Losing weight is often the holy grail of people’s health. Millions of people set this alluring goal for themselves every January 1, yet almost never reach it. Many of the currently popular strategies are based on superstitions or outdated ideas, and therefore don’t provide lasting change. Often they may not work at all.
The good news is we have finally figured out what people are doing wrong. Now we have found a corrected way that is much more likely to get you the results you’ve been seeking. While there are no shortcuts or quick fixes — real effort and consistency is still required — the process is more straightforward and efficient than you may expect.
This guide is based on our current understanding of the human body and backed up by many studies. Figuring out practical ways to implement the insights in your real life is as much of an art as a science. Much of this guide is our opinion or strategic interpretation of the raw data and finding ways to incorporate it in your daily routine, coming from years of real-world testing and validation through our individual coaching program.
This guide contains everything you need to know about the science of how (and why) your body stores bodyfat, and applies this new knowledge in practical ways to give you full control over your physique. For some people this may mean beating obesity, while for someone else achieving a six pack or fine-tuning their diet.
What is weight loss & why do you want it?
Weight is a very simple thing to measure, so it is often talked about. We don’t actually care about our weight at all. Technically, weight is just a force created by gravity. On Mars, you would “weigh” less but be the same person. When someone says they are trying to lose weight, they are probably referring to bodyfat.
You may not necessarily want your weight to change. If someone chopped off your arm, for example, you would have achieved weight loss but probably not be very happy about it. You will need a more defined goal than “weight loss” before starting, as well as understanding the reasons behind this goal.
What is the human body made of?
If we want to lose weight, a good starting point is knowing where our weight come from. Your body is more like a moving city than a single organism. It is composed of thousands of different species, systems and materials coexisting together.
Let’s take an “average” 150 pound human male as an example. (Once you're set up on Gyroscope, you'll be able to see these stats for yourself, which may be similar or very different.) There are many different components — including many pounds of bacteria (4-5 pounds), clothing (4-5 pounds), food and drink from the last few days (maybe 10 pounds), etc. but the majority of your mass is muscle, bodyfat and bones.
All of these are important components, including bodyfat. Bodyfat has a particular weight but is often represented as a percentage of the total weight. Some of these these amounts — particularly muscle, bodyfat and food — change constantly and affect your body composition. Others like your brain, bones or bacteria will be relatively fixed for an adult, and aren’t things you need to think much about besides just knowing they exist.
Generally, in the modern world, you will want more muscle and less bodyfat. An optimal strategy is generally to lose some bodyfat for a while (maybe a few months, maybe a year depending on how much extra there is), then switch focus on adding more muscle. While these can be done at the same time, it is more efficient to focus on one at a time since they have quite different patterns and energy requirements. Otherwise, it is like pressing the gas and brakes at the same time on a car.
In practice this may mean being in a calorie deficit for a while, and then changing your routine to be in more of a surplus and prioritizing workouts. It is possible you would be the same weight at the end, but you would look and feel much better.
This relationship between muscle, bodyfat, food and how it adds up to total weight will be essential once you start weighing yourself and making judgements based on what you see. Measuring bodyfat specifically can be a little more precise than just looking at weight, but all measurements here are very imprecise, so a true understanding is needed to avoid getting confused.
At a high level (zooming out to a few months or a year view) your total weight can be an indicator of your underlying bodyfat. Done incorrectly (like if not sleeping well, not eating protein or not resistance training), you could lose weight from muscle and not bodyfat — but all the steps in this guide should help you prevent that unfortunate result.
In the shorter term, daily or week to week, your exact weight will be much less meaningful, an almost useless metric to make decisions with. It would be like looking up the stock market every hour to see if you are richer or poorer — the fluctuations are frequent and have little bearing on reality. There will be a day when you weigh 5 pounds more than the previous day, despite doing nothing wrong and not actually changing in bodyfat.
If your goal was simply to lose weight, that change would be terrifying and mean you went backwards, but if you can remember our goal is losing bodyfat then it shouldn’t matter. This is important to keep in mind before you start weighing yourself. Using tools like Gyroscope or even a real human coach can be useful to not misinterpret the data coming from your scale.
How is energy stored in the body?
If we’re going to start making adjustments and tuning our body’s fuel storage, it is important to fully understand how it works. You are not like a phone, where there is one small battery and it needs to be recharged daily or die. Rather, you have a variety of “batteries” capable of powering you for hours or even days.
When you eat, the energy from the food is stored in various organs for use later. Where exactly is it kept, and how much is available?
- Glucose in your bloodstream (80 calories) — this is like the money in your hand when you're just about to pay for something. Ends up here when being received or spent, but not a permanent storage spot
- Glycogen stored in liver — (400 calories) this is like your pockets having some additional money and change easily ready to spend. Glycogen is basically glucose + water.
- Glycogen stored in muscles — (1,500 calories) like your wallet or purse, with more cash tucked away ready to be used when you need it. This can vary slightly depending on the size of your muscles.
- Triglycerides in muscle — (2,500 calories) Fats can be used for fuel also, a more dense storage like having some crisp hundred dollar bills in your wallet. Slightly harder to use, but good for big purchases.
- Bodyfat in fat cells — (100,000+ calories) like having stacks of cash stashed in a briefcase or under your mattress. It is a little more work to go get, but it is there when you really need it.
- Protein in muscles — (30,000 calories) Your essential building blocks. This is like selling your house and valuables. Hopefully it won’t be needed, but they are there in an emergency!
Starting to use some of the stored energy is the only way to reduce bodyfat. However, that does not mean you need to simply start running constantly to burn it off. Rather, the total amount entering the system should be less than the amount leaving — resulting in a deficit.
Generally, you do not have conscious control over how your body is powering itself or where new energy gets stored. A deficit for more than a few days will cascade through these systems to start utilizing bodyfat, while a surplus of energy more than can be stored in your muscles will have to end up in your liver or bodyfat. It is also important to realize your body has all these complex systems to fuel you for significant amounts of time (at least a few days are readily stored). When these systems are working properly, eating every hour is not necessary, just like refilling your car with gas every mile is not required or even counterproductive.
Now, in 2021, you can use your credit card to instantly get calories anywhere around the world. Not as much needs to be stored as bodyfat and carried around daily. But, the rest of our body still doesn’t know that. This is why Gyroscope exists: to rewrite your body’s operating system and integrate these new features and better ways of existing.
One of the first and most important changes is digitizing all this information. If you had no idea how much money you owned, or whether your bank balance went up or down this month, would you be able to manage your finances? Probably not well. We take for granted being able to just log in to our bank and see our current balances at any time. It is even more important to do the same for your body, at least while it needs attention. Without that level of monitoring, it is no surprise that people feel clueless about what is going on in their body or how to control it.
Weight loss is not just for looks
People often say their goal is to have a six pack or look good at the beach. However, these type of aesthetic benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. Generally, those shouldn’t be your main motivator, or it will be very easy to give up. Having less bodyfat and more muscle has many functional, health and longevity benefits.
We can think of excess bodyfat gain as just one symptom of a serious underlying issue in your health. If your metabolic system is failing to such an extreme degree and stops regulating your hunger or bodyfat storage, it is likely that many other parts of your body are also under significant stain but just less noticeable. These can include your brain, heart, liver and other critical organs.
The risks from being overweight or obese go far beyond aesthetics. Obesity is highly correlated with most of the common causes of death, health conditions and many other issues.
- Much higher risk of heart attack and stroke
- Insulin resistance & Type 2 diabetes
- Higher risk of certain cancers
- Higher risk of Alzheimers and brain diseases
- Hypertension & high blood pressure
- Lower daily energy levels
- Higher medical costs
Someone who is not managing their body correctly may see bodyfat levels (and therefore total weight) continue to rise. Rather than simply forcing themselves to eat less, this can also be an important warning to look deeper into the issue. It could be a serious medical condition, or quite likely a series of unhealthy habits that need to be changed. It is like if strange noises are coming from your car engine while driving on the freeway. You could just turn up the music and ignore it, but it would be much wiser to take it to a mechanic and investigate. Taking care of your body is even more important, because you can’t just get a new one if something goes wrong.
Slight weight fluctuations are normal, but after significant weight gain (more than a few percentage bodyfat) or reaching obese levels (more than 20-30% bodyfat), there is a high risk of entering a dangerous feedback loop.
The dangers of insulin resistance or prediabetes
One of the most common and harmful feedback loops encountered when gaining bodyfat is developing insulin resistance. This can also be known as prediabetes, or eventually Type 2 Diabetes.
Resistance, or tolerance, can be formed from constant exposure to anything. If you drink a lot of alcohol, you will start have a higher tolerance to it. If you are constantly hearing very loud noises, you may start to lose your hearing — a resistance to sound. Like in the story of the boy who cried wolf, if any chemical is used many times a day your body can stop reacting to it as efficiently, through adaptation or damage. Insulin is used when you eat food, especially sugar, as a response to glucose in your blood.
Insulin resistance comes from repeatedly using insulin, to the point where your body is less reactive to it and no longer able to handle sugar. Type 1 diabetes means your body just doesn’t have any insulin, but Type 2 comes from having too much. Type 2 diabetes can develop from obesity or unstable glucose levels. Usually, insulin triggers extra glucose to get stored in your muscles and your liver, and in your bodyfat. After eating a big meal, this is a necessary process, and keeps your blood from reaching toxic levels.
As you saw above, the blood only stores a very small amount of energy. Your muscles, liver and bodyfat keep the rest. It is important to realize those are the only places it can go! The body originally evolved to be very efficient with energy. Some chemicals, like vitamins, you can just pee out if you ate more than was needed — but not energy. After billions of years of energy scarcity, digestive systems have evolved to be very greedy.
Just like you would almost have to pick up a hundred dollar bill if you saw one on the floor, your body needs to take all the available energy from your food. When anything is digested, all the available energy is always extracted! By the time you poop, all the energy has been transferred to somewhere else in your body. Therefore, what you eat has powerful implications for the rest of your body.
In a healthy individual, there will be plenty of free space to temporarily stash any extra glucose.
Imagine you have a big empty house, so you invite some friends to visit. They could sit on your coach or stay in an extra bedroom, and then leave after a few hours or days. However, what if you invited 10 friends over? Or the people from last week never left. Or 100 people came for a big party. The couch is eventually full of people, and any new visitors may need to stay in your bathtub or kitchen or your bed.
Let’s say new people keep showing up every day and are hanging out on the street or in the hallway, ringing your doorbell. You can’t leave them there, so you must invite them in like a good friend!
At that point, it would be wise to kick everyone out before continuing. If you kept inviting people in and they never left, or fewer leave than come in, eventually your house will get quite crowded. Someone with a huge mansion may have longer, but ultimately it would happen to anyone. Once there are a hundred people crammed in your apartment, simple things like answering your door could become challenging.
This is essentially what happens with insulin resistance. The “friends” are glucose molecules, your bedrooms are your muscles (capable of letting many friends stay for a while), your liver is your living room (capable of storing a few more in the short term). Inviting someone to come in who is ringing your doorbell is like deploying insulin.
Eventually, if your house is already full of 100 people, you won’t even be able to answer the doorbell and let any new people in. That is what happens if you eat sugar and your liver, muscles and bodyfat are already packed to the brim. We could look at the number of people ringing the doorbell at different houses to get a sense of which ones are overflowing. A few could be considered prediabetes, while a hundred people banging on a door to be let in could be a severe case of Type 2 Diabetes.
Throwing a party is fine occasionally, and so the house could be filled with people for a short while. Then when everyone goes home, it gets cleaned up, and you’re back to normal. Some could argue that is the whole point. However, what happens in the case of insulin resistance or diabetes, is a constant overflow of new visitors with the previous never leaving, trashing your body in the process without any opportunity to clean up.
Metabolic health is a spectrum, and not something that deteriorates overnight. About 33% of adults in the US (88 million according to the CDC) are already prediabetic, though about 84% of them don’t know it yet. Insulin is not the only chemical that develop a resistance. With poor metabolic health, a resistance to leptin or other hunger hormones could cause you to feel constantly hungry or low energy despite eating a large meal. Once these cycles start, they can be very difficult to break out of.
So how much bodyfat do we actually need?
We usually have a similar number of fat cells, but they get larger or smaller depending on how much energy they are storing. Having too little energy stored is very bad. A certain amount of fat is essential fat for your body to function, and without enough stored your muscles will start being broken down. Having too much extra fat stored, in the obese range is also problematic. It can result in insulin resistance and many other diseases.
Men need about 3% of their fat for essential purposes like organ function. The rest is used for energy storage. How much fat should men generally have? The commonly published recommendations for adult men are:
- Essential fat — 2-5%
- Athletes — 6-13%
- Fit — 14-17%
- Overweight — 18-24%
- Obese — 25% or more
These is a significant difference between baseline levels for men and women. In men, only a few percent of bodyfat is essential fat, while women have about 13% of their body using fat for essential organ functions. You can basically add 10% to the above numbers to get the female ranges of bodyfat.
- Essential fat — 10-13%
- Athletes — 14-20%
- Fit — 21-24%
- Overweight — 25-31%
- Obese — 32% or more
Note that these are rough approximations. What you see on your at-home wifi scale may not be exactly calibrated. In one weight scale you may be at 15%, while using another type of scanner you may be 20%. As you get older, the expected levels of bodyfat may also increase.
The goal here is not to get rid of all bodyfat, but to reach and maintain your optimal amount — ideally somewhere in the athletic or fit range. Having about a month’s worth of energy stored in case of an emergency (perhaps an earthquake or a pandemic) is wise and what the body expects. However, storing much more than that is excessive since we live in a modern society where food can be easily obtained.
If you only know your weight — in pounds or kilos — how does that convert into these percentages? That is a little harder to do. You can use a population-statistics based tool called BMI (body mass index), which just looks at other people of a similar height. If you are particularly muscular, it can give incorrect results. Another way to do that is with a scale that estimates bodyfat, or going to a facility that does a bodyfat measurement using DEXA scan. These methods are better at differentiating between muscle and bodyfat. A third very simple way could be to simply look in the mirror and estimate it. A combination of all three should probably define your current understanding of what group you’re in, and where you want to be.
Bodyfat is often expressed in percentage rather than pounds, because that scales better across the population. Whether you are extremely tall or a tiny person, this numbers above should still be applicable though the exact amount of bodyfat you have could vary. In other cases, we may want to think about it in pounds or even calories (a pound of bodyfat stores about 3,500 calories.)
Calculating your own levels
Just like you know approximately how much money you have in your bank account, you should be aware of how much energy you have stored and how it all fits together. For example, if someone is 150 pounds and the scale says 20% bodyfat, how much fat is actually stored? Don’t get confused by the percentages. We can multiply 150 by 0.2 (pull up your calculator app if you need) to get 30 pounds. It is that simple! Try it for yourself now...
One pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories, so we can multiply by that to get 105,000 calories. Essentially a hundred thousand calories! That is for a relatively healthy individual. This is considered healthy since that is a high enough amount to last you a week or two in the case of an emergency, but not so much that it starts to cause health issues. Someone who is 300 pounds with 50% bodyfat could have 150 pounds of stored bodyfat, or half a million calories stored.
It is important to keep this perspective and scale in mind, as you come up with a plan to change this number. One “good” or “bad” decision (like eating one slice of pizza) won’t really make a dent, just like deciding whether to spend or save one dollar won’t make you rich or poor. However, doing something 365 or 1,000 times will have an impact and start to compound.
Note that the only way to gain or lose bodyfat is by being in a calorie surplus or deficit. The energy has to go, or come from somewhere. Even the word “lose” is misleading, really you are using bodyfat for fuel, which reduces it and converts it into things like heat, movement or molecules that leave your body. It doesn’t get lost like your keys, where you have no idea where it went.
This can help set your expectations and determine what a reasonable rate of change should be. For example there is no way you would use 5 pounds of bodyfat in one day (17,500 calories) even if you ate literally nothing and did a big workout.
Having a moderate deficit of 300 calories per day consistently for a year, on the other hand, would be a significant 100,000 calories or about 30 pounds of bodyfat. For some people, this is more fat than they have, while for others it is a significant amount along the way. The exact weight change may be different, since other parts like glycogen, stored water, or muscle mass may also be affected. This type of gradual loss is what you should strive for, as it is the most sustainable as well as least likely to quickly rebound.
What are most people right now?
If you fell into the overweight or obese categories above, don’t feel bad about it. Almost half of the country is in those ranges right now. Since the pandemic of 2020, the problem continues to worsen.
The American Psychological Association found 42% of Americans said they had gained more weight than intended, 29 pounds on average! Even children are now affected, facing an entire lifetime of health issues and missed potential. A recent study of children (ages 5 to 11) found obesity increased from 36.2% to 45.7% during the pandemic.
It is easy to feel guilt or many emotions about this. Many people see someone who is obese, even sometimes themselves, and assume they are lazy or undisciplined. However, if so many people are affected, there must be some underlying causes. In many cases, they may have some bad habits that are affecting them every single day. Finding and addressing these issues is needed, rather than just trying twice as hard with a faulty plan.
Even if you weren’t previously affected, it is possible you are now or soon will be. To make matters worse, aging also makes this harder.. What you may have easily gotten away with in your 20s could result in obesity in your 30s or 40s.
Why do people gain weight?
Why are so many people gaining fat? Why is obesity continuing to rise despite people spending billions of dollars a year on weight loss?
Before jumping into a plan to start cutting calories and losing fat, it is essential to figure out what went wrong in the first place. We can look at some of the most common causes affecting society in general, but most important will be figuring out your case. A successful strategy needs to correctly identify and fix your root issues — it is 99% likely that nutrition is a large part of it, but there are many possible factors within that category.
For different people, it may have a different cause. One person may be struggling with sleep, while someone else may be sleeping great but have problems with eating too much sugar. Someone else may just be too sedentary and need to be more active. Correctly identifying the main cause of your weight gain is an important step before reversing it.
Jumping straight to weight loss mode without finding the initial cause is not a great long term plan, since it very likely to just come back again. One of the biggest insights for a successful strategy is that you should use techniques and methods that are sustainable as part of your daily routine and permanently address your problems.
Population level stats
Across society, it is unclear why obesity has become so prevalent. There are many academic debates about it, unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. There are many theories, some obvious and others not, about what specifically changed in the last 50 years that has affected us so strongly. Since then, people are...
- walking less and being less active
- eating too little protein and vitamins
- eating all day instead of a few meals
- eating mostly junk food & processed foods
- eating fried foods with vegetable & seed oils
- not eating enough vegetables or healthy fats
- having high blood sugar & insulin resistance
- being constantly caffeinated and stressed
- sleeping less with more blue light
- being on their phones all the time
- watching many hours of TV every day
- having mental health challenges
- exposed to many toxic chemicals
Many people have tried to isolate these variables to find one single cause of our obesity crisis. However, it is likely many of these things are going wrong at the same time. Possibly you could check off every single risk factor on that list. They are all extremely common aspects of our modern lives.
Regardless of how you would distribute the blame across these changes, everything about our world is just so different from what it was a hundred years ago. We have to come to terms with that. We have no choice but to quickly adapt. Our original instincts or default behaviors are no longer guaranteed to be correct. Going back to how things were a few hundred or thousand years ago, getting rid of all technology and processed foods, etc. is just not an option, either.
If you did everything perfectly and only had one or two of these issues, you would probably be totally fine and not have to worry about obesity. Being young also helps give a temporary protection. However, with 3 or 4 or 10 things failing at the same time, and as people age and the damage to our body accumulates, the problem quickly gets out of hand.
A simple model to manage your health
Mental models provide rough approximations to help illustrate a complex point.
Common weight loss advice you’ll hear is calories in, calories out. Some people say that is all that you need to know — eat less and exercise more. In the case of some healthy individuals trying to lose a few pounds, just calculating that could be enough.
An alternate perspective on the internet is that calories don’t matter much, and hormones like insulin are what caused the problem. Who is correct?
Calories In, Calories Out
If someone is gaining bodyfat, they must be in a calorie surplus. To lose bodyfat, they must sustain a deficit over time. This is a reality of physics. However, both of those simple variables have a lot of nuance and complexity. It is somewhat like telling someone that the secret to being rich is to spend less and make more. It is true, but not a complete strategy.
This is closer to an accurate diagram of your body’s metabolic system... As you can see, it is quite complex. Fixing and maintaining it usually requires more than a punchy one-line explanation or one single hormone.
What we really need is a strategy for how both sides of that equation, and all the complex hormones and interactions, can be consistently managed. Modifying your rate of calories in and out is not trivial, as your body tries to keep them balanced and keep you alive. Hormones and insulin levels will likely be involved as the physical mechanisms.
In part 2, we will explore some of the common misconceptions that people about calories, and teach you how to stay in a deficit for achieing weight loss.
While understanding that calories in vs calories out are an important part of the puzzle, being in a calorie deficit is only one of many things you need to manage in life in order to be successful. For example, drinking water and sleeping are essential, or you would literally die. As an extreme example, if you got into a calorie deficit but didn’t correctly drink water or sleep, then you would not get good results.
Many other details about your health need to be managed correctly at the same time as being in a calorie deficit, like getting enough protein, getting vitamins and minerals, getting exposure to sunlight, etc. Everything that is a part of your long-term health should also be part of your strategy for losing bodyfat, otherwise any changes may only last a few weeks — until you get sick or give up.
The Health Score
We’ve found 6 essential categories that fit together to affect your full-body health. This total health score then affects all aspects of how you feel, including whether you are likely to gain bodyfat. Figuring out how they all fit together has taken almost a decade, but is now available in the Health Score.
There are many possible causes for gaining bodyfat or becoming overweight. You should start by figuring out which of these has been affecting you personally the most in recent years. Starting to track all these different aspects of your health is one way to quickly identify the culprit. Often it can be obvious from less than a few weeks of the data! Sometimes, even just fixing these one or two things can start to show incredible results.
If you gained 2 pounds of bodyfat, then possibly you have just been eating too much recently and need to adjust your diet to get it back down. However, if you have gained 10 or 20 pounds recently, then something deeper has gone wrong that should be urgently figured out and reversed.
If your sleep grade is always an F, then all the workouts in the world won’t help, and may even make the issues of your stress & cortisol levels worse. If you are only walking 1,000 steps a day, then that could be part of the problem. Maybe you are constantly stressed and overworked. Probably it isn’t just one thing, but a unique blend of two or three that are the most urgent.
Unless you have some rare disease affecting your weight, the answer is generally some combination of those items. It is usually not your genetics or “slow metabolism” or other commonly blamed culprits, but generally something within your control.
It doesn’t have to be one, or some may be susceptible to some more. In many cases, ALL of these are happening at the same time and are feedback loops to each other. We could survive one or two but with 10 things going wrong it will eventually catch up.
Losing bodyfat is what most people are really seeking when wanting to lose weight. Your body uses bodyfat for energy storage, but sometimes can store more than you needed. Having too much bodyfat affects not only how you look, but your health & longevity. Being overweight or obese leads to many diseases like prediabetes, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and others.
Truly understanding how and why you gained weight is the first step to improving your bodyfat levels. You should use simple habits and permanent fixes, rather than short-term strategies, to start losing weight. This makes the process easier, promotes loss from bodyfat not muscle, and prevents gaining it back immediately.
In the next part, we will discuss common misconceptions and mistakes.
Many of the current strategies for losing bodyfat are wrong or incomplete. This explains why obesity rates continue to rise despite more time and money being spent on it. Many of the current instincts or popular ideas about how to lose bodyfat have since been proven to not work. These misunderstandings and common mistakes are likely preventing you from seeing good results from your efforts, and not because of laziness, or genetics, or a slow metabolism, or other commonly blamed reasons.
Correcting these mistakes and repairing your mental models of how the body works will let you put in place new habits and practices to will make your weight loss journey much more smooth and painless.