When it comes to diet and exercise, basic mistakes are often attributable to someone’s lack of progress. So if you’re stuck in a rut or not enjoying the progress you once did, chances are you are failing to follow one or more of these important principles.
Tell someone you want to lose weight and the first thing you’ll likely hear out of their mouth is “cut out carbs”. Other’s will tell you to reduce fats, eliminate bread, increase vegetable intake. And they are all right; and they are all wrong.
The trouble is, the average person changes a lot things on their journey to finding what works, and the reality is that they seldom know what led them to success. Worse still, they’ll make assumptions about what worked and then doggedly double-down on that approach out of fear of stalling. And that, sadly, is often the start of a nose-dive into something that is neither sustainable, nor good for your mental and physical health.
Mechanisms not methods
Take weight-loss, for example. There are a great many variables that go into the process of losing weight, and almost endless methods to achieve the desired outcome. But there is only a single mechanism of weight loss and that’s negative energy balance.
So what do I mean by mechanism?
Well the dictionary definition is actually pretty useful here:
mechanism: a natural or established process by which something takes place or is brought about.
In terms of weight loss, that’s negative energy balance. The mechanism for fat loss is also negative energy balance, there are just more variables at play. There’s also a number of specific methods or protocols that can increase lean muscle retention during extended periods of caloric deficit.
However, the methods for weight loss are numerous, mostly rooted in diet and exercise, and every one of them can and does work.
On the diet side you have:
Veganism, low carb, Atkins/Keto, Paleo, low fat, juicing, intermittent fasting, not eating after 8pm, skipping breakfast and cutting <insert any foods here> from your diet.
And for exercise:
Running, walking, swimming, kettlebells, resistance training, cross fit, “cardio”, intervals, HiiT, circuit training, climbing etc.
And I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I think you get the point.
So if Hanna has great success losing 10lbs by practicing intermittent fasting, reducing carbs and stopping eating after 8pm, she’ll strongly suggest you follow these same protocols as their absence from your approach obviously explains why you are not losing weight.
Likewise, if Brad has reached his best condition yet by moving to a standing desk at work and adding three weekly HiiT sessions a week, he’ll naturally expound the benefits of each, pointing you to the desk he purchased on Amazon and his shiny new Tabata app on his iPhone.
The trouble is, when Hanna stops losing weight, what does she do? Well, given “low carb” has been working for her, she’ll likely assume she needs to reduce carbs further and progressively exclude them from her diet. Or perhaps she’ll assume the intermittent fasting is no longer working and revert back to a more traditional three-square meals.
Correlation vs causation
Either way, this is why focusing on methods versus mechanisms can be a significant distraction, especially as it often leads to fundamental misunderstandings about what is and isn’t working.
This is where we talk about correlation vs causation.
First, let’s jump back to the dictionary real quick:
correlation: a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things.
causation: the relationship between cause and effect; causality.
To highlight this phenomenon in action, I’ll share a conversation I had with a woman online just a couple of days ago. We’ll call her Becky.
Becky was involved in a conversation on social media about carbs, and how not to consider all carbs the same, nor consider them evil. However, Becky was countering with her own evidence that reducing carbs had been instrumental to her recent success in losing weight.
This is assuming a position position of causality, i.e. the assertion that reducing carbs is necessary for weight loss.
Given there is only one fundamental mechanism of weight loss, I suggested to Becky to consider that by reducing her consumption of carbs, she had in fact reduced her energy intake, and thus established a negative energy balance. As such, her reduction in carbs was merely a correlation (i.e. connected) to her weight loss, not the cause.
However, she was not buying what I was selling. Instead, she went on to describe the myriad of ways in which she had improved her relationship with food, cleaned up her eating and set strict limits on carbohydrate consumption at 30g per meal.
From my seat, the more she said, the clearer it became that she had indeed employed a great many methods to realize her goal of weight loss.
Alas, she would not concede that reducing carbs was a personal preference, and not a necessity for weight loss.
Behaviors not outcomes
Staying with Becky for a moment longer, let’s consider that last sentence: that reducing carbs was a personal preference, not a necessity.
Why do so many people cut out carbs whenever they want to expedite weight loss?
Primarily, because it works!
There are two key reasons why cutting carbs works for a lot of people, with one rooted in physiology and the other in behaviors.
From a physiological stand-point, unless you are already pretty lean and thus likely to have good insulin sensitivity, carbs can be a challenge for a lot of people. The average person eats too many processed foods that are high in refined carbs and simple sugars. They are also often overweight and carrying a significant amount of body fat.
And higher body fat, especially abdominal and visceral fat, is strongly correlative to being insulin resistant.
From the Poliquin Group™:
Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the pancreas. When you eat a meal, your blood glucose (sugar) rises after you digest the food. Insulin goes into action, binding with your cells in order to store the glucose either in muscle as glycogen (the energy source for the muscle) or as fat. If you are healthy, the body “prefers” to replenish glycogen first, only storing excess glucose as fat if glycogen stores are topped off.
When you develop insulin resistance, the cells aren’t readily binding to insulin. The body has to pump out more insulin to get the high blood glucose that’s circulating out of the blood and where it needs to be. High insulin increases fat storage, which is one reason that high insulin levels are associated with obesity.
Now, from a behavioral stand-point, a great many people are successful reducing carbs because they express poor behaviors around carbohydrate consumption.
That could mean anything from snacking on processed carbs throughout the day, eating too much bread, and routinely pairing carbs with sources of saturated fat. I mean, bread and butter? Baked potato and butter or sour cream?
Thus, “cutting carbs” can be an effective method for improving weight loss and/or body composition. But you do need to understand that there are frequently important behavioral considerations in play.
Mechanisms not methods – There are well-defined mechanisms for improving body composition. Unless you are an advanced trainee and moving toward optimization, avoid getting overwhelmed by the vast array of methods that underpin these mechanisms. They can all work, so pick the one that is best suited to you, your needs and your lifestyle.
Correlation vs causation – It is very easy to erroneously associate your success or progress to one particular method. This can be counter-productive when the method no longer works for you as you’ve labelled this method as causative and are thus reluctant to adapt and embrace a change in protocol.
Behaviors not outcomes – When you are solely focused on goals or outcomes, it can be very easy to overlook significant behavioral issues that are limiting your progress. Focusing on behavior change is key to long-term progress.