Gary Taubes is not a fan of exercising to lose fat and I agree with him (in a sense). He argues that dietary intervention is more important. Don’t believe me? Want proof? Here’s Gary’s blog post for the New York Times in which he makes a pretty compelling case against exercising to burn fat.
Gary is right – you don’t exercise to burn calories, but let’s look at his target audience: mostly sedentary people that live off of a highly processed carbohydrate way of eating. Exercise isn’t typically their thing, so a low carb diet kind of makes sense. Does that sound like you or your situation? The problem as I see it is that many people who are ardent fans/followers of his approaches and philosophies DO exercise. Many of them teach people to exercise with intensity and that’s where I disconnect.
Taubes’s “insulin hypothesis” goes like this: if you don’t stimulate insulin with carbs, your body won’t store fat (it actually can and does but the general idea is mostly correct so let’s run with it and take it to its logical conclusion). Most people are aware of “insulin resistance” in terms of Type 2 diabetes. Once again, this is the short version, but your body basically becomes resistant to insulin because high levels of glucose circulating through your body all of the time suppress hormones like HGH and leptin (both are really the “keep you lean” hormones). When you take someone that is on one end of the extreme diet perspective (glucose dependent) and you put them on another extreme diet (fat dependent), they often see results really fast because the hormones that were being suppressed are now back in business (even if it takes some time to get them rolling again). All of this is irrespective of exercise, but I will come back to that later.
So now let’s talk about the other side of the coin. You are no longer on your glucose-dependent diet, and you are mostly fat adapted. You have low levels of insulin most of the time. Let’s be clear: this is an extreme way of eating, so what does your body do? It adjusts. Remember the insulin resistance we talked about earlier that was caused by a high carb/low fat diet? Well now, on the low carb/high fat diet, you are susceptible the opposite turn of events because when insulin is super low most of the time, the signals to mobilize fat don’t get stimulated. Why would they? You are being fed fat non-stop – you are eating less and your body adjusts.
If you add intense exercise to the mix, you create a toxic environment (adrenal fatigue) where preservation becomes the norm for your body and fat is retained as a result. Your body is trying to keep you alive despite the fact that you are trying to starve your muscles of their main source of energy, which is glucose. This is where people say that the body can make glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis, which is of course true. The only problem is that your body needs glucose NOW in the instance of high intensity exercise, and gluconeogenesis is slow.
This is why demonizing insulin misses the point a bit. Many “high fat” authors aren’t speaking to athletes, but if you look at what we suggest it certainly isn’t low fat. Characterizing insulin as a “storage hormone” is incorrect. It can more accurately be described as a “building hormone” and for athletes, that’s a good thing because the more muscle you have, the better your metabolism will function. When you have more muscle, you’re stronger and you can burn more fat. Whether your goal is to build muscle, or just to maintain the muscle you have, insulin is an important part of that process.
So why No Exercise?
Imagine a scenario where being athletic and strong isn’t really your biggest concern. That’s the reality for most people. They are so lost and looking for a solution that they need to consider something and consider it fast. These people (I was one of them) have decided that exercise just didn’t offer a big enough bang for your buck, mostly because (as Gary puts) it “exercise makes you hungry.” So let’s be crystal clear – if you are mostly reliant on glucose for energy and you’re sedentary, doing the opposite pays big dividends in the short term. Gary argues that you will naturally want to be more active later on and once again, I can say there is some good anecdotal evidence on his side (including me and my story).
The simple fact is that if your sole focus is losing fat, eating less and doing less is the best solution by far. Eating mostly fibrous vegetables and fats does a good number on that. In the end there is no magic there; you are eating few calories when you are eating nutrient dense foods, eating less and doing less works…In the beginning. We all know this because the first pounds come off the easiest. So ketogenic diets like Atkins or what Gary subscribes work in the beginning but they are an absolute mismatch for athletes. The fact of the matter is that they were never supposed to be utilized for these populations, but it happened anyway.
But What About Paleo? Isn’t Paleo Low Carb?
Paleo is evolving for different populations but not everyone got the memo. One of the reasons they didn’t get the memo is because they are defaulting to logic. So let me be as clear as I can be on this topic – if Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain (Paleo Diet for Athletes), Whole 9 (chapter 21 of “It Starts with Food”) and Mark Sisson (sells supplements and has written in depth about carbs for athletes) all concede that athletic populations need starches to fuel their athleticism, why hasn’t it filtered down to the rank and file? That answer is complex, but once again I want it to be known that adding a sweet potato once a day won’t get you the amount of carbs that will produce results in the gym. It might help on occasion, but if you think eating super low carb and doing lifting weights will get/keep you lean, I can say that there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence that speaks in your favor. Let me walk you through a case-by-case scenario:
1. Person with a lot of fat to lose
The prescription is simple: change what you eat, not how much. Believe it or not, how much probably isn’t your issue – and yes, even you need carbs…Just not as many as the other people I am going to mention. The issue you most likely have is where the carbs come from. Get them from whole food sources vs. processed garbage and you’ll be good. Mostly rely on starchy vegetables and throw in some white rice around periods of activity. On that note, try to ease into working out. Doing too much, too often isn’t a good formula for losing fat. (See, I told you, I agree with Gary.) If you want to lean out, you are going to need more rest days. Why? Exercise is stress on the body and it’s particularly stressful on people with a lot of fat to lose. You can use your rest days to get aggressive on calories/carbs and use your workout days (3 to 4 days a week) to fuel your body and eat more calories/carbs. It’s not the super aggressive, 1000 calorie-a-day approach to fat loss, but you have to decide what you want the most: brief fat loss that stalls out after a short period of time, or sustainable fat loss or maintenance of weight. We sell sustainable fat loss because it’s the least harmful way for you to be the most whole in the end. (It’s also a pretty good solution from the mental side of things.)
2. Relatively healthy person that could lose a few pounds of fat
These next two scenarios are where Gary Taubes does not have an answer. His ideas are not wrong for the people that he is talking to, but wrong for these populations. As you get closer to being lean, the biggest priority becomes maintaining the muscle mass you are tearing down through exercise. If you aren’t fueling your workouts with carbohydrates and eating adequate amounts of food, your body will hold onto fat as a protective mechanism. The answer for this person is to keep their work capacity high and be patient. They can also diet occasionally, but they will have to do so without intense workouts. In the end, most opt for the slower, gradual approach because being capable ends up being more important to them than immediate fat loss. For the people that decide to diet, they compromise their work capacity as a result and are always playing a game of “catch up”. It’s hard to PR when you’re underfed.
3. Lean person who wants to get leaner
Eating less and eating low carb will work if you don’t do much, but if you decide to exercise with any level of intensity, the two things that absolutely need to happen are that you get enough protein on a daily basis, and an adequate amount of carbs to support your activity. For the other two groups, it’s an option; for you it’s a must. With low levels of protein or carbs, your body views your muscle as a viable energy source. Starving your muscles by eating low carb isn’t the formula for keeping the physique you have earned.
So What’s the Answer?
The answer is shockingly simple. Stay away from extremes. Not just extreme dieting, but extreme anything. The answer isn’t “all carbs” or “all fat”, nor is it “extreme exercise” (at least for fat loss). The reason you exercise is to become more capable as a human being – stronger, faster, and more enduring. If you want to be more capable, fuel your exercise (with mostly starchy carbs) and use the other 23 hours of the day, after your workouts to burn fat by ( wait for it) keeping fats high and carbs low-ish. There are basically three stages of fat loss for most people – the low hanging fruit when you first start off, the process to getting lean, and once you get there, the goal of maintaining the muscle you have earned. You can’t do this if you deprive yourself of or demonize any of the three major macronutrients.
Low carb diets basically show people good results for the first stage, but aren’t a good answer for the next two – for active people (specifically people trying to accomplish great things). This is why we have a support team that helps people develop their plan while testing what works and what doesn’t. Like Chris Kresser said, “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach”.