“Steve, why is it so dang tough to lose weight?”
This is the question that has consumed my brain for the past decade of running Nerd Fitness.
“Just eat less and move more” is nice in theory…
But it comes across as an insult to people who KNOW this, who try their best, and yet the scale just doesn’t budge.
As a business owner in the health and fitness industry – who also happens to hate the health and fitness industry – I get to see both sides:
- A society full of people desperately trying to do the right thing and feel better about themselves.
- An industry designed to prey on insecurities, make you feel terrible, and take your money. Results? Probably not.
- Companies that try to razzle dazzle you with “exciting, new, and innovative” when “boring, time-tested, old school” is what actually works!
Today, we’re gonna deep dive – Scuba Steve style – into nutrition and why it’s so tough to lose weight, and what you can start to do about it.
WHY THE NUTRITION INDUSTRY MAKES ME SO ANGRY
I took this picture walking around Manhattan last week:
There is some SERIOUS, psychological warfare going on here, and it hurts my soul.
For starters, they advertise as “THE” flat belly tea.
This means there are many other companies selling similar products, which would ALSO lead me to believe this is a lucrative product to sell!
They list every fitness buzzword and term every marketer uses when it comes to selling health and fitness: gluten free, “removes waste,” organic, “burn fat,”
Including some real head scratchers.
“Strengthen your colon?”
How the hell do you strengthen your colon?!
This reminds me of the brilliant Saturday Night Live skit about “Colon Blow” cereal:
People are buying this stuff, even if they know it probably won’t work.
Like buying a lottery ticket even when we know the odds of winning are 0% – what we’re really buying is “hope”:
- Hope that this will actually work – unlike the last 10 attempts.
- Hope we can overcome 20 years of bad choices with a beverage.
- Hope that this product will give us the confidence and self love we deserve.
Don’t get me wrong.
“Hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies.”
I just HATE when hope gets weaponized to sell you expensive snake oil and pretty-packaged fluff.
This is what we are rebelling against here in the NF Rebellion: marketers and companies who are crappy enough to prey on our hopes and fears and sell snake-oil in a bottle.
We’re also rebelling against that voice in our head that talks down to us, calls us failures for not getting in shape yet, and berates us every time we break down and eat a cookie.
I say no more.
Let’s fight fire with fire science.
WHY CAN’T I EXERCISE MY WAY THIN?
There are a few generally accepted truths when it comes to weight loss.
All of these are controversial, vary wildly depending on your weight and body fat percentage, and will differ from person to person.
Setting all of that aside, I’m going to try and keep things simple just to prove my point.
Let’s go with an (understandably) oversimplified look at weight loss: a pound of fat equals around 3,500 calories.
This would mean you’ll need to either eat 3,500 less calories, or burn an extra 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound.
So…how long does it take to burn 3,500 additional calories per week?
Let me answer a question with another question:
…How many hours do you have?
Studies show you’ll burn an extra 100 calories when walking or running a mile.
So, you would need to be running/walking an additional 5 miles per day, 7 days a week, to lose one pound per week.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to run an extra 5 miles a day. Nor do I want to.
Not only that, but as you’ll see below – this idea of just burning an extra 500 calories per day to lose a pound a week only works early on.
You’ll quickly run into speed bumps and roadblocks – figurative ones, try to avoid the real ones on your run – that slow down your progress significantly. Simply put, exercising your way thin has proven time and time again not to work:
- Many people develop increased appetites as a result of exercise, which leads to no weight loss. Time Magazine got in trouble for pointing this out – even though they were right!
- This 2011 study came to the conclusion, “In overweight and obese populations… our results show that isolated aerobic exercise is not an effective weight loss therapy.”
- Another study compared people who dieted vs people who only exercised: “Body weight decreased by 10% in the diet group and by 9% in the diet–exercise group, but did not decrease in the exercise group or the control group.”
What I’m trying to say, and a lesson we try to deeply understand at Nerd Fitness: “you can’t outrun your fork”
…and the bad news isn’t done.
OUR BODIES RUIN EVERYTHING!
When you start to lose weight, your resting metabolism slows down.
You might think this is some sort of evil sorcery worthy of “He Who Must Not Be Named,” but unfortunately – it’s just 2nd grade math.
When you start to lose weight, there is less of you to ‘manage.’
In other words: your metabolism doesn’t have to work as hard to fuel all of your bodily functions, has less weight to carry, and thus it will burn significantly fewer calories compared to when you were much bigger.
Here is the daily resting calorie burn (“sit on your ass all day”) of a 35-year old male nerd at 3 very different weights:
- 300 lbs: 2,600 calories.
- 250 lbs: 2,300 calories.
- 200 lbs: 2,000 calories.
WHAT THIS MEANS: Unless you adjust your calorie intake as your weight decreases… your previous calorie intake amount becomes less and less effective at weight loss, until you hit an equilibrium.
Put a different way: this person could eat 2,300 calories per day and over time, lose 50 pounds (from 300 pounds to 250 pounds), but that’s where he’ll hit equilibrium: calories burned equals calories consumed.
In order for him to lose the next 50 pounds, he’ll need to decrease his caloric intake even more, and then STAY at that calorie consumption to keep the weight off.
In economic terms, this is called “diminishing marginal returns.”
And then it gets even worse!
There are buckets of anecdotal evidence of a bodily feature called “adaptive thermogenesis.”
Which has nothing to do with the band Genesis – though feel free to listen to “Invisible Touch” right now:
It might soften the blow while you learn about “adaptive thermogenesis.”
This term refers to the process in which our bodies will adjust based on how many calories we burn – and do whatever it can to preserve the body fat we have.
Our bodies WANT to maintain the extra body fat we have (“I don’t know when I’ll need this, better save”), and are actively working in unison to preserve it – so even after a few pounds are lost from running, it’s going to be a persistent challenge to keep the weight off.
As pointed out in this article above:
“In long-term studies of weight-reduced children and adults, 80%-90% return to their previous weight percentiles, while studies of those successful at sustained weight loss indicate that the maintenance of a reduced degree of body fatness will probably require a lifetime of meticulous attention to energy intake and expenditure.”
This is why so many people can LOSE weight, but can’t seem to keep the weight off.
- You can’t exercise your way to weight loss.
- Your metabolism slows down when you lose weight.
- Your body will try to keep its fat stores.
- Even when you lose the weight, your body wants to keep the fat it has.
- If you lose weight, you have to keep working on it or you’ll put the weight back on.
This is all terrible, horrible, no good, very bad news.
I know, I know.
However, there is HOPE!
And here at Nerd Fitness – and in the Star Wars universe – rebellions are built on hope.
We have thousands of success stories from people who thought they couldn’t lose weight…until they did.
People HAVE lost weight, and kept it off. People who are older, bigger, have more children, less money, more illnesses, and bigger hardships than you.
It’s a constant battle, but one that’s absolutely worth fighting.
And this means that you are not broken. You don’t have metabolic damage. You are not doomed. Sure, you’re flawed. But so are your heroes .
You might be playing life on “Legendary” difficulty, but people like you have succeeded.
It starts by using all of the tools at our disposal, because the forces working against us are doing the same.
Let’s get nerdy.
SCIENCE IS THE BEST. EMBRACE IT
YES, it would be awesome if you could drink a tea, or wrap yourself in plastic, and it would somehow magically make you lose weight or fat.
YUP, it would be amazing if a 30 minute bootcamp class was enough to still allow you to eat junk food all day every day and not gain a pound.
YEAH, it would be amazing if you could take a magic pill that reversed the past decade of damage you’ve done to your body.
It would also be cool if superheroes were real and I could fly.
Well, not like that.
Come on, Aquaman. People can see you.
We live in a world of science, physics, and thermodynamics.
This means we should ALWAYS look at life through the following lenses:
- Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is PROBABLY the correct one.
- Law of energy: Energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transformed.
- Reality: If it sounds TOO good to be true, it probably is.
Let’s apply this to our waistlines:
If we are overweight…
It’s not because we have “toxins” in our body that need to be flushed out.
It’s not because we didn’t spend enough time in the “fat-burning” zone during our “muscle confusion” bootcamp.
It’s not because we picked the wrong ‘fat burning’ product tea.
These are all pseudoscience buzz terms to sell products, and have no truth to their claims.
Occam’s Razor dictates the simplest solution is PROBABLY the right one.
So what’s the simple explanation to why we’re overweight?
Every day, we consume food that gets transformed into energy.
This food must either:
- Fuel our bodily functions: fuel our organs, regulate our body temperature, etc.
- Pass through as waste: pee and poop.
- Get stored as fat: saved for a rainy day.
If we are overweight, we are consuming too much ‘energy’ every day. Our body doesn’t need all of it, so too much is being stored as fat consistently.
Which brings us to the main point of our nutritional focus:
If weight loss is our goal, we must consume FEWER calories than we burn on a consistent basis.
By doing so, our body HAS no choice but to dip into that “rainy day” fund of fat stores to still get all of its bodily tasks done each day.
Do this consistently, and that’s how we end up with a lower number on the scale and a smaller pants size.
“Steve I know I should eat less. It’s doing it consistently that’s the tough part.
Have you tried CAKE?!”
And yes, cake is awesome.
But we have to start somewhere.
And it starts here: we need to eat fewer calories, but it ALSO has to be sustainable and enjoyable, otherwise we’ll never stick with it.
And temporary changes produce temporary results. We want permanent weight loss!
Just saying “eat less” doesn’t factor the crazy biological, physiological, and/or emotional challenges we face every day:
We might eat when we’re stressed, depressed, or bored.
We can’t eat just one potato chip without eating an entire bag.
We absentmindedly grab a handful of Peanut M&M’s when visiting Kevin in Accounting.
Not only that, but even when we pay attention to what we eat, studies show that we often underestimate our calorie consumption by 30+%.
Crap. This just keeps getting worse!
What’s a smart nerd like you supposed to do in this scenario!?
If we KNOW we overeat without realizing it, and we KNOW restricting calories is tough to stick with long term, then the only path forward is to attack the problem differently.
Not with fit tea.
Nor with body wraps.
Not with “muscle confusion.”
But with science, math, and psychology.
CHOOSE YOUR FOOD WISELY
If weight loss is the goal, we need to shift our food choices to foods that give us more “bang for our buck” – healthy, filling, nutritious foods that fill us up and makes us less likely to overeat calorie-bomb foods.
These foods allow us to feel full, but still keep us under our calorie goal for the day:
- Protein like meat, fish, eggs, and so on.
- Fruit like apples, bananas, berries.
- Vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale.
- Quinoa, legumes, oats, rice, and potatoes (in moderation).
These are foods that take up a lot of space in our stomach and make us feel full.
Compare this to foods that don’t fill us up, but are loaded with calories – thus making it very easy to overeat without realizing it.
- High calorie, easy to overeat foods like bread, fries, pasta.
- Soda and juices and sugary coffee beverages.
- Candy, cookies, crackers, etc.
To really HAMMER this point home…
As we point out in “Can You Burn Fat and Build Muscle at the Same Time?” Here’s what 200 calories look like, thanks to WiseGEEK.
Which ones do you think will make you feel full, and which ones will make you eat more than you realize?
Can you get yourself to stop after 2/3rds of a bagel or a small handful of pasta?
Of course not!
One more example – here’s 200 calories of broccoli:
“Steve, that is an absurd amount of Broccoli.”
Yup. It’s also the SAME number of calories as 2/3rds of a bagel (which doesn’t even include the calories from the cream cheese or butter).
Now, it’s insulting to say “You should eat more broccoli and less bagels. There’s yer problem.”
I’m merely pointing this out to emphasize the difference between energy (calories) and volume.
(Hate broccoli and all vegetables? Read this.)
Depending on what you eat, you could feel “OH SO FULL” after your meal or “Why am I already hungry again? NOM NOM NOM.”
If you can start to make even SMALL changes, substituting nutrient-dense, calorically-light foods like protein, fruit, and veggies, for junk food – even occasionally, it’s going to shift the energy balance back in the right direction.
You’ll become more likely than not to eat fewer calories than you burn, moving you beneath your daily equilibrium.
Do that consistently, and you start to pull from those fat stores.
And we end up the holy grail: sustainable, non-miserable weight loss.
This is actually the secret sauce for ALL popular diets these days.
As we point out in our “Perfect Diet” article, all the popular diets get you to eat more REAL food and less junk food. They just all have their own unique marketing spin to sell cookbooks and podcast episodes
Let’s look at each of these diets in a nutshell:
- Paleo: cut out grains and dairy. Consume only meat, veggies, fruits, and nuts
- Keto: cut out ALL carbs. Consume only meat, veggies, nuts, and fatty sauces.
- Intermittent Fasting: cut out an entire MEAL every day.
- Mediterranean Diet: focus on REAL foods, with whole grains. Cut out processed foods.
- Carnivore Diet: Only eat meat. Remove everything else.
ANY of the diets above will result in weight loss if you strictly follow the rules, but not for the reason you’d think.
It’s not because we’re designed to eat like cave people (though we are), or that our bodies function differently on a Ketogenic Diet (it does), or even that fasting has plenty of health benefits (it does!).
Those things are like 2% of the reason why they work for weight loss. [2% is a statistic I made up to emphasize the smaller importance of any ancillary benefit compared to the bigger picture]
The other 98%: they make us more likely than not to consume fewer calories on average than we usually eat, which will lead to weight loss in the long term… if you can stick with it.
And each diet has rules and guidelines that speak to the specifics of individual people. We have our own 10-level system at Nerd Fitness that we’re proud of – it promotes small changes and gets results in a unique way.
WHICH DIET SHOULD YOU PICK?
In my opinion, you should only follow a strict diet like those above IF you can see yourself sticking with it consistently for the next 10 years.
“Steve, that’s melodramatic. Come on.”
That’s what I was going for.
If a diet sounds too restrictive to stick with permanently, then it’s too restrictive for you to devote weeks or months of your life to!
After all, temporary changes equal temporary results. You’re better off picking a diet that you confidently feel like you can stick with permanently.
Here’s the end goal we’re working towards:
Sustainable weight loss and weight maintenance.
A healthy weight that you can maintain without feeling miserable. Looking in the mirror and being happy with what you see, and knowing that the weight stays off.
And most importantly, our “normal” behavior that allows us to enjoy life but also reach our goals. Not temporary changes. But permanent small adjustments that adjust over time as we start to see results and build momentum.
Let’s get back to basics and start learning about the food we’re putting into our bodies. Cool? Cool.
A PRIMER ON STRENGTH TRAINING
Conservatively speaking, strength training is the greatest thing ever invented in the history of the galaxy.
Okay, so maybe it’s third after electricity and Nintendo.
But I say this to make a point.
There’s a huge difference between “exercise” and strength training when it comes to body composition.
We cover this in a very in-depth manner in our “Can I lose weight and build muscle?” article – which is one giant Harry Potter allegory that you’ll love – but I’ll share the basics right here.
If your goal is consistent, permanent, healthy weight loss and weight management, 80-90% of the battle will be nutrition,
When it comes to exercise, you really only have TWO things to focus on:
- What exercise do you love? Good. Do that.
- Strength train as often as you have time for.
I’ll touch on the first one quickly.
When you do exercise you love, you’re giving your heart and body a good workout. You’re reminding yourself “I am living healthy” and THUS you should be more likely than not to stick with your healthy eating strategy.
Notice I said “exercise you love.” If you hate running, never run a mile again. Hate going to the gym? Never set foot in one. Hate bootcamps? Me too. Don’t do them.
Instead, go rock climbing, or hiking, or do yoga, or swing dancing, or LARPing. Really, anything that gets you off your ass and moving. Cool? Cool.
STRENGTH TRAINING WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Your body functions differently when you strength train, in all of the right ways.
We have a whole Strength Training 101 sequence that can you get you started, but I’ll whet your appetite with the nerdiest metaphor ever below.
You can find study after study after study that shows you the benefits of strength training for weight management when combined with “calorie restriction.”
Let me explain it here quickly, borrowing from Harry Potter:
(You know, the wizard.)
At the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, when each student arrives they put on the “Sorting Hat,” an actual hat that determines which House (group) that child will join for his time at Hogwarts.
The hat acts almost like a traffic director:
“Harry, you will go to Gryffindor! Draco, you will go to Slytherin!”
Your body operates in a VERY similar fashion: every day, it receives new calories (when you eat), and it needs to decide what to do with them!
You eat a large Hawaiian pizza and 20 ounces of Mountain Dew. Your body has to do SOMETHING with all those calories.
To keep things simple, let’s look at the 3 most common results.
It’ll sort those calories into one of three Houses:
A: Burn for Fuel.
B: Rebuild Muscle.
C: Store as Fat.
Your body sorts most of those calories into “Burn for Fuel.” There’s a number of calories your body burns each day just existing: to keep your liver functioning, your heart pumping, your brain operating, and so on – it burns a good chunk of calories just keeping the lights on.
Here are two quick examples:
- A 6’, 34-year old male weighing 250 pounds burns 2,300 calories a day just by existing.
- A 5’5”, 40-year old female weighing 140 pounds burns 1,350 calories a day just by existing.
Now, if you don’t do any exercise, and you consume MORE calories than the rate you burn each day, the “Sorting Hat” in your body needs to put those calories somewhere!
Where do you think it’ll sort them?
“C: Store as Fat.”
However, your body’s sorting behavior changes when you strength train.
Specifically, when you train in a way that really challenges your muscles. This is completely relative to where you are at in your life right now:
- HEAVY weight training might be a 500 lb deadlift or a 5 pound dumbbell curl.
- INTENSE bodyweight training might be a handstand push-up or a knee push-up.
When you strength train – by picking up something heavy – your muscles are “broken down” during the exercise itself, and then they rebuild themselves stronger over the next 24-48 hours.
Guess what happens during those 24-48 hours?
Your body will divert as many calories as possible to “Rebuild Muscle!”
It also diverts additional calories to “Burn as Fuel” to handle this increased “muscle rebuilding” activity.
Which means two amazing things:
- Your metabolism is revved up for this time period, burning more calories than normal.
- Rebuilding muscle is a calorie taxing activity!
There are significantly fewer calories available for “Store as Fat.”
AND IT GETS BETTER.
When you consume fewer calories than your body burns each day, continuing to strength train will cause your body to get even more clever:
Let’s imagine a scenario where you’re eating fewer calories than you burn every day:
- You strength train regularly, and your muscles break down and need to be rebuilt.
- You don’t consume enough calories compared to how many calories your body needs to both rebuild muscle and fuel itself…
- So does your body just shut down?
Your body has been preparing for this, by storing any excess calories over the years in the “Store as Fat” house.
This is the moment your body has been saving up for.
This means your body can pull from “Store as Fat” to make sure all the work still gets done, including your daily functions as a human, and rebuilding the muscle.
This is the trifecta of physical transformation victory:
- You get stronger and keep the muscle you have.
- You burn through the fat you’re trying to get rid of.
- You’re decreasing your body fat percent and keeping your muscle = look good naked.
This would be a “win-win-win” according to Michael Scott, Regional Manager, Dunder Mifflin Scranton.
BACK TO BASICS: SLOW CHANGES FOR THE WIN!
If you’re still reading, then there is hope for you yet.
You can do this – but you have to be smart and diligent about it! Stop trying to exercise your way thin, and stop trying to find ‘get fit quick’ solutions.
Instead, take this one day at a time. We’re here for you!
We talk about proper nutrition in our big “Healthy Eaters” guide, and we go more in-depth into the specific foods that we recommend, but it starts here:
- You have to eat fewer calories than you eat now to lose weight, and do so permanently.
- The best way to do that is to substitute more protein and veggies onto your plate.
- Strength training will supercharge your results, building muscle and burning extra fat.
Understand you’re overeating, and forgive yourself for doing so – most foods have been designed for you to overeat!
YOUR MISSIONS, SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT THEM:
#1) Pledge to stop buying snake oil. If you’re not sure, ask yourself “Does this sound too good to be true?” and “What would Steve do?”
In addition: stop doing exercises you hate just to lose weight. Pick exercises you enjoy, and put all of your focus on slowly adjusting your nutrition instead!
Shun the Dark Side and come back to the Light!
#2) Be deliberate in your decisions. Every calorie counts. Every decision counts. So make ONE different decision as a result of you being more aware of what you put in your body.
Drinking water instead of soda or juice.
Swapping out a salad for fries once per week. It all counts, but make your decision deliberate.
You’re a smart person. You know what foods should be daily staples, and what foods should be occasional treats. It all counts. So make ONE decision differently to prove to yourself that you can change.
#3) Educate yourself on the serving size of ONE food that you eat regularly. Google it. Find out if what you THINK is a serving and what’s actually in a serving is anywhere close to accurate.
You might be surprised to find out:
- A serving of pasta is HALF the size of what you normally eat with your meal.
- How much peanut butter is considered a serving (hint: it ain’t much).
- There are 2.5 servings in that one bottle of Lean Green Machine Naked Juice.
I don’t want you to change the food or the portions yet. I just want you to educate yourself on what you’re eating, and compare it to how much you thought you were eating.
#4) Do a strength training routine! We have 15 free circuit training routines and our Beginner Bodyweight Routine is super popular. We also have a whole Strength 101 article series that gets you from “newbie to barbell” quickly.
While we’re hurtling down this rabbit hole of nutrition, calories, food, and happiness, I’d love you to leave a comment below:
“What is the biggest question you have around nutrition, strength training, and weight loss?”
PS: I know this article covers a LOT, and my hope with it is to inspire, educate, and get you fired up. However, you might still be super overwhelmed and lost. I get it!
If that sounds like you, and you’re looking for professional guidance, custom strength training routines just for your situation, and expert accountability, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program!
Schedule your free call and tell us your story! We’d love to hear from you, and we can decide together if we’re a good fit for each other! Simply click the image below for more details:
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