Even though we spend billions on weight loss each year, the obesity numbers continue to go up. Since the pandemic, this trend has accelerated further. Millions of people had their delicately balanced health plans disrupted, and ended up with significant weight changes.
Many of the currently popular beliefs around weight management are unfortunately wrong or misguided. It can take decades or centuries for this type of misinformation to be corrected. For example, after it was discovered smoking was unhealthy, it took decades to have definitive proof of this. Even now, millions of people continue to do it. Our current habits of sugar and processed foods likely fall into a similar category.
Eradicating obesity and changing global habits around food will probably be an even longer journey. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years there will be a stronger consensus and everyone in society will agree on the points listed below. However, you shouldn’t wait that long. We can start fixing this today. First with you, then your friends and family, and only then the rest of society.
For the past few years, we’ve been using tools like Gyroscope Labs, continuous glucose monitoring, one-on-one coaching, the Health Score algorithms, and many studies from scientists and doctors, to validate what works and identify what doesn’t. Many of the myths here were things we also once believed. With better tools and testing, we can now see why they do don’t work and put in place better solutions that do. In some cases it is obvious from the data what is wrong, while in others it is a matter of being compatible with how normal people live their lives.
Table of Contents
- Calories & Eating Myths
- Trying to outrun a bad diet
- Misunderstanding calorie numbers
- Constantly snacking & eating
- Managing your Mindset
- Thinking in “All Or Nothing”
- Feeling guilty for eating food
- Losing motivation on the scale
- Only focusing on one thing
- Common Dietary Mistakes
- Healthy Foods people avoid
- Unhealthy Foods people eat
- Processed vs Whole foods
The Most Common Mistakes
Without further ado, here are the top ways that your current weight loss strategy may not be working, or in some cases may even be making the problem worse...
Calories & Eating
Trying to outrun a bad diet
Focusing more on exercise and procrastinating on nutrition is one of the most common instincts. It is a very appealing fantasy — just work out more, build a little muscle and it will burn away all the calories, never needing to address what you eat.
In most cases, to achieve great bodyfat results, changing your eating habits will be most of the work and the first thing to start working on. Being more active and exercising, sleeping better, managing stress and other factors also matter a lot and can’t be ignored, but modifying your daily food intake is the main lever you will be using to control your weight.
When people put together their plan to lose fat on January 1, often the picture in their head is running daily or going to the gym every day. The idea is that is that will burn an extra few hundred calories and get them into a deficit, as well as perhaps building more muscle.
This is suboptimal because it is generally not sustainable — by February the gyms are empty again. It doesn’t address the root issues of why you had gained the bodyfat (generally an unhealthy diet). It may not significantly change your total calorie output (which is relatively fixed per day even with an extra workout). Eating more food is much easier (you can eat in 1 minute what you can burn in an hour), and if you stop the intense workout regime but keep the unhealthy diet, then the fat quickly comes back, too.
You definitely can and should still enjoy food, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore your body’s nutritional requirements or don’t need to focus on meal quality. In most cases, we recommend focusing on nutrition first and adding an exercise routine once that is dialed in.
The good news is that eating better won’t be very time consuming or expensive, while going to the gym daily can require a commitment of many hours a week. Therefore, many people procrastinate on the whole process because they assume they need to commit many hours a day. Done right, improving your meals could probably save you a lot of time and money, and possibly even make them more tasty. There is no reason to not start today.
Misunderstanding your calorie numbers
Another common and dangerous misconception is that workouts are done to help burn more calories. To be clear, exercise is very important. But, its main purpose is not just to cancel out excess food by burning calories.
This could lead you to only do cardio and neglect resistance training, for example, which would be a huge mistake. Resistance training and walking will be essential during your weight loss journey, but not because they burn so many calories. Even if they burned only 1 calorie, you should be doing them.
Reasons to exercise (includes walking!) very frequently:
- Helping your brain function
- Reducing stress & cortisol
- Maintaining muscle function
- Stabilizing glucose levels
- Freeing up glycogen stores
- Because it is fun and interesting
- To lose weight from bodyfat not muscle
- To build new muscle mass
Note that nowhere in that list does it say: “Because you ate calories and now need to atone for your sins by that many calories burned.” Though that is a common perspective, it’s just not how things work! Both psychologically and physically, this is a backwards approach.
This strategy fails for a few reasons: most importantly you can always eat so much more than you can work out. The body is extremely efficient at using food for fuel, especially with things like running. A few small bites could fuel you for an hour. This was great when escaping from predators a million years ago, but less useful now when trying to burn off a big dinner by running a marathon.
Your total energy usage for the day stays relatively constant. Over time, adding additional muscle could increase your BMR, but people significantly overestimate the impact of one workout. Doing a 200 calorie workout one day doesn’t mean you are burning 200 calories more in total. It likely means you burn 200 less from fidgeting (NEAT) or produce less heat (BMR), for the same average. Fixing the problem at the source — not eating an excessive amount each day — is the only practical solution, and the main variable to focus on when trying to reach a calorie deficit.
There is some variation in your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) from exercise and activity, but much less than you are probably expecting. To still keep your calories burned high, walking often is probably more effective than just one workout. The body burns most of its calories on simple things like heat and survival, and workouts like a daily run make up less than 5% of it. Micromanaging your calorie burn with workouts is either insigificant in that equation, or would mean that you need to do epic 500+ calorie workouts daily to have any impact on your energy balance.
Another danger is that exercising more without first fixing your nutrition may make you more hungry, and cause you to eat even more. Combined with high stress, this approach could cause you to eat much more and and start burning less, a recipe for gaining fat rather than losing it.
Looking more closely at the numbers and how your body burns calories, it should be clear that controlling what you eat is the only practical way to make much progress in reaching a calorie deficit.
Constantly snacking & eating
A very common myth is that eating many times a day keeps your “metabolism going” and increases your calories burned. Some people (incorrectly) believe that eating many small meals lets them burn more calories in total or is healthier for the body. Others may feel they need to eat to keep their brain constantly fueled while working.
The science here is now quite clear. It is not necessary, for weight loss or general health, to be constantly eating. As you saw in part 1, between your liver and glycogen and muscles, the body has more than enough energy stored to survive a few hours between meals. Unless you are a professional athlete that needs an extremely high energy intake, we do not recommend this approach. If you spend most of your day just sitting at a desk, then it is definitely not needed and constant eating will likely cause more problems than it fixes.
Food timing is a complex topic (covered in more detail in the Health Academy), but the main thing to take away is that eating many small meals does not provide those alleged benefits. It can actually cause serious problems like insulin resistance and diabetes, if each mini-meal was not perfect. If each small meal ends up creating a glucose spike (as is very likely with small snacks or processed foods), you could be constantly damaging your metabolic health rather than helping it. At the very least, constantly eating makes it easy to gain weight with many more opportunities for extra calories consumed per day.
Some people go as far as only tracking fasting and not even worrying about food tracking. In this case, having only one or two balanced meals per day can be a simple tool to manage your intake. If your nutrition is already optimized, this can be a good shortcut to control your energy intake without tracking every single variable.
Regardless of how many meals you eat and when you have them, the one thing everyone agrees upon is that your food must be well balanced, with a correct ratio of protein, fats and carbs eaten at the same time. Having imbalanced snacks like just some sugar without the right balance of protein and fats can cause problems, even if it looks like they add up at the end of the day in a calorie tracker.
Food, exercise and physical habits get most of the attention. They are of necessary, but losing weight successfully is equally a mental game. Everyone is capable of making these simple changes, but your mindset in the process will determine whether you stick to it forever or give up after a few weeks.
An “All Or Nothing” Approach
Taking an “All or Nothing” approach to your health often prevents people from being successful. This generally looks like being very motivated for a few weeks, but chasing unsustainable habits, and then giving up entirely. By contrast, the best results generally come from simple (often boring) changes that are repeated daily for years.
For the purposes of weight loss, straightforward and consistent habits matter much more than one intense gym session or a particularly memorable meal. Tools like Gyroscope are designed to help you overcome these biases, and see the big picture instead.
The human brain generally stores memories that were especially emotional or intense, or the most recent. This is known as “peak/end” in psychology. Day-to-day “boring” things like eating a salad or walking to work are less memorable, which could explain why more extreme approaches are so tempting.
A simple solution here is to not overcommit. Try to only do things that you could do every day for a year. It may not feel fast enough, but that is ok. It is not only acceptable, but required, since you won’t be able to complete superhuman workouts or have many hours to meal prep every single day. Don’t set up a plan that requires that. If you want to do extra one day, that is fine. But the important part is not giving up entirely when you can’t.
Walking somewhere instead of driving, for example, could be a simple but sustainable habit. Something more intense and exciting, like waking up at 4am to go running, may seem more effective. In reality, if you stop doing it after a few days it will not actually help you at all.
People often blame their work or families or other constraints for not being able to spend time on their health. None of those should be new surprises. Set yourself up for success by setting a plan that works alongside them, rather than an all-or-nothing approach.
Feeling guilty for eating food
It is a challenging balance to take care of your body and health by prioritizing good nutrition, while not being too hard on yourself or developing a negative relationship with food. Both extremes can be harmful.
One of the challenges with the all or nothing mentality is that it causes a lot of guilt when lofty ambitions are not followed fully. People set themselves up for failure by expecting themselves to be 100% strict, and then eventually failing.
For example, if you absolutely love pizza and then tell yourself: “Ok I will never eat pizza again, because I have to lose weight.” That may last for a few days or a few weeks, but ultimately you will slip up and then the whole plan will likely unravel. At that point, the common reaction is “well I had pizza, my diet has failed, I might as well keep eating junk food for the rest of the week/month/year.” Some easier and more pleasant alternatives could be: only eating pizza on weekends, or only eating one slice after having a salad instead of an entire box, or simply going for a longer walk and practicing moderation after a big meal.
Starting out planning for an 80/20 distribution will generally get much better results, plus you get to have more fun along the way. Using good tools can help to see things more objectively and self-manage, rather than feeling guilty about things. A more accurate and productive view would be to look at your average nutrient intake and judge yourself based on whether you are ending up with a good balance of protein, fats and carbs.
One suggestion is to delegate that decision making to a coach, who has both the experience to interpret the numbers as well as quite unbiased and objective. In other cases, software can also provide that analysis.
Some people may have no trouble with discipline or changing their habits and simply need to be told what to do, while for many others this may be a very complex topic with hundreds of emotions and memories tangled together. A therapist can be a very useful tool for dealing with these types of challenges. Just like you would take a high-performance car to a mechanic to deal with any issues or ensure it remains good condition after significant use, your brain can almost always benefit from maintenance by an expert.
Feeling guilt on the scale
Stepping on the scale is another emotional minefield, which leads many people to avoid it altogether. A big part of the problem is inadequate tools and incorrect information. The numbers on the scale can provide essential data, but are also often misunderstood. A single high reading can cause unnecessary anxiety or even cause people to give up entirely. However, never tracking your metrics can also be risky.
We propose a few approaches to change this. First of all, with this guide you should be in much more control over the scale. The worst but most common feeling is to be stuck or going in the wrong direction, despite trying very hard. Following this guide, within a few weeks (or possibly much sooner) you should start to see changes that match your expected calculations. This can be very rewarding and motivating.
It is essential to differentiate between short-term fluctuations and actual changes. The best way to do this is by checking your weight a lot and then seeing the actual difference in the trend. Your weight will fluctuate by perhaps 4 or 5 pounds every few days. Does that mean you gained or lost that much bodyfat? No! The number you are seeing is not going to be related to what you did today or maybe even this week. Your hard work today may influence your bodyfat number in a month.
If you have a wifi scale, you could just stand on it and not look at the reading. Even putting some tape on the screen could help, so you don’t see incomplete data. We suggest mostly looking at the 1-3 month graph in Gyroscope, or even a whole year at a time, rather than just the latest number. Seeing the direction that is going, and understanding how spiky the original data can be that generated the smooth line, will help you interpret the data more accurately.
Remember that one pound of bodyfat is 3,500 calories. Being in a 500 calorie deficit (as a daily average) would equal losing about 1 pound a week. That is probably the fastest pace you should expect to lose weight. For most people, 200 or 300 is probably optimal. Any more would be unsustainable and unhealthy.
If the scale went up a few pounds but you didn’t have thousands of calories in the meantime, then that’s nothing to really think about. The more likely explanation is that it is food you are still digesting, or extra water you drank recently, or any number of other variables.
Checking weight too infrequently — only once a week or a few times a month — also makes this problem worse, since it provides a weaker signal and is more prone to random fluctuations. Checking once a day is more likely to reveal the true signal underlying your data. A scale that checks bodyfat is slightly more useful, but the same variation applies to the bodyfat estimates.
If you start a diet and then expect to be down 10 pounds the next week, you will be disappointed. What you should be expecting is to be down 4 or 5 pounds within the next few months, with a steady and consistently trending graph. Some days after eating you may end up being 2 or 3 pounds more than you started! That should not cause you to feel guilty or give up, it is basically meaningless. By checking your weight frequently and graphing it, you can much more accurately see whether you are on track or not.
If checking weight often is problematic for you, you can also just use other metrics instead. If you are tracking your food accurately and the quality of those meals is great, then weight may not need to be checked as frequentlly. Things like how you look in the mirror, how your clothes fit, your resting heart rate and HRV, can all be good leading indicators for your weight but less triggering or demotivating for certain people.
Only relying on one technique
Often people get excited about one strategy — keto, vegan, crossfit, anything — and think that nothing else is needed. All of these have their own tribes and cultures. Joining these communities can be exciting and motivating. The common mistake is to think this is a magical shortcut and neglect the other equally important aspects of your health and nutrition. Balance is the only true way to manage your health.
It is like being excited about your new shoes, and then not wearing any other clothes. The whole outfit needs to be completed, even if there is one part you particularly like.
Relying too much on one strategy and pretending nothing else matters may work for a short amount of time, but ultimately won’t be sustainable. Even if weight loss is achieved, there can be other health drawbacks, which ultimately can result in gaining it all back. This can then even be incorrectly ascribed to not being strict enough with said plan.
For this reason, we have built the Health Score. It shows your grades across all the categories to make sure you are not getting an F somewhere, while worrying about turning a B+ into an A.
A common examples of this include following a strict vegetarian diet, but having a lot of pasta, cookies or processed foods. Simply being vegetarian doesn’t mean that the other variables no longer need to be optimized. In fact it makes them even more necessary.
Similarly, eating a ketogenic diet while ignoring micronutrient density or fiber will also backfire after a while. Exercising frequently without any focus on food quality is another common example. Spending too much energy on one thing means little is left to balance across everything else.
In reality, you should probably be lazy with everything and put in just 80% effort everywhere. That will be enough to get you fantastic results! If you are putting in a decent amount of time and effort and not getting results, it is probably because you are not allocating it correctly rather than just not trying hard enough!
Avoiding foods that are healthy
There are many great foods that people accidentally avoid, just because someone somewhere once said they were unhealthy. Even if that was disproven decades ago, thes misconceptions are stuck in popular culture and difficult to undo. Here are some foods you may be incorrectly avoiding...
Protein! Especially from meat. A lot of nuance here, but we suggest not just writing off the whole category. Grass-fed and ethically sourced sources can be an effective way to reach your protein goals for the day. Maintaining an adequate amount of protein in every meal is probably the single most important thing to do for having a healthy diet and losing bodyfat. This is definitely doable without eating meat, but can be harder. What often ends up happening is people replace the missing protein with sugar and fat.
Eggs! Yes, even with the yolk, eggs are a great food. They are a convenient and affordable source of protein and micronutrients. Unfortunately, many people assume they must be bad for some reason like cholesterol or fat content.
Dairy! Unless you’re lactose intolerant, whole fat milk and yogurt can be good options and are much more balanced in their nutrient distribution, with protein and fat to balance the sugar. Removing that fat is a form of food processing and doesn’t generally make it a better choice. Some calories may be removed by stripping out the fats, but alternates like low-fat milk or artificial milks may then end up higher in sugar or being more processed. Generally, the ”low fat” options end up being ”high sugar,” and biologically can be translated to “not satisfying” since your body uses the presence of those fats as a signal for fullness.
Fat! The entire category of fats is often avoided. Since fat sounds like bodyfat, it is logical but incorrect to assume that is leads directly to getting fat. In other cases, someone may have heard incomplete information about cholesterol or that fat can get stuck in your arteries and cause a heart attack. In reality, fats are an important part of the human diet, especially for brain function. If you want to feel good and think clearly, eating the correct amount of fats is essential. There is a lot of nuance here, from a dozen different variants of fat and complex chemical reactions that happen when fats are heated. Fats from sources like fresh olive oil, dairy, eggs or fish are especially great, while food fried in vegetable oils or saturated fat from processed foods should still be avoided.
Foods marketed as healthy, but are not
On the flipside, a lot of what is sold is not great for you to eat daily. Many things are marketed as "healthy" but not actually great to eat constantly.
The biggest culprit here are Processed foods. Since they are manufactured by a company, they need to be sold — this is where great marketing usually comes in. On the other hand, whole foods like the vegetables section of the market has minimal advertising or packaging.
Generally, the more processed something is the worse it will be for you — from a general health & longevity perspective, but also for sustained weight loss. If something has dozens of ingredients and many of them are things you can’t pronounce, that is not a good sign. If it has minimal protein (less than 10g) and is mostly carbohydrate or sugar, it should probably be avoided.
As a rule of thumb, if a food hasn’t been consumed by someone who successfuly lived to be 100+ years old, don’t eat it every day! Processed vegetarian or vegan products can especially be at risk of this, with brand new inventions like Oat Milk or artificial meats being highly processed and containing a multitude of chemicals that are still very untested in humans. These can be an occasional treat but shouldn’t be the foundation of your diet.
In general, processed foods should be avoided or not part of your daily habits. Unfortunately, these are generally the things that have the best marketing budgets, and many ads to make them seem healthy or at least very appealing...
- Orange juice
- Sodas with sugar
- Processed cereals
- Sweet breakfasts
- Pastas & breads
- Fake meats
Processing is a spectrum, so finding a good balance here is important. Even cooking could be considered processing, but that is generally fine. To see if a food has been overly processed, you can look at factors like how much fiber and protein they have left (often these are taken out), how many vitamins and minerals are remaining (often these are also removed) and how many of the ingredients you still recognize.
The problem with processed foods
Why are we focusing on these foods? Don’t they have vitamins and things? Haven’t we seen the advertising explaining how good they are?
Highly processed foods are mostly devoid of protein and have minimal fiber, or have an excessive amount of added sugar to make them taste good. This is a crucial difference between eating a real orange and drinking orange juice, for example. On a calorie level, processed foods are easy to overeat and accidentally end up with 1,000 extra calories for the day. On a hormonal level, they are likely to spike your glucose level and if done habitually can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes, further reducing your metabolic health and increasing the chances of putting on more bodyfat.
Very often, the processed foods are also devoid of nutrients, consisting prmarily of sugar and fat. They are also very convenient and easy to stock up at home, buying 100 and eating them daily. The lack of any effort involved in cooking, like opening a bag of chips or pint of ice cream, also makes them extremely tempting to eat when stressed.
Someone may avoid a sugary dessert, but yet eat a whole pizza, bag of chips or bowl of cereal without thinking twice. Just because it is salty or marketed as healthy doesn’t mean it cannot negatively impact your health, or compound to an excessive amount of calories.
A better approach is to prioritize meals that are not processed, and only eat meals that provide a sufficient amount of protein. A practical tip would be to avoid buying those types of items and having them in the house — and even throwing away what you have left rather than forcing yourself to eat it.
The new food XRAY feature helps to overcome many of these myths by having an accurate grade for each meal and revealing whether it is likely to cause a glucose spike.
Focus on protein and eating whole foods, and total calories will generally self-regulate. High protein meals are generally good. Snacking all day is not. People struggling with their weight often are doing the opposite.
Fixing your nutrition is the only way to stay in a caloric deficit and get lasting results. The most common mistake is relying on exercise to burn calories, avoiding significant diet improvements. Resistance training, steps and good sleep are also needed once nutrition is dialed in, to lose weight from bodyfat and not muscle.
All calorie numbers are much more imprecise and variable than people think, both for intake and usage. Not realizing this causes many common mistakes. Trying to control calorie burn through cardio workouts is especially inefficient. Your total daily energy usage will be fairly constant despite the workout, and is almost impossible to measure accurately, so do not focus on it or use it as an excuse to eat more.
The only way to know whether you are in a deficit is by your weight & bodyfat on a scale. This should be done with an average trend from many measurements rather than just a few, which will still fluctuate wildly.
Now that we have talked extensively about what not to do, let’s explore a better alternative.
You may be pleasantly surprised to see that the correct way is not actually much harder. You may even feel guilty at how simple and “easy” it is, expecting to suffer more along the way.
Remember, the challenge is not just doing it once but figuring out a simple way to have these be a consistent part of your life, done most days in the year, for the rest of your life! Therefore, all the strategies you consider should be ones you could do even on your most stressful and busy day of the year.