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    In The News: Misleading Nutrition Story Number… Oh, Please, I’ve Lost Count!

    White male on treadmillAs I sorted through my mail earlier today, I got excited at the sight of a magazine nestled between various bills and advertisements.

    The giddiness turned to disappointment when I turned the magazine (Time) over and saw the cover story:

    The Myth About Exercise: Of course it’s good for you, but it won’t make you lose weight.  Why it’s what you eat that really counts.

    I immediately flashed back to physicist Gary Taubes’ 2002 New York Times Magazine cover article where he “made the case” (a rather feeble case, actually) that carbohydrates (and not excess total calories) were guilty for the increasingly prevalent obesity epidemic.

    The article — and Taubes — eventually retired to the nutrition fad-dom Hall of Shame Fame, but the media salivated over that non-story for a solid year.

    Much like Taubes’, this particular article — titled “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” and penned by John Cloud — makes odd leaps of logic, wrongly places blame, and is ripe for misunderstandings.

    The author begins by lamenting that after years of intense physical activity — including personal-training sessions where he is “work[ed on] like a farm animal,” he has maintained the same weight for most of his adult life.

    Has he ever considered that, perhaps, it is precisely this physical activity that is allowing to maintain his weight (rather than gain weight) as he traverses through adulthood?

    He then goes on to say:

    Like many other people, I get hungry after I exercise, so I often eat more on the days I work out than on the days I don’t.  Could exercise actually be keeping me from losing weight?”

    Leap of logic, anyone?

    First of all, a small amount of calories (roughly 150) directly after engaging in intense exercise are recommended to replenish glycogen stores and help with muscle repair.

    Secondly, if Mr. Cloud knows he gets hungry after exercising, why can’t he schedule his other meals accordingly?  If he, for instance, works out at 6 PM most days, he can simply have a lighter breakfast and lunch to accomodate for a more substantial snack after working out.

    His experience is also unlike that of millions of people who achieved faster weight loss once they added consistent exercise to their daily routines.

    Additionally, regular exercise makes many people more conscious of their dietary choices.  After all, if you just spent 45 minutes at the gym giving it your all, the last thing you want to do is sabotage your efforts with a 400-calorie muffin.

    It gets more interesting:

    While it’s true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger.  That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate the weight-loss benefits we accrued.  Exercise, in other words, isn’t necessarily helping us lose weight.  It may even be making it harder.”

    Well, at least he isn’t prone to Taubes-ish delusions that calories don’t count!

    The author’s conclusion is as silly as someone claiming staying up late is bad for their oral health because after a certain hour they are so tired that they go straight to bed and are too tired to brush their teeth and floss.

    Would THAT observation warrant a “staying up late gives you cavities!” article?  Absolutely not.

    A more sensible line of thought would be “when you know you’re having a late night, brush your teeth before you reach a certain level of tiredness.”

    In any case, I demand to see a study which shows that people who regularly exercise lose weight if they stop doing so for a period of several weeks (this obviously can’t be done with people actively seeking to gain muscle mass). Then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll buy into all this hype.

    The real problem here is that a lot of people often overestimate their physical activity levels.

    I often see, for instance, gym members head to Jamba Juice for a smoothie after their 45-minute yoga class.

    While yoga is wonderful in many ways (for flexibility and destressing), it is not a calorie burner.  A small Jamba Juice smoothie, meanwhile, can pack in anywhere from 320 to 400 calories!

    The article does make the good — and necessary — point that physical activity does not necessarily mean time at the gym.

    Anything from surfing to hip hop classes to taking the stairs at every chance you get (instead of the elevator) can also have a significant impact on health and calorie-burning.

    However, it’s hard to take an article seriously when the author attempts to bolster his argument by claiming that not working out is better for him from a weight-loss perspective because then he won’t be too tired to walk home or make a healthy meal.  Sounds to me like all he needs to do is slightly lessen the intensity of his workouts (or get his iron levels checked!).

    Also, I can’t help but nitpick at his ‘earth-shattering’ conclusion that it is “what you eat that counts.”  No, Mr. Cloud, it is also how much you eat that counts.

    Is this really worth a cover story?  Did anyone really think that as long as they jogged for 20 minutes a day they had free reign over what they ate every day?

    We come back to the concept I repeat almost every single day — focus on overall dietary patterns.  One isolated variable — whether it’s exercise or eating celery sticks or chugging down some repulsive snake oil supplement — is not going to make you thin or healthy!

    I weep for the poor trees that sacrificed their lives for this article.  Rest in peace.



    1. Corey said on August 8th, 2009

      I’ll go even farther than that. Exercise suppresses the appetite. I never feel like eating after I work out. Not sure if its the same for others, but I can actually start working out while hungry and soon not notice.

    2. bird in the hand said on August 10th, 2009

      andy, what do you think of fat acceptance and health at every size? i’ve been reading some FA blogs and they’re all on this drumbeat that “diets don’t work” and weight loss is damaging and useless. that study that came out a bit ago saying that the KIND of diet matters less than counting calories? they all pointed to the fact that the participants regained the weight. i’m finding this all a little dispiriting as i try to move from a BMI of 29.5 to 26.5 (I’m 5’9″, large-framed, and a distance cyclist, so the extra 10 pounds to get to the “normal” range would probably be too much.)

    3. Sara said on August 10th, 2009

      The article was very frustrating to read. So many people want excuses to rid exercise from their lifestyles and still stay thin. I don’t get it. I love exercising, from playing ultimate frisbee, to circuit training, to just going for a walk outside. People think they eat a lot less than what they actually are and burn more than they really do, so no wonder they are not getting the results they want. Maybe that author should have spent some time writing a diet log instead of a misleading article.

    4. Alexia said on August 12th, 2009

      Thank you!!! I was sooo frustrated with this article and then reading about it in another blog that actually supports the idea. Now I feel so much better. For me it was just a matter of citing articles to prove his point and not even talking about it objectively with all the information available. Have they even heard about ghrelin? Geez, if youre writing a cover story for TIME and citing your wife friend’s who eat muffins post-exercise… youre wrong.

      Also I totally agree with the idea of overstimating exercise, a lot of people think theyre actually doing a lot when theyre not. Everything should be a balance, having a good routine and eating healthy and keep your good habits (taking the stairs, walking, etc). You dont have to almost faint in the gym so then you wouldnt wanna move and eat all the chocolates you can. This article is wrong in so many ways that I lost count.

    5. Andy Bellatti said on August 12th, 2009

      It was an extremely frustrating article to read.

      I was sorely disappointed that Time magazine would not only publish it, but also make it their cover story.

    6. Brad Schoenfeld said on August 13th, 2009

      Well articulated, Andy. Had John Cloud actually bothered to read the research, he would have come to a very different conclusion on the topic. But that wouldn’t have sold magazines. Instead, he skewed the facts to support a conclusion that is spurious if not downright wrong. The upshot is that he’s done a grave disservice to the general public. I’d encourage you to read my rebuttal to Mr. Cloud on my blog, http://www.workout911.com, where I actually cite the research on the subject. Spread the word: exercise is good for waistline!


      Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS

    7. Andy Bellatti said on August 13th, 2009

      Hi Brad,

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing that link. I look forward to reading what you have to say.

    8. Beth Pettit said on September 7th, 2009

      …seriously? This article actually pisses me off. Is he 5? “OH GOD EXERCISES MAKES ME HUNGRY THEREFORE IT’S BAAAD!” W.T.F? I’m no nutritionist nor am I cool enough to be published in Times, but I’m smart enough to know that you either don’t give in to that hunger, reschedule your meals or exercise times or eat a damned apple or banana to curb your hunger.

      It’s really not that difficult, unless you have some medical issue preventing you from losing weight the formula is simple. Burn more calories than you take in and you’ll lose weight. However you make this happen. If you get hungry after your exercise and want to oink out, oink out on something low cal or have planned how much you want to eat before hand so you can calculate how much extra time you need to spend in the gym.

      This guy just totally justified being lazy for so many couch potatoes by saying exercise doesn’t work. I don’t know how these people get published when anyone with common sense can see it’s bullshit logic.

    9. Beth Pettit said on September 7th, 2009

      @bird in the hand

      I’m not cool like Andy but my person opinion on those FA (fat acceptance) websites is that it’s good to love yourself and your body however it looks. There is noting wrong with feeling beautiful while 115 pounds or 180 pounds. But that doesn’t mean accepting being healthy and not changing it. Loving yourself does not mean remaining ignorant, purposely blinding yourself to the fact you are unhealthy or stubbornly refusing to change to try to prove some misguided point.

      I think a lot of those websites make excuses and LOVE articles like this they can cling to to show “see, exercise doesn’t work so people should stop saying fat is bad. I can’t change so screw the world, I’m fat and going to stay that way!” That simply is being ignorant either inadvertently or on purpose because you don’t want to admit the truth.

      I think there should be ‘fat acceptance’ in the way that people shouldn’t be afraid to leave their home for fear of jeers and judgment and people who are over weight should feel confident in themselves, but when it gets to the excuses, misinformation and down right ignorance is where it goes to far. Some of those sites will treat you like a pariah if you even mention going on a diet or that you’ve lost weight because that makes you a sell out or a traitor which is just wrong.

      (Also, I bet you if you offered them a magic pill that would instantly make them 120 pounds every last one of them would take it.)

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