What Everyone Gets Wrong About Getting Into Shape

Why the Masses Are Wrong

How often have you had a conversation with someone about getting into shape and suddenly everyone has advice to give, like "All you need to do is cut out carbs" or "Just don't eat after 8pm" and even contradicting advice. Whenever the topic of losing fat and getting into shape comes up, everyone is magically an expert in the topic (except barely anyone who spouts this is in shape). 

Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise man is not known by what he says on the house-tops, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may gainsay it. - Balthasar Gracián

I like this quote from the philosopher Balthasar Gracián because he basically says the idea that the masses usually hold common knowledge is incorrect because the truth is kept by the ones who actually know the truth and don't spout it out to the the world. 

The fitness industry as a whole is like a black hole, sucking up money from the masses with clever advertising around "How this one food is killing your fat loss" or "getting shredded by eating this superfood". The industry largely makes it's money from confused individuals who just need honest truth, so is it any wonder why most people genuinely have no idea? 

It's not unreasonable to think why this marketing has been so successful—the message is clear: "It's not your fault, you just didn't have the key to doing this right, all you need to do is to eat X food". It relieves people from their responsibility, it makes them feel better because it wasn't their wrong doing, they just weren't armed with the right ammunition to achieve their goals. However, this quick-fix mentality isn't the right approach. 

Common Mistakes

Juice Cleanses

A juice cleanse is a diet consisting of eating very little to nothing for an entire week and surviving purely on fruity organic smoothies. The aim is to "detoxify" your body, because the bulk of diets today are full of harmful chemicals and completely lacking in high-micronutrient dense food like fruits and vegetables. I'm all for improving overall gut health and ensuring that people are getting enough micronutrient rich food into their diet, but there are a couple of problems with this approach. 

The biggest problem with this approach is that it completely undermines what it actually takes to get healthy. Getting into shape is almost entirely about improving your daily habits and choices to accumulate over time. That beer belly you've been cultivating for the past 5 years isn't going to burn away just by doing a juice cleanse for a week. People these days want instant gratification—"I did this one thing and got the results I wanted immediately". Life isn't like this. Hard things take time, and problems which have built up over years don't suddenly disappear with "this one weird hack that scientists hate".

Cutting Carbs

Next up we've got Deborah from the office (Sorry for any actual Deborah's reading this!). Deborah was browsing Instagram one day on #fitspo, trying to build up some motivation to really start her diet this time. She sees a post of this girl who is her ideal body image and there's an infographic next to it saying "Cut carbs to reveal your 6-pack". This lights a fire under her ass—this is the thing she's been missing for all of these years, this one piece of knowledge that will change her life. She puts it to practice immediately, cutting out everything from pasta to bread. 

Deborah does this for about a week, bringing in tupperware-packed lunches to her workplace because eating-out options with her coworkers are limited. Low and behold, a couple of days later she's 10 to 15 pounds lighter! That's incredible; this is finally starting to pay off! The next week, she's still the same weight, the week after that she's still the same. No change. What's going on? I thought this was the magic trick I needed! 

What happened?

People demonise carbohydrates because eating carbohydrates causes your body to store excess water through glycogen in your muscles. This is commonly why when people start diets, they see an initial drop in weight and then very slow progress, causing them to lose motivation. What happens is that by eating less food you naturally tend to eat less carbohydrates and store less water. The fact of the matter is that carbohydrates are good for you, they are satiating, which means they can fill you up and leave you with less hunger pangs. Cutting out carbs leads to an unsustainable lifestyle.

Deborah gave up in the end and had a huge bowl of pasta on Friday night because she had strong cravings and her bodyweight shot back up to where it started. 

Cutting Dietary Fat

I'm a little guilty of this myself actually. A few years ago, I started to try and lose fat and I thought "I'm fat because I eat dietary fat, I'll just not do that". Oh boy did that suck. 

The rational behind this is that fat is the highest calorie-dense macro nutrient (it has 2.5x times the number of calories per gram versus carbohydrates), and so by cutting this out you can eat more food while still losing fat. 

What I didn't realise is that this was probably the worst thing I ever did for my health. Your body needs dietary fat to regulate hormonal processes, build healthy cells, tissue, boost immunity, and maintain healthy bones and skin. I got ill very quickly, I felt dreadful, and my sex drive plummeted. I had almost no ambition to go out and have fun with my friends. 

The one thing I do want to say about this is that most people today do eat far too much dietary fat. All those burgers, fries, and pastries probably aren't the best thing to eat every single day.

Going Vegetarian / Vegan

Little controversial, but let me preface this by just saying vegetarianism and vegan are most definitely a net positive on your health. You eliminate a lot of the problem-foods plaguing people's diets. 

However, going vegetarian/vegan for the sake of getting in shape is not the answer. I've spoken to many people who want to get into shape and this was their solution. It was a dramatic change to their daily habits and they were clueless going into it and how they were actually going to achieve and sustain this. They just thought it was trendy and that one fitness model on Instagram did it, so surely they had to do it too?

Let me explain why this is a common mistake: Often people jump into these diets without any real plan. They don't do it because of moral or ethical reasons. It follows on from this quick-fix mentality of "I'll just not eat meat or dairy and then I'll achieve the results I've always wanted". The truth here is that it's a systemic problem that you can't solve by making one change.

What the Science Tells Us

If you want to lose weight and get in shape, there is one rule that applies:

"Use more energy than your body takes in." 

Which in English means to be in a calorie deficit—it's really that simple. There have been numerous studies shown time and time again that in order to lose weight, your body has to burn more energy that it takes in (big up to Newton and the Law of Thermodynamics). 

Don't believe me? Still think it's all about eating the "right" foods? 

For 10 weeks Mark Haub undertook an experiment: How much weight could he lose by eating highly processed junk food? His diet consisted primarily of Twinkies and Oreos. Did he lose weight? Yes! He lost 27 pounds! You can check it out here. 

Now this is an absolute extreme-case study but it entirely supports this premise of it doesn't matter what you eat as long as you are in a calorie deficit. And although Mark Haub lost a ton of weight, this diet wasn't nutritious and would not be sustainable long-term. 

What To Do

Find out your maintenance calories

As a baseline, you're going to need to know how much your body burns each day. You can use a calculator to help you figure this out here.

For example, if you are a 6ft Male who weighs around 200lbs (90kg) and you don't exercise very much, this calculator would calculate your maintenance calories to be around 2300 each day.

Eat less than that each day

Take the above example. If you ate that amount of calories, your body would maintain it's weight. If you ate more, you would gain weight. To lose weight, you would need to eat less than that every day. 

I would recommend a 500 kcal deficit as a baseline. So for the 6ft male, he would be aiming to eat 1900 kcal each day. 

Do some exercise

The above example was with little to no exercise taken into account. Exercise burns calories, so by getting out and doing something, your maintenance calories increase. By doing more, your calorie deficit is increased and you will see faster progress as well as getting more active and healthy over the long term. 

I would recommend trying to get at least 10,000 steps each day as a baseline and doing some form of strength training, but I'll get into that in another post. 

So what should I eat?

Whatever you want, as long as you are in a calorie deficit.

This is a really difficult thing to sell. I can't come up with a clever advertisement to sell this concept because it doesn't sell packages of juice, or special pasta, or weird meal replacement shakes.  You don't need to eliminate all of the foods you like to eat, you just need to manage your portion controls and be aware of what you are actually eating. 

There will be another post about how to actually do this on a day-to-day basis coming up soon.