What if “Eat Less, Exercise More” is All a Bunch of Bologna?

Aug 29th, 2011

What if “Eat Less, Exercise More” is All a Bunch of Bologna?

Taubes-On-Dr-Oz.jpg
Taubes on The Dr Oz show
(Check out what’s written on the screen behind them.)

Exercise more and eat less.  It’s the one piece of advice you can always count on at your doctor’s visit.  We’ve all heard it at some time or another.  And not just from our doctors, but from neighbors, friends, mothers, and sisters.  Today, it’s conventional wisdom that in order to lose weight you must keep your calorie intake low AND put in extra time at the gym. Makes sense, right?  Today I’m going to share a completely different take on the weight loss debate. 

A few months ago I read science writer, Gary Taubes’ most recent book Why We Get Fat And What To Do About It. You may remember Taubes for his recent piece in the New York Times entitled "Is Sugar Toxic?" or his highly controversial NYT Magazine article that rocked the low-fat dieter’s world.  Since his 2002 article, Taubes has been on a mission to expose the real culprit of the obesity epidemic and put all this low-fat business to rest.

He spent the next 5 years researching what really makes us fat and in 2007 published, Good Calories, Bad Calories.  It wasn’t long before his followers demanded he write a shorter, more condensed version of this 500 pg-bad-boy, and in 2010 he came out with Why We Get Fat, a more accessible manual for the lay person.  In this book he challenges the archaic calories in, calories out paradigm and brings forth research that calls into question everything we thought we knew about weight loss. 

Here are some basic take-aways from the book:

1.  Your body is not a bank account. 

We’ve all done it. We indulge in some sugary treat and then justify it by saying, "oh well, I’ll just burn it off later".  Unfortunetly, it’s not that simple.  It’s the hormonal effect of eating these foods that’s the problem, not so much the calories that’s in them.

I know most of you have heard me say this a million times, but here I go again…when we eat foods that are high in sugar or high in refined carbohydrates (e.g. pasta, cereal, bread) these foods are rapidly converted into sugar and enter the bloodstream where they cause our blood sugar to sky rocket (this is where the term "sugar-high" comes from).  However, having massive amounts of sugar in the bloodstream can be quite dangerous and the body immediately steps in to bring your blood sugar back down to normal levels.  This is where insulin steps in.  Just the thought of eating that chocolate cake signals your pancreas to release a huge blast of insulin who’s job it is to pull the sugar out of the bloodstream and into your cells.  This is the crucial step.  Sugar and refined carbohydrates, will drive up your blood sugar levels which drive up insulin and cause you to store fat. 

So even though fat has twice the amount of calories per gram than carbohydrates do, it doesn’t cause the fattening insulin spike that sugars do so you don’t really need to worry about your intake. 

I should mention that in an interview Taubes does cautions readers, that even though carbs/sugar are the primary drivers of insulin, this doesn’t necessarily give you a free pass to eat copious amounts of fat and protein.  In other words, it’s about quantity and quality.       

2.  Severe calorie restriction can backfire

When we simply cut back on calories, the body adjusts by down regulating your energy expenditure.  In other words, if you cut your meals in half, your body will get the signal that it needs to slow everything down and conserve energy in order counter balance the loss of energy (food) coming in.  The result is a metabolism that’s moving a snail’s pace and hanging on to every ounce of food it takes in.  Even if you keep your exercise regimen the same, your performance will likely suffer and your body will try to expend less energy while you are at rest making you feel more tired throughout the day.  And finally, severe calorie restriction can have long-lasting and damaging effects to the metabolism resulting in significant and rapid weight gain the instant you return to a "normal" way of eating. So even though you may lose weight initially you’re likely to gain it all back and some.

3.  You can’t cardio your way to weight loss.

This lesson is probably the hardest for people to swallow.  Taubes goes in to a lot of detail discussing the role of exercise in weight regulation.  The message here is twofold. First, doing tons and tons of cardio without adequate recovery may burn a lot of calories but it’s also a great way to jack up your stress hormones.  One of the main jobs of stress hormones like cortisol is to release stored sugar into the bloodstream to help provide your body with the fuel it needs to escape danger.  And we all know how slimming high blood sugar can be, right?  The second reason lots of cardio can hamper weight loss is a no-brainer: it increases our appetite.  Duh?  We’ve all experienced this.  Why do you think there are so many "turkey trots" on Thanksgiving day?  It makes perfect sense.  Think of it this way:  after a hard workout or on a hot day when you’ve worked up a good sweat, you feel thirsty.  This is your body’s way of replacing the water it just lost.  The same thing happens when you work out.  You work up an appetite so you can replenish the energy stores that you’ve just used up on your 10k run.

Why We Get Fat is a book I’d recommend to anyone who would like a primer on how the foods we eat affect our body composition (either favorably or unfavorably).  It would especially be helpful for friends or family members of yours who are sedentary.  That being said, if you’re currently training at CFO and are familiar with the type of eating we recommend, you’re already well on your way to understanding Taubes’s material firsthand.

DISCUSSION 5 Comments

  1. Dylan August 29, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    So will the sugars in fruits have the same effect on your blood sugar as other high sugar foods or refined carbohydrates?

  2. Mike Minium August 29, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Dylan,

    Fruit can have that effect if eaten in a high enough quantity.  Taubes himself writes about how he got fat in the mid-80s or early 90s (can’t remember which period of time off the top of my head) eating a lot of fruit (yes, n=1).

    That being said, if you’re a pretty lean fellow looking to put on some muscle, I wouldn’t worry about fruit too much (but you also need to worry about eating more protein and fat, if that’s the boat you’re in).

    Also, a pretty safe and effective way to manage the fruit situation is to keep most of your fruit intake to post-workout and the hours following a workout.

    Also, a lot of fruit has some fiber content in it that refined carbohydrates do not, which will mitigate some of the blood sugar effects.

    In short, it’s a gray area based on lots of individual factors.  Clear as mud, no doubt. 

  3. Connie Moreno August 29, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    Taubes is not crazy about fruit because of it’s sugar content and the effects it can have on blood sugar. However, some fruit like berries and melon have very little sugar and are loaded with fiber which helps slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream.  Tropical fruits like pineapple, banana and mangoes are much higher in sugar and can really crank up your blood sugar so choose your fruit wisely and don’t over do it.

  4. TomC August 30, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Dylan, your goal should be to go to at least one All-You-Can-Eat buffet every week and eat so much that they ask you to leave.

  5. JP August 30, 2011 at 12:43 am

    My favorite free-market political/economics website, lewrockwell.com, recently linked to Robb Wolf’s blog regarding Real Food Education.

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/93715.html

    It comments on Wolf’s 5-Part Series "Real Food Education." It is basically a big interview with organic farmer, Joel Salatin, who discusses some history and some challenges for the organic food industry. One thing I liked about the interview was how he referred to human action and the unknowable. Not "unknowable" like CF Games "unknown/unknowable" but in the sense of economics. He argues against the point that the organic movement is an "elitist" movement that many people cannot afford.

    Often when economists analyze a certain situation they whip up these complex mathematical models to supposedly determine the choices people will make. From that, public policy decisions are made. And so it is often stated that there is a sector of the economy who will never be able to afford expensive organic food (he uses an arbitrary 20% for sake of discussion). He then correctly points out that if they concentrate on the other 80% of people who could and will consume organics (I recognize that it’s not 80% b/c not all people who could, will. But it doesn’t matter to make his point), it would change everything so dramatically that we could never know what the effect would be on those original 20% of people who would supposedly never consume organics.

    The changes I assume he means would be things like production methods, distribution models, technology, cost, etc… All these things would change with the adoption of organics by the people who can afford it now and who will buy it. All of those changes would then drive down the cost making it more affordable to poorer sectors of society.

    That is a free-market thought process behind bring healthier food to the masses. I think that to try to get public policy behind the organic food movement (other than doing away with farm subsidies, almost all of which go to Big Ag companies, and chilling the f*** out with FDA raids on small farms who produce things like raw milk) would be a very limited approach. The organic food movement has gotten this far with minimal govt backing. It’s all been through education and the spreading of ideas. I think it can go as far as people want it to go in a truly free market.