Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Metabolism = Overrated

I’ve got some bad news from you.

Despite what all the OCE Diets tell you, at a given weight and muscle mass, your metabolism isn’t going to go up, (or down) a whole bunch.

If you are 170 pounds with 150 pounds of lean mass…your resting metabolism is not going to fluctuate more than the equivalent of 100 or 200 calories worth of calorie burning over a 24 hour period.

I’ll admit that it fluctuates throughout the day, depending on your workouts and eating habits and sleeping habits...but when added up over 24 hours the total effect of these fluctuations is VERY SMALL, and it is MINISCULE compared to the fluctuations in the amount of food you eat.
Consider this-

It is very easy to overeat by 2,000 calories during a given day.

It is virtually IMPOSSIBLE to raise your resting metabolic rate by even 1,000 calories above normal…Not with a high protein diet, not with ephedrine, not by adding ten pounds of muscle, not even by experimenting with drugs like Clenbuterol.

This begs the question -if the fluctuations that are possible with metabolic rate are minuscule compared to the fluctuations that occur with calorie intake, then why does ‘metabolism’ get all sorts of attention?

It’s because it sounds mystical, magical, and to a certain extend…down right sexy.

It is great media fodder.

It is a great buzz word.

Put “boost metabolism” in the headline of an article…and it will get read guaranteed.

What do you think would sell more copies of Cosmo -

“3 secrets to losing weight by boosting your metabolism”
“3 secrets to losing weight by eating less”
The truth is, our love affair with our metabolisms is a main cause of obsessive compulsive eating.

The belief that what you eat can DRASTICALLY change your metabolism is not only wrong, but it can derail your weight loss efforts.

The bottom line is if you are counting on the foods you eat to burn your body fat for you, you are going to be very disappointed with the results.

The most important thing you should learn about eating is not how foods affect your metabolism, it’s learning to appreciate the value of simply eating less.


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billy said...

You know what Brad? Thanks for being one of the only voices of reason out there. Your voice in your head tells me it's ok to not obsess over what I'm eating, just to focus on eating whole, natural foods in reasonable amounts. And to enjoy what I'm eating. And that I don't need to devote my entire life to the gym in order to stay in good shape. Anyway, thanks for your daily dose of reality.

mtwheels said...

Brad, Interesting that this post appears today. I think it dispels the article posted today on Cressey's blog. The author was talking about IF negatively affecting you thermogenesis. If you have a chance can you read the article and post your comments either here or better yet over there? Thanks!

Jeff Erno said...

Hey Brad,

Did you read Good Calories, Bad Calories? I am reading that now and there was a portion about a study done on lean people being overfed. As you would expect, some gained weight. What you wouldn't expect is that a large minority did not gain but a pound or two when overfed 2000 calories a day, six days a week. Since there was no or little storage as fat, the energy expenditure (metabolism?) increased in these people. We, at least some of us, have a remarkable capability of balancing our energy both in being less hungry or by "somehow" burning more calories without exercise, etc. Have you seen this? Did I misunderstand what I read(which is possible since my reading comprehensions isn't always the best...)? How would you explain this?

Great post.


Mary said...

Since I have begun the IF lifestyle, I have become more acutely aware of my attitude toward food, and it has dawned on me that I was actually afraid of being hungry, of skipping meals. I really believed something bad would happen. In the past weeks I have been pleasantly surprised to find out I actually feel better by missing meals from time to time, AND that I have lost weight in the process. My metabolism--surprise!--did NOT come to a screeching halt when I began fasting several times a week for 12-20 hour stretches. Plus, when I do eat, I tend to do so mindfully and without guilt. When I think about the 6 small meals a day thing, I realize it's just a bad idea like me, who have a tendency to keep eating once starting, without any real awareness of hunger. Thanks, Brad, for another thoughtful and balanced post.

John said...


The research you are referring to seems to point to Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), in other words fidgiting. It sounds odd but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that fidgiting can account for some of the resitence to weight gain. Basically there are two kinds of people, those who fidget alot and those who dont. they found that people who were resitent to weight gain also fidgeted more. So the more they eat, the more they fidget. I guess the body is finding a way to expend the extra energy instead of store it.

Other factors to be skeptical of is Gary Taubes secondary account of that research...without getting the exact numbers from the researchers themselves or having someone qualified in the field critically evaluate the papers, Taubes could very well be reporting information from poorly designed studies that are simply wrong.

But lets assume it is accurate, you already came up with the most likely answer. They are the minority, there are outliers to every statistical rule. Perhaps 1 of ever 1000 people have a massive thermogenic adaptation and simply will not gain as much weight as everyone else. Maybe they have a slightly higher adaptive thermogenic response, a high non exercise activity thermogenic (NEAT) response as well as some other genetic quirks not yet discovered.

Bottom line is the science in this area is too new to know for sure, othewise there would already be a drug that mimics this state in mass production.

What brad is saying holds true for the MAJORITY. For most people metaboic rate is highly predictable based on lean mass and doesn't change much unless lean mass changes.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Jeff,

You'd have to point me to the page you are talking about. I am familiar with Gary's book, but don't remember the specific reference you are speaking of.

If someone truly eats 2000 more calories than they need to maintain their current weight, they will gain extra body weight.


Brad Pilon said...


Thanks for the link. I contacted Eric, he seems like a nice guy and has invited me to write a rebuttal.


Brad Pilon said...


I'm highly skeptical of the idea that Non exercise induced thermogenesis could account for an extra 2000 calories.

You can't fidget the equivalent of a 20 mile run.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Mary,

Thanks for the great comment.

There are growing group of researchers who beleive that todays "healthy eating style" is actually a form of eating disorder.

You shouldn't be afraid of foods or think hat something bad will happen if you deviate from a certain style of eating.

I'm glad to hear you are having such great success with Eat Stop Eat.


Liz said...

Mind you, life events that create heavy metabolic loads are awesome. I was eating well over 3000 calories during pregnancy and only gained 21 pounds which were all gone by a week after my daughter arrived.

And now, thanks to breastfeeding, I'm still eating around 2000 calories a day and losing a bit more than pound a week--no exercise.

Big change from carefully counting 1500 calories a day and exercising and losing a bit less than a pound a week.

Darren said...

I am curious about a comment you made. "The truth is, our love affair with our metabolisms is a main cause of obsessive compulsive eating." Would love you to elaborate on that, as on the face of it, I am skeptical that it is the MAIN cause of obsessive complusive eating.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Darren,

My point was this it was A main cause, not THE main cause.

However my point is simple..if we are afraid to eat less because we are worried about our metabolism, we are doomed to continue to overeat.

If we eat extra foods because we think they will speed up our metabolism, we are doomed to continue to overeat.

And if we rely on eating styles that don't cut our calories, but simply rely on metabolism boosting foods, then we are doomed to continue to overeat.

So it may not be THE main cause, but I beleive it is A main cause.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brad,

I'd like your take on something that I keep reading alongside the idea of "starvation mode": the belief that eating a large amount in one meal results in fat storage due to the body's inability to metabolize or use the nutrients from more than a certain amount of food at once. I remember reading from ESE or one of your emails that you have found no proof that there is any difference between eating a certain number of calories in one large meal or split into several smaller ones throughout the day (forgive me if I'm misquoting you!).