutes of that show. It scared me.)

I was speaking to a very wise friend about all of this and he said that inherent in this motivation to change is a genuine belief that a change for the better is possible. Beyond the fear mentioned above, we must see and believe in a better life for ourselves. A living belief in a better future sustains motivation. Without this belief motivation withers and dies.

From what I know, motivation must come from within. I’m not sure how to impose motivation on someone. I think perhaps I can draw motivation out of a client by asking the right questions. This is a challenging prospect! This involves a developing a fairly intimate relationship with a client and asking some nuanced, sensitive questions. This has given me a lot to think about.

What motivates you in your fitness endeavors? Surely something must motivate you to wake up early or carve out time in your busy day to grunt, groan, sweat and lift heavy objects. Most of you aren’t pro athletes or models. So why do you do it? I’d like to know. What makes you keep on keeping on?

Small Frequent Meals? Bad Idea for Weight Loss.


Bloomberg News is reporting on some very interesting weight-loss news. (I guess there’s not much going on in the financial world…) Two Large Meals a Day Tops Six Mini-Meals for Weight-Loss reveals evidence that contradicts the hallowed advice to eat several small meals per day if you want to lose weight.

Here’s what’s important:

“Over 12 weeks, people with Type 2 diabetes who ate just breakfast and lunch lost an average of 1.23 points in body mass index, or BMI, compared with a loss of 0.82 point for those who ate six smaller meals of the same nutritional and energy content. The data, in a small study involving 54 patients, were presented today at the American Diabetes Association meeting in Chicago.

The study builds on previous results disproving the theory that eating more frequently improves weight loss. That pattern, thought to work because it helps control appetite, was shown to produce no more weight loss than three regular meals in a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. The latest report eliminates one additional meal.

In today’s study, sponsored by the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Health, both the frequency of the meals and the timing were important, according to Kahleova. Eating earlier in the day — just breakfast, between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., and lunch, between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. — is associated with better results than skipping breakfast, she said.

Two meals a day also led to a greater decrease in liver fat content and a bigger increase in insulin sensitivity than six smaller meals.”

I find it very interesting that the researchers recommend skipping dinner instead of breakfast. That counters what I’ve been doing and what I’ve learned as a good fasting strategy. As I’ve said in recent posts (here and here), I like the idea of continuing the nighttime fast well into the day, then eating later in the day.  In fact, in recent weeks I’ve been trying to eat two big meals on my fast days: a mid-day meal and an evening meal. Perhaps I’m doing this less than optimally if this recent study is accurate.

I think the big picture is that we should spend several hours not putting food in our mouths. There is mounting evidence that being hungry for a while is a good thing. Clearly in this country we eat too much food.  It seems we not only eat too much–we eat too often. Further, the weight-loss gospel that a small-frequent-meal strategy aka “grazing” may be entirely wrong.

If you’re interested in this topic, there are a couple of worthwhile articles from Dave Tate’s site  Logic Does Not Apply Part I: Meal Frequency and Part II: Breakfast are well-referenced and interesting. Both discuss and support the idea of a) skipping breakfast and b) spacing out our meals by several hours.  The writer notes though that small frequent meals throughout the day may be best for putting on weight.  So if you’re looking to gain a bunch of muscle then eat often!



Are All Calories Created Equal?


“Put most simply, the fewer carbohydrates consumed, the more energy these weight-reduced people expended.”
Gary Taubes, author, Good Calories, Bad Calories

A recent Harvard University study has produced some interesting results as regards various types of eating patterns, calories, and how these all affect weight loss maintenance.   The study is discussed in two New York Times articles; one titled What Really Makes Us Fat, the other titled In Dieting, Magic Isn’t a Substitute for Science is a Q&A with a veteran obesity researcher. ABC News also analyzes the study in For Calories, It’s All About Quality Over Quantity, Harvard Study Says.

There are two main points of consideration in this discussion.  First, there’s the question, “Are all calories created equal?”  Are carb calories the same as fat and protein calories?  Are refined sugar calories the same as calories from vegetables or beans?  The second question is, “What’s the best way to stay lean once we’ve lost the weight?”

(The country is full of people who’ve lost weight but can’t keep it off.  The big secret is this: Any diet will work.  If you follow the directions, you’ll very likely lose weight no matter what diet you chose.  From paleo, to the Zone Diet, to Weight Watchers to any of the vast number of other diets, if you follow it you’ll probably lose weight.  Done and done?  No. The most difficult part has just begun.  Keeping the weight off is typically very difficult.)

What about the study?  Researchers studied 21 overweight and obese adults, starting each on a diet that helped them lose about 12-13% of their body weight. Then, to help them maintain that weight loss, the researchers put the participants on a cycle of three diets, each lasting four weeks.

One diet is of the low-fat/high-carbohydrate variety as advocated by the FDA and the American Heart Association.  This diet suggests among other things that we eat a lot of grain products, both refined and unrefined; and that we seek to reduce fat consumption at all opportunities.

The other diet was a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet similar to the Atkins diet.  This is almost the total opposite of the previously mentioned diet.  This diet encourages fat and protein consumption and discourages grain consumption–particularly refined grains.

The third diet was based on low-glycemic foods.  This diet was sort of in between the other two. Fewer refined grains were found here and more vegetables, beans, fruit and the like.  Plus there was less fat and protein than the Atkins-type diet, but more than the low-fat diet.

What were the results?  This is from the ABC News article:

The results weren’t good news for low-fat diet aficionados. When dieters followed that plan, their bodies burned fewer calories than when they were following the low-carb or low-glycemic index diets. And the low-fat diet changed certain metabolic factors in their bodies that typically predicted weight regain.

The low-carb diet seemed to help participants burn the most calories. But it also increased certain markers of stress and inflammation in the body, such as the stress hormone cortisol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

(I’m quite curious about this.  What’s causing the inflammation?  Is it high fat?  Is it high protein?  Is it low carbohydrate?  Is it a combination of some or all of these factors?  The Perfect Health Diet discusses research indicating that limiting protein intake can help with immune function, and that too much protein can lead to ammonia toxicity.  So that leads me to think it’s the protein that may be causing the inflammation.  Would someone please do a double-blind placebo study on this?  And please make it a long-term study while you’re at it.  Thanks in advance.)

In the end, the researchers found that the low-glycemic index diet struck the right balance for the participants. It helped the dieters burn more calories, though not as many as the low-carb diet, but didn’t seem to increase disease-causing stress markers in the body.

I like this observation as well:

“Remember the old food pyramid, with six to 11 servings per day of bread, pasta or rice at the base? In light of this article, it would seem to provide an efficient prescription for weight gain,” said Dr. Jana Klauer, a doctor in private practice in New York.

Gary Taubes, says in What Really Makes Us Fat:

The results were remarkable. Put most simply, the fewer carbohydrates consumed, the more energy these weight-reduced people expended. On the very low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, there was virtually no metabolic adaptation to the weight loss. These subjects expended, on average, only 100 fewer calories a day than they did at their full weights. Eight of the 21 subjects expended more than they did at their full weights — the opposite of the predicted metabolic compensation.

(Please note that Taubes is the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories.  He essentially proposes some of what is suggested by this study, namely that a high-carb diet–particularly one high in refined carbs–is bad and that a high-protein/high-fat diet is good for us.  His article for the NY Times highlights the good of this diet.  He doesn’t mention the following information.  Perhaps there’s a conflict of interest.)

Now, here’s a wrinkle.  Dieting, Magic Isn’t a Substitute for Science is the other NY Times article. It’s a Q&A with Dr. Jules Hirsch, emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University, who has been researching obesity for nearly 60 years, about the state of the research. With regard to the benefits of high-fat diets, he says:

They report that people on the Atkins diet were burning off more calories. Ergo, the diet is a good thing. Such low-carbohydrate diets usually give a more rapid initial weight loss than diets with the same amount of calories but with more carbohydrates. But when carbohydrate levels are low in a diet and fat content is high, people lose water. That can confuse attempts to measure energy output. The usual measurement is calories per unit of lean body mass — the part of the body that is not made up of fat. When water is lost, lean body mass goes down, and so calories per unit of lean body mass go up. It’s just arithmetic. There is no hocus-pocus, no advantage to the dieters. Only water, no fat, has been lost.

The paper did not provide information to know how the calculations were done, but this is a likely explanation for the result.

So the whole thing might have been an illusion? All that happened was the people temporarily lost water on the high-protein diets?

Perhaps the most important illusion is the belief that a calorie is not a calorie but depends on how much carbohydrates a person eats. There is an inflexible law of physics — energy taken in must exactly equal the number of calories leaving the system when fat storage is unchanged. Calories leave the system when food is used to fuel the body. To lower fat content — reduce obesity — one must reduce calories taken in, or increase the output by increasing activity, or both. This is true whether calories come from pumpkins or peanuts or pâté de foie gras.

To believe otherwise is to believe we can find a really good perpetual motion machine to solve our energy problems. It won’t work, and neither will changing the source of calories permit us to disobey the laws of science.

So Dr. Hirsch draws a different conclusion from the researchers and the reporters.  I don’t have a solid enough command of statistics to advocate in either direction.  Both Dr. Hirsh and Gary Taubes suggest that more useful information would come from a long-term study of this type.

What seems clear though is that we should steer well clear from processed foods.  A high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet seems to best best for weight loss but also may cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.  The study suggests that making an extra effort to avoid fat may not be very helpful in the battle to rid our bodies of fat.  The third and possibly healthiest eating strategy revolves around a healthy intake of low-glycemic foods.  The Wiki entry on low-glycemic foods states (emphasis is mine):

There are some specific factors to look for in foods that can indicate their glycemic index: Low glycemic foods contain: Fat, Whole grains, Protein, Raw Starches, legumes, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. High Glycemic Foods contain: Refined grains, refined sugars, increased amylopectin: amylose ratio, and often high sugar fruits have a high glycemic index.

Finally, we’re often told to eat more of this that and the other.  “Eat more healthy fat.”  “Eat more fruits and vegetables.”  “Eat more whole grains.”  We’re rarely told to “Eat less” of anything. Therefore I like what Dr. Hirsch has to say about the matter:

What would you tell someone who wanted to lose weight?

I would have them eat a lower-calorie diet. They should eat whatever they normally eat, but eat less. You must carefully measure this. Eat as little as you can get away with, and try to exercise more.


The Mathematics of Obesity


” … the conventional wisdom of 3,500 calories less is what it takes to lose a pound of weight is wrong. The body changes as you lose. Interestingly, we also found that the fatter you get, the easier it is to gain weight. An extra 10 calories a day puts more weight onto an obese person than on a thinner one.”

– Dr. Carson C. Chow, MIT mathematician

The New York Times Science section has a fairly interesting conversation with Dr. Carson Chow, an MIT-trained mathematician who works for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).  The article is titled A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity.  He’s worked with other researchers in applying a mathematical model to help describe and answer questions related to our national obesity epidemic. Several key findings are important to note in addition to the quote at the top of this page:

Also, there’s a time constant that’s an important factor in weight loss. That’s because if you reduce your caloric intake, after a while, your body reaches equilibrium. It actually takes about three years for a dieter to reach their new “steady state.” Our model predicts that if you eat 100 calories fewer a day, in three years you will, on average, lose 10 pounds — if you don’t cheat.

Another finding: Huge variations in your daily food intake will not cause variations in weight, as long as your average food intake over a year is about the same. This is because a person’s body will respond slowly to the food intake.

Dr. Chow was hired to answer the question of what caused the obesity epidemic.  He suggests that food overproduction is the culprit.  And if we have too much food then we wind up eating too much food.  He also says that changing our weight takes a very long time.  He says:

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a change in national agricultural policy. Instead of the government paying farmers not to engage in full production, as was the practice, they were encouraged to grow as much food as they could. At the same time, technological changes and the “green revolution” made our farms much more productive. The price of food plummeted, while the number of calories available to the average American grew by about 1,000 a day.

Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it! This, of course, is a tremendously controversial idea. However, the model shows that increase in food more than explains the increase in weight.

Dr. Chow was asked about practical advice.  His answer:

One of the things the numbers have shown us is that weight change, up or down, takes a very, very long time. All diets work. But the reaction time is really slow: on the order of a year.

People don’t wait long enough to see what they are going to stabilize at. So if you drop weight and return to your old eating habits, the time it takes to crawl back to your old weight is something like three years. To help people understand this better, we’ve posted an interactive version of our model at People can plug in their information and learn how much they’ll need to reduce their intake and increase their activity to lose. It will also give them a rough sense of how much time it will take to reach the goal. Applied mathematics in action!

Dr. Chow’s final words regarding obesity may come as dreary news for people trying to lose weight and keep it off.  He says, “It’s so easy for someone to go out and eat 6,000 calories a day. There’s no magic bullet on this. You simply have to cut calories and be vigilant for the rest of your life.”

That is a very honest observation from a well-trained scientist.  Remember that the next time you see an ad for some sure-fire trendy diet or supplement.

Stuff to Read: Weightlifiting vs. Powerlifting, Hormones & Weight Loss


Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting

To a lot of people the terms “weightlifting” and “powerlifting” may sound synonymous.  I assure you they are quite different activities.  Both sports require the lifting of barbells with lots of weight attached, but the similarities stop there.  (As an example, we can start with the highly ironic term “powerlifting.”  In fact, powerlifting features almost no power whatsoever.  Weightlifting on the other hand features lots of power. You had no idea did you?)  For a very thorough and informative look at the two different activities–and to figure out which best enhances athletic performance–check out this article from titled Weightlifting vs. Powerlifting: Which is Right for You?

Hormones and the Difficulty of Weight Loss

Losing weight and keeping it off is typically a very difficult task for a lot of people.  The idea that it’s simply an issue of willpower is simply false nonsense.  (Look here, here, here, here and here for previous posts on the issue.)  Now there’s another study and another article to add to the pile of knowledge on obesity and weight loss.  Why Dieters Can’t Keep the Weight Off is an article from Time Magazine that discusses recently published research from the New England Journal of Medicine.  It goes into the issue of various hormones that essentially tell us we’re hungry.  The levels of these hormones rise in people who are losing weight.  Further, these same hormones tend to stay elevated post weight loss.  The practical effect is that weight loss is difficult to achieve and maintain.  It’s definitely not just an issue of willpower.  Read the article for more detail.

Snacking & Weight Loss Psychology


“The average American now consumes about 2,375 calories per day, about a third more than in the ’70s.” – Time Magazine


Two articles may help you understand why so many of us are overweight and why it’s tough to lose the fat.  First, Time Magazine gives us Snack Attack!  Americans Are Eating More Between Meals.  The information here comes from a recent study on Americans’ eating habits over the past 30 years.  Among the findings:

“Analyzing data from four nutritional surveys conducted between 1977 and 2006 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study found that Americans went from eating an average 3.8 meals and snacks a day to 4.9 a day over the last three decades — a 29% increase. The average American now consumes about 2,375 calories per day, about a third more than in the ’70s.”

A lot of this makes sense.  Look at our opportunities to eat (another factor examined in the study).  We’ve had food in the grocery store checkout for years but now we’ve got food at the Bed Bath & Beyond!  I can get candy at Home Depot!  I can remember when gas stations had a gumball machine and a cigarette machines–and that was it.  Now the average gas station is packed to the gills with weird, low-nutrition/high calorie snack food.  Garbage is everywhere and we’re eating it.

Your Brain on Weight Loss

The Huffington Post gives us Weight Loss Psychology: Why Your Brain Might Be Holding You Back.  I love this stuff because I’m fascinated by brain function especially at it pertains to exercise.  Anyone who’s tried to lose weight has discovered several things.  First, everyone knows how to do it: Eat less.  Exercise more.  Easy?  No way!  The other thing we’ve all learned is that though weight loss is easy in concept, it’s diabolically difficult to pull off.  There’s way more than a simple desire to lose weight.  Our short-term pleasure typically wins out over our long-term healthy goals.  I like this description of the struggle:

“What drives our behavior is not logic but brain biochemistry, habits and addiction, states of consciousness and what we see people around us doing. We are emotional beings with the ability to rationalize — not rational beings with emotions. If we are stressed, depressed or addicted, no matter how good the advice we are given, chances are that we will not be able to act on it. The more primitive, emotional brain generally has precedence over the newer, more rational brain.”

The article also gives suggestions to help address weight loss:

1.) Focus on a change of heart, not a change of mind. Losing weight through changing what and how much you eat doesn’t happen because you rationally decide to lose weight. You have to have a change of heart; that is, you must get in touch with your deepest, heartfelt desires.Your motivation may not be positive. Indeed, it may stem from a fear of loss. For example, you may not want to get sick. Or you may not want to be ostracized. To get in touch with your motivation, think about the negative consequences of not changing as well as the positive ones. Getting fit must become a priority and your life must be organized accordingly. Nobody can change you but you, and once you’ve made the changes, you need to stay focused. Successful individuals keep their motivation in the forefront of their minds all the time.

2.) Practice self-discipline. Self-control is a muscle that, like other muscles, needs exercise and strengthening. Change doesn’t happen because you want it to happen. Each time you resist temptation, you are developing greater self-control. Success breeds success. Facing down temptations builds strength for future decision moments. Some of my clients throw away their favorite food as a symbolic act that shows they have control over the food and not the other way round.

Self-discipline is required for behavior change, but does that mean that the lack of self-discipline causes obesity? No. That would be like saying aspirin helps a headache go away, so headaches are caused by a lack of aspirin — which is nonsense!

3.) Eliminate or reduce sugary, fat-laden foods. Such foods create physical changes at a cellular level that alter how our brains and bodies react. When analyzing your level of addiction, consider both physical dependence (changes at the cellular level) and psychological dependence (the habitual repetition of a behavior in an attempt to satisfy an emotional need). For example, how often do you use a sugary treat to lift your spirits?

What is often misunderstood is that these dependences exist on a continuum. You can be mildly, moderately or severely dependent, and the degree of dependence determines how difficult it will be to change.

4.) Make history your teacher, not your jailer. You can learn from your mistakes. Instead of [beating yourself up] when you fail to keep your promises to yourself, seek to gain self-knowledge so you won’t repeat the error. No one is perfect. Be sure to acknowledge what you are doing right, not just what isn’t working.

5.) Surround yourself with friends, family and colleagues who will support your effort. Getting fit and losing weight absolutely require others. Although you alone can make the changes you need to make, you can’t make the changes alone. Not only in terms of eating, but in all areas of our lives, we are much more influenced by other people than we imagine. One of the most potent forces for positive change is the emotional support of the individuals who surround you.

You must, however, ask for the support you need. Don’t assume that others know what would be most helpful to you. Similarly, you need to avoid those people who aren’t on the same page as you. Social pressure can work for you or against you. Hang out with the right people.

Exercise and Relationships, Lift Weights to Lose Weight, Books


Exercise & Relationships

What happens to a relationship when one person exercises a lot and the other doesn’t?  The Wall St. Journal offers an analysis of several such situations in A Workout Ate My Marriage.  As you might imagine, stress may develop if one partner spends a lot of time training and the other doesn’t.

We see this situation with Caren and Jordan Waxman.  Jordan is not only a Merrill Lynch exec with two law degrees and an MBA, he’s also an Ironman triathlete who competes all over the country.  His time spent training plus his job requirements means significant time away from his wife and family.

The article quotes a therapist:

“Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,” says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist.

The article profiles other couples including the strange pairing of an avid marathoner and vegetarian with a sedentary mean-and-potatoes fellow who just recently gave up a two-pack-a-day smoking habit.  Lois and Gary Berkowitz occupy opposite ends of the exercise spectrum yet they seem happily married.  He accompanies her to races and helps edit a running newsletter.  All seems well for them.

(Interestingly, all the athletes profiled are endurance athletes.  No weightlifters, powerlifters or bodybuilders appeared in the article.  What are their relationships like?  Perhaps the much smaller time requirements to get stronger mean happier marriages than the hours and hours required to win marathons and triathlons.)

Lift Weights to Lose Weight

Alwyn Cosgrove and his wife Rachel are both highly successful trainers and owners of Results Gym in California.  Alwyn’s blog is full of useful information, and I recommend you have a look at it.  One such article is The New Science of Fat Loss.  (This first appeared in Men’s Health.)  The article discusses the old myth that low-intensity aerobic exercise is the best way to shed fat.  New research suggests that weight training burns more calories per unit of time.  Researchers put subjects on a reduced-calorie diet and put them in three groups.  One group didn’t exercise, another performed aerobic exercise 3 days a week, and a third did both aerobic exercise and weight training 3 days a week.   The article states:

“The results: Each group lost nearly the same amount of weight—about 21 pounds per person in 12 weeks. But the lifters shed 5 more pounds of fat than those who didn’t pump iron. The weight they lost was almost pure fat, while the other two groups shed 15 pounds of lard, but also gave up 5-plus pounds of muscle.”

What’s the take-home message?  Weight training is a must for physique change! If you’re using plodding, long-duration/low-intensity cardio work as your primary means of weight loss you’re behind the times and you’re wasting time.

My Reading List: The Talent Code, Sports Vision, Motivational Interviewing

If you’re a fitness professional and/or a fitness geek like me, there are three books you’ll want to have a look at.  The first is The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born.  It’s Made.  Here’s How. Daniel Coyle’s book looks at the physiological and psychological components of “talented” and highly successful individuals from athletes to musicians to mathematicians.  Three key points discussed in the book are:

• Deep Practice Everyone knows that practice is a key to success. What everyone doesn’t know is that specific kinds of practice can increase skill up to ten times faster than conventional practice.

• Ignition We all need a little motivation to get started. But what separates truly high achievers from the rest of the pack? A higher level of commitment—call it passion—born out of our deepest unconscious desires and triggered by certain primal cues. Understanding how these signals work can help you ignite passion and catalyze skill development.

• Master Coaching What are the secrets of the world’s most effective teachers, trainers, and coaches? Discover the four virtues that enable these “talent whisperers” to fuel passion, inspire deep practice, and bring out the best in their students.

Do you train vision?  In the gym?  Do you ever think about your eyes when you’re working out.  If not, you should.  It’s our most vital sense after all.  In the Z-Health community, we often discuss vision and the tremendous influence it has on all our bodily processes–including pain, strength and mobility.  Sports Vision: Training for Better Performance is required reading for Z-Health trainers.  It goes deep into the role our visual system plays in our ability to perform.  The book contains many drills designed to improve visual acuity and thus sport performance.

Finally, Motivational Interviewing is considered a must-read by anyone involved in a field such as coaching or personal training.  Too often we trainers and coaches focus on the exercise portion of weight loss and athletic performance.  We don’t spend enough time figuring out the psychological components of motivation and behavior change.  Our role is to motivate clients and athletes to work hard and achieve big goals.  Therefore this book is essential to any fitness professional’s library.

New Year’s Resolutions


“This year I will… (insert whatever gargantuan tried-for-before-but-never-accomplished miracle you wish; for our purposes here we’ll say:) get in shape.”
thousands of new gym members

Now’s the time of year when many a well meaning American joins a gym, vows to give up their favorite food, start eating their least favorite food, exercise like Hercules, change their physique… and generally repeat a pattern they’ve performed before–which includes struggle and failure.  Some time around the end of March the pattern will look the same as last year: Minimal weight lost.  Resolution forgotten.  (The good news for me is that a lot of these fine folks will enlist my assistance in achieving their goals.  My genuine hope is that I help create new exercise lovers.)  Is there a way to actually realize our once and future fitness goals?  Very likely.

Your Brain Doesn’t Have a New Year’s Resolution

First, why do we fail at these goals in the first place?  A recent article in the Miami Herald, New Year’s resolutions?  Brain can sabotage success discuss the role of the brain in this process.  Essentially the immediate reward often outweighs the long-term results we’re seeking.  Fudge tastes good now.  Getting strong and lean takes weeks.  Put another way: It’s the dopamine stupid.

Dopamine is released during rewarding experiences.  Sex, tasty food, various drugs, fun times all release dopamine.  We tend to form habits around the activities that release dopamine.  These habits and rituals become very hard wired in our brain.  Examples include a smoke after a meal, snacks in front of the TV, junk food at the movie.  Further, we like our dopamine now not later.  Thus that tasty dessert provides the deeply wired payoff we want.  For someone new to exercise or who’s had negative experiences with exercise, there’s not much dopamine to be found at the gym.

Survival, the Brain & Energy Expenditure

Very nearly every feeling, thought, drive and signal in our bodies is there for our survival.  Neurological activity is calorically expensive.  (That is, we use a lot of calories to perform brain functions such as learning new skills.  Exercise and new eating habits are definitely skills).  If we use up too many calories then we’ll die.  Our brain knows all this, and here lies the foundation of thwarted resolutions.

Drastic changes such as those often attempted by Resolutioners makes the brain say, “Whoa!  We need to avoid all this new hard work or we might DIE!”  Plus there’s no dopamine involved in all this new activity–but the stress of all this change makes us seek out our beloved dopamine/fudge/ice cream/onion rings/etc.  The result is we have a really hard time sticking to our big goal.  So how do we proceed?

Threat Modulation for a Successful Resolution

We talk extensively in Z-Health about threats and threat modulation.  We learn that small, incremental changes are far less threatening to our survival instincts than drastic changes.  We tend to stick with small changes better than big changes.  With regard to our fitness resolutions, we have several considerations in this direction.

First we might consider diet and exercise.  These are two different things.  Someone may well be ready to start exercising but not at all ready to make dietary changes or vice versa.  If we try to change both aspects then we will find it tough going.  Therefore we should start making changes where success is most likely to occur.

Second, within either diet or exercise, we should consider what’s ideal versus what’s truly realistic.  If your favorite food is doughnuts for breakfast then yes, giving them up completely is a great idea.  But in reality it likely isn’t happening.  But can we get someone to go from eating doughnuts for breakfast five days a week to only four days a week?  Maybe.  Or can this person go from three doughnuts a day to three doughnuts every other day–and only two doughnuts on the other days?  Sounds reasonable.  These are rather small steps–but they are steps forward.

Similarly, many Resolutioners come into the gym telling themselves and anyone who’ll listen that they’re ready to work extremely hard every day of the week.

“I’m not fooling around this time!  I want to see results–and I want to see them fast!  I’ll do Whatever It Takes!”

Yet typically these folks aren’t undertaking any exercise at all.  So going from no exercise to a superhuman level of exercise is again a threat to our survival with no dopamine payoff.  Great way to sabotage the resolution.  It’s far more realistic for someone to go from no days per week of exercise to two days.  Then a couple of weeks later add another day.

(Oddly enough, a trainer has a powerful tool to employ when someone talks about undertaking unrealistically lofty s actions: We say, “Nope.  Don’t do that.”  They’ll likely start arguing for their own beneficial change.  It works off a phenomenon called the righting reflex.  Think of a parent giving a kid orders.  “Do this.”  “Don’t do that.”  He or she will resist whatever they’re told to do or not do.  Tell someone what they already know such as “You need to start exercising,” and they’ll likely give you reasons why they can’t or won’t. In contrast, tell a someone NOT to exercise too much  and suddenly he or she will start agitating to exercise.  They’ll argue against their own worst habits.)

Tortoise vs. the Hare

So again, in the ideal situation, someone who eats garbage and never exercises should some day eat well and exercise regularly.  In order to get to this new lifestyle though, gradual, non-threatening change is the way to go if we want to achieve our fitness goal at all, much less maintain our new sleek physique.

So we might consider only changing one part of this equation.  We might create a small, very achievable goal such as dedicating one hour, twice a week to exercising with a trainer for four weeks.  If the clieint achieves this goal then they’ve found success and success begets success.  (Very likely they’re already feeling better from this moderate level of exercise and they want to feel even better.)  We might then add one day of exercise and also consider dedicating one day per week to healthy eating. Psychologically, if the client experiences success–even on a small scale–we get that dopamine payoff and suddenly they’ve developed an exercise habit.  We’re now well on the road to realizing our big goal.

Deliberate Action

Fitness goals don’t make themselves happen.  Any number of lofty goals can be achieved but there must be a mindful effort toward these goals.  If our current habits got us into the shape we’re in now, then new actions are required in order to get us into better shape.  Small changes are ideal–but there must be changes!

I typically tell clients that they have many choices throughout the day of what to eat and whether or not to exercise.  At some point they must make at least one healthier decision.  If all they can do is make ONE healthier choice today then they’ve moved forward.  Maybe they make one single better choice every other day.  Great!  This is progress.

Success is a guarantee if healthy new habits replace old unhealthy habits.  The body has no choice but to adapt to the consumption of healthy food and the execution of hard physical work.  Guaranteed.  The changes we want will not happen as fast as we want them to–they never do!–but the New Year’s Resolution can become reality if it’s pursued correctly.