Compliance and calories.

In personal trainer circles, the issue of client compliance is a common one. After all, you can take a horse to a barbell, but you can’t make it squat.



Personal trainers, therefore, use all kinds of trickery to help their clients reach their goals; because really, training and dieting can suck. I mean, I like it, you probably like it, but it’s not easy. As Scooby once said, “man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble, and the sculptor”.

I'm just gonna roll with this horse stuff.

I’m just gonna roll with this horse stuff.

The degree to which a client is willing to stick to the plan is what is meant by client compliance.

When dieting, we tend to see two strategies emerge. I’m gonna call them metabolic trickery, and weighing and measuring. Diets which employ metabolic trickery generally rely on the premise that there is some way to fool your body in to a) burning fat, or b) putting on muscle, regardless of your total caloric intake. Popular strategies involve meal timing; intermittent fasting being a notable example, or food quality; paleo and keto being popular options. Some even combine the two.



On the other end of the spectrum, we have weighing and measuring. After figuring out one’s total daily energy expenditure, one simply eats above or below that amount and calls it a day. Specific macronutrient ratios within this framework can of course vary. My personal favourite is outlined by Jordan Feigenbaum, in his excellent article, To Be a Beast (give it a read when you have a spare moment, it’s fantastic). Emphasis on food quality – the somewhat nebulous concept of “eating clean” – may be present or absent.

Which brings us to the main thrust of this article. The diets with the highest degree of client compliance tend to be the ones which involve metabolic trickery. There are numerous factors at play here, but I think the fundamental reason for this is simple. It simply takes less will power to follow a diet focused on food quality or meal timing. If you tell someone they can have all the food they want, but they just have to follow a few simple rules, they are far more likely to stick to the plan than if you tell them they can eat whatever they want, so long as it fits their macros. To perhaps a lesser extent, the psychological edge possessed by someone who believes that they may be cheating the system, so to speak, may also be at play, but it is not really within the scope of this article to examine this.

Weighing and measuring, on the other hand, requires attention to detail and a high degree of self-control. It is also socially awkward. It’s one thing to sit down for family dinner and focus on eating meat. It’s another to bring a scale to the table so that you can get your macros. Weighing and measuring all your food is a hassle. You get better at eyeballing things after a while, but trying to get a client to comply with keeping a food journal and measuring everything that goes in to their body, down to the milk in their coffee, is a tall order.

Of course, client compliance is not enough. Goals have to be achieved, and progress needs to be made. Diets involving metabolic trickery can work. Books like The Paleo Solution and The Atkins Diet wouldn’t be selling millions of copies if they didn’t The question is why.

Kurtis Frank, a nutrition and supplement researcher with, writes that “unhealthy people, as odd as this is, seem to have it lucky when it comes to weight loss. MANY things work for them that seemingly defy the Calories in v. out paradigm and make them lose weight beyond what caloric intake and expenditure can calculate. This seemingly magical weight loss appears to be normalized and fail to exist when they are once again healthy, and at this state the Calories in v. out paradigm becomes more and more relevant”

Rather than analysing all possible metabolic trickery diets, lets take a look at two in particular, paleo and keto, and see how this all plays out.

Paleo diets prohibit the consumption of gluten, sugar, and dairy, focusing instead on meat, vegetables, tubers, and nuts. The stated goal of most paleo diets is to repair the gastrointestinal tract, and repair metabolic derangement. Whether or not this diet does or does not accomplish these goals is outside of the scope of this article. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to the first and most immediate effect of this diet on obese populations; they are no longer able to just down 1200 calories in one sitting at McDonalds, they are no longer able to drink 410 calories in a litre of coke, and all the snacks and treats that they’ve probably been eating are immediately cut out. No more biscuits, no more chocolate bars, no more donuts. Instead, they eat freely of highly satiating food stuffs. Unless they’re eating 20 mangoes and a pound of cashews a day (it’s been known to happen), the odds that they will be consuming the same net calories per day as they formerly did drops drastically. Thus, without weighing and measuring, they cut total calories.

Probably doesn't shop at Iceland.

Probably doesn’t shop at Iceland.

Now lets look at ketogenic diets. A 2007 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that obese male patients, feeding ad libitum, ate fewer calories when restricted to low carb food choices than a control group that ate ad libitum of anything they wanted. Additional “studies of ketogenic diets have found that when subjects are told to limit carbohydrate intake but to consume “unlimited” quanitites of protein and fat, they automatically limit caloric intake and consume between 1400-2100 calories” (L. Mcdonald, The Ketogenic Diet, 101). Unless you’re chugging olive oil, a ketogenic diet, without weighing and measuring, restricts calories.

Similarly, programs like GOMAD work because they increase total calories without having to think too much about it.

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Give a little thought to whatever your non-weighed and measured nutritional protocol is, and you’ll find that something very similar is going on. The success of these programs rests on how easy it is to follow them and incidentally cut or increase calories; their defiance of the calories in calories out model may hold some water, but loses effectiveness the closer one comes to health.


Kurtis Frank puts it best when he says “The blanket statement of calories in v. out is currently the best guiding principle for weight loss, with more reliability when you are closer to a healthy body state. The further you are from a healthy bodily state, the more likely interventions can induce weight loss that seemingly defy the above guiding principle; getting closer to a healthy state normalizes this difference somewhat.”

So what can we take away from this? Know yourself. If you need to lean out, and you can’t be bothered to weigh and measure, any one of the above mentioned protocols may be right for you. Personally, I think paleo is awesome, but I’m not under any illusions as to its effectiveness; nor should you be. If you’re looking to put on some mass, simply adding a bag of cashews to your normal daily diet may be enough.

However, if you’re stalling or spinning your wheels, grab a pen, a notebook, a scale, and get to work. Abs get made in the kitchen.


One comment on “Compliance and calories.
  1. Aulia says:

    Love the way people think you can just get big over night!! It takes mthons maybe years to gain weight if you struggle like me, it’s not muscle in a? can!!. There’s always been naturally thin people like myself but I’m cut to death. I get fat people asking me how I’ve done it in the gym and I prefer to be this way Also going on a weight gain diet isn’t healthy for you at all! It’s been proven to short you’re life and you’re organs struggle to process all the protein. I really feel sorry for p

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