I received a great question from Michael Gilmore in the EMLE Facebook forum the other day:
“The harsh reality that whatever your weight you have to eat less to lose it. Why is it so difficult to get this simple message across in your experience?”
It’s a fair point and one I find myself coming back to repeatedly.
That already gives you a clue the answer to the question is considerably more complex than the energy balance equation itself.
I don’t believe there’s one sole reason people struggle with the concept of ‘calories in vs calories out’, I think it’s it’s multifaceted.
Disclaimer: below are a collection of my thoughts and ideas, not definitive absolutes.
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People are bombarded every day with health recommendations. Some will be accurate, the majority will be complete bullshit.
Trying to distinguish between the truth and the lies takes time, it becomes exhausting (especially if you’re not particularly interested in health and fitness).
This often leads to two detrimental lines of thinking:
1. The Ultimate Cynic – to the point where everything is perceived as bollocks – “I don’t believe anything the media says”.
Useful in one way because you don’t get sucked into scams, but unfortunately you miss out on the good stuff too.
2. Recency bias – reading the latest article and taking it as gospel, never sticking to one single approach for too long.
Which brings me on nicely to my second issue…..
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SHINY OBJECT SYNDROME
‘Eat less move more’ – we’ve all heard this multiple times before.
It might be true, but it’s a tired message and people are bored of hearing it.
Compare that to:
***ATTENTION: SECRET FAT MELTING POTION***
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TRANSFORM YOUR BODY IN 4WEEKS!!!
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People like new, exciting, extraordinary claims with the promise of fast results aka MAGIC (J.K. Rowling’s book about the normal kid who went to school and had a pretty average day didn’t do so well).
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PERCEIVED LACK OF RESULTS
A 500kcal daily reduction in calories (3500kcal/wk) should elicit a ~1lb weekly drop on the scales (I’m aware this is imperfect but in this instance, I’m rolling with it).
This is a common recommendation for those wanting a longer-term sustainable approach.
There’s one problem…..1lb a week and the accompanying belief that:
“This diet’s not working, I’m trying really hard and I’ve barely lost 1lb”.
Fad diets have created unrealistic expectations of what real fat loss actually looks like.
Compare the 1lb lost with the 4-5lbs+ you could lose in a week on a juice detox. This is of course predominantly fluid but to the uninformed dieter, it’s amazing progress.
The individual is also unaware they’re only consuming 500-800kcal a day on the aforementioned juice detox. The energy balance equation is still at play, a huge calorie deficit is created, it’s simply not mentioned.
If I do manage to convince someone there’s no detox magic at play and it’s all about calories there awaits a trickier issue…..
…..people are rubbish at tracking calories.
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GENUINE LACK OF RESULTS
Let’s be clear, this is an adherence issue.
The points above are a mixture of facts, postulations, personal and professional experience.
It’s time for some concrete evidence. Something that has been shown in scientific studies repeatedly:
HUMANS ARE TERRIBLE AT ESTIMATING THEIR CALORIE INTAKE AND EXERCISE OUTPUT.
I don’t just mean slightly off, I’m talking 40-50% off! People swear they’re following a strict calorie total:
“I’m only eating 1200kcal and I’m still not losing weight” – if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that…..
The logical leap (in their minds) is that calorie counting doesn’t work. MyFitnessPal is thrown in the pile of other failed diet interventions and it’s onto something new.
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So in answer to the original question re energy balance:
“Why is it so difficult to get this simple message across”
I believe lack of results is the predominant reason people struggle to believe the calories in vs calories out principle.
It’s understandable in many ways. If I carried out a set of instructions to the letter and failed to achieve the desired result, why would I have faith in it?
If I fail multiple times It’d be insanity to keep trying right?
This is the point a lot of people reach with calorie counting and their attempts at manipulating the energy balance equation.
We know the equation itself is indisputable.
The implementation of the equation in the real world is where the problem lies…..
…..and it’s a BIG problem.
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