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Some Initial Notes on Weight Loss

Calories vs Nutrients, Diets, and Weight Loss Tips

· Health and Nutrition

I have more and more clients coming to me wanting weight loss coaching, so in this post, I want to organize some of my thoughts and learning around this topic after about 4 months in Nutrition School.

I think there is some value in keeping things simple and stating the obvious: You'll probably get to a healthy weight if you eat well and exercise more over the long run. You don't need a health coach or expert to tell you that.

But unfortunately, it's not that simple. People struggle with weight management because it's more complicated and more difficult than that. I'll start off with a great quote (that I'm paraphrasing), from Dr. Peter Attia on the Tim Ferriss podcast...

Thinking that weight loss is just about burning more calories than you consume is like thinking that Bill Gates is rich because he makes more money than he spends… Its obviously about much more than that. When thinking weight loss, one has to ask more questions, like why does one consume more energy than they use? Are all calories created equal? What affects your appetite? What affects your non-deliberate metabolic rate? Even going on a run and burning 500 calories barely even compares how many calories you burn when you are doing nothing, or sleeping. ~Dr. Petter Attia

So ya, it's complicated. So let's start with this question: Are all calories created equal?


Of course not. Calories DO matter, but you should run away from anyone who tells you they’re all that matter! Your calorie balance (difference in calories consumed and calories burned) does dictate whether you gain or lose weight. But this can be a dangerous oversimplification that can lead to eating unhealthy foods. Unhealthy foods can cause so many other problems beyond weight gain. Many other problems are underlying and hardly noticeable, like chronic inflammation, poor gut health, and nutrient deficiencies that eventually lead to immune problems and disease. Micronutrients, variety, and clean calories matter!

Calories vs Nutrients

In nutrition school, Joel Fuhrman gave a great lecture on the Nutritarian Diet, which is eating to optimize for the most nutrients. It's actually all about the quality, not the quantity of calories. Here is a graph that shows the nutrient density of different foods, or the nutrients compared to calories, and you'll see green leafy veggies are 100 and refined sugar is 0.

What a great visual argument to eat more veggies and less refined grains, oils, and sweets if you are trying to lose weight.

We all get it, it's common knowledge that it's good to eat your greens. Here are a few tips related to your greens that maybe you don't know... Green vegetables protect DNA and reduce cancer. Humans are a green vegetable dependent animal. You have to chew green vegetables well to get the anti cancer benefits - there is a chemical reaction in your mouth when you chew food well. Try to eat a variety of green veggies, and eat them different ways - chew them, blend them, juice them, soup them, as the benefits are a bit different each way.

After green vegetables, non-starchy veggies are the most nutrient dense, and these include include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions, mushrooms. Mushrooms should be an integral part of your diet, they are magical, lots of benefits like inhibiting fat growth and cancer growth. Similar to the greens, a mix of mushrooms are the best. A useful acronym to know is GOMBBS - the highst cancer fighting elements in your diet - greens, onions, mushrooms, beans, berries, and seeds.

So, one way to look at it is: health = nutrients/calories… the goal should be to eat less calories overall, but higher nutrients. If you can do this, you will lose weight, feel better, and prevent disease.

If weight loss is the goal, the worst calories are high glycemic carbs and sugar...

Gary Taubes gave a lecture in nutrition school about how we know that weight management is much more complicated than calories in and out. Why do twins gain weight in the same way? Why do men gain weight above the waist and woman gain weight below the waist? Why do children gain weight as they grow? Not because they are eating more calories, they are just growing! There are way more mechanisms going on in the body than just burning calories.

Insulin is the main regulator of fat, it signals the body to accumulate or mobilizes fat. We secrete insulin mainly due to carbohydrates in our diets. So essentially, carbs drive insulin which drives fat. Not all carbs are necessarily bad though, the big offenders are high glycemic carbs and sugar, and fructose is the worst. Here is more bad news though - a diet high in sugar creates insulin resistance, and then all carbs become problematic. So if there is one big thing that you can do for someones diet, it's to get rid of sugar.

Here is my biggest takeaway from Gary's lecture: 

Eating sugar causes us to be fat, and being fat causes us to eat more. Overeating is not the cause of obesity, its the effect. Not the other way around. ~Gary Taubes

Fat vs Sugar - don't fall for the marketing tricks

FedUp is an eye-opening documentary that I watched a few years ago. It really dives into the science and politics behind sugar. First of all, we are a nation that is addicted to sugar. Sugar is addicting, and diet soda is the most addicting.

You don't see a % of daily value for sugar on nutrition labels, the same way you see the % for everything else on the label. This is because the sugar lobby is powerful, and has it's grip on the government administrations that control food labeling. Also, sugar is often not called sugar on a nutrition label, but instead called sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and other syrups, beet sugar/cane sugar or date sugar, dextrose and maltose and maltodextrin and other even weirder and unrecognizable names. Sugar is hidden by manufactures on purpose, and Americans don't even realize how much sugar they are consuming daily.

Many Americans have been led to believe, based on marketing and advertising by food companies, that the obesity epidemic is caused by the fat in our diets. Seems to make sense that fat makes you fat, right? The truth is, the main culprit is sugar. Making fat the bad guy is done on purpose. We have all seen low-fat and reduced-fat "health" products marketed to us in the stores. Well, the way you reduce the fat and make something still taste good is to add sugar. So whenever you see a reduced fat product, just know that it's probably even worse for you.

And this is just another example of why it's hard to lose weight. Sugar is hidden by manufactures on labels, and we are tricked by marketers and advertisers at food companies to think we are making healthy decisions when in fact we are not.

And in general, if something is advertised to you and/or comes in a fancy box, it's probably not healthy for you. Food companies spend massive amounts of money and go to great lengths trying to get you to eat and drink their products. They lobby hard in Washington. Soda and energy drink companies sponsor our favorite athletes. Every other TV commercial is by a billion dollar food company, for soda, cereal, fast food, beer. Have you ever seen an ad for broccoli, or an apple? LOL. Stick with whole foods as much as possible.


It can be quite overwhelming getting caught up in the diet fads and diet wars. Everyone thinks their diet is the best, scientific research is often cherry picked to support the theory, and there is a ton of highly effective one-sided marketing and promotion to people who just want to get healthy and/or lose weight.

The reality is, the Standard American Diet (SAD) has lead us to an obesity epidemic, and most other diets that aren't the SAD will lead us to weight loss. You can lose weight on the vegan diet, vegetarian, keto, paleo, Atkins, Primal Blueprint, Whole30, Weight Watchers, Slow Carb, and whole foods diets. They all work. The problem isn't in a lack of options of effective diets. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is adherence to a diet, and sticking to it long term. I'm going to tackle that a little later, but let's stay on diets a little longer.

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

I'm personally a fan of the vegan and vegetarian diets. I believe that this diet can not only be optimized for health, but also for the environment and for animals. A lot of factory farming practices are unethical and sad. Animal livestock contributes more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined, and the land use to grow animal food far exceeds that to grow human food and is the main offender for deforestation. The spirit of these diets, I believe, is to eat more plant based foods, especially vegetables, but you can technically be vegan and just eat a bunch of carbs, sweets, and processed foods. So just because you are vegan or vegetarian definitely doesn't mean that you are healthy, or that you will automatically lose weight.

Also, in our modern society, these diets are inconvenient and hard to stick to. And especially because of the political and moral undertones of the diet, one can feel like a hypocrite at the smallest hiccup. So I don't consider vegan or vegetarian a weight loss diet, but if it's done the right way, it can be a very healthy diet that can help prevent disease, make you feel better, and potentially help you lose weight.

Low Carb Diets

Vegan is hard, but so are the low carb diets. These diets are probably the best for weight loss. I've never tried keto, paleo, Atkins, Whole30... the only low carb diet I've tried is the Slow Carb Diet. I read the 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss back in 2010 and tried the diet for a bit, and while this diet is specifically designed to be sustainable, with a cheat day built in, I still found it incredibly difficult. Since I've tried it, and am familiar with it, I will speak on it quickly. Here is essentially what it is:

  1. No carbs or any white foods - that includes all carbs (flour, grains, oats), sugar and dairy.
  2. Eat the same few meals over and over - the more you have to think about it, the harder it is. Having a few go-to breakfast, lunch, and dinners and learning to cook with beans/lentils, proteins, and vegetables is key. 
  3. Don't drink calories - no beer, no soft drinks, no juice. Water, wine, coffee, tea ok. Vodka soda probably ok. 
  4. No fruit - too much sugar.
  5. Cheat day once a week - it's built in to help with long term adherence, but there is actually science behind the cheat day to accelerating weight loss. Cutting back the carbs signals to your body to go into somewhat of a "starvation mode" and will prevent fat loss. The cheat day once a week, filled with carbs and sugars, will prevent your body from doing this, and allow for continued fat burning.
Honestly, if the goal was to lose weight as fast as possible, and I was working with a client who has a high degree of discipline and willpower, I'd recommend any of the low carb diets. More importantly, I like some of the general principles in the Slow Carb diet - not drinking calories is an easy win, and adherence and ease are more important than perfection.

But what about for most people, who are not in the top 5% of discipline and willpower?

Weight Loss No-Brainers

I like to look at where all the diet camps agree, versus where they disagree. High carb, low carb, meat or no meat... once we get beyond all that, everyone (and by everyone I mean doctors, researchers, nutritionists, and health advocates from all diet camps) tends to agree on these things. Let's call these the No-Brainers:

  • Whole foods are better than processed foods. 
  • Junk food and fast food are bad.
  • Sugar is the worst.
  • Refined carbs are bad. Refined carbs are most white carbs, like pizza and pasta, white bread, flour tortillas, white rice, and pretty much all carbs that come in a box.
  • Excessive alcohol is bad.

So with most of my clients, I let them create their own diet and nudge them to try and build rules based on the no-brainers. I tell them it's the "Create Your Own, You Do You, Sustainable Diet." That's a long name and doesn't really have nice ring to it haha, and some people do like being able to identify under a popular label, like vegan or whatever. But most people don't care about labels, they just want to lose weight, get healthy, and not feel like a failure for falling off the wagon. What I tell them is to create the diet in a way that will be sustainable. The goal isn't perfection, so maybe the goal is to stick to the diet 2/3 meals of the day, or only 5-6 days of the week. They should cut out most sugars and carbs, but if they want to keep rice and dairy in there, go ahead. They should try and eliminate calories from beverages, because it can be an easy win, but let's say they love craft beer, or based on their social life know that cutting alcohol is unrealistic, then that's okay. Calorie counting, or trying to drastically reduce overall calories is usually not part of it. And based on the diet they create and how restrictive or loose they want to be, the expectation is that THIS IS NOT A RAPID WEIGHT LOSS DIET but rather a healthy and sustainable diet that should lead to slow and consistent weight loss over time.

Diet FAQs

I have clients that have tried and failed at diets like Whole30. I like Whole30, because it's like a short sprint, 30 day push for healthier eating and weight loss that is short enough to potentially power through and long enough to potentially change habits long term. It works for a lot of people, but for some, it's still to hard. They ask me why I have a different philosophy...

Why am I okay with whole grains when so many diet camps are against all carbs?

In my opinion, no/low carb diets are hard to stick to, and not necessarily the "healthiest." I think there are good and bad carbs. Whole grains, wheat, rice, oats, quinoa, amaranth are good carbs and packed with nutrition! I am against refined carbs. I'm not saying to go out and eat endless bowls of oatmeal and rice. But it'll be very hard to convince me that a bowl of rice or quinoa is really all that bad. Eating good carbs in moderation is filling and quite satisfying, and that contributes to long term adherence to the bigger win of getting rid of the refined carbs.

What are my thoughts on cutting dairy?

I think you have to be careful with dairy, because just like sugar, it is actually addicting. So in moderation, I think dairy is fine. Don't throw the whole slab of butter in the pan, don't eat a whole platter of cheese, but a little bit of butter and cheese here or there isn't a big deal and trying to limit all dairy from your diet, especially when eating out, can be more work than it's worth. But if you feel like you can cut dairy completely, definitely do it!

Weight Loss Tips

So we have hit the eating and drinking part - limit sugar, limit refined carbs, limit high calorie beverages. Here are a few more tips that go a long way.

Stress and sleep greatly effect weight. Stress hormones signal fat storage in the body. Plus when stressed, one seeks comfort in other areas, often binge eating. And sleep deprivation also causes stress plus other hormones that signal hunger. All the broccoli in the world won't help you if you're stressed or not getting enough sleep, so make that a focus.

Exercise! Duh, this one is a no brainer, but besides for burning calories and potentially replacing fat with lean muscle, exercise reduces stress, helps sleep, increases mood, and gets the metabolism fired up even after the workout is over. Even something small, like a midday walk around the office, or 15 min workout, goes a long way.

Cultivate a healthy gut - Your overall health, and weight, is highly tied to your gut health. When you eat junk food, you are feeding the bad bacteria, and when you eat rich nutrient dense food (whole foods), you're feeding the good bacteria. More importantly - when you are used to feeding your gut bad foods, like sugar and and junk and processed foods, your gut adapts to that. So then once you stop feeding it those foods, there are cravings because your gut isn't getting what it's used to. So it's good if you go from a bad diet to a good diet, to help your gut microbiome make the transition. Try fermented foods. Prebiotics introduce new good bacteria in your gut, and probiotics feed that new good bacteria so it can strengthen. A good analogy is that PREbiotics increase the number of good soldiers in the army, and PRObiotics feed the soldiers. This should help with cravings. It's not going to totally make the cravings go away, but it should help, both in the short run, and definitely in the long run

Drink more water. Sometimes when I think I'm hungry, I'm actually just thirsty, and if I drink some water it fills me up and gets cravings to go away.

Cook more foods at home. Not only are portion sizes larger at restaurants, which leads people to eat more, they’re also typically higher in fat, salt, and sugar. Eating out can be a fun treat, but if you’re getting the majority of your food from restaurants, you may be consuming more calories than you realize. Experiment with cooking at home and explore a variety of whole foods and cooking techniques. There’s approx 21 meals per week, take a quick second to figure out what your % is of home cooked meals.

Garlic and green tea may help with weight loss. Tim Ferriss talks about using very specific doses of garlic extract and green tea extract in the 4 Hour Body weight loss section. There have also been small studies that suggest this. Whether they actually do help with weight loss, both foods have many healthy benefits, so why not add them into the diet.

Create a winnable environment to eat well. Don't have bad foods in the house. Try and get your partner, family and/or friends on board for healthy eating as well. Try and make it as easy on yourself as possible to eat well.

Mindful eating (and chewing) - When eating, try to slow down and be present. Take a moment to be grateful for the food and try to chew each bite thoroughly. By trying to eat (and chew) mindfully, you may find you are satisfied by a much smaller portion than when you are rushed and don’t take time to consider the meal. Plus chewing more helps digestion. I'm super bad at this, sometimes I inhale my food and realize after my plate is clean that I didn't even stop to breathe, oops. Try not to do this.

Try meditation and practice mindfulness. Get good at noticing your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness can help deconstruct cravings. Food cravings can be tied to stress, lack of sleep, boredom, relationship issues, more. Awareness around this can lead to better control and more willpower with the cravings.

Coaching a Weight Loss Habit

"If information was the answer, we would all be billionaires with perfect abs." -Derek Sivers

If I had a nickel for every time I've included that quote in a piece of writing, I'd probably have a dollar lol. Information on how to lose weight is easy to come by, there are a million experts that share their ideas, and millions of people that have done it who share their story for free on the internet and in books. The key to success is found beyond the endless abyss of good info. Losing weight, as with most goals, is the result of consistent action, the ability to do the work and build the right habits over the long run.

So let's say a client comes to me and wants to lose weight. We discuss diet, and chose a plan of action. The very next thing I like to tell them is that there will be no stepping on the scale for at least the next 2-3 weeks minimum. We are going to focus on the actions not the outcomes, we are going to build the habit, and only once momentum is built we will start doing weekly weigh ins.

Once weigh ins start, I give them a few rules... 1st rule is that we stay more focused on the actions rather than the outcomes. Meaning, we are more focused on the healthy habits, and less focused on what the scale says at the end of the week. So for example, if you hit 7 days in a row of sticking to the habit, regardless of what the scale says, we celebrate that. The scale could say you gained 2 pounds, but that can't discourage or demotivate you from the actions. The habit is the main goal, the weight tracking is just one additional stat we track.

The 2nd rule is to remember that we are playing the long game. This is not a shortcut, and there will be no overnight success. My clients most often are not on a rapid weight loss diet, like some of the more extreme stuff like Whole30 or calorie counting and calorie restriction. Instead, our diet is probably built to be sustainable, and healthy. So some weeks you might be down in weight, some weeks you could be up, but in the long run if you project this out over several months, you'll see a downward trend in weight.

We should only do 1 weigh in a week, and not be obsessed with the numbers. Based on how things go for the first few weeks, we could potentially get more aggressive towards the weight loss numbers if we decide. We could cut more carbs from the diet, ramp up an exercise program, and just play that by ear. For at least the first couple weeks, we focus on executing the current plan.

I believe most people fail to hit their weight loss goals because they fail the habit. It's not that the diet was bad. It's not that the intentions were bad. Behavior change is hard, discipline is rare, and most people have never been trained on habit formation. So we make it all about building the habit.

And on the topic of failure, I have a 3rd rule, which is to expect a bumpy ride but never fall completely off the wagon. You will undoubtedly mess up, either on accident or due to a lapse in willpower. There will be bad days and bad weeks. This is normal, and not a big deal. Expect this. The only real failure is allowing these bumps in the road to knock you completely of course.

In Conclusion

So to sum up everything up, I've learned that if I can get a client to do these 3 things, we will see some success:

  1. Understand a few basics about calories and weight management
  2. Create a sustainable diet that hits as many no-brainers as possible 
  3. Focus on the habit not the scale, on the actions rather than the outcomes

I'm 4 months into nutrition school and I'm enjoying it so far, and I'm excited to continue learning from from school, from coaching clients, and from my own experimentiation and exploration.

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