The Biggest Misconception In Nutrition

As long time, raving fans of this newsletter (it’s okay to admit that you have my poster hanging on your bedroom wall) you may have noticed something.

I pretty much never write about reps or sets.

Describing particular exercise techniques doesn’t really appeal to me.

I barely breach the topics of macronutrients, training phases, neurological adaptations or any other training specifics.

Instead, I use these Monday morning love letters as an opportunity to get you to think a bit more about why training should be an important part of your life or why community is everything. You’ve been here. You know the drill.

(Quick shameless plug for “The Weekly 3” which hits your inbox on Thursdays and does dive into the particulars of training, nutrition and mindset. If you are interested in such things I highly recommend it).

But today I want to talk about a fundamental idea that is universally accepted, almost always prescribed yet, in my humble opinion, so misunderstood that I can’t help but spotlight it here.

So please excuse me as I diverge from stories of my childhood or how this one great box jump changed my life to discuss an actual scientific concept.

Calories in. Calories out.

For the uninitiated, calories in/calories out is a nutrition strategy that is beautifully summarized by the name of the strategy itself.

The laws of thermodynamics state that if you ingest more energy that you burn, your body weight will increase. Burn more energy than you ingest, and your body weight will go down.

Ingesting energy almost exclusively comes from eating and drinking. Expending energy can come from involuntary systems (breathing, digesting, circulation) and movement such as exercising, walking around the grocery store, fidgeting or typing on a computer.

Calories in/Calories Out utilizes this law as the strategy. Create an energy imbalance in which you consume more calories than you burn if you want to gain weight or burn more calories than you ingest – via eating less or moving more or some combination of the two – and you will lose weight.

It’s an effective strategy. There is even an entire subreddit called “CICO” dedicated to people who utilize this strategy.

At this point no one in the scientific community really disputes that this concept is true so who am I to argue?

The writer of a mildly popular fitness newsletter, that’s who!!!

Because while I don’t discredit the validity of these scientific mechanisms they do neglect a remarkably important piece of the puzzle.

Behavior.

Specifically, that the foods that you eat will both consciously and subconsciously affect your behavior. And this behavior will make it much more difficult to actually adhere to the calories in, calories out model. And, last I checked, most people are interested in how nutritional strategies acutely affect their health, performance and body composition rather than biological mechanisms and theories behind them.

This may be best explained via an extreme example.

Let’s say your daily caloric expenditure is 1500 calories. You want to lose weight so you are only going to consume 1300 calories per day. Great strategy.

Since all you have to do is make sure you never exceed 1300 calories you portion out exactly 600 calories of Country Time Lemonade and 700 calories of gummy bears.

Besides the reasonable concern that you may develop rickets, this tactic should work. However, you are actually designed (possibly through an evolutionary process, it’s currently unclear) to crave sugar and sugary things. And the more sugar you have, the more you crave.

Almost everyone reading this has probably had that experience. You go in for a small handful of M&Ms and before you know it and seemingly out of your control, you are 3 bags deep.

(SIDE NOTE: “3 Bags Deep” is a great name for a pop-punk band.)

This isn’t only a result of taste (conscious action) but receptors in your gut and intestinal tract will actually signal your brain to desire more sugary things.

They’ve actually done experiments where they have blunted the sweet taste of sugary things and the cravings remained based on how the gut bacteria – not your tongue – reacted.

Salt and fat similarly, although by different mechanisms, are also self-perpetuating foods. The more you eat foods high in salt and fat the more you will crave them.

Again, these cravings go beyond the “this tastes good, I’d enjoy more”. They actually impact your neuroreceptors and hormones. Your desire for these foods will go way beyond the mouth experience of ingesting them. Your body will be sending signals to your brain saying “give me more of this” without you being aware.

As you might imagine, this signaling is not equal in all people. Everyone’s gut microbiome (the amount and type of bacteria in your intestines) is different and is constructed based on your genetics, dietary history and environment.

And this brings me back full circle as to why the quite possibly most accepted law of nutrition does not have a ton of practical application. Because while it is true that if you eat under your caloric demands you will lose weight, if you simply choose those foods based on preference (like gummy bears) it will be nearly impossible for many people to override their internal mechanisms and actually not exceed their caloric demands.

This is simply one of those cases where the science and the practical experience diverge.

If you want to stay under a certain caloric load the types of foods you eat will come into play for many of us.

I will use this as my opportunity to once again show you my ‘before and after” pictures.

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When I was at my heaviest and decided to lose weight I started by making a few small changes (oatmeal instead of Frosted Flakes, two Fig Newtons instead of a pint of ice cream). My diet was so untethered that it wasn’t too challenging to reduce my daily caloric load.

But this only worked for a short period of time and didn’t result in the physique I wanted or the requisite behaviors to get me there. The only way to break the cycle was to change “what” I was eating rather than solely focusing on “how much” I was eating.

Many, many nutritional strategies will work. And, just to clarify, daily caloric load management must be part of that equation. But when it comes to real world application, simply eating less without any regard for what you are eating will not lead to a great or sustainable long term result.

So the next time you are at a party and someone brings up Michael Pollan or Michael Matthews and starts spewing the “all you have to do is eat less and move more” dogma, you can tell them that a meathead who lives in a basement and has dozens (DOZENS!) of fans told you better.