My mind-blowing moments while reading 📚“Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy by Herman Pontzer, PhD” — that forever changed my view on body energetics, exercise, keto and lowcarb diets, weight loss and boosting things as a high performer.
The mind-blowing moment numero uno happened when I fully understood this phrase — “we burn the same amount of calories no matter what” aka we “have a constraint on our daily energy expenditure”. Like whether you are a pro-athlete, training 5–6 hours a day, or a pregnant to-be mom, or an average work-from-home professional, or a Hadza modern hunter-gatherer — DOESN’T MATTER! We burn the same amount of calories because we are human species, because we aren’t gorillas or antelopes, or sea turtles.
It sank in my mind and I realized how my thinking and the thinking of most fitness, health professionals, diet gurus was/is kind of all wrong.
The energy metabolism, how many calories we burn exactly still varies between individual people, depending on their body size, muscle mass, conditions like pregnancy and exercise load, but it falls in a very specific range, that can’t be expanded or changed much, it seems to fall well under the number of 2.5 times BMR (basal metabolic rate) calories per day — that number being the ultimate limit for the most active of us like professional athletes. And after that, whether you decide to run a marathon a day or do an ironman — you won’t burn much more, after that the body will simply “save” energy on other processes, very often compromising our own health — reproductive system, immune function, emotional expressions, non-exercise activity and many other things. That’s why no matter how much we feed a professional athlete, long-term, their body suffers — women lose their periods, men lose their hair and often bedroom performance — something got to give, that’s the main takeaway, the body can not process unlimited amount of energy.
For all of you wanting to get the most out of yourselves, for high achievers out there (I’m one of them) — don’t try to run high, high and higher, boosting and boosting stuff — you boost one thing, something else has to give. It’s like with sleep, sleeping less isn’t in the best interests of our long-term productivity, and so is boosting all the stuff for nor reason isn’t in the best interests of our long-term mental performance and physical health.
What about weight loss then? And trying to burn more energy with exercise to lose weight?
Exercise might help to burn some calories (much much… much less than you’d expect) BUT as soon as we stop exercising like a maniacs, we won’t get any “boosted metabolism” benefits, AND our metabolism is gonna be a bit slower since our body will optimize for increased activity, by using less energy on other processes to keep us alive long-term.
Weight training and building muscles are a bit different, since we build muscle, active tissue, that burns energy when we do nothing, but even that we have to maintain — so exercise, no matter how we look at it is not a pass to eat an unlimited buffet of donuts. Exercise is good for all these other metabolic and health adaptations, that make us live longer and perform better mentally, physically and in the bedroom, and it also helps to reduce stress and boost immunity, when we don’t overdo it. Exercise helps to maintain weight, while improving metabolism overall, and helping the brain to manage hunger.
Exercise in adequate amounts is great for health and weight maintenance, not as a main weight loss strategy.
How much exercise is enough and is good amount per day, per week? What’s enough and what’s too little?
From all the Hadza data (there’s a lot of it in the book) it seems, that universally doing something like a vigorous workout 60 minute a day is what we do naturally as humans, what we thrive on, and on top of that — 3–4 hours of moving around daily — walking, picking berries, cooking and cleaning, or for us, homo-working-from-home — walking while doing errands, walking meetings and phone calls, doing our shopping walking, standing sometimes while working — this seems like a good routine!
Now to the next most mind-blowing moment of the book.
No diet is the best. And yet there’s a better diet for you personally. There’s no single way humans ate — so there’s no best ancestral and paleo diets either, AND eating less, no matter low carb or low fat or in the middle is still a numero uno success strategy for weight loss.
Let me explain.
There’s no best diet.
Meaning, that as long as calorie deficit is maintained — you’ll lose weight. The trick is, actually there are a couple, the trick is to find a diet, that is simple and tolerable enough that you can maintain it effortlessly for life. Whether that’s keto or vegan for you — they both work, as long as it feels easy for you to undereat on this diet, and for some unique-to-you reason it feels good to eat this way. For me, I found out, it’s intermittent fasting, keto-for-dinner and carbs around my workouts in the early afternoon. For you it can be full-on carnivore or vegan. Go figure.
A couple of things to consider: not eating enough high-quality protein (all amino acids in the right amounts) will leave you hungry and under-performing on any diet, keto or vegan; not eating all the essential vitamins and minerals we know of and yet-to-discover will make any diet fail long-term, so we better know our micros too.
The best long-term diet? A diet with the most whole unprocessed foods from plant and animal sources. Processed foods, no matter the macros, make us overeat, and long-term overeating always leads to poor health outcomes and storing body fat.
“if you feed lab rats the standard, nutritionally balanced lab diet of chow and water, they will maintain a healthy weight indefinitely. But offer them a “cafeteria” diet of typical Western foods, with lots of tasty options, and they will inevitably overeat and get fat. Since the initial finding with rats, researchers have shown the same phenomenon in a range of species, from monkeys to elephants, and, unsurprisingly, in humans. The other major problem with modern foods is that they are literally designed to be overeaten.
… Fiber, protein, and anything else that will make you feel full is removed. Sugar, fat, salt, and other things to tickle your reward system are added. As a result, added sugars and oils are the two leading sources of calories in the American diet today, accounting for fully one-third of the energy we consume. Our evolved reward systems are unprepared for the intensity and breadth of reward signals that these processed foods provide. Our hypothalamus is too slow to shut down our appetite, and we overconsume.
The food companies know exactly what they’re doing. Flavor engineering is a multibillion-dollar industry, with teams of scientists using a mind-boggling array of techniques and additives to make food that is highly palatable without being satiating: foods that always leave you wanting more.”
That’s why relying on our willpower to eat those highly-palatable foods “in moderation” is almost always a failing strategy for the normal brain, a strategy that ultimately leads to “failed willpower” and gained pounds, kgs and stones of body fat.
What’s the solution then? How do we navigate our fattening food system, making eating whole foods easier for ourselves?
At the current state of our food environment, before we redesign our food systems to serve us instead of food companies’ sales reports — we got to manufacture our own food environment, so that we need to use our willpower less. Much much less.
“make helpful changes in our personal food environments. As Stephan Guyenet and others have argued, doing little things to keep tempting, high-calorie foods away from you could have a big impact. You can’t mindlessly plow through a soda and a box of cookies if you don’t have any in your house. The bowl of candies on your desk at the office doesn’t need to be there, and isn’t helping anyone. Keeping processed, energy-rich foods out of arm’s reach makes them harder to get, and can make you more mindful and discerning about when and how you decide to indulge.”
And as someone having mastered this food environment design in my own house, that allowed me to stay the leanest I’ve been for months now — I’m 100% on board with this solution! (Also proven to be effective with many of my clients).
There’s so much more in this book!
So many mind-blowing answers — energy and exercise, energy and weight loss, endurance athletes and energy and long-term health, food and exercise environment and how we can manufacture society where those things are easy, where energy we use in food and otherwise is sustainable and works for our future as individuals and species, living on one fragile and non-renewable planet — it’s a book that’s gonna be quoted everywhere on the internet soon.
There are even more questions of course, questions, that’s gonna be in your head after reading it for quite a while, questions that will change you forever — I get to ask my questions the author himself on my podcast next week by the way! Stay tuned!
The main hope of this blog and this book — give you science-and-evidence based strategies, that actually work, and help you to not waste your precious time on things, that don’t matter, and might even be hurting you — like overexercising, or always be on a calorie-restricting diet (that long-term leads to slow metabolism, weak health and weight gain), or counting carbs obsessively because our “paleo ancestors did so” (another spoiler from the book — paleo and all humans throughout history were on very diverse diets, and most of them weren’t low carb).
The actionable conclusion to stay fit for life, in your ideal body weight, and in great health?
- Eat a whole-food diet, that helps you to manage overeating naturally, providing all of the essential nutrients. There are many that work — choose the one, that works the best for you.
- Exercise for health — not for weight loss. Have a workout a day. Stay active — sitting the whole day isn’t good, whether you work out or not.
- Stop boosting everything. (A note for high performers). The body works in a very constrained energy window, when we boost something — something else got to give, and we don’t really know, what that something will be for you!
PS If you have questions for the book author, ask them below and there’s a BIG chance I might ask them on my FOOD SCHOOL Smarter Stronger Leaner podcast next week.