By the way, Lou and Alwyn Cosgrove have a new book in the series, "The New Rules of Lifting for Abs" coming out in January 2011, and after having read an advance copy I can say without hesitation that it is one of the best written, clearly presented, and well researched books on fitness for the general public. In fact I've already stolen some ideas and research out of there for use with my clients. Just don't tell Lou.
So here's Lou:
"Why can't I lose weight?"
Homeostasis is a bitch.
Unless your current weight is an aberration, you’re walking around in an organism that has remodeled itself to be exactly the size you are now. You have muscles and bones that are just the right size to support the load you carry around. You have an appetite that probably isn’t satisfied unless you give it enough food to maintain your weight. If you eat more or less, your metabolism probably adjusts accordingly: it speeds up when you eat more than you need, and slows down when you don’t.
Experts like to say that diets don’t work, but that’s wrong. Eating less always works for as long as you can bear it. Which, admittedly, probably isn’t a very long time. That’s why the best approach includes a combination of three interventions: exercise, diet, and lifestyle modification.
Of course this is obvious: burn more calories than you take in, and you lose weight. But exercise by itself rarely induces significant weight loss. Why not? Mainly because you aren’t burning nearly as many calories as you think.
Let’s say you read in a magazine that someone your size will burn 400 calories with an hour of walking at a brisk pace. You do the math: Since a pound of fat contains 3,500 calories of energy, you figure that you’re just 9 workouts away from losing that pound.
It sounds good, until someone explains the fine print. You might burn 200 calories just going about your normal routine for that hour. So exercising at that pace means a net deficit of 200 calories – half what the magazine promised. Then you consider that you might be less active the rest of the day, simply because you’re tired from the workout. That might cost you another 100 calories.
You can try exercising more, or exercising harder, and those are both good ideas. You’ll improve your health and probably speed up your metabolism a bit. If you’re a complete beginner, you might add some muscle to your lower body, and shed some fat. But you aren’t likely to lose a lot of weight, and the idea that you must always “do more” is both self-limiting and demotivating.
All the magazines will tell you this: Cut 500 calories a day, and you’ll lose a pound of fat a week. They’ll even tell you which “empty” calories to cut. You start with the liquid calories (everything except milk) and snack foods. The women’s magazines in particular will show you an infinite number of ways to modify recipes so you can eat fewer calories at every meal, including dessert. (They love to show you elaborate desserts constructed entirely of fruit and air.)
So you try it. And you’re hungry all the freakin’ time. Why? Because your body isn’t stupid. The calories it’s accustomed to receiving from your meals aren’t “empty.” They provide a combination of energy and building materials. The magazine says you don’t need any of the 240 calories in that 20-ounce bottle of Coke. But if your body is used to having them, it’s going to notice their absence.
One solution would be to replace low-nutrient foods, like Coke or potato chips, with high-nutrient foods like lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. And that’s a legitimate strategy. The protein and fiber will help you feel fuller longer between meals. Protein takes more calories to digest, and will help you add new muscle tissue. And, of course, the micronutrients in fruits and vegetables (and to a lesser extent in protein-rich foods) will benefit your long-term health.
Now the net change in calories isn’t as dramatic, but it’s more sustainable, and it makes more sense to your body. The addition of protein and fiber helps mitigate the hunger you’d feel if you’d slashed calories indiscriminately.
On the downside, this slight but sustainable calorie reduction isn’t causing the pounds to melt away. Even when you combine your new diet with your old exercise program, the needle on the scale still swings past your target weight, even if it stops short of your original weight.
3. Lifestyle modification
Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to follow a completely different routine. Well, no, that’s not right. Lots of people think they can flip a switch and go from being a soft, sedentary office worker to a rock-hard gym rat. But it rarely works that way.
Look at that hour before work that you think you’ll spend in the gym: Are you really prepared to get up and moving an hour earlier than you ever have before? Are you prepared to go to bed at least an hour earlier every night, even though it means missing The Daily Show and whatever art-house fare Cinemax is featuring?
That’s just exercise. Modifying your life to accommodate a clean, low-junk, high-nutrient diet is a lot harder than it looks. Most of us don’t eat or drink in isolation. Certain foods are associated with particular events. You associate that 20-ounce Coke with your mid-afternoon break with your favorite coworkers. Most of the chips and dip you consume are on weekends, watching football games with your buddies. And that 700-calorie “coffee” drink you have every morning – that’s your best opportunity to chat one-on-one with the boss, to get a read on her priorities and how she thinks you and your colleagues are performing.
If you’re going to make serious changes that involve regular exercise and a sustainable diet that’s lower in calories, you have to figure out a way to navigate all of this, and more.
4. The combo special
Your time, energy, patience, and motivation aren’t infinite, so the best way to ensure success in a weight-loss program is to start with your limitations in mind. Here’s what I mean:
Exercise: Over time, you’ll burn more calories in a program with built-in progressions, ensuring that you get some variety while doing more total work in the same amount of time. If your progression plan assumes that you’ll be able to expand your workout time, it probably won’t work. You might start with just 2 hours a week devoted to training, and build up to 3 or 4. That’s realistic. Starting a program with the idea that you’ll have the energy and motivation to train 5 to 6 hours a week isn’t. It might work out that way, but I wouldn’t count on it right out of the gate.
Diet: Whatever modifications you make must fit into the parameters of your life. If you’re a skip-breakfast, grab-lunch-on-the-run, eat-everything-in-sight-for-dinner type, you can’t assume that an inversion of that plan is realistic. Aim for the possible: eating something at breakfast instead of nothing; eating real food for lunch, even if you don’t have the time to linger over it; having a mid-afternoon snack to take the edge off your usual late-day hunger; and then having a substantial but not unlimited dinner. Make sure you’re sated by the end of your dinner, and clear your house of the things you tend to eat by the bucket if you aren’t sated.
But let’s say you’re doing all that and you still aren’t losing weight, or not losing as much as you’d like. That’s when you start looking at the more advanced strategies discussed on our Nutrition and Fat Loss forums: manipulating macronutrients (fewer carbs, more protein), cycling carbohydrates, etc. Most people with a lot of weight to lose will probably need those strategies eventually. And most people who’ve lost weight and kept it off will probably tell you that they work best when you have the three major elements – exercise, diet, lifestyle – under control.