Why the Fitness Industry is Wrong About Fat Loss

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all read it “energy in – energy out = weight loss or gain”. Every single piece of fat loss and muscle building advice you read comes back to this simple equation. It’s perfectly valid and humans are as subject to the laws of thermodynamics as anything else in the universe.   Physics is not just a good idea, it’s the law. So to argue against the truth of the ‘energy balance equation’ is to argue against the nature of the Universe. But however you position your argument, in the real world, this formula never works. Why? Well ‘energy in (A)’ – ‘energy out (B)’ = ‘weight loss or gain (C)’ is algebraically true but we assume they are controlled variables (where something is constant and unchanging). Really, to calculate the true value of these variables is near impossible, making this method to predict entirely redundant. A study done by Schoeller (2009) from the International Life Sciences Institute agreed and proved how utterly useless this equation is. Many of the prospective applications of the energy balance equation are over-simplified and often the wrong way to think about fat loss and weight gain. In a prospective application of a true energy balance equation, one should not consider energy intake or energy expenditure as independent variables, but instead consider interventions that influence fat loss and energy balance.

In a prospective application of a true energy balance equation, one should not consider energy intake or energy expenditure as independent variables, but instead consider interventions that influence fat loss and energy balance.

So for my overweight client or for people wanting to lose fat I do not simply look for interventions that can alter energy intake or energy expenditure, but rather for interventions that can alter body fat. I typically feed them more calories than they were eating before. A LOT MORE. I prescribe energy balanced, nutrient dense, high calorie diets that ensure maximum training output with only 2-4 workouts per week and zero cardio. And generally, the more quality nutrition that I feed them, the more weight they lose; all from fat! How is this possible? The principle behind a consideration of energy balance rather than energy intake has been illustrated by several studies. Some research has demonstrated that nuts have multiple effects on energy absorption, energy consumption, and possibly even energy expenditure, and more importantly, they have been shown to result in negative energy balance and weight loss when included as part of a healthy diet. A second example is the use of the supplement CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). This supplement is usually taken in the form of 4g of triglyceride. From a purely prospective point of view, adding capsules containing 36 kcal of oil to an energy balanced diet would appear to be prescription for weight gain. CLA supplementation, however, was shown to increase fat oxidation and result in modest weight loss (see study).

The final reason I’ll bring up about why this equation doesn’t work, and probably the most important reason is that we’re an adaptive organism. We are not machines. We don’t burn a fixed quantity of fuel. Our body changes how much fuel it uses depending on the quantity and quality of fuel provided; as well as countless other factors. Our metabolism responds and adapts to negative caloric intake- that is, a caloric intake which is less than what is required to sustain body weight. This response is known by many as the starvation response, as it is made up of a set of adaptive biochemical and physiological changes that reduce metabolism in response to a lack of food or nutrients. An extreme example would be a competitor who has just completed a figure or bikini competition, where the individual has starved themselves for so long that they go into a famine-like response causing a dysfunction in the metabolism, nervous system, endocrine (hormone) system, immune system and many others. This is the body’s fighting response to keep us alive despite all the dumb things we do.

If you feed your body a leaf of lettuce per day and tell it to run for 6 hours per day, it will adjust to become able to do that or it will fall over dead. That adaptation might involve losing weight, at first. Or it might not. Either way, the body’s response will efficiently adapt to the stimulus. It will never be a predictable, linear, mechanical response. The smart thing then would be to exploit the adaptive nature of your body positively. Rather than trying to “waste away the body you hate” by starving and overtraining, work instead to “build the body you want”. Looking strong/‘athletic’ and healthy is a function of being strong/‘athletic’ and healthy! That means high-quality nutrition and progressive strength exercise. Not starving on a treadmill!