How Does a Skeptic Lose Weight?

Late last year I decided I was carrying around more flab than I wanted. I was already ten plus pounds below the peak weight I hit a dozen years ago (it turns out that when your wife gets pregnant you don’t really have to eat more – who knew?), but wanted to get down to a lower weight.

The dieting field is mined with woo. All kinds of diets claim that in order to lose weight you must eat or avoid certain foods. These claims are, for the most part, based on shaky science.

The science on weight loss is pretty clear. I chose to apply the First Law of Thermodynamics, so the key word is calories. If you absorb more calories than you burn, your weight goes up. If you absorb fewer calories than you burn, your weight goes down.

I’m someone who believes there is no such thing as “junk food” or “health food”. While there are no “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods, there are plenty of healthy and unhealthy diets. Any food is good for you if you eat the right amount, and bad for you if you eat the wrong amount. Diets that claim to be “the” way to lose weight, especially when they promote or prohibit specific foods, should raise red flags the size of Kentucky. “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much” is probably as specific as you should get when choosing a healthy diet. Get a variety of nutrients, and things will work out.

In the context of weight loss, here is what kinds of foods you’re allowed to eat:


That’s it. You don’t have to give up the foods you love, you just have to eat less of some of them. You can lose weight eating all fat and no sugar, or all carbs, or even all Twinkies. Those may not make for healthy diets, but if you eat the right number of calories you will lose weight.

Years ago when I managed to shed a few pounds it was through just trying to eat less. But I found it difficult. This time I happened upon a blog post with an intriguing hook: How I lost 30 pounds while eating a donut every day.

I recommend reading it, because I’ve validated the approach myself. I lost 22 pounds while eating the foods I love: pecan pancakes, baby back ribs, pizza and, yes, donuts. But, when I reached the end of each day’s calorie budget, I stopped eating. That’s really all there is to it.

Here’s what I suggest if you want to lose weight.

Use a BMR calculator.

There are many available on the web like this one. You do not want to eat less than your BMR, or Basal Metabolic Rate. That’s the number of calories that you’d burn if you stayed in bed all day. Getting less food energy than that means your body could go into starvation mode, That will make it harder to lose weight, and could be quite unhealthy. Besides, we’re skeptics, not masochists.

Use a logging program.

For those of you with a smart phone and/or iPad, I really like Lose It! It has a simple interface and a web page that acts as cloud storage to sync your logging across multiple devices. You can also use the web page directly. And did I mention it’s free? I also carry the LiveStrong app around with me because it sometimes has foods listed that Lose It! does not, but its UI is almost as annoying as the nag screens. The main idea is that you can’t get control of your calories until you have a budget and can count them. Just find a calorie logger you like.

Don’t rush.

I configured Lose It! for a gradual weight loss of 1 pound per week. One of the main reasons diets fail and people rebound is because they try too hard, lose the weight too quickly, and then bounce back. When I was within a couple of pounds of my goal weight I increased my calorie budget a bit, aiming for half a pound per week. The idea was to land slowly on the weight I want to maintain. It’s been a very low-stress process.

Eat on your own schedule.

Some people find it easier to eat many small meals, as many as six, during the day. I often go for one or two big ones. It really doesn’t matter, so do what is comfortable for you and lets you stick with your budget.

Don’t try to lose weight by exercising.

By all means, do exercise. The health benefits are many. But just heading to the gym to try to lose weight is likely to fail for two reasons. First, it takes a lot of exercise to make a dent in your calorie budget. It takes a lot of huffing and puffing to burn 100 calories. Having water instead of a soda at lunch will gain you 140. Second, heavy workouts are a good way to increase your appetite. So exercise for good health, not to lose weight. A bonus for when you are stable and exercising: The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn even at rest. That just ups your budget for something yummy.

So take it gradually. Walk more. Start swimming some. Don’t work out right before you eat. Exercise soon after.

Hey, I mentioned science, so there should be graphs, right? Here’s the weight chart that Lose It! provides:

As you can see, it worked. The extra noise starting in June is where I bought a digital scale and started weighing myself every day. I do that in the morning, after going to the bathroom and before eating any food. The data are noisy enough as it is without adding the variable of what you carry in your gut. That can put error bars of over 2 pounds on your measurement.

Now that I’m maintaining weight, I’ve found that it rings quite a bit. Here’s a 4-week graph.

Kinda weird and spikey, isn’t it? I find the apparent periodicity interesting, but have no good explanation for it. I present it mostly as a “don’t panic” message about your daily weight. Your goal is a reasonable range. When we zoom out and look at a smoothed year, it’s obviously a victory for the Second Law:

Some random observations:

  • Even with a calorie counter app the error bars around each day’s intake are pretty large. Don’t sweat it. Regression to the mean is your friend, and this is a long-term game.
  • After counting calories for a while you’ll learn which foods are calorie dense and which aren’t. Remember, foods aren’t “fattening” in and of themselves, but some make it easy to get lots of extra calories. And some aren’t as caloric as you’d think. For example, say you want to start your day with three large eggs, scrambled. That’s only about 300 calories. And yummy summer fruit? Chow down, because a 2 1/2″ diameter peach is a whopping 38 calories. Most breads aren’t really all that caloric, but the butter or olive oil can add up quickly. And rabbit food, like lettuce and spinach? I usually don’t even count it because it’s so close to zero calories that it’s in the noise. Buy good maple syrup, but use it sparingly.
  • Your weight will vary by a surprising amount. There will also be plateaus during the weight loss. Don’t stress. Think long term and just stick to it.
  • Some friends and family will think you’re rude, obsessively logging your food on your phone every meal. Your good friends will cheer you on.

Now that I count calories all the time, and especially at my advanced age, I’ve decided that life is too short for crappy food. I’ve become a real foodie, because I’m not blowing my calorie budget on anything but the good stuff. It’s been quite rewarding. I’ve even become a better cook. Here at work we’re fortunate to have an awesome pastry chef. So do I make sure to enjoy one of his desserts every day?

You bet your life, I do. It’s in the budget!

About Craig Good

Film maven. Foodie. Skeptic. Voice actor. Writer.
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59 Responses to How Does a Skeptic Lose Weight?

  1. John says:

    What a great post! Thanks for putting in the time to write it. I work for a company that makes indulgent products and have wrestled with my upper management about this very subject.

    I personally have struggled with weight loss; especially recently. You have provided me with some great insight and thoughts on it and I thank you for that!

  2. Ed says:

    So, “How Does a Skeptic Lose Weight?” The answer should be not like this.

    There is nothing scientific about this diet and it may actually do harm.

    Skeptics can do better.

    Simply invoking the laws of thermodynamics does not make this scientific.

    Here’s a few questions:

    Where is the evidence that supports the following claims?

    there is no such thing as “junk food” or “health food”

    there are no “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods

    here is what kinds of foods you’re allowed to eat: Whatever

    There is plenty of evidence that suggests that a diet high in carbohydrates can increase the risks for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. In addition carbs raise blood sugar, which leads to increased insulin production, which leads to fat being locked into cells.

    So, where’s the harm in this diet?

    It’s not tested. To be considered scientifically valid a specific diet should be studied under clinical, controlled, conditions, and it should be analyzed in a number of ways.

    How does this diet affect good and bad cholesterol? How does it impact blood triglyceride levels? How does affect percentage of body fat?(you can lose weight, while increasing body fat, by buring lean tissue). How successful is it for various ages and genders? How easy is it for people to follow?

    A big red flag for this post is the claim that the diet is validated by a single case. This is an acecdote. This is not science.

    Another scientific failure of this diet is it doesn’t even provide a baseline for key indicators for the N=1 dieter. What’s baseline: BMI; cholesterol levels; triglyceride levels; and how do they compare to current levels?

    On the wrong diet with the wrong foods you can increase your risk for heart disease.

    Another failure of this diet is that it only considers a single variable: weight. In this diet, burning muscle counts just as much as burning fat.

    Before going on a diet, a skeptic would have a checkup and get these blood tests, then compare after following the diet for x number of months.

    Skeptics should know better. There are plenty of diets that have been studied and found safe and effective. I personally believe that low-carb diets are the safest and most effective, but low-fat/calorie restricted diets and some calorie restrictive diets similar to this one (but not the same) have proven effective. This diet has not been proven safe or effective.

    How is this diet and this post any better than “woo” diets?

    • Craig Good says:

      I said it’s my opinion that there’s no such thing as “junk food” or “health food”. If you have evidence that there’s some food that’s always good for you or some food that’s always bad for you, no matter how much you eat, please present it. I think it’s also clear that this is an anecdote and not a study. I said I validated it, which I did, because I got results. I think all of our readers understand that this is an n of 1. Still, the results I got are consistent with the Second Law. As a friend said, “It’s hard to find exceptions.”

      As for the “whatever” claim, that’s based on the thoroughly scientific notion that weight loss is completely determined by calories absorbed vs. calories burned. If you have evidence to the contrary, again, please present it.

      Yes, the context of this post was weight loss only. Our readers are bright enough to know I’m not endorsing the Twinkie diet. The point is that, from the standpoint of weight loss, it’s all about the calories and the specific foods don’t matter. That’s not a suggestion to eat an unhealthy diet.

      I can’t quite shake the feeling that you didn’t read the post very carefully. Especially when you refer to “this diet”. It isn’t “a diet”.

      Perhaps I did assume too much by not including the standard, wise advice that it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before making major changes in diet or exercise. But the only change I suggest here is a slight reduction in calories. The risks seem pretty low.

  3. Ed says:

    >>>>If you have evidence that there’s some food that’s always good for you or some food that’s always bad for you, no matter how much you eat, please present it.

    That’s a silly argument. If you eat 1 gram of sugar, that’s not bad for you. Is that the absurd basis for your claim that no food is junk food, as long as you eat miniscule ammounts?

    There are three classes of macronutrients: Fat; protein and carbohydrates. You need minimum amounts of fat and protein, but not carbs.

    Carbs are not always bad for you, but if you eat more than 50 – 150 grams per day they are bad for you (depending on your metabolism and other factors like insuline resistance, if you’re running marathons or doing heavy cardio exercise you can tolerate more).

    >>>>I think it’s also clear that this is an anecdote and not a study.

    Yes, and therefore not scientific. So, what’s it doing on a Skeptic blog? Wouldn’t it be better suited on an alt-health blog?

    >>>>Still, the results I got are consistent with the Second Law. As a friend said, “It’s hard to find exceptions.”

    First law of thermodynamics or the second law? I’m not sure what point you’re making here. But here’s better advice: Don’t worry about the laws of thermodynamics, they’ll work themselves out.

    If you want to lose fat, and improve your health, follow a low carb diet, eat all the fat you want, eat lots of protein, don’t worry about the calories. You won’t be hungry and you won’t burn muscle or increase your risk for serious disease (type II diabetes; heart disease; cancer).

    >>>>As for the “whatever” claim, that’s based on the thoroughly scientific notion that weight loss is completely determined by calories absorbed vs. calories burned. If you have evidence to the contrary, again, please present it.

    That’s just the wrong way to look at diet. The laws of physics do not dictate that excess calories go through a complex bio-chemical process that leads to fat being stored in tissue as triglycerides. But, excess carbs raise blood sugar which raises insulin levels which sparks the process where fatty acids are bound into fat cells as tryglycerides. This happens even on a calorie restricted diet. You can actually get fat and burn muscle at the same time.

    Studies show that low-carb diets are more effective than calorie restricted diets for weight loss and they lower risk factors for heart disease.

    >>>>The point is that, from the standpoint of weight loss, it’s all about the calories and the specific foods don’t matter.

    So, where is the science that backs that up?

    >>>>you refer to “this diet”. It isn’t “a diet”.

    And how is this not a diet? You make suggestions, you recommend foods you make claims about results. Of course it’s a diet. And quite possibly an unhealthy one.


  4. Guy McCardle says:

    Thanks for sharing your weight loss journey with us Craig. I’m glad you found what works for you. I’m fortunate to have found what works for me, and that happens to be low carb eating.

    Sometimes when I read comments like these I think that people really don’t get what you are trying to say. As I see it, you came at dieting from a scientific point of view and applied that knowledge to a successful end. A calorie is a unit of food energy equal to the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. When nutrients react with oxygen in the cells of living things energy is released. If we take in more calories than we burn off, we gain weight. If we burn off more calories than we consume, we lose weight. There you have it, the world’s shortest diet book and not a mention of gluten to be found anywhere.

    I just hope to be able to get down to 144 lbs one day. Check back with me next year.

  5. Ed says:

    >>> As I see it, you came at dieting from a scientific point of view and applied that knowledge to a successful end.

    But no, that’s not what he’s doing at all. He’s applying the simplest most basic aspects of physics to the very complex process diet and metabolism, without regard for the science involved in nutrition and health.

    It’s a misapplication of science.

    >>>>A calorie is a unit of food energy equal to the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. When nutrients react with oxygen in the cells of living things energy is released. If we take in more calories than we burn off, we gain weight. If we burn off more calories than we consume, we lose weight. There you have it, the world’s shortest diet book and not a mention of gluten to be found anywhere.

    And that is totally unscientific. You can lose weight and buildup muscle if you burn lean tissue. And what about risk factors for heart disease? What about the effect on blood pressure ?

    And what about the science of human behavior? Maybe this approach works anecdotally for one or two people, but how well would it work in a randomized study? That would be the minimum criteria to call this approach “Scientific.” Psuedo-science would be a better description.

    >>>I just hope to be able to get down to 144 lbs one day. Check back with me next year.

    Good luck to you, guy. I hope you’re following one of the more scientific low-carb approaches that has been tested and found to be safe and effective. It’s much better to use the sciences of diet and nutrition, rather than basics physics, when dieting!


  6. Ed says:

    The should be: You can lose weight and build up fat, if you burn lean tissue

    : )

  7. Guy McCardle says:

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for the wish of good luck and thanks for your opinions. Personally, I’m following the principles of Dr. Atkins on my low-carb eating plan. I hate the word “diet”. I find it too restrictive. I like the science behind Atkins and using myself as an n of 1, my results have been very positive. My BMI is going down along with my BP, LDL and triglycerides. My HDL has actually risen, thus improving my HDL/LDL ratio. I even have an overall improved sense of well being. All of that and I eat foods I enjoy and I never let myself get too hungry.

    I realize there are people out there who think this is a ridiculous way to eat and that I may do damage to my kidneys. I keep a close eye on my renal functions and so far everything is fine. Weight loss turns out to be a very touchy subject. Maybe I’ll write a piece on gluten and see how that goes. 🙂


  8. Carl Nelson says:

    Trying to apply the laws of thermodynamics to ‘calories in / calories out’ makes sense on the surface, but it turns out not to work.

    Dr Mike Eades explains it well in these two blog posts:

    You can lose weight in a lot of different ways. Cut off a limb if you want it to be instant. But obviously some ways are better for you than others. What I do is try to eat as much like humans were intended to eat as I possibly can. I’m not a paleo nut though, and do enjoy non-food on occasion 😉

  9. Thanks for the article, I find it helpful to see what worked for you – and helpful to see lots of other opinions too. So all good stuff.

    I have to admit to much confusion about diet, weight, etc. My scales measure what I weigh, not my calorific anything. So if I think of my weight like an accountant might, I have the following “baance sheet”.

    Current weight = Most recent weight + whatever I took in – whatever I excreted.

    So, I can easily account for the weight of som eof the things that I took in – I could weigh my food, I could weigh the fluids water I take in. However, I am also taking in a bunch of air (oxygen, nitrogen…..).

    I could weigh some of what I am excreting – my feces, my urine, but I am losing a bunch of other things that have weight. My sweat, the exhaled gases etc. I would expect that whole mass equation to be in balance.

    That’s what the scale sees treating my body as a “black box”.

    That also defines the upper limit of my current weight. Mass doesn’t come from nowhere!

    I therefore assume that the chemical reactions taking place inside me will somehow take all the stuff that I have ingested as “food” (stuff that the body can use to make energy available) and the various gases, other liquids or whatever will result in retaining some of what was eaten + some of what was drunk + some of the breathed gases. I would like to understand a whole lot better what exactly is going on with weight – i.e. at the chemical level.

  10. Ed says:

    >>>Current weight = Most recent weight + whatever I took in – whatever I excreted.

    Your primary concern should not be about weight. Excess weight is a symptom of excess fat accumulation in fat cells.

    In the human body, Insulin is the primary regulator of fat, so you control insulin and you control whether you add fat or burn fat. Insulin is produced in response to blood sugar and blood sugar is driven by dietary carb intake.

    If you want to lose excess fat, cut the carbs. Let the the laws of physics work themselves out.


  11. Henk v says:

    Thats hardly a fair comment Ed. It smacks of fad diet zealotry.

    Its the oversimplification whilst trying to present something very complex to justify your personal food deity that would irk folk and assist others who wish to join a brigade of faddists they havent encountered till the present.

  12. Yed says:

    I used to believe that in order to loose weight you had to “balance” your calories….but that is a big oversimplification of the problem and ignores the huge amount evidence that contradicts this theory.
    There is a very important role that carbs and sugar play in gaining fat, regardless of the amount of calories you consume. I recommend watching this Authors@Google talk to better understand the role of carbs and sugar in gaining fat:

    • Craig Good says:

      I find Gary Taubes ultimately unconvincing. I was referring to him, among others, when I said it doesn’t matter what kind of food you eat (when it comes to losing weight). Because it doesn’t. Only calories matter. The idea that calories from sugar are different than calories from fat has, to my knowledge, no solid scientific basis. Again, this is in the context of weight loss and gain.

      A much better smackdown than I could do was already done by Dr. Harriet Hall on SBM. I believe that link is already in my blog post. I hope this time you follow it. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Henk v says:

    Craig, only in the initial processing. But you are correct when it comes to sustenance, intake of carbs will equate to burning of eventual fats. That recycle until they become waste product. We biologicals are damn efficient.

    For those in doubt read a good biochem text.

    It would be salient to point out that is you need to go on a diet, see your doctor. Self imposing a fad diet and self medicating supplements takes hypochondria to a whole new level.

  14. Mike says:

    Excellent post, thank you. I’ve been doing very much the same thing myself for the past 6 months or so using the website caloriecount ( which is free and as far as I can tell is science-based. Although I find their Android app is pretty much useless due to its bugginess and would like to find a good tracker for when I am not near a computer. I’ll have to see if there are Android versions of the apps you recommended.

    Anyway the plan was simple for me: eat fewer calories to the tune of undereating by about 1,000 calories per day, while ensuring that I was within a range of recommended daily values for the essential minerals and such. It really wasn’t that difficult, my previous diet sucked bad. For the healthier bit I aimed primarily at consuming less sodium, since my doctor had warned that I was on the borderline for high blood pressure. I also changed my diet to typically include foods that were rich in essential nutrients, like fruit and vegetables. But an important part of that as well was to not be totally restrictive in what I could have. If friends were going out, I’d be fine with enjoying a steak and some wine, or burger and fries.. the important thing: track it! There’s no feeling guilty or like I need to cheat myself or make excuses. It’s just part of doing things in a balanced, moderated way.

    The results, 6 months in? 45lbs lost, which is pretty close to the rate of 2lbs/week I had set out for at the beginning. For a while I was only recording weight once a week but switched to daily recording because it just seems better to have more data to even out the spikes when an “off” day just happens to be the day for recording.

    I still have a way to go as my overall goal is in the area of 100-115lbs to get to normal weight for my height, but progress has been consistent and have no intention of backing down now.


    • Mike says:

      I should clarify. When I say under-eat by about 1,000 calories, I mean compared to the total calories burned that day, which the website I mentioned gives tools to help figure out what that is. As it turns out, that value for my present weight is around the same as my BMR.

      Also, same as your graphs the losses have been consistent. Occasionally there’s been a week where there was a drop of 3-5lbs, and there have been as well more frequent weeks of 0.5-1lbs. But the vast majority of weeks have been right in the sweet spot of 1.5-2lbs.

      Last point, it turns out by comparison my present diet is much higher in carbs that my old diet. Before I was in the area of 100-150g of carbs a day (not huge on sweets or breads), but these days I’m averaging around twice that. In my case at least, eating more carbs and fewer calories has correlated with steady weight loss. *shrug*

      • Craig Good says:

        I’m relieved to hear you aren’t going below your BMR. Sounds like you’re doing exactly the right thing. Good luck with it!

  15. Mike Drake says:

    I found this post, apparently within a few days of its publication, and I’m becoming glad I stumbled on it. I started logging and weighing on Oct. 4th, and to date I’m down just over 25 lbs (though my target is only 2 lbs per week). I started doing bi-nightly pushups on the stairs (since I’ve never been able to do “real” ones, not even in high school) to try to keep a check on the possibilities of losing muscle mass. I even ate healthily on christmas day (and again the day after) but coming off the weekend, didn’t hit a dreaded “up” spike! Since I started at over 300 lbs, and my goal is in the lower half of the 200-lb range, I’m only a little over 1/3 of my way… but my progress graph, if looked at as if to find a trend line, is incredibly straight – so if it continues without flattening out or anything, I will be lighter than any time in the past 10 years by mid-June! I’ll keep you updated.

    • Craig Good says:

      That makes me very happy. I’m glad it’s working for you, and please do keep us posted.

      FWIW, modulo a couple of 2 or 3 pound excursions for Thanksgiving and Christmas, my weight has been quite stable on maintenance. And it’s not that hard to shed the holiday weight since Lose It just dials down my budget automatically.

      • Mike Drake says:

        Just checking back in – I’m down a total of just about 40 lbs now. My goal is 70 in total, though I might shoot for 80 for good measure (I know the BMI charts are a little stupid, but I’d have to hit 80 before the BMI charts stop calling me “overweight”). Thanks!

        • Craig Good says:

          Congrats on the loss! Thanks for checking back. And remember: To the extent that BMI means anything it means something about populations, not individuals.

          • Mike Drake says:

            Checking in again.
            I continued to average just a teensy bit less than 2lbs per week until the middle of march. Then 3 things happened simultaneously:
            1) I finally kicked out my ex (who was actively online-cheating with me),
            2) I started going to the gym religiously (3 or 4 times a week without exception), and
            3) I started dating again, occasionally

            Starting at this point, I hit an almost even plateau at right around 45 – 48 lbs, but couldn’t hit the 50, for about 2 full months. Then eventually (i guess after I reached a critical mass of new muscle) the loss started back up again, and I’ve now officially passed the 60 lb point. Only 10 to go until I reach my original goal of 70 total, though if I reach that without drama I plan to dial my goal down another 20 and aim for that. I also recently got 2 other people started using LoseIt – I’m just hoping they’ll be able to keep up with it as obsessively as I have, haha.

          • Craig Good says:

            Nice work, Mike. And a good reminder that weight isn’t the real goal, it’s reducing fat. Muscle is denser than fat so your gym work may have been burning fat but replacing it with muscle. Good going!

            I had a couple of plateaus as well. I wonder what causes that. (It sure wasn’t going to the gym in my case.)

          • Mike Drake says:

            I forgot to mention – after about a month of going to the gym I finally decided to get a bodyfat% scale (the highest-rated one on Amazon, by EatSmart), so I could keep track of my trend line in that department too. I was fairly sure at the time that the plateau was at least partially due to increasing muscle as I continued to lose fat, but it was frustrating just not knowing either way. So far the trend line as far as bodyfat% goes, has been positive, though the measurements are… a little shaky (but I keep a record of every day’s number, and try to look at the general trend line as opposed to specific points which tend to jump around).

          • Craig Good says:

            My scale attempts to measure body fat as well (yes, through my feet rather than hands). Just like the weight data, I find it’s pretty noisy. But there’s a pretty reliable range, so I think you’re on the right track.

          • Mike Drake says:

            Checking in again:
            I hit the 75-mark last week, just a week late for my 1-year anniversary of finding this article and starting LoseIt!.

            Oh yeah, so my original goal was 70, but when I hit that, I went ahead and dialled my long-term goal down to 100 instead of 70. A little while before that happened, I realized that the 2lb/week budget was actually giving me a number significantly below my BMR (and i was under-shooting even that number by a bit each day), so I cut back to 1 1/2lb/week, and started making sure to hit my daily budget or at least come close (and interestingly, I think doing so helped break me out of a mini-plateau I’d hit near the end of August).

            Now the challenge I’m facing is that I’ll be travelling for work for a few months, without access to my home foodstocks and a “healthy” per diem… so I’m having to totally change up my strategy. I’ll let you know how it goes!

            BTW, in case anyone is curious, here’s an anonymous album containing a bunch of “before” pictures and one “after” picture:

          • Craig Good says:

            Mike, that’s awesome! Funny you should check in just now. I was wondering if my “theory”/bias/assumption about a set point had anything to it. Last week I overindulged while on vacation and put on about three pounds on top of the two I was over. Lose It dialed me back to my 1/2 pound/week loss budget and I’ve dropped about all of those 5 pounds in a week. Now I strongly suspect that a lot of that is gut load and, since the vacation food was probably salty, water retention. Still, it does seem that it takes a lot less effort to get back to my goal weight now that I’ve been maintaining it for over a year.

            And, yes, watch that BMR. Now that I’m down at goal weight if I dial Lose It back to even 1 pound/week it drops below my calculated BMR. So I’ll stick with the “soft landing” idea. Anyway, my anecdotal two cents. Thanks for keeping us informed!

  16. Craig Good says:

    Oh, the irony!

    After Brian tweeted a link to this page I found the ad at the top was for a “5 Foods You Should Never Eat” diet woo site. Go ahead and click: I love the idea of us getting money from them.

    But, to be clear, there simply is no food that you must never eat. In fact, there’s no substance for which there is not a safe dose. There are no “unhealthy foods”. But there are plenty of unhealthy diets. It’s important to understand the difference.

    Having said that, one food on their list is fake butter. I’d have to agree that there’s no reason to buy it or margarine. I only use real butter because the calories are the same, the mix of fats healthier than margarine, and it tastes so much better. Butter, margarine, and fake butter will not necessarily keep you from losing weight. Just remember that they are calorie dense and moderate your intake. Because there is also no food or substance for which there is not an unhealthy overdose.

    • Max says:

      “In fact, there’s no substance for which there is not a safe dose. There are no ‘unhealthy foods’.”

      By that logic, there’s no “poison” either, so enjoy your hemlock, deadly nightshade, and death cap mushrooms.

      • Craig Good says:

        Yes, exactly! There is an amount of hemlock and deadly nightshade which is safe to ingest. It’s likely very small.

        That’s the genesis of the aphorism, “The dose is the poison.”

        Your body has plutonium in it right now, BTW. You’ll have a hard time naming a deadlier substance.

        • I was going to post essentially the exact same thing. I tried to make this very point with my recent inFact video here:

        • Max says:

          Reductio ad absurdum fail.
          “Poison” implies that ingesting a relatively small dose of the substance does more harm than good. If you want to get technical, we can talk about measures of toxicity like LD50 and the therapeutic index. We’d probably be better off without any plutonium in our bodies. Who knows how many people it kills or sickens.

          “Unhealthy food” is food that tends to be worse for your health than healthier alternatives. Hence, healthy diets tend to be low in unhealthy foods like sugar, trans fat, and the foods at the top of Harvard’s “Healthy Eating Pyramid.”

          Sure, it’s possible to lose weight on a “twinkie diet” if you restrict the calories, but it may be difficult because the unhealthy foods don’t fill you up, and it’s still less healthy than a balanced diet with the same number of calories.

          • Max says:

            Properties of unhealthy foods include high glycemic index, high fructose per calorie, high trans fat per calorie, high ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat, high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 unsaturated fat, low fiber per calorie, high energy density, and nutritionally unnecessary additives like artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and curing agents. Micronutrients are more complicated, but unhealthy food typically has high sodium and either few vitamins or megadoses of some vitamins.

          • Craig Good says:

            I keep trying to make this point, and people keep missing it. Let me try again. It’s not the food that is unhealthy, it’s the dose. Let’s call poison substances that have no nutritive value at any dose, and which are likely to be harmful in small ones. And food is any substance which has some nutritive value.

            Any food, then, can be part of a healthy diet, or of an unhealthy one. All foods have a range of healthy and unhealthy doses. You can turn even water into a poison if you drink too much all at once.

            Without necessarily endorsing the Harvard food pyramid, note that it is all about proportion. There is nothing “less healthy” about the foods at the top. But the dose at which they become harmful is smaller than for foods at the bottom.

            “Health food” is a marketing term of art and has no real meaning. All foods are healthy if you eat the right amount of them, and all foods are harmful if you eat the wrong amount.

            That’s why I insist that there are no “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods, just healthy or unhealthy diets.

          • Max says:

            I get your point, but you don’t get mine. It’s USEFUL to categorize things and apply different rules to different categories. Botulinum toxin is much more toxic than water. Its lethal dose is much smaller, and ingesting any amount doesn’t do you any good, so its therapeutic index is zero. Thus, the less of it you consume, the better off you are. Can’t say that about water.

            It’s impossible to make a healthy diet out of poisons. Likewise, foods I’m calling “unhealthy” make it more difficult to maintain a healthy diet. For example, a sugary soda has a high glycemic index, high fructose, doesn’t satisfy hunger, and its empty carbs throw your diet out of balance. You still need your daily protein, fiber, and vitamins, but now you have fewer options because the soda used up some of your carb “allowance.” It’s even harder when you reduce the total calories to lose weight. The guy on the “twinkie diet” cheated by drinking a protein shake, eating celery for fiber, and taking a multivitamin.

            Have you considered WHY some foods like red meat are at the top of the Harvard food pyramid, while others like fish are lower? Because of the properties of unhealthy food that I listed above. Red meat has a higher ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat than fish. You can say that a diet with a higher ratio of fish to red meat is healthier than vice-versa, but that’s virtually the same as saying that fish is healthier than red meat.

          • Your botox comment is interesting. As an organic compound it probably does have some nutritive value, and I’m not certain that if ingested, botox would have harmful neurotoxic effects the way it does when injected into tissue. The digestive system is designed to break down these kinds of substances. Beef stroganoff is also harmful if injected into tissue, but harmless if properly ingested.

            You suggest an interesting experiment. I think we can all agree that “poison” is defined by dose, and “food” is anything with nutritive value. Would it be possible to define a healthy diet using ONLY “poisonous” foods? I bet it would, if enough research and work was put into it.

          • Max says:


            Botulinum toxin is a protein, but eating it causes foodborne botulism, which can be fatal.

            A “poisonous food” contains a lot of poison per calorie, so by definition eating only a few calories worth would cause illness or death. Maybe you can eat more calories if you wash it down with a lot of water. A little fugu fish with some canned death cap mushrooms with botulinum toxin, garnished with hemlock, it’s to die for.

  17. Dennis says:

    Sounds a bit like how I lost weight: portion control (you could say I was calorie counting, but it wasn’t a strict count), and eventual addition of exercise. Gave myself permission to go “over budget” once per week, and if I did cheat, didn’t let that turn into a “well, I’ve blown it, guess I’m done” situation. Didn’t avoid any foods in particular (although I did specifically minimize “drinkable” calories, only because I got a lot of calories from drinks before that); really just going for as-small-as-necessary portions of maximum deliciousness, and trying to get bulk from veggies (but, hey, I like veggies).

    I’d just found nothing convincing in the published studies on the fad diets to convince me that anything beyond calories-in/out makes much difference. My doctor agreed.

    Lost 115 lb. over an 18 month period, and have maintained my “goal” weight +-4 lbs or so in the 18 months since. Added a workout to the mix after the first 4 or 5 months, and keep that up now, 5 days a week (about enough effort daily to burn off a donut.) My cholesterol was horrible and is now near-ideal per my primary (although I take a low daily dose of a statin because of family history), resting pulse is below 60, blood pressure was high and is now great, and the fatty liver symptoms I had are gone completely. The only remaining issue is cosmetic, in that there’s a little bit of sagged skin on my abdomen that’s slowly returning to normal.

    • Wow! 115 pounds! Congratulations.

    • Craig Good says:

      Hats off, Dennis! That’s an impressive data point. I do like your idea of budgeting in a splurge once a week or so. And I ended up doing the same with drinkable calories. I got so used to just having water with most meals as I was losing weight that I still do so, except for the milk which simply must accompany things like pancakes.


  18. beth says:

    I LOVE this! This take on losing weight is the first thing that’s worked for me and doesn’t feel impossible to keep up. I’d HIGHLY recommend the MyFitnessPal app. It’s free and has more than 3million food items, a large very active support community, ability to add recipies, track weight, water intake, exercise (which you can use to add some ‘fun’ calories back into your total for the day if you want to do that)… point being it’s incredibly versatile.

    Thanks for your comments on this! So many people can’t seem to wrap their heads around a weight loss plan that doesn’t involve expensive meetings, special foods, tight meal restrictions or insane workout routines.

  19. Max Jacob, Seattle says:

    I personally have success with the calorie-in/calorie-out concept, and I appreciate the posting here, as fad diets (yes, even low-carbohydrate ones, which have been so overwhelmingly assimilated into public consciousness) are infuriating for their pervasiveness in the face of little, or distorted, science. Atkins enthusiasts alone, with all their evangelism based on the science advanced in the book, might make me run screaming from this diet with irritation, if I weren’t a better skeptic. However much I’d like to think Atkins has NO good science, I’d be wrong. ALL good science? I don’t know enough to say.

    But Craig, it’s also irritating that your post is so proudly reductive. It’s important, as skeptics, to understand broader truths, which take into account the complexity of the world, especially when we’re talking about biology and behavior/psychology. Such reductive assertions (however technically accurate on a theoretical level) are often false in the real world, when applied to the doggedly intricate nature of human experience.

    We don’t live in petri dishes, and being a skeptic doesn’t mean being a person who views the world only through microscopes. The elements of practicality and human inclination are ones that should also not be dismissed by the truly critical thinker. Time spent arguing that carbohydrates are useless, or that one can eat as much fat as one likes and lose weight, or that one cannot consider hemlock to be a poison or twinkles to be generally unhealthy is time wasted in the proud, myopic realm of the pseudo-skeptic.

    The point you made about “starvation mode,” for instance, should be example enough of the arguable nature of your thesis in general (and bear with me; remember I’m with you on this — just doing my diligence as a fan of the site). If it’s all about calories-in/calories-out, then what is this crazy thing you call “starvation mode”? I’m only suggesting that it’s important to temper one’s fervor for simplicity with a little of the humility that one can’t help but feel in the face of this wildly, wonderfully complicated world.

    I can’t (nor do I want to) do a low-carbohydrate diet (doctor’s orders), but — like fats and proteins — I eat them in moderation. I might like to have a twinkie, but it wouldn’t be practical for me, and the chemistry of blood and hunger would make this choice an UNHEALTHY one, and yes, it makes sense for me to call this food “unhealthy” in the context of the real world. Nor would it make sense for me to look at botulism as a “food”. It’s a temptation for us skeptics to wring our hands and twist our thinking into knots in this game of semantics, but one does so at the risk of losing the essence of the truth itself.

    I’m in pretty good shape, having gotten to my goal weight last month (yay, me!) with adequate muscle tone, and I’ll keep counting calories (love that ap), and I’ll keep being petulant in spelling out the whole word, “carbohydrates” in order to sate my inner brat that wants to give “lo-carb” evangelists a secret, little “fuck you!”, but I’m taking my calorie counter and my petri dish and my scant humility, and I’m gonna keep living in this messy world where nobody could possibly sell a book called “Moderation”. But thanks for the post!

    • Craig Good says:

      Max, thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. Let me respond in some detail. First, I must confess that I don’t know precisely what you mean by “reductive”. Although my guess is that you’re responding to what I’d call polemic. Out of place in a skeptical blog? Perhaps. I do like tweaking popular beliefs in the (perhaps vain) belief that it can provoke thought.

      As for Atkins, I have no reason not to believe a famous user of the diet, who lost a famous amount of weight, and said it worked by being an appetite suppressant. Those foods are slow to digest, so you feel full for longer, so you get fewer calories. In the end, it’s the calories again. So yes, there’s some good science there even if Atkins himself didn’t.

      I not sure what to make of the “carbohydrates are useless” comment, as I never said they were, nor that one can eat as much fat as one likes and lose weight. In the context of weight loss (ie: calories) the kind of food doesn’t matter, but the quantity surely does. In the context of good long-term health the right quantity is determined by the kind.

      I’ll stand by my statement that hemlock is only poisonous in a sufficient dose, because that’s true of all poisons. I won’t call it a food because to my knowledge there is no nutrition in it. The Twinkie discussion goes afield of weight loss. A healthy diet should probably include very few Twinkies, but could include some. So my objection to the terms “Health food” and “Junk food” is that I don’t find them useful. Still, one could lose weight eating nothing but Twinkies (as has been shown). Not that I’d recommend it.

      You prompted me to look further into that “starvation mode” claim which, fair enough, I accepted with little research. It does appear to be a real thing. Whether eating less than your BMR triggers it is another question. It would seem to me that you’d never trigger it without going below BMR (net) calories, though, so it still seems like a good rule of thumb while losing weight.

      Congrats on hitting goal weight! My anecdotal evidence is that, counting calories, it can be maintained. I’ve stayed right about goal weight now for several months.

      And there’s nothing like taking on dieting fads in a public forum to burn some extra reading and typing calories.

  20. Max Jacob, Seattle says:

    Thanks for the reply, Craig. I’m running, but thought I’d clarify some points that I didn’t articulate well in my comment and questions you brought up. I think my preference for dialectic over rhetoric (on this site) is what drew me to my keyboard to chime in. For useful critical thinking, I believe this approach to be best.

    By reductive, I meant, “tending to present a subject or problem in a simplified form.” While I understand (and subscribe to) the notion that it generally boils down to calories-in/calories-out, I suspect (see “starvation mode”, for example) that there are other issues that can affect how calories are stored and burned. I also feel like it’s important, when trying to lose fat, to consider things that affect blood sugar and appetite. You say you subscribe to the Atkins approach, and respect the experience of those who have had success in this, but (and I haven’t read the book — only heard the overview and done a little googling) isn’t one of the tenets of the diet the fact that you can eat more caloric fats and proteins as long as you avoid carbohydrates? From what I understand, this isn’t just about balancing calories. Again, I shouldn’t speak to this specific diet, as I haven’t read it (bad, Max!), but I’m just using it as an example of an approach to losing weight that looks beyond calorie counting, and as a layperson, I need to be open to whatever the science is.

    My suspicion is that people who have success with this diet (and I’ve known many), succeed because they become more aware of what they’re eating, and learn to limit food (calories), despite whatever notions they have about triglicerides and ketosis and glucose. I have no expertise, but this is what I suspect. I’ve also known people who’ve had success losing weight by counting fat grams, and again, I think you might agree with me that this is just a matter of limiting calories. But this is only what I suspect, I admit.

    I should have mentioned that the “carbohydrates are useless” comment and the “eat as much fat as you like” were references to another commenter in this thread — one who advocated the Atkins diet. I can’t speak to how well he was representing the views of the book (I’m sure he was being a bit… reductive, haha!), but I was using those examples, along with the twinkie and hemlock ones, in order to try to point out how a stubborn truth, taken to its most simple extreme, can be a hazard to a larger, pragmatic “truth”. I do see the difference between their point on fats and your point on hemlock, though (one is actually false, while the other is “true”, technically), and perhaps it was an unfair conflation on my part. But words like “unhealthy” and “poison” are useful in real life, and it’s burdensome when they’re asterisked and qualified by fine print. As humans, I think we interpret these words with some basic understanding. Nobody would say that a crumb from a twinkie is terrible for you (although its pros might be outweighed by its cons), and I think we can agree that a person starving and stranded in a desert should DEFINITELY EAT THAT TWINKIE! It is GOOD for them. But I really do want that box of rat poison to be labeled “poison” with a bright skull and crossbones, please. It’s as accurate a label as I need it to be.

    I think I understand where you’re coming from with your points about those words, though; “healthy” is used in ways that make little sense in both popular culture and in marketing, and the pseudoscience boggles the mind. An examination of the foods in the “health food” aisle of your grocery store is enough to make one lose one’s biscuits. Still, making broad gestures with simplified labels can be useful and time saving as shorthand for us laypeople, and if we keep ourselves on our toes with articles like yours and a critical mind, the rough edges can be a little less rough. It would be horrendous to expect perfect accuracy in the practical, daily application of words describing food, and I know that you’re just poking at the limits of our understanding of these words. I’m just poking back a little, haha.

    Be well.*

    *by “well”, I mean… oh, never mind…

  21. Thanks for the post; essentially what I have been doing.

    I do think it is worth while encouraging people to eat foods with food nutritional value – while weight gain may be the key point in this post, it’s not much good if we’re not getting the essential amino acids we need to function well.


    • Craig Good says:

      I do hope people eat a healthy diet. My main point (that keeps getting lost, apparently) is that there are no magical foods to eat or avoid that will have an impact on weight loss other than their caloric content.

  22. Jay says:

    You’ve confused the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. The fact that weight loss must occur if caloric expenditures exceed caloric intake is a consequence of the first Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law deals with entropy, not energy balance.

  23. Ed says:

    Hey Craig, It’s been over 6 months, how is the diet going? Lost weight? Changed BMI? Improved risk factors for chronic disease?

    Same questions for you, Guy


    • Craig Good says:

      Just saw your comment. I’m still maintaining my weight, spending most of my time within +1.6 and -1 pounds of the goal. My weight curve is still pretty noisy, but has stretches of surprising stability. “Lose It!” restricts my budget if I get something like 2 pounds over, but I usually catch it before that. I haven’t been evaluated lately for risk factors, but the last blood tests were all hunky dory. BMI? Don’t know and don’t care much. But my scale makes an attempt to measure my body fat percentage, and that has been pretty steady. Back at the Pixar health fair they used one of the hand grip computers and told me I was at about 12.5%. That night my scale said 8.5% or some such, so I just add a fudge factor to what it says, and mostly watch it as a trend indicator. And it’s been saying 8.1 – 8.7% pretty consistently.

      FWIW, I had about a three or four pound spike with Thanksgiving, but it was pretty easy to get rid of. I suppose that’s anecdotal evidence for a “set point” and that I’ve reset mine. I do still count calories every day to keep me from eating everything I’d like to, though.

      Which is a long way of saying, “Pretty well, thanks.” You?

      • I’m now four pounds away from my goal, and am at my all-time low since college. I rarely count calories anymore though. I quickly got an idea of what kind of things I should eat and how often, and so long as I’m in the ballpark, the scale keeps going down.

      • Ed Stockly says:

        Just saw your response. I’m doing pretty good too. I’m at 190 lbs. My lowest on low-carb was 180, and my weight fluctuates up or down by two or three pounds daily.

        I still eat as much as I want and never go hungry. I’m also in much better shape and have more stamina, and getting better every week.

        My BMI is 26.5; which is slightly overweight. (At 180 I was normal weight).

        Don’t think I’ll ever go back to my previous diet pattern. I’m eating better and feeling better than ever before. Bacon and eggs for breakfast every day, plenty of veggies plus good meat. When I’m hungry, I eat as much as I want until I’m full, then I stop. I never go hungry. My bloodtests were great. Triglycerides were cut in half; hdl up; ldl unchanged, but low enough that the Dr. didn’t think it was worth doing the particle size test. Blood pressure is better (wasn’t bad before).

        Haven’t estimated by fat/lean ratio since I started.

        This “trend” will never “blow over” Julie. In clinical trials Low-carb-high-fat diets have been proving the most effective strategy to burn excess fat while preserving or building lean tissue and improving risk factors for chronic disease.

        It’s the fear of eating fat that’s irrational!


  24. julie says:

    I’ve been doing this moderation and portion control stuff, and while I don’t especially care for donuts or Twinkies, I still eat a bit of chocolate or candy almost every day, and it’s been working out just great for me. I’ve been maintaining about a 50 pound loss, trying to lose about 10 more, and it’s slow but getting there. It’s so nice to find people who aren’t afraid of carbs, I can’t wait for this trend to blow over.

    • Craig Good says:

      Fifty pounds? Congratulations! Jay has a point – if you’re using “Lose It!” or some other calorie logger you might want to re-enter your diet plan from scratch starting at your current weight to make sure it comes up with a reasonable calorie budget for the pounds you want to lose.

      As you probably know, I think going slow on those last ten pounds is a smart idea. You’re much less likely to rebound, and you probably already feel much better than 50 pounds ago.

  25. Jay says:

    Julie, if you’ve lost 50 lb, and are now maintaining your body weight, to lose more weight you’ll have to reduce your calorie consumption more or increase your physical activity level. At your lower weight, your body needs fewer calories than it did at your higher weight, simply because it takes less energy to support a body that is 50 lb lighter. So if you find you’re just maintaining weight now, then you have to cut back a little more on food or increase a little more on exercise.

  26. Frank says:

    Brian, I want to thank you for changing my life around.

    On 16 April 2012 I happened to come across this article by you. The next morning, 17 April 2012, I started the Loseit! program. 4 1/2 months later I had lost 35 pounds.

    I was floored by the very simple fact of weight loss or weight gain you noted:
    “I chose to apply the First Law of Thermodynamics, so the key word is calories. If you absorb more calories than you burn, your weight goes up. If you absorb fewer calories than you burn, your weight goes down.”

    All I did was made sure I stopped eating when I reached my daily calorie level to lose 1.5 pounds per week. As a result, I ate less breads and less cheeses, but only so that I would not be hungry at the end of the day by loading too many calories early on. And surprise… it worked!

    Now I am not saying anything about whether I am healthier being “normal” weight vs. “overweight”. I do enjoy working out more now than I did when I felt “too large” at the gym, so as a result I get more exercise. All I am saying is I feel much better and enjoy the fact that I can wear smaller clothing. I hope this post, and Loseit!, helps someone else do the same!

    Thanks again Brian!

    • Craig Good says:

      Frank: Ain’t science grand? I’m very glad it worked out for you. In my case, I’m still on Lose It! just to maintain my weight, logging every day. I’m pretty much never more than one and a half pounds over my goal weight, because it automatically throttles my calorie budget when my weight sneaks up. A rather painless process, all in all.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  27. Alice G says:

    The should be: You can lose weight and build up fat, if you burn lean tissue

    : )

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