3 Ways You Could Be Unknowingly Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Efforts

Diet discourse was back in the headlines recently after Matt Walsh got into a spat with indignant dieters who claim weight loss has been anything but simple and straightforward for them. They accused the media personality of being ignorant of the unique struggles some people face in maintaining their weight – but who’s right?

By Jaimee Marshall9 min read
Pexels/Anna Shvets

Matt Walsh recently got in hot water on X/Twitter and addressed the backlash on his show. It all started when Raw Egg Nationalist posted a 1992 study from the New England Journal of Science, which identified a discrepancy between obese people’s self-reported caloric intake and exercise and the actual amount that they were eating and moving. The caption read, “Remember that when fat people tell you they can't lose weight even when they're starving themselves – they're lying.” An inflammatory statement? Sure, but oftentimes it’s true. This is a well-established phenomenon. Most people drastically underestimate the number of calories they consume while they overestimate the number they burn. As you can imagine, this gives the person the illusion that weight loss simply “doesn’t work for them” since they’re “doing all the right things.” But they’re not doing the right things. That’s the problem. 

Matt Walsh added his two cents in a quote tweet that read, “A bunch of people on here got mad at me recently because I said that literally anyone can lose weight simply by eating less and exercising more. But it’s obviously true. The idea that overweight people remain overweight even with dieting and exercise is asinine. It’s actually a scientific impossibility.” This enraged all facets of people – those who are overweight, obese, chronically ill, suffering from metabolic damage, or who have a hormonal imbalance from a condition like PCOS. These people rushed to the comments to offer their obligatory “not all” interjection, completely missing Walsh’s point.

Self-Limiting Beliefs Are Holding You Back from Weight Loss Goals

Replies were filled with condescending responses insisting that Walsh simply doesn’t understand the unique challenges faced by people suffering from obesity, and that may be true, but what is delusional is the insistence from many in these replies that everyone in this comment section is magically impervious to the laws of thermodynamics. Some even claimed that they exercise five days a week and stick to a rigid diet but fail to lose a single pound. Walsh jokes, “There has never been a single case of somebody being stranded on a desert island for months with little to no food, and then when they’re rescued, everyone’s shocked to see that they’ve put on weight during the experience. Never happened once in history.” Walsh even granted that weight loss is harder for some people, but his main contention is with the dogmatic denial of the basic laws of physics. Walsh never said weight loss was easy, just that it’s simple and straightforward. 

Then, there was this viral X post, where @realgirl_fieri said, “I am so so sick of reading these ‘just eat less and move more! It’s free!’ Takes. Listen, I am 37. In the last 8 months, I ran 2 half marathons. I am up at 5am 5 days a week to run and lift for an hour before my kids wake up because it’s the only time I have. I cook at home daily.” 

She continued in the thread, “I cook very healthy food. But guess what? I’m fat. Yep, fat. I had 2 babies in 2 years, I am 37 so my metabolism is maybe wacky idc. Even hardcore intermittent fasting for a year all I lost was 5lb. I stopped that bc who wants to be crabby and hungry most of the time.” 

She added that the amount of investment she already makes in time and money is significant for a mother of two young children, causing her to sacrifice sleep she desperately needs just so she can work out. She went on to bemoan the cost of workout gear – about $200-$300 a month despite not going to a fancy gym like Equinox. This is, she says, to cover access to a Peloton bike and treadmill as well as upkeep of her sneakers, a decent sports bra, and hydration packs. She lamented how exhausting it is to cook healthy meals for four people with different schedules, tastes, and opinions. The cost of choosing healthy, fresh food options is expensive, she says, even though they are shopping at Aldi and clipping coupons. Her conclusion? She puts in the work, it’s just exhausting, time-consuming, and expensive, and in the end, it has still left her fat and demoralized, while her doctor refuses to speak to her about anything but.

Here’s where she, and the people in Matt Walsh’s comments, are going wrong. It’s one thing to acknowledge that weight loss, and more specifically, fat loss, takes hard work. It takes impulse control, consistency, dedication, conscientiousness, and willpower. What it is not, however, is complicated. There are a number of issues with Girl Fieri’s points here, which I will take the time to rebut, not because I want to dunk on someone trying their best, but because I think this information will help her and many others like her realize where they could be unintentionally self-sabotaging.

Metabolic Issues Are Greatly Overstated

Yes, it’s true that an array of hormonal and metabolic issues like insulin resistance can make it more difficult to lose weight, but the extent to which people harp on this is greatly exaggerated and applied to people who have no such metabolic or hormonal issues. Where these obstacles do exist, they are greatly exaggerated. Like Walsh said, if you were to just stop eating, you would lose weight (not that you should). This means thermodynamics still applies to you. To object to Walsh’s point that weight loss boils down to an energy balance, where you must consume fewer calories than you burn to lose weight, is to reject the fundamental principles of weight loss. Even in cases where challenges are present, they do not make weight loss an impossibility; they merely pose an additional hurdle that requires intentionality and a strategy.

Researchers found that the obese participants in this study’s real problem was one of perception, not any real health condition or abnormality in energy expenditure.

So, let’s talk about it. That infamous study that Raw Egg Nationalist and Matt Walsh were discussing? That study found that supposedly diet-resistant participants underreported their actual food intake by an average of 47% and over-reported their physical activity by 51%. Despite no distinct psychopathologic characteristics, these participants perceived a genetic cause for their obesity, used thyroid medication at a high rate, and described their eating behavior as relatively normal. The conductors of the study concluded that the prime reason for failure of some obese people to lose weight while eating a diet they report as low in calories (they believed they restricted to less than 1200 calories per day) is due to a disjointed perception in how much they are eating and how much physical activity they are engaging in, not to any abnormality in thermogenesis. In layman’s terms, researchers found that the obese participants in this study’s real problem was one of perception, not any real health condition or abnormality in energy expenditure. Their self-limiting beliefs stood in their way of realizing they had agency and meaningful control over their body weight.

The popular belief that our metabolism slows down with age does not bear out in scientific studies. Your metabolism is not meaningfully slower than a 20-something just because you are 37. This sneaky perspective problem could be the source of Girl Fieri’s weight loss woes. A recent 2021 study published in the journal Science found that metabolic rates remain stable throughout adult life, including pregnancy, and do not plateau until 60 years old. One of the study’s authors, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology Herman Pontzer, says, “There's no effect of menopause that we can see, for example. And you know, people will say, 'Well, when I hit 30 years old, my metabolism fell apart.' We don't see any evidence for that, actually.” So, no, you are not burning fewer calories at 37 as a mere consequence of aging. Other factors are at play, like food intake, activity level, and sleep quality.

Caloric Ignorance

There are a number of red flags in just Girl Fieri’s very first tweet. She lists a number of self-descriptors and lifestyle choices as if she believes they are indicative of habits related to weight loss, but we aren’t given the most pertinent information that would make the difference between being in a caloric deficit or not. Running two half marathons in eight months does not inherently mean you will lose weight. Here, we have a deficit of information related to her energy balance. How much is she eating while training for these races? Is she overestimating the number of calories she’s burning on her runs and overcompensating through her diet? These are common problems that arise when people take beliefs like “running burns a lot of calories” at face value with little knowledge about weight loss. 

The truth is, running doesn’t burn a whole lot of calories. The average person burns 100 calories per mile of running. Some people find this an efficient way to burn calories because it doesn’t significantly spike their hunger. For others, running can make them gain weight because they spike their cortisol, overestimate how much they’re burning which leads to eating back exercise calories, and could also cause water retention. Ultimately, it depends on how you specifically respond to high-impact exercise. If it makes you insatiably hungry, then it may be counterproductive to your weight loss goals. Girl Fieri mentions she does a mix of weight lifting and running one hour a day, five days a week. That’s a lot of exercise! If someone is doing this much exercise and not losing a single pound, then it’s time to reassess your plan. She mentions she sacrifices quality sleep to make time to workout. This could be hindering her weight loss goals. The combination of sleep deprivation and frequent, high-intensity workouts could be leading to sneaky excess calorie consumption. 

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make and could account for why this mother feels defeated and like all of her efforts are wasted. It can be frustrating to seemingly be doing everything right, i.e. eating “healthy” and frequently exercising, but this has more to do with health outcomes than weight loss if you’re not actually tracking or in tune with your calorie expenditure. You might think you’re burning a ton of calories because you do a one-hour high-impact exercise five days a week, but we don’t know how much movement you’re getting the rest of the day. If you would simply track your caloric intake (carefully and honestly), we could figure out any discrepancies by determining your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

Even the most accurate (and expensive) fitness trackers are off by a significant margin when it comes to caloric burn estimates. 

It doesn’t matter how supposedly healthy and nutritious the food you’re eating is if you’re overshooting your maintenance calories by 1,000 calories a day. If you do this, I promise you, you will gain weight. Others sabotage their weight loss by putting too much stock into the caloric burn estimates provided by fitness trackers, of which even the most accurate (and expensive) trackers are off by a significant margin. A 2020 study found that Apple watches overestimated calories burned 58% of the time, while Polar watches overestimated calories burned 69% of the time.

Here’s where Walsh’s advice should feel empowering and like a relief to those struggling with their weight. Rather than trudge along the endless weight loss hamster wheel by continuing to make the same mistakes, it’s time to do some self-reflection. If you can’t tell me precisely how many calories you eat in a day, I don’t want to hear that weight loss methods “don’t work for you.” Let’s see you meticulously track your calories for a week. Then, use a calorie calculator and figure out how many calories you should be eating for someone of your size and activity level. You’d be shocked how much of a difference this makes. It’s the only meaningful difference, but it’s frustratingly the least discussed because of the sheer volume of fitness influencers and product pushers who would rather you internalize these self-limiting beliefs so they can sell you miracle cures. 

Let’s talk about calories. This is the single most important piece of information you need to know if you want to break free from the obesity hamster wheel. You need to:

  1. Know how many calories you need to consume in a day to maintain and to lose weight.

  2. Understand the various ways you can achieve this caloric deficit (through diet, exercise, or a combination of the two).

  3. Develop an understanding of the caloric content of the foods and drinks you consume.

  4. Find simple, stress-free swaps that make restricting calories less painful than it needs to be. 

If you are “tracking” calories and not getting results, be honest with yourself. Are you tracking everything? A tablespoon of olive oil is 119 calories. Let’s say you cook your meals with oil in a frying pan, but don’t think to count the oil when you track your caloric intake for the day. If you’re using multiple tablespoons of oil or cooking with oil multiple times a day, this can add up. It’s what I mean by sneakily sabotaging yourself. It’s easy to do if you aren’t aware of it.

The Importance of Caloric Education

Girl Fieri mentioned that even “hardcore intermittent fasting for a year” only resulted in anticlimactic results – a measly 5 pounds. She stopped intermittent fasting because it made her feel irritable and perpetually hungry. It’s hard to know exactly what hardcore intermittent fasting is supposed to be if not just emphasis on the consistency and dedication it took to stick with it for a year. Intermittent fasting produces weight loss the same way every other diet does, by putting you in a caloric deficit. There is nothing uniquely magical about intermittent fasting. It’s merely easier to adhere to caloric restriction psychologically for some people by limiting their eating window for the day. The fewer hours of the day they have to eat, the fewer calories they will consume. That’s the principle, anyway. In practice, if you aren’t actually tracking your calories or at least in tune with the amount you’re eating, intermittent fasting will sorely disappoint you by burdening you with all of its inconveniences and none of its benefits. If you don’t want to constantly track calories, intermittent fasting can be a simpler, more convenient way to consume less without much thought and planning, but it won’t work if you end up consuming the same amount of calories as you normally would, just in a shorter eating window.

Only 5-10% of calories burned come from intentional exercise.

There are other health reasons people do intermittent fasting, but as a weight loss tool, it always has to come back to the energy balance. If the number of calories you consume is equal to the number of calories you burn, you will maintain your weight. Similarly, if you eat less than you burn, you will lose weight. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Not all calories are equal. Fat contains the highest number of calories per gram (at 9 calories) compared to protein and carbs (4 calories per gram). Sure, if you want to be very specific, technically a calorie is not a calorie. However, that phrase has been weaponized to fuel a defeatist attitude that nurtures learned helplessness rather than aid in the agency of the individual struggling with their weight. The thermic effect of food only accounts for 10% of energy expenditure, while 60-70% comes from your BMR and 15-30% comes from physical activity. When we break down physical activity further, we can split it into exercise and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which would be any movement that isn’t intentional exercise. Only 5-10% of calories burned come from intentional exercise, while 15-20% come from NEAT.

As you can see, certain tweaks in your lifestyle can make all the difference, i.e. prioritizing a high protein diet that will keep you satiated for longer and a more efficient use of calories, as well as increasing your movement throughout the day (which can make a bigger difference than exercising for an hour if you’re constantly sedentary the rest of the time), and putting on lean muscle to increase your BMR. None of this undercuts the reality of thermodynamics or the meaning behind “a calorie is a calorie,” which is to say that all calories are just a unit of energy and you must balance the energy equation by keeping calories in and out equal to maintain your weight, or create a deficit through diet or exercise to lose weight. It may not be the entire picture, but it is meaningfully correct. This study, which compared weight loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbs, concluded that reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize. You would be better off understanding the caloric density of foods. One of the reasons obese people may feel like they gain weight despite “not eating that much” is because they eat foods that are super calorically dense and low in nutritional value and satiety. This could look like eating candy bars, cookies, chips, fast food, sugary and alcoholic drinks, ice cream, nut butters, and cream-based sauces, as well as processed and packaged foods. If someone eats a number of these high caloric density foods in a day, it’s not a very smart or satiating use of calories, which increases their risk of feeling hungry and needing to eat more. 

Without caloric education, you might not have any idea that 100 grams of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups contain 515 calories and think you just had a small snack, but what if this “small snack” is what’s erasing your daily caloric deficit? In the iconic British documentary TV show Secret Eaters, overweight families who are insistent that they cannot lose weight despite their belief that they don’t eat much food are documented under 24 hour surveillance. Through this surveillance, it revealed that they are “secret eaters,” who sneakily over consume without noticing how much they are eating. They drastically underestimate the calories they are consuming throughout the day, often through small habits, like one participant’s habit of pouring double cream into his cereal, unknowingly adding 1,400 calories to his cereal. Despite estimating a daily caloric intake of about 2,700 calories, his actual caloric intake was revealed to be a whopping 8,000 calories. The lesson? Never underestimate your ability to fool yourself. 

Closing Thoughts

When it comes to overcomplicating weight loss, most of us have been there. We’ve all made mistakes. Refusing to take responsibility for these mistakes will not give you the results that you want. It’s not a mystery why the United States has such a large percentage of overweight and obese people compared to the rest of the world. We consume more food in larger quantities and move less. We are a nation suffering from a surplus of caloric consumption and inadequate activity. The solution is obvious, which is what so many do not want to hear. Weight loss is simple, but it’s also simple to underestimate how much you’re eating and overestimate how much you’re burning. 

By educating yourself about these weight loss pitfalls, you become better equipped to deal with unintentional self-sabotage and set yourself up for long-term success. If you would rather bury your head in the sand and convince yourself it’s because you are 37 or had two kids or because you didn't spend enough money or because it’s infeasible to purchase healthy food for a family, these are copes. They are completely understandable copes, but copes nonetheless. It doesn’t make you a lesser person, it just means that you are making weight loss more difficult for yourself than it needs to be. At your core, you believe weight loss is difficult, mystical, elusive. I promise you it isn’t. 

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