Friday, November 24, 2006

Another look at supplements

Dealing with even the most basic supplements like multivitamins can be frustrating, because it is difficult to find scientific basis for what you should and shouldn’t be taking. And useful consumer analyses are hard to find, and often disappointingly simplistic when you find them.

This raises the obvious question of if you should even bother with supplements at all. I would say yes, but for most people the list of worthwhile supplements is very short.

Number one at the top of the list is an Omega-3 EPA/DHA supplement, typically in the form of fish oil capsules. The great thing about this is that there is a ton of hard science research on the subject, and it is all overwhelmingly positive for reducing the risk of a wide variety of health issues. A complete rundown of the benefits, recommended doses, and so forth are listed here:

You may also find supplements that are a mix of Omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. While there is nothing wrong with these per se, most diets in the developed world already have plenty of Omega-6 and Omega-9 fatty acids, so supplementing those is probably not going to do much good. In general, you are better off taking a stronger Omega-3 supplement, and letting the others take care of themselves.

Next on the list are multivitamins. Although much more popular than Omega-3 supplements, the science behind them is actually much sketchier. Studies of individual vitamins exist, of course, but they tend to be studies of vitamin X in isolation, and even the most primitive multivitamin product usually has a couple dozen active ingredients. More to the point, as a consumer you need to know the actual efficacy of a specific product, not the theoretical performance of the individual ingredients in isolation.

So should you even bother with taking one? Probably. Most people do not have a sufficiently varied diet to get all of the nutrients their body needs for optimum health. In fact, most people’s diets are bad enough that they are probably outright deficient in some nutrients. Anecdotally, many people find themselves getting sick much less frequently once they start taking a multivitamin. Multivitamins are not a substitute for trying to eat as well as you can, but are a sensible way to try to make up for any inadvertent nutritional gaps in your diet.

The starting point for most people when judging nutritional content is the US Food & Drug Administration’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). This is because vitamin and food labels showing a “% daily value” are using numbers based on the RDA. However, the RDA has some real limitations. The most important one is that it is not an optimal value, but rather a minimum value to prevent short-term malnutrition. RDAs also tend to lag behind current research. For instance, many new nutrients that appear to have major health benefits (such as lycopene) aren’t included in the RDA.

Most over-the-counter multivitamins are going to give you a flat 100% RDA of all the major vitamins and minerals. For most people this is probably fine, although there are some points to consider:

1) Women will want supplements with more folic acid and iron. Folic acid prevents birth defects, and women need 50% more iron than men, on average. Women are also much more prone to iron deficiency anemia than men.

2) Men will want supplements without iron. Men need less iron than women generally, and excess iron intake is associated with health problems in men.

3) As noted, 100% of the RDA is not really an optimum value.

The flipside to the “RDA is not enough” argument is that there is no convenient alternative to it, just a series of arguments over what the optimum amount should be, making it hard to decide what you should and shouldn’t take. So while it is hard to hurt yourself by taking even large doses of most vitamins (only vitamin D and the retinol form of vitamin A have significant toxicity), it is also hard to know if you’re doing yourself much good, either.

So what do I recommend? It depends. Most people probably just want to make sure they don’t have any obvious dietary deficiencies, and so would be well served by simply taking a basic multivitamin like Centrum. Pick your brands based on the ones that pass testing for content & purity and leave it at that (their test result summaries are free, or you can pay a fee to see their complete test write-ups).

For people who want optimal nutrition and are willing to pay for it to the tune of about $38/month, I’d suggest looking into AOR's Ortho-Core.

AOR seems to be alone among the premium multivitamin makers in that it actually makes a credible attempt to back up its formulation scientifically. They don’t include a lot of unproven herbal ingredients, and keep their doses of retinol and D well below the FDA’s tolerable upper intake levels (UL) for safety. It is iron-free, so women will probably want to add a separate iron supplement, but it already contains a good amount of folic acid (more than the RDA, but well below the UL).

You should take the above article with a grain of salt, just like any other manufacturer’s statements, but AOR seems to do a much better job backing its formulation decisions than any other vitamin maker that I know of. In particular, I appreciate the fact that they cite real scientific studies from credible outside sources. If you’re interested in Ortho-Core, the best price I’ve found for it online for US customers is (order 2 bottles and you get free shipping).

I don't have kind of interest in AOR or, incidentally; I'm just a consumer who likes what they have to offer.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Personal trainer pitfalls

To someone getting started with exercise, a personal trainer can be extremely valuable. There is nothing like having an expert provide hands-on advice on the proper way to perform lifts like squats and deadlifts, for instance. However, there are also many pitfalls when hiring a personal trainer.

One is basic competence. Anyone can claim to be a personal trainer. I could claim to be a personal trainer, and probably with better cause than most. But that doesn’t mean you should pay me $50/hour for fitness advice, even if I didn’t give it all away for free here anyway. And even if somebody has a credible-looking certificate on their wall, they could still be a complete dummy.

Another pitfall is that many personal trainers give advice based on what they think their customers want to hear, rather than what their customers actually need to hear. This is like a mechanic choosing what oil filter to put on your car based on how pretty you think it is, rather than how well it filters oil. It makes absolutely no sense.

For instance, a personal trainer would have to be criminally ignorant to not know that exercises with freeweights are much better for almost everyone than machine exercises. This is an objective, quantifiable fact that anyone with a basic understanding of exercise physiology can instantly grasp. So why do so many personal trainers put their customers on machine routines? The answer is simple: the customers like the machine routines better. Machines are modern and pretty and not as threatening as dirty, primitive barbells and dumbbells. The machine produces inferior results for the same amount of effort put into it, but the customer doesn’t know that, so he is predisposed to like the machine, and be happy that his trainer has put him on it..

The problem here is that the customer’s preference is based on their ignorance, which it is the job of the personal trainer to correct, not cater to. If you explain to a rational person that one method produces better results for the same investment in time & effort than the other, they are going to opt for the better method every time. But that explanation requires an effort that most personal trainers seem unwilling to make, and their customers suffer for it.

Another example of this is spot reduction. No personal trainer with half a brain believes that you can make the fat on your gut disappear by doing sit-ups. Yet it seems like many of them are still producing what look suspiciously like spot reduction workouts. They talk about “sculpting” and “toning” their customers’ bodies, even though these are completely meaningless terms that have no relationship to what diet and exercise actually do to the human body.

Why do they do this? Because it is what their customers want to hear and expect to get. It is easier to give someone a garbage routine that aligns with their preconceptions, rather than explain to them why doing something completely different would be much more beneficial for them.

Many personal trainers also seem to completely neglect diet, even though it is virtually impossible to “work off” the consequences of a very bad diet. It is practically impossible to exercise enough to compensate for a bad diet; it would simply take too long to burn off that many calories. But confronting your customers about their diet can be a touchy subject, to say the least, so most trainers simply ignore it.

Paradoxically, another problem of personal trainers is that they often devise routines that resemble medieval torture more than a rational exercise program. Some possible motives include making the most of limited time with the customer, playing to misguided customer expectations of what a “good workout” looks like, or just plain macho idiocy. Regardless of the motive, the result is often destructive, because it leads the customer to conclude that exercise is an inherently painful activity.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Should you be a weightlifter?

“What kind of question is that?” you ask. “Who wants to look like one of those huge, steroid-guzzling freaks?”

If we’re talking about present-day bodybuilders, the answer, of course, is “hardly anybody.” 25 years ago, people thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was inhumanly large and muscular. Since then, professional bodybuilders have taken things to such a bloated extreme of drug and hormone abuse that bodybuilding has essentially self-destructed. Once bodybuilding was a widespread source of fitness inspiration, at least for skinny guys who wanted to remake their bodies into something impressive. Now when people are aware of bodybuilding at all, it is as a negative example – “I don’t want to lift weights and look like one of those monsters!” This is doubly true for women, who react with virtually universal revulsion towards the present-day female bodybuilder’s physique.

But wait: I said “weightlifter,” not “bodybuilder.” People constantly confuse the two, but they are not the same thing at all. Bodybuilders may lift lots of weights, but lifting weights is not bodybuilding. And not all bodybuilding is a substance abuse freak-show. Unfortunately, disgust with modern bodybuilding has turned off untold numbers of people to weightlifting as a form of exercise. Go to any internet discussion forum where fitness topics come up. You will constantly see posts by beginners saying, “I want to tone and sculpt my body so I look like [X famously pretty person], what should I do?” Then someone will suggest lifting weights, only to get the inevitable reply from the beginner: “But I don’t want to get big and bulky!”

Neither did the people you are trying to emulate, and odds are they lifted weights to get that "toned" look you admire.

Let’s look at the word most people use to describe what they want. The term “muscle tone” doesn’t actually mean what most people think it means; it is really a medical term for the continuous and passive partial contraction of the muscles, and isn’t relevant to personal appearance. Most people use “toned” to describe a certain body aesthetic, generally a person of moderate proportions (neither very skinny nor bulky) with visible muscular development and low body fat.

So how do you make yourself look “toned”? It is a combination of things, but a big part of it is…wait for it…lifting weights. In conjunction with a proper diet, lifting weights changes your body composition, increasing the proportion of lean body weight to fat, and thus making you look, you guessed it, “toned.” The difference between getting “toned” from lifting weights, and getting huge from lifting weights is a function diet (bodybuilders eat tons of food) and supplements (legitimate ones as well as drugs and hormones).

The bottom line is, if you don’t eat to get huge, you won’t get huge. It simply isn’t possible for weightlifting to make you big by itself. Size comes from food, not lifting weights; lifting weights just helps determine what whatever size you have is proportionally made of (muscle vs. fat). And in any case, you are probably utterly incapable of looking a modern bodybuilder no matter what you do. You aren't going to accidentally make yourself look like someone who eats twice as much as you and is a walking chemistry experiment just because you both lift weights; that's silly.

Lifting weights to get “toned” instead of big isn’t a matter of deliberately lifting lighter weights or doing a lower effort, wimpy routine, either. Stereotypically “toned” people often lift very hard and with the heaviest weights they can safely handle to get that way. A weak workout won’t keep you from accidentally turning into the Hulk; it will simply do nothing for you at all.

This applies equally to women. Fitness columnist Rachel Cosgrove (pictured to the left) put it succinctly: “So many women comment on how much they'd love to have a body like Madonna or Jennifer Garner or Gabrielle Reece, but most don't do anything to get it! Do you think these women work out with tiny little dumbbells and their bodies look like that by mistake? They train hard!”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Rant #1 - Kill All Diets!

Otherwise smart, reasonable, emotionally stable people will go bat-poop insane and try to live on cabbage and tree bark if you promise that it will make them lose weight fast. Every year there is a new fad diet of the moment, usually several. And even though none of the previous fad diets ever did anything but produce temporary weight loss, inevitably followed by gaining back even more fat than was lost, people keep trying them.

I could sit here and tell you why each of these diets is stupid. This is the approach most fitness experts take whenever someone asks them about the latest miracle weight loss cure they’ve heard about. But in my opinion, this is the wrong way to look at it, because for every diet you refute, some huckster can just make up some new line of bull to use on people to get their money.

The real problem isn’t simply a matter of dishonest people lying about a specific diet doing wonderful things for you. The problem is that the whole idea of going on a diet to lose weight fast is completely, horribly wrong for almost everyone. The entire concept is built to fail.

Rapid weight loss is inherently self-defeating. Fast weight loss requires that you run a massive calorie deficit; there is no other way to accomplish it. This is also known as “starvation.” The human body responds to starvation by slowing down your metabolism, conserving fat as much as it can and breaking down muscle through a process called catabolysis.

Will you lose weight that way? Sure you will. Some of it will even be fat. But the combination of metabolic slowdown and muscle loss means that as soon as you go off your diet, your body is poised to put on fat as rapidly as it possibly can. Hence the virtually inevitable rebound back to being overweight again.

And keep in mind that this is the best-case scenario; some fat diets are so stupid that they don’t even produce short-term weight loss, or are so unhealthy that attempting them will make you ill. But even when they succeed in the short term, long-term failure is built right into them.

Think about the real goal of losing weight, or more properly losing fat. The goal isn’t to get leaner for a short period of time and then get fat again; that would be incredibly stupid. The goal is to be leaner for the rest of your life. Yet these diets are at best only capable of giving you short-term weight loss, and the way they make you lose weight creates the conditions for getting fat again. Most of them don’t even pretend to have a long-term component, when the long term is the whole damn point!

And remember, this isn’t a matter of one fast weight-loss diet being bad. The whole concept of trying to lose weight fast by drastic calorie restriction is wrong-headed. “Dieting” in the sense most people think of it – a drastic diet change to lose weight fast – is simply self-defeating for almost everyone. If you want a long-term result, you need to change your lifestyle for the long term; nothing else can do the job. This applies to everything else in your life, so why wouldn't it apply to your health?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Eat more whole grains!

Most modern diet advice not written by morons advises people to eat more whole grain foods, and less refined grain products. Today I am going to explore why this is sound advice, and not simply a transient fad.

The benefits of eating what refined grain products omit is well-established. All-Bran cereal dates back to 1916, and its main ingredient (bran) is what is thrown away to make white flour. My grandmother added wheat germ to her diet when I was growing up because it made her “more regular.” What that meant was left to the imagination, but we assumed it was good.

Fast forward a few decades, and nothing has really changed, we’ve only accumulated more evidence to support eating whole-grain foods. When you look at the objective evidence, the case for whole grains is overwhelming.

1) More fiber. Whole grain foods have, on average, several times the fiber of refined grain products. Most people consume far less fiber than the recommended daily allowance, and fiber has many scientifically established health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.

2) More vitamins and minerals. Much of the nutritional value of the grain is lost when the bran and germ of the grain are discarded. Depending on the grain, these typically include magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, niacin, vitamin B6, and vitamin E. Quite a laundry list of nutrients to simply throw away, eh?

3) More protein. There is often a substantial difference in the amount of protein in whole grains vs. refined grains, especially the essential amino acid lysine.

Sometimes the refined grains are “enriched” in an attempt to bring them back up into some approximation of the nutritional value they had before they were processed. But they’re still missing the fiber and protein advantage the whole grain started with, along with a large proportion of the other nutrients.

Put simply, whole grains are recommended over refined grains because they are a nutritionally superior food. For those trying to lose weight, they are also generally more filling for a given amount of calories due to the added fiber.

Examples of whole grain foods include:


-Brown and wild rice

-100% whole wheat bread, tortillas and pasta

-Whole grain breakfast cereals such as Cheerios, Grape-Nuts, Nutri-Grain, raisin bran, shredded wheat, Wheaties and various Kashi cereals.


Examples of foods that are NOT whole grain foods include:

-White bread, white flour tortillas, any pasta not labeled 100% whole what

-Processed breakfast cereals (any cereal not labeled “whole grain”)

-White rice

-Hominy & derivatives (e.g. grits)

When in doubt, read the label. If the first ingredient isn’t clearly stated as something like “whole grain X”, it isn’t a whole grain food. Be aware that some brown-colored breads are not whole wheat at all, but what amount to colored white bread. Most whole wheat bread now is clearly labeled “100% whole wheat.”

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why people fail at fitness (and some possible solutions)

Why do people fail to get into shape?

An obvious question, since so many people are out of shape. People giving fitness advice tend to talk a lot about the practical things to do to get into shape, but we don’t talk much about why people fail at it, beyond calling them lazy or ignorant. While there is some truth to that cynical view (some people really are lazy slugs), there are also other reasons that bear discussing.

It is obvious that you’ll fail to get into shape if you never try to get into shape. But why don’t more people try to get into shape? And why do some people try for a while, and then give up? Certainly we can blame ignorance or laziness, to a point. But there is more at work than that, because a lot of people desperately want to stop being fat or weak or sickly, but fail to do so, even though the things they need to do are well understood. Why is that so?

I think the question is worth asking because if you don’t understand why people fail, you are unlikely to help them succeed. So without further ado, on to the list...

Some possible reasons for fitness failure:

1) They believe that getting into shape is so difficult or complicated that they don’t believe they can ever do it. They read about fitness, and the sheer volume of data out there overwhelms them. They see amazing looking people and can’t imagine that they could ever make such a huge change in themselves. Everyone talks about what an ordeal it is and how much willpower it takes, and they can’t picture themselves accomplishing such an Olympian task. It just looks impossible to them, and so they never try.

The key to overcoming this is to realize that this outlook is based on a false premise. Getting into shape isn’t about constant suffering and iron willpower and killing yourself 24/7 to look like a supermodel. It isn’t about some finding some perfect formula or solving some inscrutable fitness mystery. What it is really about is accumulating small, simple, livable changes to your lifestyle over time, and then sticking to them. People who get into shape aren’t killing themselves to stay that way; they’ve just made being healthy part of their routine way of doing things, like mowing the lawn or whatever. And they haven’t found some secret to success that nobody else has; the basics of health and fitness have been well understood for the last 50 years or more.

2) People failed in the past, and so think they have to fail in the future. After a while, they assume that they’re incurable because of some fatal defect in their genes or character. They often tried very hard, and maybe even had short-term success, only to flunk in the end. So they’ve quit trying.

The key to overcoming this is to understand why they failed in the past. Almost all fitness failures are the result of people using self-destructive strategies that have never worked for anybody. Sometimes this is the result of simple ignorance (meaning lack of knowledge, not stupidity), or being duped by one of the innumerable weight loss and fitness scams out there. These self-defeating strategies include:

- Extreme diets, fad diets, super low calorie diets. Some of these can produce impressive short-term weight loss if you follow them. But they all flunk in the long term, because they have no long term. They’re all fundamentally wrong because they miss the whole point of a good diet, which is keeping you from getting fat for the rest of your life.

And not only are they wrong conceptually, they are also wrong physiologically. Massive weight loss in a short period of time is usually produced by what amounts to starvation. The problem with starvation is that your metabolism bottoms out, which causes you to gain weight super-easily once you get off the diet. In that situation your body also tries to conserve any fat it has left and breaks down your muscles instead wherever it can. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what you want to happen.

- Over-exercise. People will just try to jump into doing immense amounts of cardio or weight lifting 7 days a week, and quickly injure themselves or be horribly sore all the time or just burn out. This is not how you work out; you need to follow a sensible workout plan, gradually increase how much exercise you do, and give your body days off to recover.

- Not taking the long view. Sometimes the problem is ultimately one of mindset. Your objective isn’t to hit X weight. If you think that way, you might hit X weight, but then what? You’ll go eat Big Macs every day for a week and flunk again, that’s what. The real objective is to eat right and exercise so you can stay at a healthy weight.

What about genetics? Well, what about them? A tiny minority of people have legitimate, innate limitations that are actually relevant to what they can accomplish with diet and exercise. But the truth is, genetics are a minor factor; most people are so far from their genetically-dictated limits that they are, as a practical matter, totally irrelevant. Can you look like a supermodel? Probably not, but who cares? You sure can look and feel a whole lot better than you are now.

Your excess fat didn’t come from your genes; it came eating more calories than you burned. Believing anything else is an appeal to magic and a stupid, counter-factual excuse. Don’t misunderstand me; your genes may give you a harder time of it generally. But your body doesn’t violate the laws of thermodynamics.

3) Your unhealthy behavior is the symptom of an underlying psychological problem. Becoming fit is largely a function of adopting the proper mindset concerning diet and exercise. So it follows that if you have serious mental or emotional problems, it is unlikely that you will be able to succeed at fitness. I'm not talking about being a crybaby, I'm talking about things like:

-Severe depression, anxiety/panic attacks
-Extreme self-esteem issues like genuinely hating yourself, thinking you don’t deserve to be successful at anything, and so forth
-Habitual binge eating
-Binging followed by forced vomiting/laxative abuse (bulimia)
-Starving yourself (anorexia)

The key to dealing with this is to get the underlying problem under control first, and then worry about diet and exercise. While exercise can act as a natural mood elevator, you are unlikely to succeed if you can barely cope with life or have massive emotional baggage associated with eating. If you fit any of the above criteria, seek professional help, not some guy on the internet.

A quick one on warm-ups & stretching

I. Warm-up

There is overwhelming evidence that doing a warm-up before performing an exercise both increases your performance and reduces your risk of injury. I know of no one in their right mind that does not doing a warm-up before performing strenuous exercise. And I mean literally nobody.

The best form of warm-up is to do a less intense version of the specific exercise you are about to do. This both warms you up generally, and prepares your muscles and joints for the specific range of motion and type of load that you are going to place on them. For weights, before you do each lift do 10-15 reps at 50% of your working weight for the lift, then rest a minute or two before starting your working sets. For cardio, do a few minutes of the exercise at reduced speed and then rest a minute before going all-out.

You can read about the benefits of a warm-up in more detail here:

II. Stretching

Stretching is an interesting topic. The overwhelming conventional wisdom is that stretching is beneficial. But there are people who will go mental if you bring stretching up, because of the lack of hard scientific evidence that it actually works to prevent injury or improve performance. Some advocate dynamic stretching for its supposed performance benefits, while others suggest avoiding it due to the increased risk of injury. And so on.

My take on it is this: stretching promotes flexibility, and flexibility is beneficial. In my personal experience, stretching before prolonged aerobic activities like running will make you feel less awful while you do those activities. Some studies suggest you can run fractionally faster if you don’t stretch first, but most people are concerned with not being in pain while they run, not fractional speed gains.

Conversely, in my experience stretching does little good when lifting weights, and I only do it if my muscles are feeling unusually tight before the workout. This is just to feel more comfortable while working out, not for a specific performance benefit. Note that I do a good specific warm-up (see above) before I lift.

Also, if you get a cramp you will want to gently stretch the cramped muscle. So you will want to know how to stretch the big muscle groups for that reason, if nothing else.

I have linked to a list of major stretches you will probably want to learn.

Lower body:

Quadriceps stretch:

Calf stretch:

Hamstring stretch:

Groin stretch:

Glute stretch:


Abdominal stretch:

Lower back stretch:

Upper body:

Chest stretch:

Lat stretch:

Tricep stretch:

Bicep stretch:

Why weight machines are bad for almost everyone

Newbies are attracted to weight machines like moths to a flame. Machines seem safer and less intimidating than using freeweights, they seem like a more modern way to work out and everybody is using them. Hell, many personal trainers have people do everything on machines. So why am I so down on them?

The bottom line is that weight machines are almost always an inferior way to exercise. You will get less results for the effort you put in from a machine than you will from using freeweights. Much of their supposed safety advantage is an illusion, and in some cases they may actually be more likely to cause an injury. In short, for most people they are a poor choice for resistance training.

To understand why this is so, we need to look at what happens when you pick up something heavy with a compound lift. A few muscle groups (the targets) are doing most of the work in the motion of 2 or more different joints (e.g. knees and hips) as you push or pull the weight. But there are also other muscle groups that provide assistance to the major muscle groups (the synergists), and there are still other groups that are contracting without moving to provide stability (the stabilizers).

By contrast, most machine exercises are isolation movements, which involve only 1 kind of joint (e.g. knees or hips), and thus target fewer muscles, and in turn involve fewer synergists. Furthermore, even those machine exercises with compound movements take almost all stabilization out of the equation, by providing stability for you and restricting the available range of movement. Hence the stabilizers that would be involved in lifting the freeweights are not used in the machine exercise at all.

Why does this matter? For the simple reason that the more motor units that are “recruited” in an exercise, the more that exercise encourages actual muscular development. Furthermore, in real life you need capable synergists and stabilizers to actually lift things and move them around. So freeweights are also much better at producing real, useful strength than machines that don’t accurately simulate the actual effort of lifting something heavy.

This is why exercises like squats and deadlifts are so popular; they don’t simply work your legs, but in some way or another they involve the majority of muscles in your body.

In my personal experience lifting, the difference in results is so large that it is almost absurd. Most people should only use machines if they literally have no other choice.

Diet myths

Listed below are some common diet myths that people seem to regularly fall victim to.

Myth #1 – Eating fat makes you get fat. Cutting fat out of your diet is the end-all and be-all of dieting.

Wrong. Fat you eat doesn’t turn directly into body fat; it doesn’t work that way. You get fat by eating more calories form all sources than your body can use. Extremely low fat diets typically fail miserably, yet for some bizarre reason people kept pushing them for decades.

There is a grain of truth here; people do tend to overeat fats, and because fats have more calories ounce-for-ounce than carbohydrates or proteins, this leads to people eating more calories they can use, and thus to getting fat. But it does not follow that the appropriate solution is to purge all fats from your diet.

Some fats are generally unhealthy, like saturated fats and trans fats, because they tend to raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Almost everyone should eat less of these. But some fats actually have beneficial properties, like monounsaturated fats and essential fatty acids. Consuming moderate amounts of the right kinds of fats is, in fact, extremely healthy.

Can you lose weight on a super-low-fat diet? Sure, it’s possible. But that doesn’t mean that it is a good long-term strategy, or even especially healthy for that matter. It certainly won’t produce more fat loss than a better balanced diet with the same amount of total calories, and it will be a lot harder to succeed at than a diet that makes more sense.

Myth #2 – Carbs are evil. Eating carbs makes you fat.

This is the more modern version of myth #1, brought on by low-carb fad diets getting lots of press. Carbs are not evil. This is an incredibly stupid idea. Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient. Trying to completely eliminate them from your diet is insane and pointless.

Like most things, there is a grain (ha!) of truth to carb-hating. People in the US do generally over-consume carbs. But more significantly, they often consume vastly too many simple sugars (most notably from soda, but also from candy and other man-made sweets). And the rest of their carbs come from nutritionally poor sources like white bread.

Can you lose lots of weight on a very low carb diet? the short term. When people who over-consume nutritionally empty carb sources (i.e., practically every fat person on Earth) suddenly cut all the carbs from their diet, they find it is virtually impossible to replace all those calories with non-carb sources. Low-carb diets also have other effects on the body that can contribute to weight loss. However, their track record of long-term weight loss is just as dismal as other arbitrarily restrictive diets.

The correct answer for most people regarding carbs is to quit eating completely worthless carbs (like the high fructose corn syrup in soda), and replace most of their other carbs with whole grain sources, which are simply much better nutritionally.

Myth #3 – Whole eggs are evil. They’ll make you fat/make your heart explode/eat you soul.

This is nonsense. A whole egg only has 70 calories and great nutritional value. And studies have shown that there is no correlation between eating whole eggs and heart disease, or any other negative effects for that matter. And the yolk has most of the nutritional value of the egg, so cutting it out is just dumb.

For those willing to spend more money, “Omega-3 eggs” (typically from hens fed a better vegetarian diet) are even better, with more vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs.

Myth #4 – Eating fruits is bad.

Where did this crap come from? Fruits have lots of nutrients and fiber and generally aren’t as calorie-dense as their sweetness suggests. Sure, they have some simple sugars, but so what? Simple sugars aren’t evil in modest amounts, they’re evil when you consume incredibly dense concentrations of them in soda and other man-made sweets. And sometimes some simple sugars are a great idea, like right after a workout. So eat a reasonable amount of fresh fruit and don’t worry.

Myth #5 – All deli meats are bad.

I have no idea where this myth came from, but it is nonsense. Read the nutrition label and make up your own mind. Some deli meats are extremely high in calories and saturated fat. Others, like turkey and chicken-based products, often have negligible saturated fat and tons of protein. Many of them are nothing more than a huge piece of chicken or turkey with some water and salt added. How is that going to be magically harmful? It isn’t, of course.

Myth #6 – A vegetarian diet will make you a skinny, pasty weakling.

Not necessarily. Provided you know the pitfalls of a vegetarian diet and work around them, you can be very well-off nutritionally, and get into shape just fine with exercise. Hell, there are vegan bodybuilders who are bigger than 99% of the meat eaters will ever be. Getting lots of good protein is easier if you aren’t a vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done with just a moderate amount of thought & effort.

The problem is that many vegetarians are just as stupid about their food choices as non-vegetarians. Sure, they’re not eating lots of saturated fat from fatty meats. But they’re also ignoring all the other diet guidance that applies to everybody, and not exercising, and then wondering why they look like hell.

Note that I'm not an advocate of vegetarianism. But it can work if done smartly.

Myth #7 – Skipping meals is a good way to lose weight.

Actually, this is exactly backwards. Eating too many meals isn’t the problem; eating too few of them is. When you skip meals, you encourage overeating the next time you eat, because you’ll be extremely hungry, and you’ll think you can get away with overeating because you skipped your last meal. But the net effect of eating fewer meals is almost always that you take in too many calories in the long run. And very big time gaps between meals may also cause your metabolism to slow down, which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen if you are trying to lose weight.

It is much smarter to eat more meals that are smaller than fewer meals that are bigger. You’ll be less hungry throughout the day, and so less likely to overeat at any given meal, and you may gain a small metabolic benefit to boot.

Myth #8 – All red meat is bad.

Untrue. Red meats that are high in fat are bad, because the fats in red meat tend to be high in saturated fat, which should be avoided for the reasons noted earlier. But lean cuts of red meats are actually extremely healthy and nutritious. For those wiling or able to spend more money, grass-fed beef is even better because it is extremely lean and has more Omega-3 fatty acids.

Myth 9 – Nuts are bad for you.

Untrue. Nuts are extremely nutritious. The only thing to be careful of is that they are fairly high in calories for their small size. But if you don’t eat so many that your total calorie intake is too high, they are very good for you.

Myth # 10 – Drastic calorie reduction is a good way to lose weight fast.

Wrong. Many, maybe most, diet failures are based on to trying to lose too much too soon. Outright starvation is a poor weight loss strategy, because your body reacts by trying to conserve fat, break down muscles and burn fewer calories maintaining itself…the exact OPPOSITE of what you want to happen.

Sure, you’ll lose weight eventually…you can’t maintain weight without sufficient calories. But your odds of keeping it off hover around zero, and you’ll be losing muscle instead of fat. Finally, it is extremely unhealthy.

(Some obese people may be put on a medically-supervised very low calorie diet if they need to lose a lot of weight very fast to prevent severe health problems; that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Myth #11 – Genetics determine if you are fat or not.

It is true that your genetics can make it harder to lose fat or gain muscle or attain a certain appearance or level of athletic performance. I’m not going to be beating the latest Olympic sprinting record or pursuing a successful career as a supermodel anytime soon, for instance. And on some level, everyone is unique.

But for most people, this isn’t very meaningful, because they are so far from their genetically-determined fitness limits that it is absurd to even bring up genetics in this context. And the fundamental processes that make our bodies work are virtually identical for everyone. If you’re fat, you’re overeating, plain and simple; your body hasn’t found some magical way to defy the laws of physics.

The truth is that almost all “inherited fatness” is really “learned bad eating habits.” Fat people come from fat families because they learned to eat from their relatives…i.e., fat people.

So if you aren’t suffering from some full-blown disability, you are going to need to find another excuse. You may never look like a runway model or bodybuilder, but that has no bearing on if you can look and feel vastly better than you do now.

A Progressive Approach to Fitness

In this post I’m going to discuss what I call a progressive approach to fitness. Because, hey, I had to call it something.

There is a lot of fitness information out there, including the fitness guide I wrote, which explains what you should do to get into better shape. What gets talked about less is how to implement those changes.

At this point some people are probably thinking, “What the heck does that mean? You just do what you’re supposed to, you sissy!” But this overlooks the obvious: if you’re starting from ground zero, the number of changes you have to make can look overwhelming. Heck, the NEWBIE fitness guide I wrote is 20 pages long. In that context, it is easy to see how someone new to the topic could be overwhelmed and have no idea where to start.

Some people will have no problem simply digesting all of the fitness guidance out there and changing everything in their life all at once. But for most people, this is going to seem like an impossibly difficult prospect, especially if they have no past experience of successfully getting into shape.

With that in mind, I suggest a different approach. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Instead, each week change one thing and stick to it. Each step is a small, livable change that anyone who really cares about getting into shape should be able to do. But if you regularly make small changes and stick to them, pretty soon you have changed everything, but it will seem much easier than doing everything at once.

I’ve listed an example progression to follow below. It assumes that weight loss, better overall health and modest muscle development (not bodybuilding or anything like that) are your goals. The sequence of steps isn’t important. Actually, it is fairly arbitrary. The important thing is to do just one step, stick to it, and then do another, and keep adding steps until you have run out of things to improve.

1) Stop drinking your calories. That mans no soda, no frappuchinos, and no sweetened drinks. Replace all of those with water. Coffee and tea are allowed, but they must start unsweetened, and you can only consume 4 packets of sugar a day. Skim milk is OK.
2) Stop eating fast food. You are only allowed to eat fast food only once a week, and no “super sizes” or meals with gigantic portions (like a double Whopper) are allowed.
3) Weigh yourself and measure yourself with a tape measure once a week to track your progress. The tape measure is a better way to go, but most people fixate on their weight, so at least do it smart and measure it only once a week, and at the same time of day each time.
4) Start the “Couch to 5k” program, or add some other form of cardio. Read the newbie fitness guide for details. Track your progress in writing. Add 2 large glasses of water a day to your diet.
5) Increase the number of times a day you eat. Instead of eating 2-3 big meals, try to break them up so you are eating the same amount of food in 5-6 little meals.
6) Replace at least half of the grains you are eating (white bread, white rice, pasta, cereals) with whole grain versions. They are more filling, more nutritious and have more fiber and protein.
7) Every day take a multivitamin and an Omega-3 EPA/DHA supplement. There is ample scientific evidence that Omega-3 supplementation is highly beneficial, and most peoples' diets are so bad that a multivitamin is good insurance.
8) Start a basic weight lifting program from the newbie fitness guide. Lift 3 times a week on days you don’t do cardio. Track your progress in writing.
9) Add 1 serving of fruit and 1 serving of vegetables to your daily diet. Almost everyone under-eats fruits and vegetables.
10) Replace the meats you eat with leaner cuts or lower-fat alternatives.
11) Replace the dairy products you eat with reduced fat versions such as skim milk, low fat yogurt, reduced fat cheeses, etc.
12) Increase the amount of sleep you are getting. 8+ hours of sleep is ideal, 7 hours is acceptable, but any less is probably going to hurt your progress.
13) Go to a calorie counting site like and just spend a couple of days recording your diet and exercise. See how it all adds up. If you’ve followed the previous 12 steps, you should be sitting pretty. If not, gradually adjust your diet to bring it into line with your goals.

A lot of things to do, but not 20 pages of things, and they’re spread out over three months, which makes them a lot easier to do. This is basically what I did to get myself back into shape after slacking off for a while after leaving the Army 5 years ago. For what it's worth, it worked great for me.

I know none of this is exactly rocket science, but maybe it is a way of looking at things that can be helpful to some people.