My older brother had a bit of a scare recently. He got some bloodwork back with a clinical diagnosis of “no bueno.” While he has always enjoyed food (and whisky), he’s also stayed pretty active. However, this past year, his kids left the nest, stress has been high at work, and you know, like, globally. As his activity went down, red flags came up. Things like impaired insulin sensitivity, increased LDL, and increased blood pressure. So, we talked about lowering body fat as a general strategy for lowering health risks—and the need for medication. I love that I can help him with this.
In the fitness world, there is a sort of a line in the sand when it comes to losing fat. On one side, there is CICO (calories in vs calories out). Burn more than you consume—and thanks for coming to my TED Talk! The math adds up here and the concept is fundamentally valid. Yet, it is often wanting. On the other side of the divide, we find ideas around food quality, hormones, and stress. Those are real things. Important things. But are still subjugate to the first thing. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you but it turns out that this stuff is kind of complex.
The problem with the CICO model is that it is fundamentally true. That’s a funny thing to say (but not haha funny). What I mean is that creating a caloric deficit is non-negotiable for fat loss. It’s boring ole accounting. However, treating the issue as a math problem doesn’t work for everyone. It’s kind of like traditional theories of economics, which are based on the idea that everyone acts rationally. The market has decided that this is an adorably naïve take.
That’s why diets don’t always have to make sense to work. Let’s say that someone tells you not to eat any brown or beige foods. And the reason is that the human genome abhors bland colour schemes. Well, this is objectively silly. Yet it might work really, really well because it takes many easily-accessible sources of calories off the table. Including ultra-processed foods.
This brings us to the exercise part of CICO. Move more, burn more. It seems simple but it ain’t. Exhibit A is a recent study that showed exercise itself won’t always create the level of caloric burn that people expect. The NYT did a nice breakdown of it—including the data about Tanzanian hunter-gatherers who wind up burning the same number of calories per day as sedentary Westerners. Wait. What?
Let’s think about this from an evolutionary perspective. For most of human history, excess body fat has been kind of a status symbol. Hard to come by. Beautiful. Rare. Certainly up to the 1700s. Before that—and still, for many—your job was to hang onto fat long enough to get you through periods of scarcity. You exist because your genes made it through those periods. All fussing aside, I’m glad you’re here.
We have adapted pretty well to the potential for food scarcity. And one of the ways we do this is to reflexively decrease caloric needs—all without reducing functional output. In other words, hunters are still gonna hunt and gatherers are still gonna gather. However, spontaneous movement—anything from twiddling your thumbs to hop-scotching your way down the street—gets down-regulated. When we burn more somewhere, we move less somewhere else.
Going beyond that prolonged caloric restriction may trigger any number of changes, from cognitive to reproductive health. What works for future generations doesn’t always work for us in the moment. So, let’s thank our ancestors for taking it on the chin.
What do we do with all of this information? Other than shake our fists at the heavens? The main thing is not to overly rely on exercise as a mechanism for burning calories. This isn’t just math; doing so also tends to suck the fun out of things. I’ll also take a moment to mention that most workout calorie tracking is… Wildly optimistic.
So, if it’s not about the burn, what is it about? Focus on skill development, physical expression, strength, and muscular development. That last one isn’t necessarily intuitive but it grows your metabolic engine and gives you more options. And enjoyment. Start with enjoyment. Health is about more than calories in/calories out.
Outside of the gym? Look for opportunities to move and choose an eating framework that takes care of the accounting for you. Just say no to beige.