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How You Think About Food Will Ruin Your Beach Body

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s summer time; do you know what that means? Time to accentuate the abs and cut the top off the muffin. If you decide to shape up, you won’t be alone. According to a number of estimates, Americans now spend 19 billion dollars a year on gym memberships. That’s a lot of yoga pants.

Hoards of runners, bikers, and weightlifters will hit the treadmills, trails, and benches seeking that elusive beach body. But however they decide to get “ripped,” most are bound to perpetuate a grand weight loss myth this summer—that you can lose weight simply by working out.

You can do all the crunches in the world and not get that washboard look you want, mainly because we are bad estimators when it comes to weight loss. First, we tend to overestimate how many calories we burn while exercising. 30 minutes on the elliptical won’t even cover half a coffee shop muffin, for example. Second, we basically have no idea how many calories a meal has, underestimating by nearly 100% in some cases (especially for high-calorie foods). Both mistakes mean that we give too much credit to exercise and not enough to dieting.

Most people think weight loss without exercise is hopeless, when in fact the opposite—that exercise is largely unimportant for weight loss—is true.

Of course, exercise is good. A review of 25 years worth of literature found that the best weight loss programs combined both diet and exercise (with diet alone far outperforming exercise alone). But another reason that exercise isn’t a suitable weight loss strategy taken alone is that we also tend to compensate for our efforts and reward ourselves. When we overestimate the benefits of exercise, underestimate how many calories we eat, and overcompensate for a job well done, exercise is really a false protection from fattening food. Sunscreen has a similar problem with false protection. Sunscreen definitely helps, but it also encourages people to stay out in the sun longer and risk exposure that the protective goo can’t handle. Similarly, it’s a mistake to think that you can reward yourself with a big pasta dinner after a three-hour run and still lose weight.

Besides being blind to the minimal weight loss benefits of exercise (if that is your only route), we seem to think exercise can mold fat wherever we want. Thousands of products on the market seek to shape women’s butts, thighs, and stomachs, and men’s arms, chest, and back. The reality however, is that so-called “toning” is a myth. You can do crunches all day long and you abs will indeed get bigger and stronger, but you will never see them. The only way to see the muscles you work so hard for is to lose weight globally—across your entire body. You know what that means: focusing on diet rather than exercise alone. The Suzanne Somers ThighMaster will not shape your butt or thighs unless you are losing weight from everywhere; you cannot selectively lose weight from one part of the body. Toning is a myth, time to flex it into oblivion. (For a fun read on other health myths, check out The Cure for Everything by Timothy Caulfield.)

In the hopes of making us better estimators, and to see just how critical diet is to weight loss, I made a graph (as I sometimes do with Star Trek drinking games). To bring the overestimates and underestimates in line, I brought the surprisingly high number of calories in some common pre/post workout foods into the same plot as the surprisingly low number of calories burned by some common exercises over time.

You’ll be surprised how few Oreos can throw an afternoon of activity out the window.

Click to engorge

The colored lines on the chart show how many calories you burn over time doing exercises like rock climbing and swimming. The black lines show the caloric content of different amounts of Oreos, Cliff Bars, Gatorade, and a shrimp bistro pasta dinner.

You can ruin a 30-minute bike ride with three Oreos. A beastly three-and-a-half hour run is demolished by The Cheesecake Factory. That Gatorade you replenish your electrolytes with can quickly eliminate an entire power-lift workout.

Beach season is rapidly coming to a close, so while you try to wrestle your weight into submission, do the same for your concept of weight loss and “getting ripped.” It’s no longer calories in minus calories out. Like other psychological quirks that guide perception or mold memory, we are biased calorie calculators who underestimate and unduly reward (and many of the calorie counts themselves are wrong). Shape up your mind, then shape up your body.

Image Credit:

“Pain is weakness leaving the body” by Anthony C

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. StutterinSam 12:50 pm 09/2/2013

    I worked out for a decade, but didn’t lose weight until I started shrinking my portion sizes down.

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  2. 2. lgendrot 6:54 pm 09/2/2013

    It’s a tragedy that such basic health information isn’t common knowledge.

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  3. 3. CherryTeresa 8:15 pm 09/2/2013

    I think it’s easier than ever to avoid some of these mistakes. You can look at the nutritional info on the Oreo packaging to see that one cookie contains 100 calories. You can also look up the information online if you don’t have access to the packaging.

    Many chain restaurants have nutrition info on their websites. Cheesecake Factory does not, but doing a search for Shrimp Bistro Pasta shows that it’s on a bunch of ‘worst foods to eat’ lists and is over 3,120 calories and 89 grams of saturated fat.

    In some parts of the U.S., like California and New York, many chain restaurants are required by law to list the calories on the menus. Some of the places not required by law to display them still have the information behind the counter if you ask and/or list it on their websites. Of course, this isn’t every restaurant and this isn’t the same all over the country.

    There are also many websites and apps that have this information. You have to be careful, as these are often user-submitted, so it’s good to double-check it with another site/app. MyFitnessPal’s website shows how many people have confirmed it. You can use it as a guide, but not as a 100% reliable tool, but it’s definitely much better than trying to just guess on your own.

    None of this is perfect. Calories aren’t the only thing to indicate the healthiness of a food and, as the link you included points out, calorie counts aren’t precise and can vary by the way it’s cooked or by the person consuming it. It also gets very tricky when dining out at non-chains, as the nutrition information isn’t readily available. But I think we have ways to avoid some of the really fattening foods compared to the past.

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  4. 4. k banco 8:31 pm 09/2/2013

    While all calories aren’t created exactly equal, they are a pretty good estimation. Calorie balance is key. I’m in very good shape right now and I vary my diet/exercise all the time, but I keep my total calorie intake for the day (or week if I overdo it one day) the same. So if I need 3000 calories in a day, sometimes I do that with 7 or 8 small meals, other times it’ll be 2 big meals. If I ever do some vigourous exercise, I maybe will permit myself an extra 100-300 calories. That’s all it takes.

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  5. 5. Scientific American Fan 11:14 pm 09/2/2013

    “I don’t give a fattening fizzle Hell what the world is trying to do in trying to make everyone frickin’ skinny. People are so obsessively locked into & caring about people being all skinny these days when it never used to be like this before the year 2000. People used to always accept people of all shapes & sizes. Fat , skinny , tall , short , small. Live & let live used to be the theme. Now everyone nowadays has to be badgered & instigated into being all skinny in this world. Screw the few or the majority in this world with those views who think that way on this subject & what they think about their personal unobtainable pipe dreams of trying to force everyone , the millions of people in this world to be skinny. Nobody even thinks about or considers that maybe people have different metabolisms! Hello ? Maybe not everyone processes all food into energy & very little of it left is stored as fat. Maybe in the people the world seems to be picking on , that they have slower metabolisms & process very little food into energy & store more fat into the body. People in the past used to always mind their own business & accept everyone of all shapes & sizes & that it’s impolite to talk about or make fun of people who are fat or skinny or tall or thin & now the world has tunnel vision in wishing that the whole world was skinny by forcing all healthy foods onto people while banning or trying to ban junk food. That’s not the answer. The stupid ban on soda in New York is what mostly is a laugh. Education is the key to getting kids early to exercise & eat right. To try & take away people’s rights to choose what they eat from what they can’t eat is going about the issue all wrong. People should have a right to choose in this world. I used to love America & now I hate it with every fiber of my being. We are slowly going into a communistic lifestyle of the world dreaming of making everyone skinny & in shape by trying to mutate our laws to ban certain foods & to blame foods & people for what they eat instead of their wrong choices & ignorance in choosing those fattening foods as a way of life everyday instead of incorporating a steady balanced flow of healthy foods along with the unhealthy. Banning junk food & sweets is not the answer. Education on food & educating kids while they are young to eat wiser & exercise more & not to sit on the couch watching TV or playing video games & texting on the couch all day long is the route to go. Blame the parents too. Not the people who make the junk food. The kids can’t eat the junk food if the parents don’t buy it , right ? Parents , all parents are all to blame for raising this generation of fat kids. Not the food industry. Just the parents ! If all junk food is going to be banned , I will be forced to get my junk food illegally. Screw the government laws on junk food & what people think of it. Arrest me for eating junk food. I don’t care ! I’m not hurting anyone else , but myself. There is no law against that. Not yet anyways.”

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  6. 6. mmole 11:41 am 09/9/2013

    SAF, are you familiar with the “Drunk Uncle” character from Saturday Night Live? Just curious.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 5:39 pm 09/11/2013

    Thank you S.A.F. for proving once again that fan is short for fanatic. Might I humbly suggest that you get some psychiatric help before you blow a vein in your brain?

    Way back when I was scrawny I was in very poor health. Now that I count as over weight I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. Weight is only part of the health picture. Being slightly over the standardized weight makes you live longer. Regular episodes of exercise that has a variety of forms and makes up about 20 hours a week makes you live longer. A diet of foods that you can properly digest and provide a wide range of nutrients and fiber makes you live longer.

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