6 Common Fat Loss Mistakes

body scale with an apple

Mistake 1: losing fat is all about willpower

Obesity was extremely rare before the concept of food calories [1] was ever invented. There’s no evidence to believe our ancestors used willpower to stay lean, even during times of abundant food. Truthfully, what our body does with the food we eat largely depends on its hormonal and metabolic states. Consciously trying to maintain ‘caloric balance’, the official advice given to the obese, fails miserably. This is undeniable in the face of the ever-increasing obesity rates [2]. In the words of the wise Professor Barbara Corky [3]

“If you want to cure something you have to know what’s causing it”

As of yet, the medical and obesity research community do not understand what causes obesity. The best they can do is describe the problem, not explain it. Which is why, for decades now, people with too much fat on their body have been told that their problem stems from ‘eating too much’ and/or ‘not moving enough’. Picture telling someone with a fever that they just need to be ’less warm’ and ‘more cold’ – madness! Nevertheless, obese people have this line of thought parroted to them by doctors.

What’s particularly poisonous about this model of obesity, is the implicit action steps: use ungodly amounts of willpower to simply ‘eat less’ and ‘move more’. Whatever the correct model of obesity turns out to be, it’s crucial to understand that the kinds and quantity of food we eat has a profound effect on our hormones and metabolism. In turn, our hormones and metabolism affect the kinds and quantity of foods we eat. Doubling down on willpower to ‘count calories’ ignores basic biological reality [4].

Mistake 2: trying to eat less instead of better

Eating better boils down to consuming foods that both normalize hunger and fulfill essential requirements for micronutrients [5] and macronutrients (protein and fat). There isn’t only one diet that does this, but diets that do tend to do the following two things

  • release adequate amounts of the hormone insulin
  • contain enough of all essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (protein and fat)

When both criteria are fulfilled people tend to spontaneously eat less, often spacing their meals further apart and stop snacking. In practice, this means eating 2 to 3 meals a day (on average). When it comes down to it, animal foods are the only kind of food that entirely fulfill points 1 and 2 for us humans. However, this isn’t a knock against vegetables, nuts and fruit. These can be fine to include according to one’s individual circumstances and preferences and may even be advisable.

Mistake 3: the wrong priorities

It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, as the expression goes. We all do it at some point or other. For example, some people chose a ketogenic diet to lose excess fat. They may then mistakenly assume that the more ketogenic they are (as measured by ketone meters [6]), the faster they’ll slim down. This is wrong. Although the state of ketosis is fantastic for normalizing appetite [7], the degree of ketosis (secondary goal) shouldn’t be confused with rate of fat loss (primary goal).

You may have noticed my avoidance of the term ‘weight-loss’. I much prefer ‘fat loss’

The reason is simple. Many people have excessive amounts of fat despite their normal weight. A peculiar acronym for this is TOFI, for Thin on the Outside & Fat on the Inside [8]. I bring this up because people understandably confuse the primary goal of losing excess fat with losing weight. Weight-loss as measured with a bathroom scale can be a cheap and effective way to measure fat loss. However it can be misleading because it doesn’t tell you where that weight-loss comes from.

  • Is the weight you lost water? Muscle? Fat?

This is an important point because it’s all too easy to lose weight and not realize that your body fat percentage hasn’t improved or even worsened, despite your weight loss. Basically, you could be losing fat and muscle! This is all too common in people following vegetarians and especially vegan diets deficient in the essential amino acids found in animal foods. Thankfully, a little resistance training and the inclusion of animal foods can mitigate muscle loss.

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Mistake 4: fasting is too hard

For the vast, vast majority of people it’s not. Dr.Fung has fasted hundreds of patients for diabetes and obesity with excellent results [9]. The practice of fasting helps normalize insulin levels, secreted mainly in response to food. Specifically, the carbohydrates in food stimulate insulin the most, second is protein and last by far is fat [10]. Fasting for a few days (or daily intermittent-fasting) is something humans not only evolved to cope with but to benefit from as well. See our take on fasting for more. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb likes to say, things that have stood the test of time are safer bets [11] – fasting is one of them.

Mistake 5: only food matters

Losing fat goes beyond making good choices.

Disrupting sleep is bad for losing excess fat

For instance, take a bunch of mice, divide them into two groups, make the same diet and amount of calories available to them, but mess with the wake/sleep cycle of one group only. The group with messed up sleep will gain more fat mass [12]. Although the exact same experiment hasn’t been reproduced in humans, there’s good evidence humans get fatter when their sleep is disrupted [13]. Another example is the effect of the hormone cortisol. It’s often associated with chronic stress and has been shown to direct fat accumulation to the abdomen (around your belly) [14].

Mistake 6: exercise is great for burning calories and thus losing fat

It’s not true that your cardio; high-intensity training or other forms of exercise will burn your fat calories away [15]. This myth is another incarnation of the the misapplied willpower principle. It’s also torturous. However, exercise does have a role to play in healthy fat loss. A form of exercise broadly defined as resistance training helps you maintain or even pack on muscle mass during a fat loss phase [16]. Remember that in terms of health, improving your body fat percentage to normal levels [17] whilst carrying an appropriate amount of muscle is the primary goal, not weight-loss per se.


Losing excess fat is a matter of biology, not a question of self-control

Good news everyone! You can use that willpower to apply the biology of fat loss rather than waste it on the treadmill.


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