Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 03/14/2011

Nutrition: What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It?

New rule: lifting something smaller than your forearm is not exercise

On my worst days, I fantasize about cleaning my house with a shovel. It’s cluttered with so much useless crap that it would be impossible to sort out piece by piece. Better to just shovel it all out and not worry about whether we’ll miss any of it later. As it is, we often can’t find the stuff we need because it’s buried under all the stuff we don’t.

Case in point: Today I found a stack of Kids Discover magazines from 2006. And when I say I “found” them, I mean they were sitting on our dining-room table. It’s the first thing a visitor would see. How they got there is a mystery I’m unlikely to solve.

As long as they’re there, I had to look at them, and one of the themed issues caught my eye. The subject: nutrition. The image: a frowny face made from eggs that look like they were fried in axle grease and a very sad-looking strip of overcooked bacon. The headline: “Are these foods good for you?”

You can guess the answer. They won’t say “f— no!” in a kids’ magazine. But they will tell you that saturated fat is bad, that broccoli is a good source of protein, and that no one — not even bodybuilders (they actually use a photo of a bodybuilder to make this point) — needs to eat more protein than the average American already gets. “Exercise is what makes muscles grow,” it says.

Okay then!

I bring this up for two reasons:

First, because I’ve heard “abs are made in the kitchen” and “nutrition is 90 percent of the battle” so many times that I sometimes think I’m the last fitness professional who still believes in the primacy of exercise to change the way people look and how they feel about themselves.

Second, because I think the average person is still completely confused about what he or she is supposed to eat.

I’ll save the first reason for a future post. For the second, here’s a recent email from a good friend, slightly edited by me:

I’ve had some recent discussions with my mom about nutrition. She’s an ex-reference librarian, so compared to most people, she’s very well read. And yet, she says some things about diet and exercise that really make me wonder about her sources of information.

Her husband is a type-2 diabetic. I gave them the cholesterol talk, which he loved to hear, but she hated. He loves meat, eggs, and cheese. She’s not a fan.

The bigger issue, however, is that because they’ve bought into the conventional wisdom about diabetes, they won’t stop — or even slow — the flow of carbs.

I suppose every fitness and nutrition professional has had similar conversations with friends and relatives. We have a family that we spend a lot of time with. The first time we spent a weekend together, they were shocked to see how much I eat. I got the impression they’d never seen anyone eat three eggs in a single meal, much less four. The fat! The cholesterol!

I don’t remember how I explained my breakfast — I probably said something about the nutritional value of egg yolks and the caloric demands of my activity level — but I knew it didn’t really matter. From that point on I was a cardiac event waiting to happen.

Later this week I’ll get an actual nutritionist to weigh in on the question I ask in the title: what do we know, and how do we know it?

But for now, I want to hear from you:

  • What do you know now about nutrition that’s different from what you once thought was true?
  • Do you think the new conventional wisdom — the advice we get from today’s fitness and nutrition professionals — will stand the test of time?
  • If not, how long do you think it’ll be before we’re on to a new and different understanding of nutrition as it applies to appearance and weight control?

Let’s get the conversation started!


  • Wow, this is such a complicated question. I love that you say you believe in the primacy of exercise, because I’ve tried many different eating plans – nothing crazy, good plans with science behind them – and have never had any change in my body from diet. However, exercise, in the form of lifting weights, has done more for the shape of my body and the shape of my mind than any type of diet. It’s hard for me to even describe the difference in my attitude without getting choked up and crying online.

    But I still always hope that I’ll find some method of eating that will work in concert with my fitness plans to cause more weight loss, or faster loss, than I’ve experienced in the past. Each pound is such an epic struggle.

    It’s hard to know what to do because you can find a valid study for almost any method, and very vocal proponents of each, all of whom pretty much say “you’re an idiot if you’re not doing xxx.” My approach these days is not to worry too much about the science – what matters is if it works for ME. The how and why aren’t so important; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, no matter whether it’s “supposed” to. Human evolution and what we are “meant” to eat is not as clear-cut as some propose.

    But one thing I’ve changed my mind about through personal experience is the “calories in calories out” equation. It’s much more complicated than that – I can control the IN part quite well; the OUT part is more mysterious.

  • Bob

    About 2 1/2 years ago my family & I took a vacation to Orlando. I saw a picture of myself & confused it with a beached whale. It was time to lose weight. I started walking then joined a gym. I’ve lost 60 pounds & feel great.

    When I first started losing weight I kept track of my calories & nutrition content on a free site called “FitDay.” I became more aware of my protein, fat, carb intake. I eat a lot more eggs then I used to & drink whey protein shakes. I think this advice will stand the test of time. Before I became more health conscious, I never realized how important protein is. Veggies & fruits take up more space of my plate nowadays. They are timeless. I used to eat lots of carbs in the evening but now I try to cycle my carbs earlier in the day. My goal is to lose another 15 pounds by my 50th b’day which is in July. It’s getting harder to lose now, though. I’m working out 3 days/week using the NROL book (Fat 2).

    We still have to be discerning when it comes to fitness/nutritional experts. And what works for one person may not work for another when it comes to diet & exercise.

  • Hey bob congrats on the weight loss! Keep it up!

  • I agree with Gingersnapper on all of her (?) points! As someone who teaches college-level nutrition courses, I am pretty aware of the science and trends behind eating. Truth is, there are several valid approaches to diet that seem to create good health in societies. The only approach that DOESN’T work so well is the typical American diet that’s full of processed food (or food-like substances that pretend to be food – Cheez Whiz, anyone?). It’s also true that nutrition is one of the hardest areas in which to conduct rigorous research, as so much of it relies on the self-reported eating habits of study subjects. That’s a major reason why the “facts” seem to shift every year or so.

    On a personal level, I will share a few things I’ve found over the years:

    1. I am sensitive to high glycemic foods. When I eat lower glycemic load foods, I am better able to avoid bingeing and overeating.

    2. As a 46-year-old woman in menopause (induced by surgery and drugs), I find it increasingly difficult to stay lean. Weight training plays a major role, but I cannot eat everything I want and sometimes I have to feel a little hungry if I am going to maintain my body weight and body fat level.

    3. One thing I’ve really changed my mind about over the past few years is how much protein I need. I used to be a vegetarian and ate 300 or more grams of carbohydrate a day, with few animal products. Now, I eat about 180 grams of carbs a day and lots more fish, egg whites (sorry Lou, but I toss the yolks!) and poultry. Every time I eat, I make sure I have some protein along with whatever else I am eating.

  • Leslie, thanks for jumping in!

    Yes, I’m totally offended by your aversion to egg yolks. It tears at the fabric of my self-image, and I’m going to spend the rest of the day calling AM radio shows to express my frustration over the state of the world.

    Kidding aside, you bring up a great point about choosing foods that make you less hungry for other food, or for more food. For me, peanut butter is the great appetite-satisfier.

    I frequently use a meal replacement idea I got from TC Luoma at T-nation: 2 tablespoons peanut butter, a scoop of low-carb Metabolic Drive chocolate protein powder, and just enough low-fat milk to give it a pudding-like consistency. It has a lot of calories (especially considering that I don’t measure the peanut butter and probably use more than I’m supposed to), but it kills my appetite better and longer than just about anything else I have around the house.

  • Hey Lou,

    I think that the notion mentioned above that you can “find valid studies to support anything” is largely based on the assumption that most readers can determine what study is valid and which isn’t. In my experience, most people read abstracts or reports by others on research and have very little understanding of research methods and statistics themselves. These people should not be talking science and reporting on which studies are valid or not.

    As someone who is constantly reading research (and have been since grad school) I can say with a lot of confidence that very little matters for weight loss except that calories out must exceed calories in. In fact, it is IMPOSSIBLE to lose weight otherwise (unless the laws of thermodynamics have somehow changed).

    In studies where they have compared one diet versus others (such as the A to Z trial) it appears that over a year the weight loss is relatively similar (and disappointing) between all diets. Granted, this study relied largely on self report, but I think this reflects largely how people react to dietary strategies when they are in the real world.

    Looking at the same study, when they evaluated the results based on “consistency” it turned out that those who stuck to their diet most lost the most weight regardless of which diet they were on. To me, THAT is the big picture. Instead of focusing on physiological methods to accelerate weight loss and nutrition per se, I think we need to focus more on helping people to identify barriers and improve consistency of their plan regardless of which method they choose.

    Health, on the other hand, is a different story and we know that exercise (independent of weight loss) can improve various health markers and add/retain muscle mass. Add weight loss and nutrient dense foods to the mix instead of processed garbage and you have a recipe for a healthy and sexy body.

  • Mark, thanks for coming over.

    I wrote about the A-Z study in NROL for Abs. We can take away lots of lessons from it. Randomizing people to extreme diets for 12 months certainly doesn’t work. The lowest-carb diet outperformed the 2 low-fat diets, but as you note the weight loss was pretty modest all around.

    That said, the Atkins diet outperformed the others at all time points. After 6 months, those doing Atkins had lost almost 3x as much weight as those on Zone. Everybody regained some weight in the second six months, which probably says a lot about the futility of trying to maintain an extreme diet for an entire year.

    The really fascinating data are in the charts showing what participants actually ate at different time points. Those on the low-fat diets cut the highest percentage of total calories (19% on the Ornish diet vs. 15% on Atkins after 12 months), but still lost less weight.

    Would the results be more dramatic if people hadn’t been randomized to these diets, if they’d chosen their own diets? Nobody can say, but I have to think they would.

    But based on what we have from a very good, long-term study, there seem to be modest but real differences in low-carb vs. low-fat diets.

  • Elise’s Mom

    I read somewhere recently that the United States is the only country in the world that publishes dietary guidelines (I don’t know if that is entirely true, but I think the point is well taken). I think this says a lot about how confused people are about what we are supposed to eat. And I think a big reason that we are confused is that we have so many choices, and a lot of so-called “healthy” options come packaged in a box or a bag, and food that is inside it is unrecognizable when compared to what it looks like in its natural state (i.e., corn in fritos). I buy into the Michael Pollan strategy of “eat real food.” When I do my grocery shopping I stick to the perimeter of the store (produce, bakery, meat, fish counter, frozen vegetables in winter) and rarely venture into the vast aisles of packaged foods.

  • Richard Bienvenu

    Can I suggest that people read Gary Taubes’ recent book: _Why We Get Fat–and what to do about it? It’s sort of a summary and update of his longer _Good Calories,Bad Calories_ and more approachable and, hence, more provocative. A sample: “It’s astounding how much bad science–and so bad advice, and a growing obesity problem–has been the result of the experts’ failure to understand this one simple fact. The very notion that we get fat because we consume more calories than we expend would not exist without the misapplied belief that the laws of thermodynamics make it true. …Obesity is not a disorder of energy balance or calories-in/calories-out or overeating and thermodynamics has nothing to do with it.”

  • sarah

    A great discussion – I am also in the fitness profession and over the years things I thought were right have changed! I still get confused myself as every day we read someone elses opinion on which “nutritional protocol” works best! Low carb/no carb watch the fruit, etc etc personally I believe no one ever got fat from overeating fruit and veggies alongside good quality lean proteins and fats etc It is only when this is combined with highly processed foods that we have the problem!
    I also believe exercise is vital it is to me anyway – i eat pretty well most of the time but unless i exercise properly then the lbs do come back on! Yes of course you can exercise all day and if you eat crap you will gain weight so its getting the balance a good nutritonal plan full of as many natural healthy foods with the odd treat plus a good amount of quality resistance exercise with intensity!

  • Hey Lou,

    This topic has been on my mind a lot recently. I know quite a few Personal trainers who have decided they are authoritites on nutrition. But it is pretty obvious most are simply repeating, parrot fashion, what they have read or been told.

    For me, the first step to addressing diet is to learn to cook your own food from scratch. If you can’t do that then you are at the mercy of ready meals and fast food. And let’s face it, most chain restraunts (the ones that offer the best “value” with enough in the doggie bag for breakfast) are nothing more than glorified fast food joints.

    Anyway, in answer to your questions…

    * I know that the food I eat has major implications on how I feel beyond the obvious nutrition benefits. I grew up in an era where carbo loading was the norm and fat was evil. How’s that for a turn around?
    * I think we have never been better informed but we’ve never been so confused. We consume foodstuffs rather than food and then shore it up with supplements. (This takes me back to cooking your own food) I think as long as there is money to be made there will be new diets and discoveries, I am just not sure they will offer anything better than Michael Pollans advice to “Eat food, not too much, mostly leaves”.
    * The last question is the kicker. We have all the information we need to make profound and lasting changes to our health, wellbeing and body comp. That wont stop the next wave of books, products and dvds.

  • Some good info being tossed around here, y’all.

    I remember a decade or so ago, the curriculum for my trainer’s certification told me to have clients eat at least five times a day, pay attention to the glycemic index and basically avoid high GI carbs at all costs, and “zigzag” calories throughout the week to effect body recomposition (calorie cycling for fat loss/muscle gain).

    Now, after several years of learning from books, peers, and personal experience, I’ve found that five or more meals per day may be an ideal, but in reality, people do just fine with a real breakfast, real lunch, real dinner, and a workout shake. Anything extra is gravy (um, so to speak).

    I’ve also learned that the glycemic index isn’t nearly as cut and dry as “high bad, low good.” And calories are usually cycled on a daily basis anyhow, moreso with the exclusion of the workout shake on non-training days.

    Over the last few years, I’ve really tried to pare down the nutrition advice I recommend, and one of the best resources I’ve found is Michael Pollan’s series. Like Rannoch said, Pollan explains some solid points very clearly. His book, Food Rules, is my go-to suggestion for average folks looking for diet tips (it even passes the “I gave a copy to my mom”-test). In Defense of Food gives the same advice, but with more more in-depth explanations.

    I think that a lot of what Lou called the “new conventional wisdom” actually seems pretty retro. Strategic fasting, organic vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets, a general simplification of nutrition strategies – this is all stuff that physical culturists were advocating a hundred-plus years ago, then things changed as folks got “smarter”, and now it’s come full circle again. Ain’t that always the way?

    So, yeah, I do have a pretty good feeling that the majority of nutrition info being talked about by fitness pros in the early-21st century will stand the test of time… since so much of it can be tracked straight back to the late-19th century. Hell, Sandow had his own line of protein powder!

  • Rannoch, great points. I wish I could say I’ve read all of Pollan’s books, but I feel quite a bit smarter just having read Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

    Chris, thanks for bringing up Sandow, Macfadden, and the other pioneers of physical culture. Macfadden may have been insane, but he was right about a few things regarding exercise and nutrition. And that’s aside from his contributions to modern media. He was a pioneer in service journalism (Physical Culture was a direct influence on J.I. Rodale, who published Prevention and whose company later published Men’s Health), tabloid news, and reality programming.

    Going back to an earlier thread on this blog, Thomas Jefferson espoused many of the basic ideas Pollan promotes today. He was a locavore hundreds of years before the word was invented. He believed in daily exercise, ate a mostly plant-based diet, and tried his hardest to create a local wine industry.

    Goes to show: The best advice isn’t necessarily the latest advice.

  • “On my worst days, I fantasize about cleaning my house with a shovel. It’s cluttered with so much useless crap that it would be impossible to sort out piece by piece. Better to just shovel it all out and not worry about whether we’ll miss any of it later. As it is, we often can’t find the stuff we need because it’s buried under all the stuff we don’t.”

    Oh, my God, that made me laugh! It’s me, every time I walk by my daughter’s room!

    On the protein front, while we may need only the recommended protein allowance, most elite level athletes, fitness professionals and experienced amateurs would all agree that, in reality, you’ll need far more if you want to maximize muscular development and keep your metabolism humming happily along. Ask any bodybuilder, NFL football player, or power lifter about the importance of protein with regards to maximizing performance.

    The problem is that far too many authorities don’t look at things from a performance maximization standpoint, only from a health standpoint.

    The main thing that I know now that you could have never convinced me of 20 years ago is that low fat does not mean high health. Unfortunately, so many of us bought into the “low fat” kick back in the ’80’s and ate hyper processed, flour filled, sugar laden crap simply because the giant text on the label proclaimed in all its glory “FAT FREE”.

    Well, as we came to find out: “So What?” We still looked like crap in many cases, no matter how much of that stuff we ate. Now we come to find out that all the white flour and sugar in there was really the stuff we should have been staying away from.

    Fat is great, if only its the proper kind.

    Thanks ,


  • Jim

    I love getting that question, because at one point I use to ask it and get the answer I now give, which I did not want to hear. Diet and exercise, plain and simple. Everything I know about nutrition I have learned on my own from reading and self experimentation. I have lost just shy of 40 pounds in the last year and just turned 44. Most of the weight loss has come from simply carb watching (keeping it around 1800 per day or less) and working out 4 to 5 days per week. This is has worked wonders. But now, I am at the point of fine tuning my diet to really sculpt my body. I am paying more and more attention to my diet mix ratio (protein/carbs/fats) to make sure I am getting what I need to obtain my goals. Starting Fat Loss II this week from NROL and hope to be at my target weight of 180 by the mid April (12 pounds to go). Heck, if the Bowflex guy can be 40 and in the best shape of his life, why can’t I.

  • Jim, what do you mean by “1800 per day”? Is that total calories per day?

  • There is one thing I want to add, in response to Mark’s comment about most people having little understanding of research methods – Mark, however much we disagree with each other, that is fine, but I want people to understand that I am FAT, I am not STUPID. You should not automatically discount my beliefs by assuming that I’m not capable of understanding the subject. Additionally, my experiences and observations with the body I’ve lived in for fifty years are not invalidated by someone else’s experience with their body.

  • Gingersnapper – I apologize if you took my comment as being directed specifically at you. I wasn’t implying that you personally don’t understand research, but that the population as a whole is whofully equipped to discern the meaning of many peer reviewed papers. Having read studies for over 10 years, I am still lost sometimes. I can’t fathom that the average reader often has a clue what they’re reading.

    Lou – You make some interesting points about the A to Z study, but I given the bulk of research I’ve read I think it would be fair to say that almost ANY diet studied pretty much shows that weight loss at or beyond a year is quite low for most subjects. The person who comes up with a solution to this problem will be a millionaire.

    In terms of the reported calorie intakes, I think that the biggest issue here is that self report isn’t terribly reliable. But assuming that it was reliable in this case, they are only reporting on the “calories in” side of the equation. The “calories out” side can include anything from exercise to thermic effect of feeding (higher in the Atkins I’d guess) to hormonal changes (leptin, GLP1, etc).

    So while it would appear that this defies the laws of thermodynamics (the group eating less calories lost less weight) it is simply a matter of only reporting one side of the “calories in – calories out” equation.

  • Kara Silva

    Love this discussion!

    What do you know now about nutrition that’s different from what you once thought was true?
    Until about 6 months ago, I was eating alot of healthy foods that were not getting me any where near my fat loss goals and in some cases making me sick. I found out I was gluten intolerant and shifted to a more protein focused whole food diet and I feel much better. I am pissed I am finding this out at 38. Having been a runner in the past all I was told was carbs carbs carbs… which made me happy…as they are delicious but also made me prone to binges, depression and being fat!

    Do you think the new conventional wisdom — the advice we get from today’s fitness and nutrition professionals — will stand the test of time?
    Hard to say because I rarely can find two nutrition professionals who agree on the same approach. I am a personal trainer but I see a nutritionist and have a diet coach from a plan that I bought. I often find myself in the middle of these two experts who often disagree and wondering what is right. I am fairly educated around fitness and nutrition and I some times am lost and confused. I can only imagine what the average American must feel with all of that information out there.
    If not, how long do you think it’ll be before we’re on to a new and different understanding of nutrition as it applies to appearance and weight control?
    5 to 10 years. I see consensus gain around whole foods, healthy fats, higher protein but there is still a while before that view reaches any kind of tipping point.

  • Thanks Kara! Great points. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when your nutritionist and diet coach argue.

    (I understand they aren’t literally in the same room when they disagree with each other, but it would be fun if they were.)

  • What do I know now about nutrition thats different from what I once thought was true?
    HA, tons. It is the old adage if only I knew then what I know now. I am turning 40 this saturday and in the best shape of my life. I did triathlons in my 20’s, trained like a freak and ate like crap. Didnt understand nutrition demands or the right foods to eat to fulfill those nutrition demands. Basically ate whatever I wanted, which was too much junk, but my caloric expense was so high I burned it off. At my current age knowledge is power.
    Having lost 50 pounds in a year, understanding how to eat, what to eat, when to eat, and how to train properly. It is a world of difference.
    I am currently using your book, new rules for lifting to increase my strength training. This time in 2010 couldnt deadlift 135, now I can do 250 for 3.
    But eating properly has to start at a young age, but there is still so much you dont know. I like the paleo diet myself, if you read it, it makes sense and you do feel different avoiding certain foods that “appear” healthy but have other side effects.
    Knowledge is good.

  • I have always been amused at the cycles we go through here in America. Eggs are good for you. No, eggs are bad for you. No, eggs are good for you, but only the whites. It goes to show that the so-called experts don’t have all the answers.

    I have also seen the ridiculous trend of appetite suppressants. I don’t always eat (poorly or otherwise) because I am hungry. Most times it is because I am bored and/or undisciplined.

    I started weight training seriously about 2.5 years ago. Last year I got NROL for Abs, which revolutionized my workouts. Combined with calorie supervision it helped me to lose about 45 pounds. I’ve gained some of it back because of undisciplined eating, but looking at my 215 pounds now versus the other times I was at that weight, you would see a much different body. I am much more muscular now. I have gained lots of strength (squatting 285 and going for 305 tomorrow). I know that I need to just tweak a few things in my diet and nutrition to get back down to 200. I do wish that I could tell what my caloric output would be (at rest and working out) without having to invest in expensive (for me) equipment like a BodyBugg.