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Men’s Health and Eat this, Not that – bad science at its worst!

Swap cheddar for edam and Snickers for Flakes and you could lose two stone in a year” screamed the Daily Mail article headline on 11 January 2012.

The claim comes from a study “by the team behind Men’s Health magazine”. As you will be able to see from the link, the article lists 21 items and suggests that you swap one for the other. Examples include:

– Have crunchy nut cornflakes instead of Special K honey clusters to save 54 calories;

– Have half a Tesco simply peperoni pizza instead of half a Tesco cheese feast deep crust pizza to save 40 calories;

– Have a Flake instead of a Snickers to save 161 calories. You’ve got the idea.

The 21 items add up to a saving of 2,205 calories. The article then says that – if you save these each week you could lose two stone in a year!

Here’s the maths – 2,205 * 52 weeks = 114,660 calories. It is then wrongly assumed that one pound = 3,500 calories and so 114,660 is divided by 3,500 to assume that 32.76lbs would be lost in a year. The calorie theory (as this 3,500 assumption is known) is also supposed to be about fat lost alone. Hence, if you believe the theory, people should lose 32.76lbs in fat alone and more on top in lean tissue (sadly) and water – approximately 15% on top – so nearer 38lbs in total.

Here are a number of ways in which this is stupider than a very stupid thing!

1) One pound does not equal 3,500 calories. See here to save me duplicating the summary. Write to Men’s Health/The Daily Mail and demand evidence for this formula – can they succeed where seven UK public health and obesity organisations failed?

2) You will not lose 1lb for each deficit of 3,500 calories (and nor will you gain 1lb for each surplus of 3,500 calories). See here to save me duplicating the summary. The figure of an average of 11lb vs an expected 100+lbs has been confirmed in a few recent studies. This shows the sources of some of the 11lb examples. Hence you may lose a tenth of what you expect – in this case approximately 3-4lb – not 30-40lb!

3) Assuming that every deficit of calories is matched to the single calorie by the body giving up the equivalent in body fat is beyond absurd and yet it is assumed by this article and 99% of people working in the field of weight loss.

a) The body has to be in the biochemical state that it can break down body fat and this won’t happen if glucose is available in the bloodstream, or stored as glycogen, to use for fuel instead.

b) The body can and does adjust. If we put 100 fewer calories in to the body, it can adjust both our basal metabolic activity for the day and/or our energy used above the basal metabolic rate for that day. Put in 100 fewer calories and the body can just cross “keeping you warm” or “building bone density” off the’todo’ list for that day; the body can also make you tired and slow you down so that you use up 100 fewer calories being active. To assume that the body cannot and does not adjust at all – let alone by a single calorie, I’m sorry but there’s no other way to put this – is totally naive and stupid.

4) A calorie is not a calorie – as Jequier’s thermogenesis work showed (Eric Jequier, “Pathways to Obesity”, International Journal of Obesity, (2002).) Jequier found that the thermic effect of nutrients (thermogenesis) is approximately 6-8% for carbohydrate, 2-3% for fat and 25-30% for protein. Hence any 100 calories eaten is no longer 100 calories the minute it enters the body. Men’s Health would need to adjust for every macro nutrient for every food compared and even then points 1, 2, 3 and 5 here render the whole study nonsense.

5) Some calories have a job to do. Fat and protein calories to be precise. Let us say our average man needs 2,605 calories a day (as the government has decided), if he exercises 1-3 times a week, the Harris Benedict Equation tells us that approximately three quarters of these calories will be for basal metabolic needs (the BMR) and a quarter for energy/activity over and above this. The BMR needs fat and protein. Hence approximately 1,900 calories are needed for the BMR and approximately 700 on top of that for other activity for the day. This means that Mr Average needs to eat 1,900 calories in the form of (quality) fat and protein and 700 in the form of carbohydrate (or fat – fat can equally be used for energy – protein can too, but it’s less efficient).

So, back to Men’s Health, if our person eats 8.8 Snickers, at 296 calories each this will deliver the 2,605 daily calorie intake. If Mr Average eats 8.8 Flakes instead – they have ‘saved’ 1,416 calories and Men’s Health assumes that this will deliver a weight loss of 1lb for every time two and a half times that this 1,416 saving is made (3,500 calories). This is nonsense. Mr Average only needed 700 carb calories (he actually needed zero, as he could have fueled on fat, so I’m being generous). Empty junk confectionery calories can do nothing to build bone density, fight infection, repair cells (BMR) etc. Hence, eating Snickers, Mr Average consumed 1,900 effectively useless calories, which can only be stored as fat and thereby make him fat. With the Flakes, Mr Average still consumes more carbs than he needs and still gets fat. Mr Average also gets sick by the way –  with either option – Men’s HEALTH!

The final point to make is that virtually every food on this “Eat this, Not that” list is complete junk – the tuna in water is the only decent product out of 42 products. Tuna doesn’t come naturally in vegetable oil! Men who care about their health shouldn’t even get lamb from Tesco – they should get grass grazed quality lamb from their local butcher. Pizza, processed ham, oven chips, confectionery, Quavers, Discos, Mr Kipling rubbish, Magnums, Vienettas have no place whatsoever in a health diet – for men or women.

If you want to lose weight – eat real food and nothing but real food – meat, fish, eggs, veg, salad, dairy products should be the staples and then nuts, seeds and fruits in season in moderation. Grains – ‘whole’ or otherwise – are just glucose with a few or very few vitamins and minerals. Animal foods will always beat a starchy carb in any nutrition contest.

9 thoughts on “Men’s Health and Eat this, Not that – bad science at its worst!

  • Many thanks for this.

    However, I have at least 50 clients who have lost up to 11 stone and kept it of purely but controlling calorie intakeat 50% carbs, 30% fat, 20% protein.

    Many different permutations of fat, carbs and protein have been compared and no real advantage has been found.
    The key is calorie control.

    A feature of low carbs and low fat is a higher drop out rate, though.

    See Harvard Medical School and JAMA metastudies.

    No doubt high protein low carb works too though.just not any better in the long term.

    And what use short term weight loss?

  • Hi Neil – Many thanks for this – it’s an interesting debate, but not relevant to the world I live in – more below!

    Even during 65% V02 max exercise, the body doesn’t have to break down body fat. It will use the glucose and fat it has available in the bloodstream before breaking down triglyceride – body fat.

    The normal range of blood glucose is surprisingly low – 0.8 to 1.1 grams of glucose per litre of blood. An average person with an average of 5 litres of blood has 4-5.5 grams of glucose in their blood stream. With glucose approximating to 4 calories per gram, this equates to about 16-22 calories of glucose – a teaspoon of sugar. The amount of fat in the blood stream “free fatty acids” varies far more widely. Even if the body is in the state that it takes similarly from glucose and fat – glucose will run out first.

    Re. glycogen – athletes who are good at carb loading should be able to store approximately 100 grams of glycogen in the liver and 250-400 grams in the muscles. (The glycogen in the muscles can only be used by the muscles, but the glycogen in the liver can be converted back into glucose for the bloodstream). Hence, after the few grams of glucose in the blood stream are used up, the glycogen reserves can be tapped into. As this glycogen is being depleted, the body can still take fat from free fatty acids and intramuscular fat – again without breaking down body fat.

    I think that it will be the depletion of glucose/glycogen that is the trigger for the body to release glucagon to break down triglyceride (glucagon has already been working to break down glycogen), rather than a depletion in fat available. If you know of any studies to the contrary (not wiki!) please let me know. Hence the sentence you picked out likely still applies to this unusual situation.

    ”The body has to be in the biochemical state that it can break down body fat and this won’t happen if glucose is available in the bloodstream, or stored as glycogen, to use for fuel instead” is key to the world in which I work – trying to help obese and overweight people to lose weight. They are trying to lose 20-200lbs of body fat – getting the body into the biochemical state where it has to break down body fat (in the absence of glucose) is critical. V02 max is more relevant to the athletic world.

    Best wishes – Zoe

  • hi Zoe
    do you have any reference for your assertion
    ”The body has to be in the biochemical state that it can break down body fat and this won’t happen if glucose is available in the bloodstream, or stored as glycogen, to use for fuel instead.”

    I thought it widely acknowledged that fat and glycogen/glucose were both used at the same time, just in different proportions relative to exercise intensity. i.e at low intensity most energy comes from fat, high intensity most energy comes from glycogen

    “As glycogen levels in the muscle begin to fall, glucose is released into the bloodstream by the liver, and fat metabolism is increased so that it can fuel the aerobic pathways. Aerobic exercise may be fueled by glycogen reserves, fat reserves, or a combination of both, depending on the intensity. Prolonged moderate-level aerobic exercise at 65% VO2 max (the heart rate of 150 bpm for a 30-year-old human) results in the maximum absolute contribution of fat to the total energy expenditure. At this level, fat may contribute 40% to 60% of total, depending on the duration of the exercise. Vigorous exercise above 75% VO2max (160 bpm) primarily burns glycogen. [4][5]“

  • excellent post and to the point. Just wondered if you have asked the (US) National Heart Lung and Blood Institute whose guidelines for weight loss say: “A diet that is individually planned to help create a deficit of 500 to 1,000 kcal/day should be an integral part of any program aimed at achieving a weight loss of 1 to 2 lb/week. Evidence Category A.” Like you I have tried to find out what evidence this is based on – it says Evidence Category A! but I can’t find anything on the site. Maybe you have had better luck??

  • ‘“oven chips, confectionery, Quavers, Discos, Mr Kipling rubbish, Magnums, Vienettas”

    We Americans would love a translation dictionary here! (I assume these are junk foods of some kind.)’

    Your assumption is correct, Laurel!

    In Britain, “[potato] chips” are what you call fries; over chips are thick-cut fries that are reheated in the oven rather than being fried, and thus supposedly healthier (because they have less horrid fat!)

    Confectionery is candy in general.

    Quavers and Discos I’m not entirely sure about myself (thank goodness), but I think they are pseudo-chips (in the American sense of “chip”).

    Mr Kipling is a famous brand of factory-made cakes and small tarts/sweet pies of various kinds – heavy on sugar, processed wheat flour, nasty artificial fats, etc. But very compulsive for those who have been raise don them, sadly.

    A Magnum is a brand of choc-ice (chocolate-coated ice cream on a stick).

    Vienetta is an ice-cream and chocolate dessert with a flaky consistency, and presumably brimming with corn syrup and nasty fats.

  • “oven chips, confectionery, Quavers, Discos, Mr Kipling rubbish, Magnums, Vienettas”

    We Americans would love a translation dictionary here! (I assume these are junk foods of some kind.)

    Thanks so much, I have been arguing this in blogs and letter forums online, to very little effect, as the ignorance and bigotry out there is so extreme….this seems obvious to ME from the basic science I learned in high school, yet is paraded around (in the US and apparently the UK and elsewhere as well) as ABSOLUTE TRUTH — one pound equals 3500 calories — and the advice that if you simply don’t eat a single cookie or EVEN a single piece of sugarless gum (10 calories!), then you will automatically LOSE “x” number of pounds that year….

    This idiocy leads to people going on drastic calorie-restrictive diets, and failing time after time, as this CLEARLY does not work in real world situations.

    Also: the guy who writes the “Eat this not that” series (David Zinchenko) is on US television literally all the time, spouting absolute rubbish, and telling people to eat MORE junk and fast food, implying one sort of candy or cookie or processed junk is “better” as it has less overall calories, and then comparing something (say, a pasta meal) with a platter HEAPED with bacon or doughnuts, and saying the two things are equivalent….it’s a stunt, but has lead to many innocent folks making even WORSE food decisions, and thinking a diet of even MORE processed carb-loaded junk is OK “because I saw it on TV this morning, so it must be true!”

  • “Wow, great blog post.Thanks Again. Continue writing.”

  • This is so refreshing to see yoy write that … All in one place….
    By trail and errors and my own research…over last 20+ years… what you present here – my body practice…
    I am one of those peaople – who “gains weight by looking at grains and other starchy carbs”.
    Even most fruits… (I can eat moderation).


  • Zoe its very refreshing to hear all this coming from a nutritionist well done I especially like what you wrote in your last paragraph it just makes perfect sense. We need more people in the nutrition field like yourself instead of self proclaimed diet experts telling us its all about the calories because our bodies are a complicated chemical factory and quality of food is what matters, fat accumulation is in large part controlled by hormones.

    Thanks for exposing this nutritional B.S.

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