Honesty is the best policy

July 10th, 2008  |  Published in Reality check  |  16 Comments

I often get emails or see trainees who are frustrated and pissed off. They aren’t achieving their goals and they tell me they have “tried everything”. They’re about ready to throw in the towel on exercise and nutrition. They feel that nothing is working. They start to buy into the idea that “diets don’t work so there’s no point in trying”.

I was that trainee, once. The most annoying thing was that I could not figure things out. I ate well. I felt I was active. Yet I was 50 lbs overweight and at 5 feet tall, that’s significant.

The worst part was exactly this “what the hell is wrong” part. I felt doomed by genetics. I felt out of control. I felt disempowered. I knew that crash dieting wasn’t a solution but I didn’t know how to change my eating (or that I should change my eating – I thought I was eating perfectly well). I wanted to feel good but I didn’t, and no amount of rationalizing or raging against the beauty conspiracy did the job.

In over a decade of experience as a trainer and someone on the journey of physical culture what I have discovered is that human perception has only a loose connection to reality. We do not see ourselves — or others — as we really are. We may see ourselves as fatter or thinner, healthier or less healthy, more or less muscular, etc. etc. but in any case, unless we are highly experienced professionals, we are generally not very good judges of our food intake, activity levels, degree of fitness, or body composition.

I’ve had emaciated women insist they were too big, or show me imaginary giant biceps. I’ve had very overfat women insist that their thigh size was due entirely to freakishly muscular quadriceps even though the skinfold caliper demonstrated a fat measurement of 50 mm. I’ve had people insist they were eating a perfect diet until we went through day by day, meal by meal and discovered forgotten Starbucks frappucinos, glasses of wine, 3 pm handfuls of jellybeans, inappropriate portion sizes, and a host of other mystery ingredients. “Exercising regularly” suddenly becomes “well, I did skip Thursday, and I guess I was booked that other evening so I didn’t go, and then there was that Doctor Who marathon on TV over the weekend that I couldn’t miss…” Either that or “busting ass in the gym” really means “a single tiny drop of sweat wiggled its gentle way down my temple”.

Studies of human behaviour demonstrate time and again that humans consistently overestimate their activity and underestimate their food intake. It’s not that humans are stupid or lying (well, some of us are :)). It’s that we’re not as good as we think we are about recording reality. If you’re a fixit type of person, you will know the danger of “eyeballing” things. A good carpenter or dressmaker knows: measure twice, cut once. No matter how great you think your ability to make a straight line, a perfect square, or precise 3/8” cut is… it’s not as good as a machine’s. (There’s a deck out there in Toronto with a jellyfish-shaped edge that testifies to a girlfriend’s hubris in this regard. I ain’t sayin where and I ain’t namin’ names. But I am saying, after that edging, we did the rest with proper chalk lines.)

Looking back now on myself a decade earlier, my errors are obvious to me as an experienced trainer. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, of course. However, if I’d sat down and done a good honest accounting of things, I’d have figured things out a whole lot sooner.

Allow me to debunk some common assumptions.

You very likely have quite normal genetics and metabolism. You are very likely average in most ways.

First, most people have never seen a truly lean, freakishly fit, elite athlete or bodybuilder. They have no accurate concept of what “lean” or “muscular” really looks like. Many women tell me they “bulk up easily” but in reality, they don’t look very muscular at all. I’m still waiting for the day when I meet the next Kim Chizvesky. You probably aren’t any kind of muscle-bound weirdo. Sorry. I know you want to be special.

Genetics is not a destiny. It’s a blueprint for how your body might behave under particular circumstances. Genetics says “If you eat more calories than you expend through activity, you will gain weight”. However, genetics also says “If you eat fewer calories than you expend through activity, you will lose weight.” There are no giant bodybuilders nor obese people in Siberian gulags. Genetics works both ways. In most people’s cases, they have great genetics – for life on the savannah 20,000 years ago.

Metabolism encompasses all of the body’s functions, not just the speed at which food is processed. Most people, unless they have some kind of major disease, don’t have “slow metabolisms” (and if you have said disease, you probably have doctors inspecting your pituitary right now, so you probably already know about it). Neither do people magically have “fast metabolisms” – again, if they have mysterious powers of high idling speed, they’re either a toddler or also sitting in the doctor’s office discussing their rapid heart rate, diarrhea, and hair loss.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is how much energy it takes to keep you alive: to keep your brain thinking deep thoughts, your liver churning through that margarita, and your heart to beat its little thud-thud-thud. Most of your body’s energy intake goes to support your internal organs. BMR depends a lot on age and sex. An 80 year old woman has a slower BMR than a teenage boy. You can’t control your age or your sex (not without hormones and a little surgery anyway). But that being said, your overall energy needs also depend on your activity, and this you CAN control.

Hey! Don’t get down! There’s nothing wrong with being average. An average person can accomplish amazing things with ongoing commitment to hard work and a healthy lifestyle.

You’re very likely not as muscular as you think you are.

Take a look at the photo below. This is a cross-section of a woman’s thighs. The muscle tissue is the dark red stuff that looks like steak. The body fat is the light yellow stuff around the outside. The thighbones run through the middle — they’re the two small circles (grayish-white with an inner red dot).

The photo below shows a woman’s hips and pelvis in cross section. The front of her body is the top of the photo.

Nuff said.

You’re very likely carrying more body fat than you realize.

This isn’t a moral judgement. It’s just that the average woman is about 20 to 25% body fat. That means one-fifth to one quarter of her body is made up of fat. For a 150-lb woman, that means 30 to 37.5 lbs are fat. Go to the grocery store and pick up a block of butter. That’s 1 pound of fat. Then grab a steak. That’s probably also 1 pound, but 1 pound of muscle. Get the idea?

A leaner-than-average fit woman might be 15-19%. Depending where she puts on body fat, she might never be able to see her abs, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t healthy. The average fitness competitor is probably something like 9 to 12%, and only for the short period of competition and photo shoots. Someone whose bodyfat is around 5%, such as a male bodybuilder about to go on stage, usually looks like they should be shuffling off this mortal coil. Really, they look like they have some horrible tropical parasite (and Oompa-Loompaism from the fake tanner).

Whatever body part you think is hideous… probably isn’t.

Unless you’re that mole guy from Austin Powers, it probably looks quite normal. If you eat well and if you are active on a daily basis, you likely look just fine, no matter what the shit excreted by the media sphincter says. Thighs are supposed to have some mass to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be very good at holding you up, now would they? Would you build a house that was held up by toothpicks? Would you put tiny little training wheels on a car? Hell to the no, my friend. Adult women come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them are really quite presentable. And no, nobody is starting at your freaky nose.

Fun game! Gather your friends and rule out the obvious “hips and thighs” for women. Then ask what their least favourite/most angst-provoking body part is. The answers will often surprise you – you will likely have no idea that they worried about the hated part. As a teenager, my husband was convinced his feet were too small (too small for what is unclear, as he wasn’t prone to tipping over). He bought shoes two sizes too big, so in every photo he looks like he’s wearing big floppy clown shoes. Now he’s moved on to fixating about the idea that his wrists are too narrow. (???)

You’re likely not as fit and active as you think you are.

While we all like to imagine ourselves as ninjas, we probably aren’t pushing ourselves as hard or as far as our body can manage. There are people out there climbing Kilimanjaro and swimming the English Channel while we’re patting ourselves on the back for walking 5 minutes to the car, or exercising twice a week (There’s a waiting list for swimming the Channel. No shit. Book now if you’re just starting swimming lessons). Remember that humans evolved to be active pretty much all day long. Nothing wrong with walking 5 minutes, if that’s all you can manage. But strive for more, and more often. Push to the edge of discomfort and challenge yourself. Rattle your cage a little bit. And commit to daily movement for life. That’s what gets results.

You probably eat more than you think you do.

An ounce of cheese, which is one serving, is the size of your thumb. A cup of cooked pasta, also one serving, is about the size of a tennis ball. Go measure it out with a measuring cup. I’ll wait.

Pretty surprising huh? I know, I know. There there. *patting you gently* Cry it all out. That pasta serving size was a trauma wasn’t it?

portion_sizesI took the picture here in the Amsterdam airport (which, by the way, has some of the most outstanding food in any airport I’ve ever been in, not that that is a huge accomplishment). Look at the serving size. The bowl of soup on the right is a small. The bowl on the left is a large. The glass is a regular sized glass of juice – about 6 ounces. You can see the beer bottle and cap (right corner) for size comparison.

If you live in North America, compare these small (i.e. normal) portion sizes to the enormous quantities you get in restaurants and fast food joints. In the U.S., restaurant dinners are typically served on platters, not plates, and come with unlimited quantities of things like bread. A Super Big Gulp drink from the 7-11 is forty freaking four ounces. A medium-sized Frappucino is 16 ounces – 2 cups – and has 420 calories, with 51 grams of sugar. I see folks coming out of movie theatres with literal buckets of popcorn, I mean with little handles and everything. I imagine the wheelbarrow of popcorn will be next.

The point here is not to make you feel badly about going to a movie, it’s to illustrate that in North America and, increasingly, the rest of the world, we have lost the concept of appropriate portion sizes, and as a result, when combined with our generally poor human perception, we drastically underestimate our food intake.

Despite all of this, you can probably do more and get fitter than you thought was possible.


Go by the numbers

To some degree, all measurement techniques are inaccurate. But they’re a whole lot more precise than humans. That’s why I use them most of the time instead of human observation. Tape measurements, caliper measurements, written records, portion measurements… all of these things are easily employed tools. If you have a working simian brain, grade 3 literacy, and opposable thumbs, you can use some or all of them.

I know the frustration of “what the hell is wrong” well. I have experienced it and so have my clients. They come to me having “tried everything”. When we sit down together I can usually figure out the problem within a few minutes. Usually they are overestimating activity or underestimating food intake or both, but we don’t know until measurement techniques and a clear-eyed, honest accounting are applied.

Here are strategies. The purpose here is knowing, not policing. Before you can know whether you are on the right track, you have to get an accurate picture of where you actually are.

  1. The scale is an OK tool of measurement for some things but not others. I’d still use it but I’d start using tape measurements. See #2. Personally I believe in daily weighing, because body weight fluctuates from day to day with hydration levels. If you eat something a bit salty the night before, or you’re at a certain point in your menstrual cycle (many women retain water at ovulation and just before their periods), you can see up to a 5-pound jump in the scale weight. The next day, or within the next few days, it’ll be gone. Thus, for accuracy, it’s better to weigh daily at the same time and in the same way (usually first thing in the morning after you’ve gone to the bathroom), and take the weekly average.
  2. Take tape measurements of the circumference of your neck, chest, waist, hips, thighs, calves, upper and lower arms to track any changes in body composition. You use multiple circumference sites because changes can occur at some places and not others. The more data points, the more accuracy you have. Don’t pull the tape so tight it can double as a tourniquet, or let it sag so you can add pretend inches to your mighty biceps. The only person you’re lying to is yourself.
  3. Write down everything you eat and drink, and measure portion sizes. Use measuring cups. Seriously. I was shocked the first time I actually measured things. Remember: until you learn exactly what four ounces or one cup looks like, EYEBALLING DOES NOT WORK.
  4. Write down all activity: duration, intensity, type.

Do #3 and #4 for one to two weeks. Don’t worry about assessment. Just record, and be anal retentive about it. Be honest. Don’t be either overly self-critical or overly lenient. Step back a little bit and observe yourself without judgement, but also without indulgence. If you’re obsessive, make it work for you. Why should OCD get a free ride?! This is not obsession towards self destruction. It is obsession towards self knowledge. You are handing over the power of assessment to neutral techniques who do not judge. They record only. They do not care. They only know numbers. They don’t know morals, success, or failure.

At the end of the assessment period, review and evaluate the data. Very likely you will observe patterns or things that you can change.

And here is where you can begin to take the control back.


  1. Rick Spencer says:

    July 30th, 2009at 8:14 am(#)

    If this is inappropriate, please feel free to delete this comment. I want to plug my totally free, non-commercial, and (I hope) easy to use web site for tracking calories in and out:

    There’s a food and exercise diary, and a bulletin board. It’s helped a lot of people.


    Cheers, Rick

  2. Trishy says:

    September 24th, 2009at 10:30 am(#)

    I finally tracked my calories for the first time, and I can’t believe what I saw! According to nutritiondata.com, my baseline daily caloric requirement is 2700 calories (which I think is a bit low, because it does not take into account the relatively high amount of lean muscle mass I carry), and I consume around 3300 calories a day. This must be around what I actually need, because my weight has not changed in a decade. I eat pretty clean, almost no junk food (a little bit of dark chocolate and a glass of wine per day ;)), and most meals were cooked from raw ingredients. If I started throwing in Starbucks mocha lattes and daily trips to Subway, my calorie intake would go through the roof and I would probably start gaining weight and not understand why. I see how easy it is to overeat and not realize it. Everyone says it, but you don’t realize how important it is until you actually do it: you have to track your calories.

  3. JD says:

    January 26th, 2010at 10:35 am(#)

    This is a great article! Food journaling is definitely what has helped me the most. You just don’t remember everything and you’re right – sooner or later, you’re like – oh yeah, I forgot about Starbucks or oh yeah, I had that muffin.

    And other days I forget to eat and it helps to see – oops. I really can’t skip meals like that.


  4. Sarah says:

    February 4th, 2010at 6:20 am(#)

    I’ve just started logging EVERYTHING I eat on a daily basis and whilst training hard, approx 2.5h a day and everyone telling me I wasn’t eating enough, it wasn’t until I noted everything that I was only eating just short of 1000cals a day.

    That probably doesn’t sound toooo bad, but one of the sessions was a weights session, followed by 30 min fast paced walk and 30 mins on stationary bike and 15min skipping. I honestly thought I was eating too much that was why I wasn’t losing any weight, but it was actually the opposite.

  5. Sarah says:

    February 4th, 2010at 6:21 am(#)

    Sorry also forgot to say, this is a fantastic article :)

  6. CrossFitRhody » Blog Archive » WOD 4/08/10 says:

    April 7th, 2010at 3:05 pm(#)

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  7. DensityDuck says:

    June 20th, 2010at 3:48 pm(#)

    Portion sizes is a money thing.

    See, food providers figured out that the cost of food service is in the SERVICE, not in the FOOD–but that customers think it’s exactly the opposite.

    So you double the price and double the portion size, the customer thinks that it’s the same “value” (twice as much for twice as much, right?) and your profit goes through the roof.

  8. allie says:

    December 4th, 2010at 6:53 am(#)

    Very interesting point about food service vs fod in relation to portion sizes. GREAT article- so many helpful points!

  9. Sarah says:

    December 11th, 2010at 1:37 pm(#)

    Absolutely love this article. Well written, funny and a sharp reality check.

    Thanks very much!

  10. Stacy says:

    December 14th, 2010at 5:50 pm(#)

    Very good info. People really dont realize how much they ere over-eating generally until they do this! Most people just eat blindly (when they are not hungry or just because its a certain time, or just because its there), instead of listening to their bodies to guide them to when they are actually hungry and full.
    It does make a huge dif as well to make an effort to push yourself beyond your comfort level each time you excersize or train!

  11. Zahra Brown says:

    December 22nd, 2010at 8:56 am(#)

    Overestimating activities is also done by the calculators that estimate calorie intakes. On a forum for maintainers, they said how the numbers given by the calculators were too high. I feel the same way. When I ate what was recommended, I maintained or started to gain.

    The calculators just aren’t clear on the differences between ‘light’, ‘sedentary’ etc. I could choose the ‘very active’ (exercise 6 days a week) activity level, but exercising is the only time I’m active all day, so I’d be eating too much.

  12. Should I lose fat first then build muscle? says:

    January 11th, 2011at 1:07 pm(#)

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  13. The Scale. Won't. Move. - 3 Fat Chicks on a Diet Weight Loss Community Featherweights says:

    February 26th, 2011at 1:50 pm(#)

    […] is a nice article to read about this subject http://www.stumptuous.com/honesty-is-the-best-policy __________________ 7 years of maintenance 2004-present with one pregnancy break. Back to […]

  14. kckp says:

    March 17th, 2011at 11:50 am(#)

    I’ve been a regular reader of your website for a couple of years now, but I still come back to this article for a self-check.
    Am I *really* working as hard as I think I am? Sure, I go to jiujitsu 3 times a week, but two of those days are classes, so I probably only get appreciable exercise for a half hour on those two days, even though open mat day is respectably tough. My still-pretty-n00b strength workouts (twice weekly) feel like they’re difficult enough, at least.
    And do I *really* eat well? Sure I do, when I don’t go to restaurants too much — but the more time I spend at BJJ practice, the more often I’d rather not have to make my own dinner.

    Honesty. Honesty is good for me.

  15. Evan says:

    August 7th, 2011at 10:24 pm(#)

    Excellent article. There are many great sites and apps for mobile devices which make tracking EVERYTHING you put into your mouth easier than ever!

    My question is about BMR. As an Engineer I fully support the notion of meticulous and persistent measurement. However, the closest idea I have of my BMR is a height/weight/activity level calculation.

    This is loosely like asking someone how much the eiffel tower weighs. You know how tall it is, you know it’s shape, and you can guess the density of the metals – voila. Maybe the formulas for BMR are slightly more accurate than that, but you get the idea and my dilemma.

    Is there a cost-effective way to actually measure one’s BMR? Is this a service that a local university or gym might provide? Would the same facility be able to precisely measure BF and VO2Max? Or is a measurement of BMR for real looneys.

    It just seems to me that the most difficult part of the equation is not how many calories go in (see my statement on the ease of tracking) but rather how many calories go out! We can get a good idea of how many calories are burned from various exercises (though I have an issue with the one size fits all calculators based on weight, sex and age.. fat people burn calories differently than lean people of the same mass). But we are really just guessing at BMR…

    Which I guess would be fine if the formula was accurate to within 100-200 calories, but depending on activity level, they can vary by over 500-800 calories per day.. that’s a big variance on a scale which goes from “Sedentary” to “Moderate” to “Active” to “Very Active”.. totally subjective terms without clear definition.

    Sorry if it seems like I’m ranting – I’m more curious than anything else :)

  16. Mistress Krista says:

    August 8th, 2011at 6:01 am(#)

    @Evan: You can only precisely measure BMR with a metabolic chamber.

    The real, REAL problem with calories in/out is that this is not how the body truly works — or I should say that we cannot fully know our energy balance simply by measuring calorie intake/expenditure, because a vast number of factors affect our calorie utilization — GI tract health and the nature of the microfloral ecosystem (bacterial flora do much of our “digestion”); the complex nature of whole foods (which aren’t just “protein” or whatever); our hormonal environment, etc.

    My advice: Fuck BMR. Fuck calorie counting in general. If you want to lose fat, eat less. Check regularly whether this is occurring. If it isn’t, recalibrate your intake. Same goes for gaining mass, or achieving any other physical goal. Set your parameters, observe carefully and “objectively”, evaluate regularly, correct course as necessary. Use outcome-based decision making at all times.

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