Myth Busting 101: Fat Loss Edition

 

It’s legitimately shocking how many myths and fallacies are constantly circulating throughout the fitness industry. It seems as though new ones are simply made-up every single day and immediately acquire a cult-like following; as though people hear or read something related to fitness and instantly assume it’s correct.

 

What the F***!? Use your damn deductive reasoning skills, people, and do some research! Don’t just believe the big guy at the gym or the skinny girl at work…odds are they have no clue what they’re talking about.

 

That’s why I decided to start this article series. The original version of this article had 20 and some odd myths which I hear on an almost daily basis, yet never seem to die off. At first I figured 20 myths would be perfect for an article, but I quickly remembered that when I write I get oddly giddy and go into much greater detail than originally planned, which is why this article only covers 3 common fat loss myths.

 

I’d rather provide concrete scientific evidence and legitimate examples so it’s not just me preaching “right and wrong” but is genuinely informational and applicable to your every day life. I also hope you check up on my sources and question my recommendations instead of just taking my word for it….

 

Moving on, this article is another relatively long one so I’m going to shut-up now.

 

Enjoy.

 

Myth #1: Eat small meals every 2-3 hours to stoke the metabolic fire.

 

Each and every time I hear a person vocalize a phrase similar to, “You must eat x number of meals y times per day in order to keep your metabolism in tip-top shape,” I bleed through my eyes.

 

Not to worry; it’s genetic.

 

The long-standing belief that eating numerous (4-6) small meals continuously throughout the day is superior and necessary for ones metabolism to be operating efficiently is perhaps the most commonly believed falsity in regard to fat loss, today.

 

Before I discuss the science, I would first like you to consider this topic from a logical, or evolutionary, point of view.

 

While nowadays finding food may be as simple as laying down the remote control and stumbling into the kitchen (stop complaining you lazy, bum) our ancestors weren’t nearly as fortunate. Not only were they significantly more physically active than their modern day counterparts (yes, I am referring to us), but their supply of food was anything but plentiful, considerably harder to obtain, and they would regularly go through periods of fasting and occasionally famine.

 

Numerous historical accounts recall our ancestors going through distinct periods of under-eating followed by shorter stints of over-eating, which today might be referred to as Intermittent Fasting. During the day our ancestors may have been building their homes, travelling from place to place, fighting their enemies, or hunting for their next meal, while at night they would feast on whatever was caught or available at that point in time.

 

As there was a distinct lack, or nonexistence, of technology and resources, our predecessors were neither focused, worried, nor capable of eating numerous small meals throughout the day. Interestingly, however, they didn’t seem to have much of a “fatness” problem like we do today.

 

Hmmmm….

 

Considering I wrote about this myth extensively in Fact or Fiction? Nutrition Fallacies Part 1: Meal Frequency, I am not going to discuss the science in any great detail. If you want to learn more about the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), Intermittent Fasting (IF), or meal frequency in general, I highly recommend you read that article in it’s entirety.

 

For the purposes of this week’s article, it will suffice to say that in terms of fat loss and body composition, meal frequency simply doesn’t matter. As the authors of the most comprehensive study ever performed on meal frequency concluded, “…there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency. We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation.

 

In other words, as long as ones total daily caloric intake is less than what is necessary to maintain their current body composition, fat loss will occur and the frequency in which he/she eats throughout the day is simply inconsequential.

 

In fact, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) de-bunked this myth, along with the “late night eating causes fat gain” myth on their website in stating: “What you eat, not when, makes the difference. Calories have the same effect on the body no matter when they are consumed.

 

Recommendations:

 

Taking the above into account, which meal frequency do I consider best? 1 massive meal per day, 3 moderate sized meals per day, or perhaps 17 minuscule snacks per day?

 

My answer: Whichever meal frequency allows you (the individual) to see consistent and significant progress in the long-term without negatively affecting other aspects of your life.

 

I know some of you may be looking for a definitive answer as to which meal frequency is optimal for fat loss; unfortunately, I can’t do that. Simply put, how often you eat throughout the day is irrelevant to body composition. Some people may do better with a higher meal frequency (i.e. smaller albeit more frequent meals throughout the day) while others might succeed with a lower meal frequency (i.e. larger albeit fewer meals throughout the day).

 

Experiment with different meal patterns and sizes to see what works best for you. When you find something that works with your schedule, goals, and makes you feel good, odds are you’ve found the best meal frequency for you.

 

Myth #2: Interval training burns more calories and/or is more effective than steady state cardio.

 

Before I begin this section I need to make it abundantly clear that I am not anti-interval training. My clients and I use interval training on a regular basis and I am fully aware that it can provide numerous benefits. My point in writing this section is to educate people and show them why high intensity interval training (HIIT) is not better or more effective than low intensity steady state (LISS) cardiovascular activity for fat loss.

 

Many people fall into the trap of believing harder equates to better, which is one of the reasons why HIIT has become such a popular fad within the fat loss industry. Companies or individuals selling products or services use this mind-set to their advantage by preaching the benefits of HIIT while dismissing LISS as an effective or valid means of fat loss, all the while ignoring the fact that the most successful body builders in the world have used LISS for decades.

 

The most common argument that I’ve heard in favor of HIIT for fat loss is:

HIIT results in a significantly larger energy debt post-workout. In other words, HIIT will supposedly continue to burn more calories for a longer period of time once the workout has been completed. This phenomenon is known as Excessive Post Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC, for short.

 

Keeping in line with the harder equates to better mind-set, it would make sense to believe HIIT burns significantly more calories than LISS. HIIT is extraordinarily difficult, ridiculously taxing, and an overall rather unpleasant experience (unless you’re into gagging, dry heaving, throwing up, or other things of the sort).

 

However, upon closely examining the studies researching the total EPOC for HIIT and LISS respectively, we can begin to see that the “harder equates to better” argument just doesn’t hold water.

 

As this study shows, the total EPOC of a HIIT session adds up to about 13% of the total amount of calories burned during exercise. The same study shows the total EPOC of a LISS session will add up to roughly 7% of the total energy expenditure during exercise. In other words, following a HIIT session a person may burn an additional 13% of the total amount of calories burned during the original bout of exercise, while someone performing LISS will only burn an additional 7% of the tota calories used during exercise. While at first glance this should seem like a no brainer in favor of HIIT, let’s look at this from a practical standpoint:

 

  • Person A: Performs 15 sets of 1 minute intervals with a 1 minute rest in between sprints.

        Total Training Time: 30 Minutes

  • Person B: Performs 60 Minutes of LISS (i.e. brisk walking)

        Total Training Time: 60 Minutes

 

Assuming Person A burns 20 kcal/min during the sprints and 5 kcals/minute during the rest interval, he would burn an average of 12.5 calories per minute and a total of 375 calories during the training session.

Assuming Person B burns an average of 10 kcal/min for the entire 60 minutes, he would burn a total of 600 calories during the exercise session.

 

Now, for EPOC:

Person A:
.13 x 375 = 48 kcals from EPOC
375 + 48 = 423 total kcals burned

 

Person B:
.07 x 600 = 42 kcals from EPOC
600 + 42 = 642 total kcals burned

 

To make understanding this somewhat easier, I’ve created the table below.

 

Person A: HIIT Person B: LISS
Work: 15 x 1 Minute Sprints Work: 60 Minutes Steady State Walking
Rest: 15 x 1 Minute Rest Rest: N/A
Avg. Calorie Burn Per Minute:  12.5 Avg. Calorie Burn Per Minute: 10
Calorie Burn During Exercise: 375 Calorie Burn During Exercise: 600
EPOC: .13 x 375 = 48kcal EPOC: .07 x 600 = 42kcal
Total Calorie Burn: 423 Calories Total Calorie Burn: 642 Calories

 

As you can see, while HIIT may produce a higher percentage of calories burned from the workout specifically, the total energy expenditure (i.e. what’s really important) is greater with a slightly longer time investment in steady state cardio.

 

Additionally, while the percentage of EPOC might be greater in HIIT than LISS, it turns out that EPOC is relatively insignificant in terms of total calories burned. After 30 minutes of HIIT (which by the way is absolutely insane) the total EPOC was only 48 extra calories…awesome.

 

Again, I would like to reiterate I am not anti-HIIT. It has many benefits and can be used for numerous purposes with great success.

 

That being said, during fat loss I tend to promote lower intensity steady state cardio for numerous reasons, including but not limited to:

 

  • EPOC is relatively insignificant and the total calorie burn of a slightly longer time investment is greater with LISS
  • HIIT may negatively impact strength which is the exact opposite of what I want to do during fat loss
  • The strain on the central nervous system (CNS) from HIIT is severe
  • The unnecessary up-regulation of the hormone AMPK, via HIIT, inhibits protein synthesis
  • During fat loss you are already in a caloric deficit and performing HIIT would be worse than rubbing salt in your eyes, especially the further along you get into the fat loss program
  • HIIT has a much greater risk of injury than LISS

 

Recommendations:

 

So what do I recommend? Well, first and foremost I suggest you read my article, Back To The Basics: Creating An Effective Fat Loss Program which details the exact steps I consider most crucial in any fat loss program.

 

However, in terms of cardio on a fat loss program, I recommend brisk walking for roughly 45-60 minutes on the days you aren’t weight training. If you feel great and want to walk on training days as well, that’s perfectly fine, but assuming you’ve appropriately reduced training frequency you should be walking a minimum of 4 days per week, for at least 45-60 minutes per day.

 

Finally, I highly recommend reading Lyle McDonalds State State vs. Interval Training series which can be found here.

 

Myth # 3: Too Many Carbs = Fat Gain.

 

One of the most common myths in the fitness industry today is that carbohydrates (notably processed carbohydrates) are inherently fattening. Personally, I feel badly for those who believe in this myth, not just because it’s utterly false, but mainly because I have a deep and passionate love affair with pretty much every form of carbohydrate and couldn’t imagine abstaining from them simply for fear of gaining fat.

 

I would like to extend a formal apology to all of the gluten-intolerant folks reading this section.

 

Perhaps the reason why this myth exists in the first place is because of the well established fact that eating carbohydrates causes a (sometimes rapid) rise in the hormone insulin.

 

Briefly, insulin is a hormone in your body which regulates the amount of sugar in your blood. Insulin is a potent stimulator of protein synthesis (which is a good thing) and an inhibitor of lipolysis (the breakdown of fat). Needless to say, those looking to lose fat do not like to hear there’s a hormone in their body preventing them from doing so.

 

As carbohydrates have been shown to create a large rise in insulin, (aka an insulin spike) some people have begun to avoid carbohydrates like the plague, under the impression that this rise in insulin will prevent them from losing fat, period.

 

So sad 🙁

 

O.K. so if I admit insulin legitimately does inhibit lypolysis, why would avoiding carbohydrates be more or less pointless?

 

Well, for a couple of reasons:

 

1) In order to gain fat, the bodies time spent in a lipogenic state (creating fat) must exceed the time spent in a lypolitic state (burning fat). In other words, gaining fat is only possible if your body spends more time creating fat than it does burning fat. Makes sense, right?

 

Well, even though insulin certainly does inhibit lipolysis, in healthy individuals it only does so for a couple of hours following a meal. Several hours after the meal has been digested insulin will return to normal and your body will revert back to a lypolitic state.

 

Additionally, if the total number of calories taken in (eaten) is equal to the total  number of calories used within a 24hr period, the net amount of time spent in lipogenic and lipolytic states respectively will be more or less equal.

 

Likewise, if you are in a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than necessary to maintain your current level of body fat) your body will remain in a net lypolytic state and will not create fat regardless of the macro-nutrient composition of your diet.

 

Practically speaking, if you’re in an appropriate caloric deficit you wont gain fat whether you decide to include carbohydrates in your diet or not.

 

2) Protein causes insulin spikes too!

 

In fact, studies clearly show that a higher protein/lower carb meal can result in an equal, and sometimes greater, insulin spike than a lower protein/higher carb meal.

 

Humorously, some low-carb diets, which claim to be successful due to consistently low levels of insulin, also advocate ad libitum (as much as they want) feeding of protein and fat. However, as you know, these low-carb dieters are experiencing insulin spikes of equal, if not greater, quantities as a result of their very high protein intake. The claim that low-carb diets will not cause insulin-spikes, as this article clearly states in the first couple of paragraphs, is scientifically unsupported and utterly false.

 

The major reasons why low-carb diets can be so successful at producing weight loss is because of a rapid loss of water weight combined with a spontaneous reduction in total calorie intake via the complete elimination an entire macro nutrient.

 

While it may seem as though low-carb diets result in weight loss as a direct cause of reduced carbohydrate intake, the weight loss can be more accurately attributed to the reduction in total calories consumed.

 

Recommendations:

 

For healthy individuals looking to lose fat I always recommend a diet largely consisting of whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. In terms of carbohydrates, I generally find a low to moderate amount, depending on the individual, to be an ideal starting point for most people.

 

Granted, I understand “low to moderate” is an extraordinarily general statement and impossible to make much sense of without a definitive example. For now, suffice to say the majority of my fat loss clients place most, if not all, of their starchy carbohydrates (breads, cereals, treats, etc) on training days while reducing, and sometimes eliminating, starchy carbohydrates on rest days. Doing so allows them to enjoy their favorite treats several times throughout the week, which is a huge psychological advantage on a diet, while spontaneously reducing total caloric intake on rest days thereby making fat loss that much easier.

 

For a highly detailed and easy to read source on insulin and how it truly effects us on a day to day basis, I recommend reading James Kriegers’ article series, Insulin: An Undeserved Bad Reputation, which can be found, here.

 

Wrapping Up

 

If you take anything from this article, I hope you’ve begun to understand the importance of doing your own research. Don’t just listen to some schmuck on the internet (i.e. me) or the dude at the gym who has an abnormal amount of veins popping out of his neck.

 

If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear what others have to say on the topics of today’s article. Likewise, if you have any suggestions for future articles feel free to add them in the “comments” section below.

 

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

 

-J






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