A sample of some of Lyle McDonald's books.
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” but mostly it was just plain fattening.

After fighting off my daily caramel latte and energy bar addiction, and eating lean and clean for a couple months, a “cheat day” turned into a “cheat week,” which was immediately followed by a “little vacation.” Then came the struggle to get back on track.

In total, it was three weeks of dietary debauchery, enough to make the scale wince, my paunch poof, and my pants tight. And I hate tight pants.

Funny how our momentum can swing one way or the other – throwing us off orbit – and how challenging it can be to find balance once again. So now the immediate goal is to get back on track, and find that sweet spot where preparing and cooking all my own meals was the norm, and treats were reserved for the actual special occasions.

If sweets like these start becoming the norm instead of an occasional treat, don't expect to see any progress on the scale anytime soon.
If sweets like these start becoming the norm instead of an occasional treat, don’t expect to see any progress on the scale anytime soon.

On some level, it is perhaps the biggest challenge we all face; finding that place in our dietary lives where we can nourish ourselves completely and keep our athletic or aesthetic goals in sight, without feeling deprived. It’s a tightrope we walk, and in all my years in health and wellness, few people I know traverse the line perfectly – without shaking or shifting or stumbling and falling off from time to time.

To get our footing, we sometimes look for external cues, from the people and books and media all around us. And one of those folks who may be able to help is Lyle McDonald, a researcher and author of eight books, most focused on diet and fat loss. His name may not ring a bell in the pop culture community, but among trainers, athletes and coaches, his no nonsense style, research based texts, and information dense Body Recomposition website, have given him a loyal and growing underground following.

Currently based in Austin, we talked in general terms about the state of obesity, then got into some of the details of diets and fat loss. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

Author Lyle McDonald.
Author Lyle McDonald.

So, why are we all so fat?

The trite answer is that it’s multi-factorial and the interaction of lots of factors – we eat too much and we move too little, but that’s incomplete. We sort of evolved to be opportunistic, getting as much food as we can when we could. But in the modern world, that’s a problem, since we’re surrounded by high calorie, tasty food. The environment we have now makes it easy to achieve those things with very little work – we can get anything, anytime, anywhere – and here in Austin we even have a drive-thru liquor store. But a lot of the reason we eat has nothing to do with hunger. It can come from social cues and triggers like commercials, and billboards and everything else we’re surrounded by. In that environment, the majority find it hard to fight. So in the end, it’s psychological, biological, environmental, etc.

What can we do about it?

People propose broad, sweeping changes like taxes on junk food and limiting the size of soft drinks. While optimistic, I just don’t see them working. Humans will find ways to get around it – like buying two smaller drinks instead of one. Other changes, like improving city design to make it easier walk around, those are great ideas, but I don’t know if they’re workable or possible. It comes down to personal responsibility with regard to eating habits and activity habits, and finding way to maintain those long term. And doing that forever is the hard thing.

Getting out and staying active seems to be especially beneficial for folks looking to maintaing their weight.
Getting out and staying active seems to be especially beneficial for folks looking to maintain their weight.

Where are we going wrong?

People want to find a singular enemy, and I’ve watched that over the last 30 years and it never works. We fixate on a single factor and miss the big picture. It sells a lot of books, but it doesn’t fix the problem. And we also have to recognize that some people just don’t give a damn, which is why we have a fat acceptance culture here in the U.S. In Japan, that doesn’t happen because it’s not socially acceptable. But here, for better or worse, we have a fat acceptance movement.

For the people that are trying, they’re failing for lots of reasons, and most people fail at any behavior change in the long term. So, it’s not a question of what the best diet is, it’s why can’t we do things in the long term, and figuring out why we’re all so resistance to change, that’s the problem.

People pick unsustainable approaches; they latch onto a magic diet then get bored, or find programs that are too restrictive. But there’s an underlying attitude that it’s all short term. To be successful, you have to repeat some aspects of those habits for life. Most anyone can do anything for a couple weeks, but to repeat those behaviors forever? Few people start a program and think: “Wow, I don’t get to do something I enjoy for the next 10 years.” That approach doesn’t exist in the diet world.

So everyone slips, just don’t let it drive you crazy. People blow it and throw in the towel if they have one thing that’s not on their program, or if they’re not 100 percent perfect. They create this mentality that if you cheat, you’re weak, and that creates a new kind of eating pattern.

Assuming we find a program we like, what’s the easiest way to determine if we’re actually losing fat on a diet vs. water weight or other tissue?

There’s no easy or perfect way to do this. Quick weight loss is almost always water shift, with some fat loss. Once you get past that first week, then you usually have actual fat loss. One of the benefits of being really fat is that you tend to lose a greater amount of fat, especially in the beginning. if you’re leaner, you have a higher chance of losing other tissue. For monitoring progress, you can try BMI calculators, or circumference measurements, but even things like bioimpedance scales can be a bit inaccurate. However, if your strength levels stay consistent while you’re losing weight, that’s a good sign. For the really (overweight), it’s something not to worry about too much. So long as the diet isn’t idiotic, which means too little protein, you’re probably going to be fine.

What’s the importance of exercise vs. diet when it comes to fat loss?

For decades we heard that if you exercise the weight will take care of itself. But for most people, the amount of exercise they can do, and the intensity that they can sustain is not very high. Unless they do high amounts every day, it’s not going to have much of an impact. The only people who can burn a lot of calories during exercise, are the very fit. So, diet tends to have the bigger effect in terms of quantitative impact. Exercise does have an impact on maintaining lean body mass, and active folks tend to stick to their diets more, but they can also flip the other way and overcompensate with caloric intake.

So exercise is a bit of a mixed bag. Where it really shines is with weight loss maintenance. Being consistently active helps.

A sample of some of Lyle McDonald's books.
A sample of some of Lyle McDonald’s books.

What about some of common misconceptions out there – like what happens if we don’t eat every three hours, does your body and your metabolism completely crash?

That’s one of the longest standing myths ever, and it came from mice and rat research. Fasting for three straight days will actually raise metabolism, and eating frequency and its impact has more to do with personal preference and lifestyle than anything else… For a big guy with a fair amount of calories to consume, dividing that into six meals a day may work, but for a small female, dividing her daily caloric needs into six tiny feedings may not be satisfying.

Speaking of fasting, what are your thoughts on the subject?

The preliminary data looks pretty good. In some people it can become a binge/purge cycle, and that can be a problem. It can also be problematic if you go nuts on that one meal. At the end of the day, you always have to pay attention to how much you’re eating. With athletes doing a lot of volume it doesn’t seem to work well for them. It seems to work better for recreational or casual exercisers. Psychologically, it can also get you off the mindset of when you’re supposed to eat… With short term fasting – 14 to 16 hours or even a full day – hormones shift to mobilize food and that can be beneficial. Those spikes can help mobilize fat and fuel. And for anyone worrying about going catabolic, dieting by definition is catabolic, you can’t get around that if you’re losing fat.

Any particularly interesting research you’ve come across lately?

Research has gotten so detailed, and there’s so much of it, that lately it’s gotten to the point of explaining why what works, works.

The point is we already know what works, it’s just a matter of getting people to do it.

For the die hard exercisers and athletes, they’ll do whatever you say, but they’re the minority. The bigger group is everyone else, and any program will work for someone who has to lose 50 pounds… One of the problems with research in this area is that no one talks to anybody else; you have the scientist on one side an the behaviorist on the other and they don’t talk much to each other.

We know that obesity is contagious insofar as that it can be dictated by social circles. Addiction programs make it clear – if you’re an alcoholic, don’t go to the bar. The problem with food is that you can’t escape it, unless you seclude yourself in a cave or desert. It’s a terribly difficult environment to be in, which is why bodybuilders and athletes sometimes turn themselves into hermits to avoid it. But the average person can’t do that. That makes finding the answer damn near impossible.

What’s the best tip you can pass along for folks interested in fat loss?

Be patient – that’s the biggest one. No matter how much progress we make, people want it to happen even faster, no mater what. If they lose one pound, they’re distraught that it wasn’t two, so they get frustrated and annoyed.

We can argue about programs forever, but the reality is they all work and they all fail. The common behavior pattern is being consistent. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes and go on. Progress will happen as long as you do what you need to do over time.

As an expert and author on the topic, what are principles you follow on a daily basis to keep your own bodyfat  levels in check?

I was a chunky kid, which is one of the things that moved me into this field. At this point it’s a lot of habit. The biggest change I made from when I was younger, was that I was compulsive and tried to be perfect, and when I failed at that, I would binge. So for me, having a flexible diet helps. If I want something sweet, I’ll get it and eat it and be fine and not freak out about it. But that came with a lot of time and practice. I’m pretty consistent with my eating now and try not to worry about the little diversions. In the long run, that works for me, and the more I do it, the more ingrained and easier it becomes.

Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His column, “The Feed,” covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.

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