There’s only one way to lose weight — create a caloric deficit.
However, there are two ways to create a caloric deficit — you can eat less or move more.
So, which is better?
Tom Venuto, a best-selling author, bodybuilder, and personal trainer, comes on the show to answer that question. We also discuss some of the biggest mistakes you’re probably making when trying to lose fat.
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Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle by Tom Venuto
Top 10 Ways For Regular People To Get Motivated by Tom Venuto
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**Armi Legge:** Hello, podcast listeners, and welcome to the first episode of 2014. We’ve talked a lot about how important calories are for getting lean. As you know, there are two ways to create a caloric deficit. You can eat fewer calories or you can burn more calories. In this podcast, we’re going to talk about which method is better.
Tom Venuto, one of the most trustworthy experts in the fitness industry, a bodybuilder, and an author comes on the show to talk about what the research has shown are the pros and cons of both eating less and moving more for losing fat.
We also talk about some other important tips to help you get lean with less effort.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Evidence Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity. If you like what you hear in today’s show, here’s how to get more like it. Go to www.evidencemag.com, enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page, and click the button below. After you do, you’ll get free updates from the Evidence Magazine delivered to your email inbox when they are published.
So what the hell is Evidence Magazine? I’ve decided to change the name of Impruvism to Evidence Magazine for several reasons.
1) People can spell it and pronounce it, which was rarely the case with Impruvism.
2) Impruvism was a word I made up because it looked kind of like improvement, it sounded cool, and it was available as a web address. It also didn’t do a great job of telling people what the site was about.
3) On February 3, 2014, I’m launching a digital magazine. The magazine will be integrated into evidencemag.com as a membership site. When you register as a member, you’ll get access to the latest issues of the magazine. The magazine itself will be readable on any device such as your smartphone, tablet, your laptop, or your desktop. I may even make it available on Kindle and iBooks as well.
Here is how you should think of Evidence Magazine now. The blog is the free content from the magazine, what you know as Impruvism. And the membership site is the paid part of the magazine. The podcast stays the same. I’m just changing the name to make it consistent.
Some of the best fitness authors and experts in the industry are contributing, including Tom Venuto. And it’s easily the biggest project I’ve ever done. If you’re interested in getting a special discount on Evidence Magazine before anyone else, you should sign up for the Evidence Magazine email updates. You can sign up by going to evidencemag.com/email-updates.
Tom, welcome to the show and thank you for taking the time to come on. Would you give our listeners a quick run down on who you are and what you do?
**Tom Venuto:** Sure. I’ve been in the fitness industry for almost 25 years now and I’ve been training myself for over 30 years. I started when I was 14. I definitely wasn’t always in shape, though. The reason I started lifting in high school was I had no build to speak of. I wasn’t obese or anything but I was pretty flabby, self-conscious.
I took up lifting in high school and trained through high school. Then I went to college and gained 20 pounds right on my gut from drinking beer and eating pizza. What happened was guys at the gym inspired me. I got my act together before I graduated. I got my degree in exercise science and after that, I was a competitive bodybuilder and personal trainer for almost 15 years.
Today, I’m still training people but I do it online through my fitness websites and my Burn the Fat community. I’m also a writer and author of two books on fat loss, including “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.”
**Armi Legge:** You are certainly a veteran and you are one of the people I’ve been following for a long time. You’ve definitely influenced a lot of my work. Since you are so experienced, I’m sure you get a ton of questions. One of the ones that’s been popping up a lot more recently is whether or not people should eat less or exercise more to lose weight or fat.
How do you normally answer that question?
**Tom Venuto:** First of all, that is the question isn’t it? That’s the big question that sits on top of the whole fat loss thing. I’ve noticed the trend myself. Surprisingly, a lot of people even in the fitness industry who are suggesting that maybe exercise isn’t all that effective. I’ve taken an interest in this topic myself.
I think, first of all, there’s a better thing to focus on than eat less and exercise more and that is focus on the deficit if your goal is fat loss. The reason I say that is someone can eat less but if you compensate by moving less, then you cancel your deficit, right? And you can exercise more, but if you compassionate by eating more, again, you cancel the deficit on that side.
I think we can really only answer the question the right if we establish that first. Whether we want to eat less or exercise more, if it’s fat loss that’s our goal, then each one of those is a means to an end. We’re really after that deficit.
Normally, I’d answer that by saying in an ideal situation, you’d do both. If there are two sides on the energy balance equation, why would you handicap yourself by using only one side? It’s kind of like stepping into the ring with one arm tied behind your back. You can fight with one hand but I don’t know why you’d want to. You can do more damage with both fists. That’s the way I see fat loss. Why not drop the calories down from the food intake a little bit and burn more calories from the exercise side?
**Armi Legge:** That’s a great analogy. So our listeners on this podcast generally tend to be a little obsessive. When they hear to do both, I’m sure a few people listening to this are thinking, “OK, I have to go out there and run marathons and eat nothing.” I am sure there are some pros and cons to both approaches for different people. Just like a boxer who might be right handed or left handed, who might want to emphasize one hand over the other, how would you help somebody decide which one to use more or integrate in a different way?
**Tom Venuto:** There are pros and cons to both sides, for one thing. Let’s look at the pros of the eating less side, the nutrition side of the equation.
There is pretty much a universal agreement that this is the primary thing to start focusing on. Even if you asked all the experts and the trainers– on that side, it’s not the training industry. It’s the training and fitness industry. You ask a trainer and their whole career preaching about exercise but most of them are all going to tell you that nutrition is the most important. There are two big reasons for that.
One is that when you’re first starting out, it’s a lot easier to create a significant calorie deficit, at least the initial deficit when you’re starting out at maintenance. Like cutting out your food intake.
Compare the amount of work it takes to burn 500 or 750 or 1,000 calories a day with formal exercise vs. just dropping your food intake down by 500 or 750 calories. There’s really no contest there. It’s easier to drop your food down. It’s an easy way to get started, so that’s one pro.
I think the other thing that’s important to point out is that people can lose weight with no exercise. So it’s important to know that exercise is not an absolute requirement to lose weight. Again, it’s the deficit we need. There are patients lying in a hospital bed who lose weight because sometimes they can’t get food down. That’s as inactive as you can get. Is that an ideal way to do it? Cut calories and not exercise? That’s the question.
Do you know the quote we hear on every twitter and facebook stream. “You can’t out-train a lousy diet?” it is a cliche and it’s a little vague and some people don’t like cliches, so let me clarify what I think is the accurate part of that.
The reason people say you can’t out-train a lousy diet is it’s not only possible, but easy to out-eat any amount of exercise if you’re not focused on that deficit. If you’re not watching the balance between the amount you exercise and the amount you eat, you can just cancel everything out by eating more. It’s hard for a lot of people to grasp this because it feels like they’re working so hard in the gym, so they say to themselves, “There’s no way I can undo that workout with one visit to McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts.” Yeah, you can. Working out is not a free license to eat is much as you want.
**Armi Legge:** Bummer. So what are some of the pros of the exercise side? We talked about eating less. What benefits does exercise have to offer?
**Tom Venuto:** Let’s take a look at cardio, for example. I don’t say it’s absolutely mandatory. I see it as a fat loss accelerator. Let’s say you’ve got your nutrition in place and you’re consistent with the nutrition, whatever result you’re getting with your diet side of things, you add cardio on top and you are going to burn fat faster as long as you don’t compensate and eat more when you exercise more.
Weight training as so many other benefits even outside of fat loss. For one thing, a lot of people overlook that weight training burns a lot of calories. But also it’s where your strength comes from. That’s how you sculpt your body shape. From a bodybuilding background like me, it’s a no brainer, but other people just don’t see all the benefits of adding weight training into a fat loss program. For some people, it doesn’t even compute, which I found odd. I get that question all the time, “I’m trying to lose weight, why should I lift?” Well, duh! But for a lot of people, it just doesn’t click.
I like to separate the training into two distinct styles: cardio training and weight training. I think you should combine both along with nutrition. Nutrition, cardio training, weight training. It’s a 1-2-3 punch. In my system, I add one more element. I add the motivation and psychology side on top of that. You put those four elements together and I think you have the full package.
**Armi Legge:** We’ll definitely talk about some of the behavioral and psychological aspects of dieting. Maybe on a different podcast or later. But, in the mean time, what are some of the problems people run into when trying to just eat less? You mentioned how, often, it’s just compensated for by a lack of physical activity. Are there any other problems people might run into if they just try to eat less and go about weight loss that way?
**Tom Venuto:** If you want faster fat loss, you want a bigger deficit, but you can only cut calories so far before bad stuff starts to happen. You get hungry. Hunger is the big one. That’s a big problem for a lot of people. You get tired. You get irritable.
If the restriction goes on for a long time and the more severe it is, there is some degree of metabolic adaptation and the hormones get affected in a couple directions. It’s like these hormones are conspiring against you in two directions. You have the hormones that maintain a healthy metabolic rate that drop and the hormones that increase hunger will go up. You’re prompted to want to eat more while, at the same time, you’re burning less than you normally would.
Another one a lot of people don’t think about is it has to do with NEAT, non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which is all the activity and the walking you do outside of the gym. People don’t realize how much that really adds up over the course of the day. And when you’re on really restricted diets, what some of the studies have found is that your NEAT level drops spontaneously and you don’t even realize it. What happens is you’re moving less during the day and you’re burning less fat weight, too. There are a lot of compensations going on that you don’t notice.
That’s what really leads people to a plateau. The overeating, the drop in activity. Some people, when they just do the diet approach, they actually end up eating more and burning less and then they say, “Well, this diet is not working. I’ve got this mysterious fat loss plateau” but there’s your explanation for it right there.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. Let’s say we have someone who actually does establish an extremely large deficit. Are there any other problems that can cause? You mentioned metabolic slowdown, but what kind of effect does that have on their activity level or exercise ability?
**Tom Venuto:** I mean, yeah! You don’t have as much gusto in the gym. You can’t train as hard. That’s part of the energy level dropping. Really, we have to look at what’s going to happen to your body composition, especially if you can’t train as hard.
Diet alone is never going to give you as good of a body composition outcome as nutrition combined with training. Even for just retaining lean body mass when you’re in a deficit– the bigger the deficit, the greater the risk of muscle loss, but resistance training alone goes a long way in protecting your lean body mass.
**Armi Legge:** Tom, I would give you a high five right now if you were in person. You are the first person to use the word “gusto” in the podcast. Way to have a vocabulary, man. Good job. So what are some of the mistakes people make when training for fat loss?
**Tom Venuto:** A lot of people just go through the motions. There is no intensity of effort. There is no mental focus. They’ve got a list of exercises and they’ve got a certain number of sets and prescribed reps they do, but they’re never pushing the edges of their comfort zone. Also, they’re not mentally focused either. You walk into the gym and it’s crazy how many people have cell phones between sets. What happened to the mental concentration that the guys in the old days used to teach? It was almost like a Zen type of thing.
This is what I like about the bodybuilder world still to this day, is the way those guys would work on that mind to muscle connection. For other people, it’s just lift weight up, lift weight down. It’s the same for the cardio side of things if you’re training for fat loss. A lot of people go through the motions in the sense that they never put any intensity into their training.
For a lot of people, here’s the big mistake, they just look at the clock. This is going full circle back to the calorie thing. They figure, “If I clock 60 minutes, I’m guaranteed to lose fat,” whereas if they were focusing more on the intensity and the amount of calories that they burned, they could burn just as many calories in just as many minutes if they pushed themselves harder.
**Armi Legge:** Great point. What are some ways people can use to make counting calories and macros easier? Are there any tricks that you’ve learned over the years or that you’ve used with your clients?
**Tom Venuto:** It’s easier today than ever before because of the software and apps we have available. They’re right there on computers, your iPads, your smartphones.
You know what I did? I built meal planning software for my members. It’s not a mobile app. It’s a piece of software. I did that as a benefit for our members. There are so many options. I just use an Excel spreadsheet. Good old Microsoft Excel.
What I would do is what I call it meal planning and not calorie counting. I see a distinction there. I prefer to be proactive. I get on my meal planner software or spreadsheet and I create a meal plan in advance. I pick the foods I want and drop them into the software or the sheet and then I’ll go to the amount section and tweak the serving sizes to get the macros and the calories I want. If I need to, I’ll look at the subtotal for each meal and the total for each day and I’ll tweak it to get it close. I’m not a macronutrient micromanager or anything. The whole goal was to have my daily meal plan on paper. And it was a goal. It was like an eating goal for the day. And then I just followed what was on the meal plan. All I had to do was weigh and measure my food. That’s how I really learned nutrition and learned to understand calories, proteins, carbs, and fats.
It’s not the only way to do it. The other way people are doing it is they’re kind of doing it on the fly. They’ll eat something, write it down. Eat something, write it down. That works, too. I know a lot people who are just into hitting their macros and calories by the end of the day and that works for them. But to me, that’s also reactive and I think there’s more margin for error or getting off of what your original plan was or having to make some strange last minute changes or compensations as the day goes on.
So I really like the meal planning method. It’s planning. It’s knowing what you’re going to eat each day in advance. And even if you’re out on the road, you’re traveling, you know what you’re supposed to eat and it just makes it a lot easier.
**Armi Legge:** And of course you can always change it if you feel like it.
**Tom Venuto:** Right.
**Armi Legge:** So basically your approach is to list the foods that you want to have throughout the day and then just tweak the amounts to make sure you’re inline with your calorie and micronutrient goals.
**Tom Venuto:** Exactly, yeah. Basically, all my meal plan is on paper. And if I get bored, I’ll just change it. I’ll have several menus. Or I’ll do a swap. I’ll do an exchange for an approximate . . . like breakfast for me is typically eggs, oatmeal, and a piece of fruit and if I want something quicker and easier, instead of the eggs, the lean protein group, I’ll drop some protein powder in my oatmeal and stir it in and I’m still right in the ballpark with one little substation. So exchanges and substitutions is really easy with that system, too.
**Armi Legge:** Right. It seems like it would also make it really if, like let’s say if you’re traveling and you can’t weigh your food for whatever reason or if you just get so tired of it that you want to take a few days off. If you are sticking to roughly the same amounts, you’ve been weighing it for awhile and eyeballing it, it’s pretty easy to go on autopilot for a few days, too. Wouldn’t you say?
**Tom Venuto:** Yeah, exactly. I think that’s exactly what happens when you go through this process. It does go autopilot after awhile.
**Armi Legge:** So what other psychological tips would you have for people who are struggling to stick to their diet and exercise program?
**Tom Venuto:** Well, get rid of the triggers for one thing. The way the whole world and the environment is set up today is we’re triggered to eat all the time. There are all kinds of triggers. Some of them are internal in your mind. Emotions, stress, fatigue, all kinds of things will trigger us to eat.
I think a good place to start is right in your own home. Get rid of eating triggers in your own home. The simplest way to do it is to do a kitchen sweep and don’t keep junk food in your house. It’s so simple but I’m shocked at how many people have a cheat day coming up and they stockpile junk in their house.
And I would go a step further and take in the opposite direction. I’m kinda of the philosophy “out of sight, out of mind.” If you don’t see it, you’re not going to eat it and if you do see it, you are going to eat it. I’m looking at my kitchen right now and seeing bowls of fruits, apples, bananas. I actually have my tub of oatmeal in the corner. There is a container with potatoes and one with sweet potatoes.
What I see everyday is healthy triggers. I’m surrounded by healthy triggers every day. Not everybody has that kind of control over all of their environment, like at work or outside, but take control over what you can control. A good place to start is right in your own home.
**Armi Legge:** So on the exercise side of things, what are some of the reasons people either won’t stick to an exercise program or will stop tracking their workouts or trying to improve?
**Tom Venuto:** Lacking accountability is a big one. You said stop tracking your workouts and continuing to track your workouts I find is one of the most important things to help people stick with it.
In terms of sticking with it and motivation, a few of the top things I can think of is always having a very clear goal, and not just any goal but a big goal that motivates you and is compelling and you’ve got a strong reason to achieve it. Then you have an accountability system and you have some support.
The way the accountability works is first just being accountable to yourself. That just means keep score. Everything you want to improve, track it. I’m a really big believer in tracking by the numbers. Again, you don’t have to do that forever. Eventually, things do become kind of unconscious, competent, or intuitive. But especially if you’re straggly with body fat or you are just stuck at a plateau.
I think everything you want to prove, you should track. Track your nutrition. Track your calories, protein, carbs, fats. Track your body composition each week. If you want to lose body fat, track your body fat. If you want to gain muscle, track your lean body mass. Track your weight.
I like to keep a progress chart every week. Let’s say every Monday might be a check in day. It’s accountability day. You’re logging your results each week and it does a couple of things.
It’s a navigation system, for one thing. If you get the results you wanted, you know that everything you did in the previous week you got right. You don’t change anything and keep doing it. If you didn’t get the results you wanted, you know you have to make a change.
You go back and look at the past week. First, check your compliance level. Did you really follow the plan you had? If you did follow it, you just make a change. It’s an accountability system and it’s a phenomenal motivator.
Then to take that to the next level, you just get a support partner. You get a person, coach, trainer, friend, or family member. You plug into a community. You are keeping score. You take those numbers and you show them to someone else. That’s been one of the most powerful techniques for sticking with it that I’ve ever seen.
That’s probably one of the first places I’d start recommending. If someone is really stuck, ask yourself, “Am I accountable?”
**Armi Legge:** You have a great article on that on your website as well that I’ll make sure is in the show notes. For anybody listening to this, there’s a cool app since we were talking about technology. A friend of mine made it. It’s called “Goal Hawk.” You can plug in pretty much any weight and it will send it to a group of your friends. You can do it for any goal. Your friends can pitch in and get updates on it. That might be something people would like to check out.
So when you set a goal with a client or anyone sets a goal, how do you reverse engineer the plan around that goal in terms of diet and training? What is your process?
**Tom Venuto:** “Reverse engineer” is a good way of saying it, because you start with the end in mind. I like how Stephen Covey put it. You have to have the goal first before you really can engineer a program. I mean, how do you know what program to follow if you don’t know what your goals are?
You set the goal first and that helps you decide what kind of training program to follow in the first place. People ask me, “Hey, I’m so confused about how to work out. What kind of workout program should I follow?” I say, “I don’t know. What are your goals? Do you want to compete in bodybuilding? Do you want to just lose fat?” At the same time, you have to factor someone’s experience level, too, because it would be different for a beginner or advanced.
I like to set goals on many, many levels. Obviously, long-term and short-term. I’d like to start even with the big picture. What’s your ultimate, ideal body? I think that’s a great place to start. For a lot of people, that will keep them busy for a long time.
Setting up goals for a three-month period. You see all these fitness challenges for 12 weeks and I don’t think it’s a coincidence a lot of people pick that time frame. You can get some pretty miserable results in that amount of time and it’s not so long you lose motivation. If you think about a year or more in advance, it’s so far away. You lose the urgency factor. Then what you do is keep backtracking to shorter term goals.
Those weekly goals, those accountability checkups are actually a goal you can break down to the weekly level.
Down to the daily level, I think it’s important. I’m a proponent of having both types of goals– outcome and performance goals. I think that’s the best of both worlds. You set goals for weight and body composition and visually, you have that image of the body that you want. I’m all for that and I think you also need to have action steps of what you are going to do every day so you can break it right down to the daily goals.
If you do it that way, it’s like that old saying. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You have to break it down, otherwise those big, giant goals get intimidating but I think you do need those big goals. I think goals for what you really want, not just what you think you can get, is what really motivates you.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. Before we finish up, let’s talk a little bit about these specific questions that often pop up around what kind of exercise or dieting to follow. In terms of exercise, something people are always talking about now is high-intensity interval training and there has been a push against lower-intensity cardio. Do you integrate those two into your training programs?
**Tom Venuto:** I integrate both. I think it depends on the person’s goals, the time they have available, their personal preferences, any orthopedic or health problems. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing. Again, what are your goals? What’s your individual situation? Then you can make the right prescription.
For someone with no limitations at all . . . obviously, the big advantage of the high-intensity is the time efficiency and it’s arguably more effective, too. I mean 45 or 60 minutes of medium or low-intensity cardio helps. It just takes longer to burn the same amount of calories. I just see the higher-intensity work as being much more efficient.
One of the things I noticed in the research that’s interesting is how much cardiovascular improvement you can get in a pretty short amount of time with the intense training. Some of those studies are pretty amazing. Really short workouts were producing some substantial increases in cardiovascular health and fitness. When you just don’t push at all and are just walking, you don’t get those kinds of benefits.
I’ve also seen people go from obese to a healthy body weight doing nothing but walking. They both work. Again, it’s all a part of the energy balance equation. The busy person is the one who I think is really going to want emphasize high-intensity work if they’re able to. They’ll get done faster.
**Armi Legge:** On the nutritional side of things, what are some of the bigger changes that clients often end up needing to make when they’re trying to get leaner– either in terms of macronutrition and calories or food quality?
**Tom Venuto:** You mentioned food quality. I tell you what I think a lot of people are overlooking. If we wanted to, we could blame the diet industry because they’re really promoting this attitude. It’s either about food quantity or food quality.
You’ve got one camp that is all about food quantity. It’s just calories vs. calories out. That’s the only thing that matters.
Then you’ve got the other camp that’s just food quality. They say just eat the healthy or organic foods and you’ll automatically lose weight.
From everything we talked about earlier with energy balance and caloric deficits, we know that’s not true. You can get fat on healthy food. I think that’s a dichotomy people have to get out of. Such a big message is that you want to focus on food quantity and food quality. When you get both of those right, that’s when you’ll get leaner and you’ll get healthier.
**Armi Legge:** Great point. I think it’s also important to remember that both food quality and quantity influence each other. The one most people get is like Pop Tarts are less falling than sweet potatoes, so generally it’s easier to lose weight if you eat more filling foods.” But, on the other hand, it’s often easier for people to miss less without really missing it as much if they’re also being a little more diligent about tracking their food intake as well. So both of those can kind of work together nicely, I think.
**Tom Venuto:** Yeah, I agree. And certain foods are so much more palatable, too. It’s just so easy to overeat them. That’s a good point.
**Armi Legge:** Yep. Pop Tarts are deadly, man. They’re so good.
Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. Would you tell our listeners where they can learn more about your work and maybe tell us a little bit about your new book as well?
**Tom Venuto:** Sure. My main home page is burnthefatblog.com.
I just released the book. Actually I would say it’s an old book. It’s “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.” It has been out for 10 years. I first published it as an eBook in 2003 and it has continued to be popular for 10 years and there has been this tremendous demand to put it into print. We just published it last week in a hardcover. It’s available in bookstores everywhere, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. The new site is burnthefatfeedthemuscle.com.
Really, it’s about the techniques of fitness models and bodybuilders but it’s not just for bodybuilders. It’s not about becoming a bodybuilder or getting ripped unless you want to. It’s just about how the average person can take those techniques and reach their own goals with anything. Whether it’s 100 pounds or they want to lose the last 10 pounds or whether someone wants to put on muscle or describes their goal as getting more toned.
Since it’s already been out there for 10 years, we’ve seen over a quarter million people already use it. It’s regular people. Only a small amount of our readers and clients are actually bodybuilders. It’s been proven out in the real world.
The other thing we have going on is we run a Burn the Fat body transformation challenge every year. That’s burnthefatchallenge.com. That’s coming up in January. We’re going to do a New Year, New You challenge. That’s a great motivator for people. That’s a great way for people to get that accountability I was talking about before.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. I have your book on my Amazon wish list. I’m definitely going to get it and I’m excited. So thank you. And thank you for coming on the show. You were excellent.
**Tom Venuto:** Thank you.
**Armi Legge:** You did it with gusto.
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