This is a rebroadcast. This episode originally aired January 2019.
If you’re like a lot of men listening to this podcast, you’ve likely made it a goal to lose some weight this year. But if you’re also like a lot of men listening to this podcast, you’ve made that goal before, maybe even succeeded with it, but have had to make it again because you gained all the weight back. My guest today argues that losing weight is actually pretty easy. The real trick is keeping it off.
His name is Layne Norton. He’s a professional bodybuilder, powerlifter, and doctor of nutritional science, and today on the show we discuss all things fat loss. We begin our conversation discussing why losing weight is easier than keeping it off, the mechanisms that kick into gear once we shed body fat that cause us to gain all of it, and even more back, and why yo-yo dieting is so terrible for you.
We then dig into whether there’s one diet that’s the most effective in helping you lose fat, the tactics you need to use to keep the weight off in the long run, and the real reason exercise plays a role in helping you do so, which isn’t what you think.
- Separating “bro” science from actual research
- Why is it so hard to keep weight off after you lose it?
- What makes processed foods different from natural foods
- How our obesogenic environment makes getting fat easy
- The wrong way that most people approach dieting
- Why the best diet, bar none, is the one you can stick to
- Why yo-yo dieting is so bad for you
- The various fad diets out there, and why what makes them popular is mostly baloney
- The most important element of any diet plan
- Exercise’s role in keeping weight off (it doesn’t have anything to do with calorie burn)
- Why some type of diet constraint is probably necessary for most people
- Why you should take some breaks when dieting
- How dieting affects your athletic/fitness pursuits
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Diet and Nutrition Advice From the Doctor of Gains
- Everything You Need to Know About Diet and Fat Loss
- The Real Science of Nutrition and Supplements
- Sniffing your partner’s farts could help ward off disease
- The Pros and Cons of Intermittent Fasting
- What Is An Obesogenic Environment?
- Why Carbs Don’t Make You Fat & The Benefits of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet
- A Proven System for Building and Breaking Habits
- How to Become a Fat-Burning Beast
- A Primer on Flexible Dieting
- Carnivore diet
- Layne on Mark Bell’s podcast
- The obese man who didn’t eat food for over a year
- How to Gain Weight
- Fat Loss Forever (Layne’s book)
Connect With Layne
Physique Science (Layne’s podcast)
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. If you’re like a lot of men listening to this podcast you’ve likely made it a goal to lose some weight this year. But if you’re also like a lot of men listening to this podcast, you’ve made that goal before, maybe even succeeded with it, but you had to make it again because you gained all the weight back. Our guest today argues that losing weight is actually pretty easy, the real trick is keeping it off.
His name is Layne Norton, he’s a professional bodybuilder, power lifter, and a doctor of nutritional sciences. And today on this show we discuss all things fat loss. We begin our conversation discussing why losing weight is easier than keeping it off, the mechanisms that kick into gear once we shed body fat that causes to gain all of it and even more back, and why yo-yo dieting is so terrible for you. We then dig into whether there’s one diet that’s the most effective in helping you lose fat, the tactics you need to use to keep the weight off in the long run, and the real reason exercise plays a role in helping you to do so which isn’t what you think it is. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/biolayne.
All right, Layne Norton, welcome to the show.
Layne Norton: Thanks Brett, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So you are a pro bodybuilder, power lifter, but also have your PhD in nutritional sciences. Give us a little background on that, about not only your career as a pro bodybuilder and power lifter but also when did you decide for the PhD in nutritional sciences.
Layne Norton: Well, whenever I introduce myself I always refer to myself as a meat head who likes science or a science geek who likes lifting heavy things, so depending on my mood that day it depends on which one I swing towards. But I would say I’ve always had an interest in science and when I was growing up I wanted to be a marine biologist. And I got picked on a lot in school, actually like way more than just everybody went through, getting teased or whatever, that’s normal, but this was like a whole another level. In high school and middle school and elementary school there’s like tiers of status. I’ve always been on that bottom rung of status. So I got pretty not physically but emotionally abused by my peers growing up.
And I remember one summer I was like, “I’m tired of doing this, I’m going to do something about it.” So I started lifting weight. And the idea was I would stop getting bullied and get more attention from girls if I got bigger because I was a really skinny kid. And lifting weights didn’t do either of those two things, but I did fall in love with the process of lifting weights.
By the time I was getting ready to go to college I was really in love with bodybuilding and I was reading Flex magazine. I remember I’d have Flex magazines in my backpack going to class and when I was getting bored in class I’d just whip out a Flex magazine and start reading that. And so by the time I was getting ready to go to college I was kind of rethinking my idea of being a marine biologist, come to find that it’s very hard to get a job in that and they pay like shit, which money is not everything but I would have liked to have made a good living but I would also really like doing something I’m passionate about. I knew I did not want to do what everybody was doing.
And I came from not a small town but a modest sized town in the Midwest where it might as well have been an island because nobody left. Like you just grew up, if you went to college you went to University of Southern Indiana, I grew up in Evansville, Indiana. You went to USI or you went to University of Evansville and that was it. If you got fancy you went to University or you went to IU or Purdue or something like that. But you didn’t leave the Midwest, that was just not something that happened that often. And I just knew that if I didn’t leave I was going to end up like everybody else, just working a kind of I don’t want to say average job or insult people who do that kind of thing, but just your typical nine to five, and I didn’t want that for my life, I wanted to do something different.
So I decided to go to Akron College. I had some really good professors who steered me down the right path. And I still remember my general chemistry professor saying, “You should do biochemistry because if you still want to do marine science in grad school it’ll be there for you, but if you decide you want to do something different, biochemistry will really set you up for whatever you want to do in science.” And so I did that, I changed my major to biochemistry. At the same time, the summer after my first year of college, I did my first bodybuilding show, one in the teen division, one in the novice division, and was completely hooked.
And by the time I was a junior in college I was really convinced that I wanted to make a living in bodybuilding or something to do with bodybuilding. I didn’t know how I was going to do it because I didn’t want to take steroids. I competed in the national bodybuilding organizations so I didn’t want to do that. No hate to anybody who does, I don’t have any disrespect or anything like that, it was more about I just never felt called to do it. I never felt called to be Mr. Olympia but I loved bodybuilding. I didn’t want to take that path personally.
So I didn’t know how I was going to make a living, but I got to my junior year and I’m like, “Well, I don’t know what I’ll do with my life. I know I’m passionate about this thing, I’m not sure how I’m going to make money from it. So how about going to more school?” I figured if I had a master’s or a PhD it would probably help with whatever I wanted to do. So I did exactly that, I applied to different PhD programs, I interviewed at the University of Illinois and Penn State and Cornell, I got accepted and I decided on Illinois because I really vibed with the advisor there Dr. Don Layman. And as it turns out, that was probably one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, was to go to University of Illinois which is a great school, really, really strong research and science-based school. And especially for nutrition they’re like top three every year, they have a really great nutrition program. And in particular Dr. Layman was a fantastic advisor.
So his specialty was protein metabolism which doesn’t take a difficult kind of stretch to see the connect between bodybuilding and why I’d want to study protein, and he was always encouraging of that. He was never ashamed of the fact that I was a meat head, he was very encouraging of that, which I didn’t get that vibe with a lot of different professors. A lot of different professors almost seemed like they were ashamed if you were into lifting weights or bodybuilding, but Layman was never that way.
And so I got into that. During that time in grad school I also won my pro card in natural bodybuilding. By the time I graduated I did my series of pro shows, my only series of pro shows so far because I guess I’m like semi-retired now. But won my first pro show and then placed top five in all the other ones, so a pretty successful run there. Then during that off-season before that series I had gotten into power lifting just kind of as a way to keep myself from getting bored in the off-season because if you’re doing natural bodybuilding you’ve got to take two, three year off-seasons. Like you just don’t build muscle that fast. That’s why I see a lot of these kids out there or young guys who compete every year and you’re really like … It’s a really terrible idea because you’re limiting your growth.
So I took a four year off-season between when I won my pro card and when I did my first pro shows, it really helped me. But in that time I was finding it hard to stay motivated for training without having something to shoot for so I decided to start doing some power lifting meets. And it turns out I was pretty good at it. In fact, I’m probably better at that than I was at bodybuilding so I got really into that. Won nationals twice, got a silver medal at worlds, won the Arnold, set what was then a squat world record in the IPF, the power lifting organization in the world. I’m at 668 pounds and yeah, had a pretty good run there and gone through some injuries and kind of rehabbing those right now and trying to come back and do it all over again.
Brett McKay: And then yeah, you had your PhD.
Layne Norton: Right, yeah. So I finished my PhD in 2010. And during that time, around circa 2005, I had been writing articles for bodybuilding.com and people I’d get a lot of emails. I was probably getting 20, 30 emails a day of people with questions and I loved helping people, I loved it, but I realized, “Man, I’m spending a lot of time doing this. I’m in grad school now, I’ve got to get some kind of compensation for my time.” So I started doing online coaching and was one of the first people to kind of do that. This is in 2005, this is before Instagram. Before you could stick your ass in the camera and call yourself a coach, I was doing it.
So got into that. By the time I was graduating grad school I was making a full-time living from it but I said, “Well, I don’t see the reason to go get a normal job, let’s do this.” So I was doing online coaching full time. And yeah, I’ve gone through several different iterations of my business, tried some different things. And now I still do some coaching but it’s mostly a lot of writing and content production. So I have two ebooks that are out now that have been successful beyond what I ever could have imagined, and writing another one and working on some other projects. And yeah, it’s been a good run, it’s been a good life.
Brett McKay: It’s awesome. Yeah, that’s really cool. And I’d like to talk about one of those books you write, Fat Loss Forever. But before we get into the details of that one, I’m curious when you started doing your biochemistry work and your PhD work were you surprised … I mean I read Muscle & Fitness growing up too and like there’s all this advice in there and you’re like, “Ah, is this really too?” I mean even then there’s all the bro science and it’s proliferating even more today. Did you immediately start seeing contradictions for stuff that you saw in the bodybuilding or power lifting word or were some of the things validated that these guys were doing that had no basis in science but they got right just through trial and error?
Layne Norton: That’s exactly why I went and did a PhD, because I got tired of reading every magazine and having it say one thing and then another magazine say another thing, or the same magazine say one thing one month and another thing another month, or the same magazine saying one thing and in the same episode contradicting itself. So I was like, “Well, I’m going to go get more education, that’s not going to hurt me, and I’m going to figure it out for myself.”
So yeah, that was the quest for … I guess there’s a couple of things that make a good scientist. One is you’re always hungry to learn, the quest for knowledge, and two, you’re inherently skeptical, you don’t just accept things at face value, you question even the things that we hold to be true. And I think that’s what makes a good scientist, somebody who just won’t accept something as fact without really digging into it. But also the saying “be open-minded but not so open-minded that your brain falls out” which I also see a lot of. That’s like when you get to the … There’s skepticism and then there’s whack job conspiracy theorist nonsense which I kind of deal with on a daily basis now.
Brett McKay: Oh, I bet. Going to that point about being skeptical, I mean one of the issues that I found with popular health writing is that they’ll talk about the studies, the research, and then they’ll look at the conclusion and say, “Yeah, this study says X.” But then if you actually read the study you realize, well, the sample size wasn’t that big, it wasn’t conclusive. But because these popular writers need to churn out content and get clicks they just come out like, “Well, this new study says coffee is terrible for you.” But then you look at the studies and, well, it doesn’t really say that.
Layne Norton: What it’ll say is there’s a component in coffee that when they fed it to rats at a super high dose it caused carcinogenic effects. It wasn’t actually coffee and it wasn’t actually in humans. There was a study done where the headline was that smelling your partner’s farts can help reduce the risk of breast cancer. That was the headline. No, what they did was they took short chain fatty acids, volatile fatty acids that are some of the things that you smell when you fart, and they looked at them giving them isolated in a high dose to rats and saw an effect on cancer. That is not the same thing as smelling your partner’s farts.
The level of irresponsibility by the media in reporting some of this stuff just to get a headline, I understand it to a certain level because they have to, because it’s so competitive and if you don’t have big headlines … I mean it’s like being on Instagram. Like I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve got, whatever, 240,000 followers on Instagram because I’m not some dude that’s posting pictures of a shredded six pack all the time standing in front of a Ferrari that he doesn’t own, that he’s leasing, with pitbulls or whatever, and acting like I’m living some lifestyle. I’m putting out educational content, there’s substance. But we’re not a substance-based society, people want that crap.
So yeah, I think that it’s difficult to parse out a lot of what’s out there. But just listening to somebody … And I’ll tell people, “Hey, don’t take my word for it, I have my own biases. I try to be honest about them and upfront about them, but everybody is biased one way or another.” And that’s okay, that’s fine. It’s the people who aren’t willing to admit their biases.
There’s a gal called, what’s her name? Nina, it starts with a T, her last name. She’s a big time low carb advocate. And a lot of her criticisms of the research out there are funding-based, right? So she says, “Well, this study was funded by big corn,” or big this or big that. You ever want to make something sound scary just put “big” in front of it, apparently. And what she doesn’t ever disclose is the fact that she herself is funded by the meat industry, which is fine, that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. My research was funded by the Dairy Council and the Egg Nutrition Center board. That’s fine, I have to disclose that, right? So if she’s going to criticize all these other people, she needs to disclose what her biases are.
So that’s a big part of it. And I think people get way too attached to ideals rather than trying to deconstruct their ego and figure out what stuff actually says. I’ll tell people I’m not … If you read any of my books, I’m not selling any one particular diet, I’m not. I’m selling information and I’m trying to put it out there kind of as it is.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about a topic speaking of lots of different competing things on Instagram is weight loss, because there’s so many competing ideas out there now and it’s gotten worse, I think. So you wrote a book Fat Loss Forever. It’s a new year, I think a lot of men who are listening to this show, a lot of them probably have goals to lose some weight. But I love how in the book you talk about and you make this important point that it’s actually really easy to lose weight because people do it all the time. The problem people have is that they can’t keep it off. So why is it so hard to keep weight off after you lose that 10, 15 pounds?
Layne Norton: There is a multitude of reasons. There’s physiological, there’s sociological, and there’s psychological reasons. Physiologically, if you think about what weight loss is, so we have this kind of let’s call it a set point of body fat that your body kind of likes to stay at, it’s where you’ve kind of settled at during your life. And if you’ve been … Usually your body defends against you getting too much body fat. And the reason people get obese is they can eat past that.
And I don’t want to get way too far down the rabbit hole, but I guess if you talk about losing weight there is very tight regulations. What will happen is you get hungrier when you start to lose weight, your metabolic rate slows down, your hormones like leptin drop, you actually move less whether you believe it or not, just like little fidgets throughout the day but it can end up adding up to several hundred calories less per day that you’re actually spending. So all these things start working to drive you back towards energy balance, meaning you’re not losing weight, your calories in is equaling calories out. So it’s trying to drive you back towards that to protect you because if we have this kind of regulation on body weight, this set point that the body likes to be at, that means that it’s trying to keep you from getting too big or losing too much weight, right? Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense.
Layne Norton: On the other end, if you start to overeat your metabolic rate goes up, your hunger goes down, all these sorts of things. But on each end there’s two different … We always need to think about like what is the evolutionary reason for this, right? Because everything happens for a reason. All the systems in our body came about because of a reason. You’re dealing with two different threats to your survival because, keep in mind, the goal of your existence in terms of evolution is for you to stay alive long enough to pass on your genetic material. That’s it, that’s the goal, okay? Now, on one end you have starvation: if you don’t eat enough you can starve. On the other hand, if you get too heavy there’s an increased risk of predation, you can’t escape a predator very well. Or the other one is you may not be agile enough to actually catch food, but that kind of would be self-limiting because as you weren’t able to eat you would end up losing weight, becoming more agile, able to catch food.
Well, over the last several thousand years the risk of predation has dropped to basically zero for most of the world, you know what I mean? That just doesn’t exist. Whereas the risk of starvation, we may not think about western society, but even a 100 years ago in the US famine was a real problem, not so much anymore. So it’s still a real problem. So that is still hardwired into our DNA, at least this is the hypothesis that some of these researchers … This guy had this particular hypothesis and his name is Speakman. So your body has much more tightly regulated controls on you losing weight than it does on you gaining weight.
Plus, we have a very obesogenic environment. Like if you’re talking about non-processed foods, right? Now, I don’t want people to get really excited about this because there’s nothing inherently fattening about a processed food. There’s not. A 100 calories of a processed food is not more fattening than a 100 calories of an unprocessed food per se, but processed food takes less energy to digest so I guess you could argue that it is a little bit different. But more than that it’s just very highly palatable. Have you ever tried to eat 200 calories from a plain baked potato, like plain nothing on it?
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s hard.
Layne Norton: It’s hard, it’s really hard. Have you ever tried to eat 200 calories from a Snickers bar?
Brett McKay: Easy, you just eat a Snickers bar and done.
Layne Norton: Yeah, exactly. So we have what’s called an obesogenic environment where we have free access to extremely hyperpalatable high calorie foods and we don’t move as much as we used to. So we can very easily eat past that set point, but it’s hard to get under the set point because that’s still hardwired into our DNA. The body treats dieting like controlled starvation, so your metabolic rate drops, your hunger goes up, these hormonal signals to your brain, they really …
There was an interesting study back in the 1940s, they took conscientious objectors to World War II and basically starved them for six months and then looked at the physiological changes. Well, just to show you how powerful dieting is on motivation to not be dieting, there was original 15 subjects in the study, it ended with 12 because one of them cut his thumb off in order to get out of the study, believe that? And then the other two literally stormed and assaulted the kitchen for food. And of the people who completed the study, half of them went on to work in the food industry or become professional chefs. But if you’ve ever dieted like some people, they diet and they end up watching the food network all the time, it becomes an all-encompassing thing for your brain.
But the major problem is that people look at dieting and weight loss as something with a set start and end date. They go, “I want to lose 20 pounds.” So what do they do? They lose the 20 pounds and then they go right back to doing the same that they were doing before they lost the 20 pounds. Well what do you think is going to happen when you do that? Whatever behaviors you had to incorporate in order to lose the weight, you will need to incorporate those same behaviors to keep the weight off.
That’s why I say we don’t really have a knowledge problem because any diet will work, I mean low carb, low fat, intermittent fasting, whatever. Anything that allows you to create a calorie deficit will work. We shouldn’t even be spending time arguing about this, it’s stupid. Maybe higher protein diets tend to work a little bit better because they’re more satiating and you spare lean body mass and they have a little bit more of energy expenditure. That’s great. But if somebody can’t stick to a high protein diet or they can’t see themselves doing that for the rest of their life, then it’s not going to work for them. Any diet can work, even a super high carb, super low fat, low protein, as long as they’re on a calorie deficit will work for weight loss. It’s been shown in many studies.
And I know some of the listeners are probably saying, “But what about insulin sensitivity?” 95 to 99% of the health benefits of dieting are strictly due to weight loss and have nothing to do with the type of diet you’re on. There was two meta analyses done on this and they looked at equating calories and looking at different rations of carbohydrates and fats and their effects on blood markers of health and found that basically weight loss explained 95 to 99% of it. So if that’s the case, if it’s weight loss that makes the biggest difference for health, then the best diet is probably the one you can sticK to and see yourself doing for life. Because, “I’m going to go on keto.” That’s great bro. If you’re never going to eat carbs again in your life then that can work for you. But if you can’t see yourself doing that six months or 12 months from now you got to rethink your plan because it’s going to fail.
It’s behaviors that make the difference. It’s the same reason that people are broke. It’s the exact same reason people are broke. How do you not be broke? Earn more money than you spend. And there are people who make $30,000 a year who can save money. It’s happened, I’ve done it. I’ve made $30,000 a year before and saved money. It’s hard, it sucks, but it can be done. There’s also people who make a $1 million a year and don’t save money, right? So is it a knowledge problem? Because hopefully everyone knows that in order to save money you need to make more than you spend. And we have that knowledge, that knowledge is there.
But what do people get caught up in instead of focusing on the things that actually help with wealth accrual? People focus, they get into these pyramid schemes and they, “Oh, this one neat trick.” It’s the same you see in the fitness industry for fat loss. “Oh, these three neat tricks to burn belly fat.” No, that’s crap. If you want to lose fat and you want to keep it off it’s going to be really, really hard because only 5% of people are able to do it, that’s the statistics.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah. 95% of the people … Yeah, only 5% are able to keep it off. So let’s kind of recap what you said, there’s a lot of unpack and I want to go some different directions with some of the stuff you were talking about. So the reason why body fat is hard to lose is because your body is basically saying, “We’re now in starvation mode,” we’re losing body fat but it’s like, “I don’t want to lose that body fat because we need that to keep ourselves going in case the starvation goes even further.” So it just gets harder and harder.
Layne Norton: Yeah, that’s your body’s … I always think about your body’s adipose stores as your energy reserve, because that’s exactly what it is.
Brett McKay: Right. So your body is like, “No, leave this alone, this is ours, you’re taking that away, we’re not going to let you do that.” But also besides when you stop the diet, you gain the weight back, but also there’s a tendency to gain more body fat or more weight than you were before you started the diet.
Layne Norton: Yeah, that’s a phenomenon called body fat overshooting, and it really happens a lot in people who do what we call a weight cycle or a yo-yo diet. And really interesting study, we included this in the book. It was in rats so some people will get their hands up in the air, but a rat is actually pretty metabolically similar to a human and there is some human data to support this as well.
But what they did was they took them through two different diet cycles. So they had them kind of eat up to a certain weight and then they dieted them down and they observed what rate it took for them to reach that weight, to sort of diet down to that weight. Then they have them relapse to the previous weight, they just gave them food and say, “Hey, go for it, go crazy, eat whatever you want.” They regained the weight in half the time that it took for them to take it off. Then once they reached their previous high weight they had them diet back down again to the weight that they achieved previously. They lost weight twice as slow the second time, and that’s at the same calorie level. That’s pretty nuts. Then they let them regain it again, they regained it three times as fast. Every time they went through one of these diet cycles their metabolism got slower and they got more efficient at putting on body fat.
And every time you diet you activate your body’s self defense system, okay? And again, this is one of the things that i talk about the book. Your body has a self defense system in place to keep you from starving yourself. And basically what it does is … This isn’t in the scientific literature, this is just kind of my description, I call it a three-pronged attack.
You have metabolic adaptation, which when you’re dieting your body slows your metabolic rate, by the way slows it disproportionately more than you would predict by the amount of weight you lose. Because if you lose weight you have less metabolically active tissue, your metabolism is going to slow down some anyway. But your metabolism slows about 15 to 20% more than you would predict just from the weight loss.
Then, while you’re dieting your body is already ramping up systems that will increase your ability to store body fat. Why would it do that? Well, let’s think about from an evolutionary perspective if you had gone through a long famine and then all of a sudden boom, you find … I mean let’s just do the stereotype. You find a big old wooly mammoth and it’s dead and you can eat it and you can just kind of gorge yourself. Well, you couldn’t really keep meat for very long back in the day, right? You couldn’t keep a lot of foods for very long. So they’re going to get as much out of it as they can. Well, you would not want to be wasteful with that energy, you would want to capture as much of it as possible. You would want to be very efficient at storing that energy and not wasting it. So that’s why the body is going to ramp up those systems that help you store fat. Because if you’re in a deficit, if the body senses an energy gap it is going to make it easier for you to store fat because if you come across a food source your body is going to want to be able to capture it. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: That makes perfect sense.
Layne Norton: Yeah. And then the first phase is they’ve actually observed in people who diet or people who diet pretty aggressively, if they didn’t regain the weight really, really quickly they actually is some evidence that they may actually be able to manufacture new fat cells. So if you lose or gain weight, usually what happens is your fat cells just shrink or expand. But you can eat past that, there is a maximum threshold for adipocytes, it’s about a 100 micrometers I think. And so once they go bigger than that we can have preadipocyte differentiation. And these preadipocytes are like these little tiny nascent, inactive potential fat cells that are in the adipose tissue that can differentiate to fully formed fat cells if your body needs them. So that’s how people can get really obese, because they can start triggering this fat cell differentiation.
But even if you don’t approach that maximum size, if you’ve been in a deficit and then you just kind of start massively overeating after that, like putting on a lot of weight really quickly, they actually showed in rats that they could increase their fat cell number by 50%, which is a real problem because now your set point is going to change because since you have more fat cells the size of each individual cell is now smaller so theoretically your body would still sense a deficit even if you’ve gotten back up to your original body fat. And that’s why I think a lot of people when they weight cycle they end up at a higher body fat and then have trouble losing body fat from that level of body fat because that’s now their set point because they have more fat cells. That’s my theory, anyway.
And yeah, it’s pretty scary actually. If you read Fat Loss Forever, the chapter one and chapter three will scare the crap out of.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they did. So it makes it sound like man, losing weight is impossible, but it’s not.
Layne Norton: It’s not, no.
Brett McKay: And we’ll talk about what you can do to make it sustainable. But you mentioned a lot of the sort of diets that are really popular with people and online. There’s the low carb diet, keto, there’s now the carnivore diet that I’m seeing a lot about. And what’s interesting with all these different diets, they all claim that there’s something special about these specific diets that allow people to lose weight, right? “By not eating carbs you reduce the amount of insulin pumping through your system so insulin can’t shuttle glucose into fat cells” or whatever. But I mean it sounds like you’re saying like, “No, it’s not really that, it’s just that these diets allow you to eat fewer calories and that’s why you lose weight.” Is that what’s going on?
Layne Norton: That’s exactly right. So let’s take the carnivore diet, for example. It’s really hard to overeat on meat, like it’s really hard to overeat. You can do it, especially if you’re eating really fatty meat, but for the most part meat is tough to overeat on. You will get something like … I was talking about this the other day, everybody has got something that kind of … I call it tripping their algorithm. So with keto I’ll this a lot, people say, “Man, I tried everything out there and keto, I wasn’t hungry on it and it’s just easy for me.” Or they’ll say that about intermittent fasting. For me it was flexible dieting, where I just have my protein, carb and fat targets and I hit those but I can eat whatever I want to hit those. That tripped my algorithm because that felt not restrictive to me. I didn’t mind … For some people, they hate tracking, for me it doesn’t bother me at all if I know I can have what I want if I track. But all these can work.
Just a great example I was talking about was there was a professor at the University of Kansas State named Dr. Mark Haub, I actually interviewed him a while back when I had a podcast, and as an effort to prove that calories matter and matter more that anything he did what was called the twinkie diet. So he literally ate all junk food. Now, he only ate 1,800 calories a day but it was all from junk food. But he also took a protein shake and a fiber supplement just to make sure he was getting all that stuff. And he lost like 30 pounds. And now what’s funny is people say, “Well yeah, well what about his health though?” Actually he kept track of all his blood markers and every single blood marker improved drastically. That’s because when fat cells expand they secrete all kinds of hormones that can disrupt metabolism and decrease insulin sensitivity. When you lose weight fat cells shrink, they become extremely insulin sensitive, and they stop secreting or they reduce their secretion of these hormones and they increase secretion of the things like adiponectin which increases insulin sensitivity.
So yeah, just losing the weight is the biggest part of it. Now, I’m not suggesting that somebody … Now, if you talk to Mark, he said he actually didn’t really care for the diet because even though it was junk food … Like 1,800 calories of junk food doesn’t go very far, that’s like seven Snickers bars, you can eat seven Snickers bar pretty easily throughout the course of the day and not feel that satisfied. So yeah, he didn’t like it because he seems like, “I’d rather had a big salad or something like that so I could have felt fuller.”
So I think the point is that anything can work. Keto can work, intermittent fasting can work, any diet can work. You can look at any diet and they can find testimonials of people who have lost weight, so therefore any diet can work if it creates a caloric deficit.
The question then is which diets lend themselves to being sustainable so that people can continue them and continue to keep the weight off? For some people keto works for them and they feel satisfied, they do not feel like they need to go out and eat junk food or anything like that, and it works for them. That doesn’t work for everybody. I know people who put on 30 pounds during keto because they overate butter and bacon.
So I think if somebody … I did a debate on Mark Bell’s podcast with Shawn Baker who’s the biggest proponent of the carnivore diet and I said, “I don’t think the carnivore diet is the healthiest thing you can do. Saturated fat isn’t the great evil we thought it was, but it certainly doesn’t the protective effect on heart disease like polyunsaturated fat does.” And also if you’re only eating meat you’re not eating fiber, which is a big problem. And actually Shawn admitted that you probably should be eating vegetables, he just doesn’t. But I did say, “Hey, if somebody who’s obese and they told me, ‘This is the only diet that works for me. Everything I feel like I just can’t stick to it, but this meat-only diet I can stick to.'” … Mark Bell’s brother Chris Bell says that. He’s lost like 40 pounds on the carnivore diet and his blood markers have improved because he’s lost weight. So if somebody says, “Hey, this is the only thing I can do and keep the weight off,” then that’s probably the best diet for you, to be honest.
So yeah, I think we need to stop looking at this debate over which diet is best because it’s going to be for the individual. And you said you read the book so you know that I don’t advocate for any one diet. I spend a whole chapter debunking claims from fad diets, but I don’t suggest any one diet. I just kind of say, “Hey, here’s different diets people try and you should try some. But here are the series of behaviors you’re going to have to have in order to lose weight and keep it off.” And those are self-monitoring, cognitive restraint, exercise. Exercise is a huge one. Generally people who lose weight and keep it off, they exercise. If you’re not exercising, the vast majority of people don’t keep that weight off. And also they don’t snack, they really don’t snack very much. And they usually weigh themselves daily and they do some form of cognitive restraint for example whether it’s calorie tracking, macro tracking, they’re not eating carbs, time-restricted eating.
You’re going to have to do some sort of restriction if you want to lose weight and keep it off. There is going to be a restriction on your lifestyle, but you can pick the restriction you want. So for me, the restriction on my lifestyle is I have to track my intake. But I’m not restricted from any foods I want to eat because I practice flexible dieting. If you don’t want to track your food intake, well maybe you can do something like keto and maybe that will work for you, or time-restricted eating, intermitted fasting, carnivore, whatever you want to call it. For me flexible dieting works best, but I’m not arrogant enough to think that it’s going to work best for everybody. So I think we really need to focus on giving people choices and focus on behaviors rather than bickering over which diet is better than the other diet.
Brett McKay: Right. We like to feel righteous so I think that’s why.
Layne Norton: People who get into nutrition now are like … They would have been religious zealots. It’s just ridiculous how entrenched people get in their beliefs. The thing about being a scientist and publishing literature is you have had yourself absolutely crushed, your ideas crushed, your theories crushed so many times that if you are doing it right you just don’t get that married to any one idea, you don’t, because you know that you could be wrong. I’d like to think I get it right more than I get it wrong, but that’s why I’m not selling any one particular diet in the book because I can’t very well say, “Well hey, the keto diet doesn’t work,” when there’s thousands of people who are losing weight on keto. So how can I say that, right?
So I think that people, they just want to feel like what they’re doing is better than anybody else. And this is the vegans, keto warriors, carnivore … If it works for you, fine, just don’t tell me it’s magic. That’s the only thing I tell people. I actually posted a study a while back that basically showed that low carb diets did not cause more fat loss than high carb low fat diets when calories and protein were equated and I had an interesting post on Twitter. So I posted that and somebody said, “Well that’s not true, I lost 50 pounds on the ketogenic diet.” So this is an example of what I say and what a zealot hears are two different things. So I said it was not better. What that person heard was, “He’s insulting my religion,” and said, “I lost 50 pounds on this.” And I said, “Well I’m sure you did, it’s just not magic.”
Brett McKay: Yeah. We published an article “Do Carbs Make You Fat?” and we highlighted that research. Basically it’s calories, it’s not the carbs. It’s calories. Yeah, that same response, people were like, “Well I lost weight on keto.” I’m saying that yeah, you could lose weight on that, I’m not saying you can’t, I’m just saying there’s nothing special about it except you’re eating fewer calories.
Well here’s another interesting … So okay, losing weight to be sustainable, pick whatever thing works for you in the long run, you have to exercise some sort of constraint, you need to do exercise, actually physical exercise because that will increase lean muscle mass which also helps increase your metabolism.
Layne Norton: Well actually you know what? The research on that is really underwhelming. The amount of increase … Because muscle mass is actually way less metabolically active than things like liver or intestine, those lean muscles. So the question is why would we exercise, right? Because the exercise itself seems to actually be … The interesting thing about … Your body is so good at self-regulating, so if you exercise more what tends to happen is you just move less throughout the rest of the day. You don’t realize it, but your body just actually … You do less fidgeting and you move less. So your body is conserving energy because it knows you’re exercising. So you’re not getting as big of a calorie burn as you might think.
Actually just an example of that, when I was prepping for my pro shows in bodybuilding, I had a DVD out at the time. I’ve watched it years later. I talk slower and I even blink slower. I’m not kidding you. And I talk way less. I’m a very talkative person, I’m a very extroverted person, but I was just … My whole personality changed when I dieted because my body was so hell-bent on conserving energy.
So why exercise then? Why is it so associated with keeping weight off because it doesn’t really add to your total daily calorie burn? The lean muscle, sure, you burn a few more calories but it’s not super significant. The biggest reason that exercise helps is two reasons I think. The major one is that it sensitizes you to satiety signals. They did a study in the 1950s looking at Bengali workers and they looked at sedentary people, people with a lightly active job, a moderately active job, and a heavy labor job. And what they found was from the lightly active to heavily active jobs people pretty much matched their intake without even trying. They just ate more calories and they remained in calorie balance. What they found was the sedentary people actually ate more than every other group except for the heavy labor jobs. So when you don’t exercise you have much lower sensitivity to the satiety signals in your brain so it’s easy for you to overeat, whereas when you exercise you get more sensitive to those satiety signals. Pretty cool stuff.
Brett McKay: That is very, very interesting.
Layne Norton: And then the other thing is exercise increases fat oxidation in fat cells. It increases fat metabolism turnover which seems to have a benefit for limiting fat regain.
Brett McKay: Got you. Okay, so that all makes sense. But here’s another thing you talk about in the book and I think a lot of people have problems with is whenever they do decide to start losing weight they’ll lose weight really fast. That’s probably not a good thing to do, correct?
Layne Norton: So this is where I got to give the whole story. The research shows that people who lose more weight initially tend to be the ones to keep it off. However, it has to be with a caveat that … So they found that people who maintained weight loss, they usually lost a good amount of weight at the beginning. I think losing a good amount of weight at the beginning is okay because it helps you with motivation. But what you’re not seeing, that statistics is a little bit deceiving because they’re not asking the 95% who failed how much did they lose initially. So there would be a lot of people in that sample size of the 95% who failed to keep it off who also lost weight really quickly at the beginning and didn’t sustain it.
So I think it’s okay to lose some weight quickly at the beginning so long as it’s something that is still sustainable for you. But if you’re doing something like 800 calories a day, how long can you keep that up for? Probably not very long. Now, I will say there was a case study of a guy who did not eat for a year. Did you hear about this?
Brett McKay: I have not heard about this.
Layne Norton: So he was very obese, he didn’t eat for a year, and he lost I think it was something like a 150 pounds in a year. But obviously that can’t keep going. And I would like to see where he’s at today because the metabolic adaptation to that would have been enormous. But it also goes to show that fat is your body’s energy reserve.
I think that whenever you’re looking at any plan, it’s okay to lose weight quickly at the onset as long as whatever you’re doing at the onset you can see yourself continuing to do.
Brett McKay: Got you. And then I mean as you lose weight I imagine you have to make adjustments. So if you want to lose more weight do you have to reduce calories more, for example? Say you lose the 50 pounds and then what you’ve been eating, say it’s like 2000 calories a day, whatever. So you’re doing and at a point you stop losing weight. Are you going to have to drop calories a bit more to keep the weight loss going?
Layne Norton: Right, so stalls are inevitable during weight loss. Anybody who’s lost weight for a long period of time … I’m assuming you’ve probably done this before where you’ve gone on a diet and after whatever, four, six, eight, ten weeks you stop losing weight, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah, right.
Layne Norton: So that is your body’s metabolic rate slowing down to the point where eventually it matches your intake. So that’s the first prong of the body’s self defense system. So what has happened is you have come back to energy balance. This is also why people get confused about calorie deficit. They’ll say, “Well, I was eating at a calorie deficit, I didn’t lose weight.” Well no, you were eating at what might be predicted to be a calorie deficit or maybe it was a calorie deficit for a little while but it isn’t now.
See, people get confused because they think calories in and calories out are two independent variables. But they aren’t, they’re tied together because calories in affects calories out. So what has to happen is when you hit one of these plateaus you need to recreate that deficit whether it’s with consuming less calories, increasing your activity, or a little bit of both.
Brett McKay: Got you. So it’s a process. And you also talked about one option too is if you’re trying to lose a lot of weight, like take breaks every now and then just for the psychological rest. So say you lose 20 pounds, “All right, we’ll just kind of maintenance that for a month and then go at it again.”
Layne Norton: Yeah, absolutely. I think the grind of long periods of dieting can just wear you down. So giving yourself, like saying, “Okay, I’m going to lose 20 …” Let’s say somebody had a 100 pounds to lose. Say, “I’m going to lose 20 and then I’m going to give myself a month where I’m just eating at maintenance and just trying to maintain that weight loss.” And that can be helpful for two reasons. One, it’s a mental break, and two, whenever you go on that maintenance phase it will help you maintain your metabolic rate a little bit better.
So there’s actually research on diet breaks that shows that if you use a diet break where you’re eating at maintenance for a period of a week or two, it can actually prevent metabolic slowing a little bit better than if you’re just straight dieting. So there’s a double effect: you get the benefit of you can maintain your metabolic rate a little bit better and you have a mental break from the diet. So I think that’s actually a really good way to construct things for people who are trying to lose lots of weight. Or even with my regular clients a lot of times I’ll do two weeks dieting and then one week break or three weeks dieting, one week break, or three weeks dieting, two week break, those sorts of things, or four weeks dieting, two week break. So I’ll use different iterations of that in order to kind of help keep things going.
Brett McKay: Right, it’s like a deload week with barbell training.
Layne Norton: Yeah, kind of. Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Right, kind of like that. Let’s say you want to get into running but you’re also trying to lose weight, or let’s say you want to get into barbell, power lifting, whatever. Is increasing performance in those athletic domains and losing weight, are those diametrically opposed goals, like you should go for one or the other, or can you do both at the same time?
Layne Norton: You can do both at the same time, especially running because as you get lower weight you’re going to be more efficient. I think the thing to keep in mind is that if you’re doing something like power lifting or bodybuilding or something like that, you’re not going to build as much muscle and strength as you would as if you weren’t restricted. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get stronger and that doesn’t mean you can’t build muscle. You absolutely can. Especially if you’re somebody who has a lot of body fat, you can still build muscle when you’re dieting because even though you’re in a calorie deficit you have so much adipose tissue that your body can kind of use that as a cushion to spare protein for building muscle. But as you get leaner and leaner it’ll become more and more difficult to do that.
but no, I don’t think they’re necessarily diametrically opposed, I just think you have to be honest that, “Okay, if I’m going to diet and I want to lose weight, I’m probably not going to get as strong as I possibly could as if I was not dieting.” But keep in mind in power lifting you might actually get relatively stronger for your body weight because we do have body weight correctional scores. So even though you may not get as strong as you possibly could have, absolutely, your relative strength may actually be higher. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense. That’s the Wilks score.
Layne Norton: Exactly. Well, they actually just recently changed it to something. But yes, it was the Wilks score for about 50 years.
Brett McKay: Right. Well Layne, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?
Layne Norton: Yeah, biolayne.com is my website, all of my stuff is on there. We got a bunch of free articles, we also have a members site. I think you said that you were on the site?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’m a member of the site.
Layne Norton: Awesome. So we have content, but I think a lot of people, they use it for the workout builder which is basically we have another 30 plus training templates on there for anyone from beginner to advanced for people who want to build muscle, get stronger, and we also have female-specific routines although that’s probably not my demographic on this podcast. And you can get that access to that workout builder for $12.99 a month. And I always sell, well, that’s about what you’d pay for the price of a cup of coffee at a Starbucks every week if you just went once a week, so I think it’s a pretty good deal to get customizable programming for that.
And then if you guys want to check out my ebooks you can go to the biolaynestore.com and click on the accessories tab or the direct links to each ebook, I have The Complete Contest Prep Guide which is if you’re interested in doing a bodybuilding show it’ll show you everything to do from point A to point Z and you can get that at contestprepbook.com. And then Fat Loss Forever which we’ve been kind of discussing, I mean really a fat loss manifesto. It’s almost 400 pages and basically will show you everything from how to lose weight, how to keep it off, what are the behaviors you’re going to need, what about the diet after the diet, I mean we really spent a lot of time on it. We’ve already sold like 5,000 copies in just a few weeks and people are raving about it. And if you want to get that the direct link is howtolosefatforever.com and check those out. Then I’m on social media as biolayne on pretty much every platform.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Layne Norton, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Layne Norton: Thank you Brett, appreciate the time, man.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Layne Norton, he’s the author of the book Fat Loss Forever. You can find it at his website biolayne.com. Also check at our website aom.is/biolayne where you can links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website artofmanliness.com where you can find thousands of well-researched thorough articles on just about anything: personal finances, how to be a better dad, fitness, you name it we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. Until next time, this is Brett McKay encouraging you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast but put what you’ve learned into action.