Delighted to rebroadcast the delightful chat I had on Shawn Strickland’s show.
The Slim Is Simple.org Non-Profit Nutrition Education Effort
Shawn: Hello, everyone! This is Coach Strick from CalorieConundrum.com, and I’m here with Jonathan Bailor, the man Jonathan Bailor, the person that actually inspired this entire website, and the author of the book Smarter Science of Slim. His new book is coming out The Calorie Myth. So Jonathan, are you ready to debunk some calorie myths?
Jonathan: I live to debunk calorie myths.
Shawn: You and me both. I think are brothers from a different mother or something because about two years ago, I had no passion or no desire to write a book, but I started working with clients as a personal trainer. And more and more I was finding clients that were telling me they’re eating 900 calories, they’re eating barely any food, and they still couldn’t lose weight. Sounds like, somebody should write a book about this. What they’re doing is not right.
Then, almost two years ago, I found your book The Smarter Science of Slim, and I was like he wrote my book. So I thank you for that because you had to read 1,500 articles and over 10,000 pages of academic research to do it, but you save me a lot of time by doing that. I appreciate it.
Jonathan: That was my goal, because not everyone can spend a decade of having no friends and not sleeping like I did.
Shawn: I was wondering. I was like this guy has to read all these research. But I’m glad you did because this book, The Smarter Science of Slim book, I think should be required reading by anybody within yelling distance of somebody that is thinking about going on a diet. Because it has all the evidence in there and what people should do if they’re trying to lose weight and be healthy.
But, Jonathan, I would like to come at this from a little bit different angle, and I want to ask some questions that people seem to ask when you tell them about this whole calorie myth thing, and when you say calories in, calories out, it’s not the whole story. The first thing a lot of, especially trainers and people that advise people on weight loss, the first thing and one of the most common names they always is the laws of thermodynamic. What about the law of thermodynamics, and how can this be true if there’s this law of thermodynamic? It’s a law. How is this true? How’s the calorie myth true if there’s this thing?
Jonathan: Shawn, let me do two quick things here to best serve your audience. One, I’m going to give you an answer to that question that I’ve actually never given before so hopefully it’s helpful. Also, I just want to really quickly mention to make sure that your readers can debunk these calorie myths, so just really quick, my first book, The Smarter Science of Slim, actually doesn’t exist anymore. You can try to buy it used on Amazon but right now, it’s $177.79. I don’t know why. There’s a black market for it on Amazon. However, December 31st of this year, 2013, Harper Collins is releasing The Calorie Myth which contains all of the science found in The Smarter Science of Slim plus 50,000 brand new words, more science, more studies. Just think of The Smarter Science of Slim as a six-track demo tape. The Calorie Myth, eighteen-track, double discs. So check out CalorieMyth.com.
But so to your thermodynamic question. Before I get into a meat of it, Shawn, the key thing to keep in mind here is that there’s two things because I know your audience is pretty savvy. For something to happen in the body, two conditions need to be met. There needs to be a need, there needs to be a need for the thing to happen, and then the body has to have the ability to respond. Let me give you a specific example. I have a receding hairline. If you look at a picture of me, my hairline is receding rapidly, and I’m not happy about that. So I need to regrow hair. However, my hair follicles do not have the ability to grow anymore. So when we go into a state of caloric deprivation, we conceptually need to burn fat but that doesn’t in it of itself mean that fat will get burnt. That’s a myth. It’s a logical error. Just because the body needs to do something doesn’t mean it can do that. Think about trying to dead-lift a thousand pounds. If you needed to dead-lift thousand pounds, that’s not enough. You have to have the ability to dead-lift a thousand pounds. So the core misunderstanding when people make thermodynamic arguments is as follows. There’s not one law of thermodynamics, there’s four. Two of them had nothing to do with biology; they have to do with defining out some zero. The two that do apply tell us that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms.
Now that thermodynamic law does apply to the area of human wellbeing but not as we’ve been taught. Here’s how that applies. The argument that is traditionally made that you just eluded to, Shawn, is that if you eat less and exercise more, there’s two assumptions that are made at this point of the argument. The first is that if you eat less and exercise more, you will create a caloric deficit. That in it of itself is not a foregone conclusion, and we’ll get to that in the next part of this answer. The second logical error is that if you eat less and exercise more, let’s assume you do create a caloric deficit, then the body has to burn fat because energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms, so if you’re in a state of caloric deficit, your body has to burn fat. Right? Wrong. That is a complete logical fallacy. Because with thermodynamic laws, the two that apply actually prove is that if, and this is a big if, if you are able to create a state of caloric deficit, the applicable laws of thermodynamics prove that your body has to do something. Thermodynamic law does not prove what a biological organism has to do. It just shows that the organism has to do something.
We have to look to biology and endocrinology and neurobiology and gastroenterology to understand what a biological organism needs to do when it’s in a state of energy deficiency, and when we do that we’re in a pretty shocking discovery, and we start to understand why 95.4 percent of people who attempt to starve themselves and lose weight on stair steppers do not have success long-term. The reason for this is, Shawn, when you do get into a state of caloric deficit, if you’re able to get into a state of caloric deficit, the first thing your body does is not burn fat, it slows down. This has been demonstrated in every single clinical study that has ever tested it. You eat less or you start exercising dramatically more, your body, if it enters a state of caloric deficit, tries to conserve calories by slowing down. All of your listeners have experienced this. Just stop eating. The first thing you’ll feel is tired, cold and like you’re in a mental fog because your body has slowed down. So your body has to do something. It doesn’t have to burn body fat. Actually, it makes a lot more sense for your body just to slow down. It would be like if you lost your job. If you lost your job and had no money coming in, you wouldn’t immediately liquidate your 401k. What you would do is stop spending so much money. Right?
Jonathan: It slows down. Just to quickly pause here, Shawn, so first of all, if your body slows down dramatically, and clinical studies have shown that in just a state of caloric deprivation the body can drop its basal metabolic rate among other things up to forty percent, so we’re talking about a very vast slowdown. In it of itself, that right there could mean you’re not in a state of caloric deficit anymore. Because your body slows down 40 percent and you cut your calories 10 percent, you’re not in a state of caloric deficit. In fact, you’re in a state of caloric surplus. So that’s how you can gain weight after actually eating less because now you’re making your body run more efficiently on fewer calories so you have to progressively eat less and less and less, and you can’t keep up, and so you gain weight while eating less which is incredibly frustrating. But let’s say, that doesn’t happen and you starve yourself so well that you are able to create such a caloric deficit that your body slowing down is not enough and your body does need to burn tissue. Shawn, logic tell us, as well as clinical research, that the thing your body is going to burn is that which consumes the most calories. Right? Your body is in a state where it does not have enough calories. So what’s it want to do? Conserve calories. What’s it going to burn off? Ideally, it would burn off your brain, your liver and your heart because those burn off a heck of a lot of calories but it can’t because you’ll die.
Jonathan: Instead it asks what could I burn off. It burn off muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is calorically heavy. Research shows that up to 70 percent of the weight you lose when you just starve yourself that isn’t water weight is coming from muscle tissue. You don’t want to burn off muscle tissue. That is not healthy and it is not helpful long term. In fact, the amount of lean muscle tissue a person has on their body is one of the strongest, independent indicators of longevity and health available. Even more so, the body fat percentage, which is very interesting.
So you eat less, exercise more, your body slows down dramatically. Then, if you’re in a state of caloric deficit, your body burns off muscle tissue. That’s no good. If at that point, you’re still in a state of caloric deficit, you will burn fat but, Shawn, who cares? Because if you wanted to curse somebody to face a life of continuous and permanent struggle with their weight, there’s two things you would do to that person. The first is you drop their base metabolic rate, aka exactly what would happen if you eat less and exercise more, and you’d burn off their muscle tissue. So this is why people don’t have a hard time losing weight. Everyone’s lost weight. The problem is keeping it off. Because the way we’ve been taught to lose weight sets us up for a long-term fat gain, which is the opposite of what we want, because we’ve been given a misinterpretation of the applicable laws of thermodynamics which just contain a logical error, which is that thermodynamic law can speak to biological functions, which it can’t. All thermodynamic law tells us is that if you starve yourself, your body has to do something. It doesn’t tell us what the body has to do, what the body does do. It’s a biological function and that’s slow down, burn muscle tissue, then burn fat. The problem is, if you slow down and burn muscle tissue and you ever stop starving yourself — I don’t mean overeat. I don’t mean being a glutton like the media has us believe 70 percent of the US population is, which is ridiculous. I mean just eat a normal amount of food. You will gain all of the weight you lost back as fat. Why? You have less muscle tissue, and your body is running slower. Don’t starve yourself. It is not healthy.
Shawn: Yeah, I know there’s a lot of people out there that are cold and overweight, and they’re doing exactly what you said. That’s why I found that interesting in your book. You were talking about how the setpoint for these rats changed depending on the quality of the food that they ate. Can you talk about that?
Jonathan: The key thing to keep in mind here is that you elude into this thing that the setpoint, and if folks haven’t read the book, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Calorie Myth at CalorieMythBook.com, because what Shawn eluded to is this is how your body actually works. Your body isn’t a mathematical equation and we understand this. Right? For example, think of any other thing you eat. There’s calories, but there’s also vitamin C, and vitamin A, and vitamin E, and thiamin and riboflavin and phosphorous. You don’t think about those things. Vitamin C is essential to life, but you don’t have to think about how many milligrams of vitamin C am I taking in, and how many am I excreting out in my urine? Could you imagine if you actually had to think about that? That’s not how the body — it can’t be, right?
For example, blood sugar is homeostatically regulated. If you do something to raise your blood sugar, your body and brain does something to bring it back down. If your blood sugar falls, your body and brain does something to bring it back up. We all learned this. The Calorie Myth is fundamentally this concept that energy balance works completely different than every other mission critical system in the body which is, of course, absurd. Every system in the body works to regulate itself.
The problem is when we struggle with overweight, it’s just like struggling with diabetes. Someone with diabetes has not — they’re not like lazy gluttons. Their body, the system in their body that is designed to regulate blood sugar has broken down. Now their body will still attempt to regulate blood sugar, but it does it at in an inappropriate point because there’s been a bunch of hormonal and neurological dysfunction that has been caused by the poor quality of food they had been told to consume. Obesity is the exact same way. So the question is not our bodies want to weigh less, we’re just consuming too many calories. The real issue is that our bodies and brains don’t want to weigh less, regardless of the number of calories we consume, because we’re experiencing an elevated setpoint or what researchers call metabolic and neurological dysregulation, which are the signals and systems in our brain, gut, and hormones, which are designed to regulate our weight at an appropriate level of body fat, have become dysregulated, and they’re not working appropriately. And the way you change that, the way you change the system itself, has nothing to do with quantity of calories. It has to do with quality of food, which makes a lot of sense. Think about any system in the world. If you want to change the way your car is running, putting more or less gasoline in your car will not change the system. It will just — because that’s not what the way it works. Now, if you put premium in your car’s gas tank, the system will run differently. If you put kerosene or lighter fluid in your car’s gas tank, the system will be affected. Human biology, that system, works the same way. It’s about food quality and how that impacts the system and the system’s regulation of weight.
Shawn: Yup, I agree 100 percent. That last question about the setpoint and the rats brings up my next question that people don’t believe all the things you say. One of the things they bring up is those studies were done on rats, and we’re not rats. What do you have to say about that?
Jonathan: Shawn, with respect, individuals can disagree with fact. It’s fine. A lot of people thought that the earth was flat for a really long time and it makes sense to think that the earth is flat. If you look out your window, it looks like the earth is flat but it’s not. It’s unambiguous once you understand the science. The only thing that needs to be proven to show that the body automatically attempts to regulate caloric intake and energy balance is perform a study, restrict calories. If basal metabolic rate decreases and hunger increases, that’s the body trying to regulate calories. Or perform a study where you force people or animals to eat more, and basal metabolic rate increases and appetite decreases. That is the body automatically attempting to regulate inputs and outputs. So this is not a theory; it’s not ambiguous. People just have a misunderstanding of the science. Obviously, the fact that we become full shows that the body has internal control mechanisms for the amount of food we’re consuming. If you need other evidence, look at any other animal on the planet.
Isn’t it interesting that none of them could possibly understand what a calorie was yet are able to avoid obesity and diabetes. Or what about every single person who ever lived prior to the previous three generations who had no concept of a calorie, yet experienced virtually no obesity and no diabetes? If conscious regulation of calories in and calories out was required for human health, how do any of those things work? They don’t. Right? It’s kindergarten logic.
Shawn, it’s true to say well, Jonathan, if you eat less and exercise more you’ll lose weight. That’s true. Of course, that’s true. If you cut off your leg, you’ll lose weight, too. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do. The goal is not short-term weight loss. There’s all kinds of ways you could lose weight in the short term. If you take a bunch of cocaine, you’ll lose weight in the short term, but you’ll kill yourself. So the question is not can you lose weight in the short term by starving yourself. Of course, you can. Try NBC’s The Biggest Loser, there’s plenty of evidence. The question is, is it the best way to boost health and burn fat long term. Absolutely not. It fights against the body and its systems, whereas when you manipulate food and exercise quality, you work with the body’s existing systems.
Shawn: Yeah, man, I wish I have you for longer because I got a lot of other questions but the one question I really want your opinion on is, why do you believe people are so resistant to admitting that a calorie is not a calorie or what you say is true? People seem so resistant and want to fight it so much. Why do you think that so?
Jonathan: That’s a hard one, Shawn. I think it’s a couple of things. One is, it makes sense intuitively that if you eat less and exercise more you’ll lose weight because it’s true. That’s what we just said. Right? If you eat less and exercise more, you’ll lose weight. That is true. If you turn on television, you watch shows, you’ll see it. If someone asked me Jonathan, your job is to go on television and take someone who weighs 400 pounds and get them to 200 pounds as quickly as you can with no respect for their long-term health or the practicality of what you put them through or their ability to maintain that weight long term. Yes, of course. You just take the person, starve them, and have them exercise excessively. That is the quickest way because they’re going to burn a bunch of muscle. They’re also going to burn some fat. They’re going to shed a bunch of water weight. Their bodies are going to cannibalize themselves. If you were to say to me Jonathan, I’ve got a bunch of weeds in my garden, and I have 30 seconds to get all of those weeds dead. I want all the weeds in my garden dead. We would just take a bunch of gasoline and pour it all over your garden and it would kill all the weeds instantly. Unfortunately, it would kill everything in your garden. So the short-term quick fix answer is eat less, exercise more. But look around, it’s obviously not working, and look in the science, it’s not working, it doesn’t work long-term.
So the fundamental disconnect, Shawn, is actually quite simple. We’ve been conditioned as a culture to look short term. Like what is the stock price doing today? What have you done for me recently? Five-minute abs, 8-minute abs. Do this tomorrow. If your goal is to drop ten pounds in one week, there’s no secret to that. Ask any bodybuilder, boxer, anyone who has to make weight. You do all kinds of unhealthy garbage to lose weight quickly. But if your goal is optimal health and long-term fat loss, you have to take a longer term approach, but that’s something that is a bit difficult in the modern era of tweets and such. We want the short-term, quick fix so I think that’s the difficulty.
Shawn, just to be very crisp, it’s actually not that one is right and one is wrong. Eat less, exercise more is the best approach for short-term weight loss. Eat more, exercise less, but smarter, aka higher quality food, higher quality exercise, is the right answer for long-term fat loss and health. So it’s not that one is right and one is wrong, it’s that there’s two different approaches for two different goals. Does that make sense?
Shawn: Yes. So if you want long-term results you’ve got to do what you’re saying, and if you want short-term and end up gaining more weight than you weighed before, you use the eat less, exercise more model.
Jonathan: And, Shawn, here’s the bottom line that I think will really help your listeners. If you can eat a thousand calories a day for the rest of your life, you will obviously maintain a lower weight. The question is not is that — of course that’s true. The question is, why in God’s name do we now have a — Who’s going to eat a thousand calories for the rest of their life? That doesn’t make any sense. You might be able to do it for 21 days, but you can’t do it for 21 years. And as soon as you stop, what’s going to happen? It’s not a question of can it work. Of course, it can work but does that mean we should do it? Well, no.
Shawn: That’s exactly the reason why I started this website because I know you had experiences with this as well, but at one time I was eating 5,000 calories. I ate 5,000 calories for a week. I ate all the food in my house and didn’t gain any weight. And I know you had experiences with eating 6,000 calories, and you’re not gaining weight, so that’s where I’m coming from. Why would you want to eat a thousand calories when you can eat so much more? Most people that are dieting could probably eat twice as much as they’re eating and still lose weight in the long term if they’re eating the right food and doing the right thing.
Jonathan, I appreciate you coming on here, and if my listeners want to get a hold of you, how would we find more about you?
Jonathan: The best way is to go to CalorieMythBook.com. Again, that’s CalorieMythBook.com. You can grab a copy of the book, you can also sign up for a bunch of awesome free resources, and you can check out our radio show which is on ITunes and Stitcher and YouTube and basically, anywhere radio shows are available online.
Shawn: I definitely recommend picking up the book. I had the book ordered before it had a cover on Amazon. I can’t wait to get that. There’s so much more but I think we covered quite a bit in a short time so I appreciate that and thank you very much.
Jonathan: Awesome. Thank you so much, Shawn. It’s a pleasure.