The Simple Truth About Getting Shredded

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Do you want shredded abs? Who doesn’t? In this post I will explain exactly how to get shredded abs in TWO easy steps:

Step 1: Be in a calorie deficit

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 until you are shredded

That’s it. There’s no magic. No secret. No quick fix. No super food or detox or special exercise.

To get shredded abs you have to essentially lose a lot of body fat. It also helps to actually have muscular abs underneath your fat. But I promise, even if you never work out your “core”, if you lose enough body fat you will eventually get some semblance of that “shredded” look.

But I lied. Only Step 1 is easy. To get in a calorie deficit all you have to do is eat less or move more. But Step 2 is the hard part because the key to shredded abs is to make being in a calorie deficit sustainable for months, maybe years. Therein lies the rub. If you are in a calorie deficit for a sustained period of time you are probably going to be hungry. Being hungry sucks. So the key to Step 2 is to make it such that your hunger or satiation is manageable for months if not years. People often turn to low carb diets for this purpose because filling up on fats and protein tends to keep the hunger pains manageable while you are in a calorie deficit.

The other thing that happens in a sustained calorie deficit is that your metabolism adapts to being in a deficit and makes it harder and harder to maintain Step 2. It will slow down your metabolism and it will increase your appetite. Your body was designed by evolutionary processes to make it easy to gain weight and hard to lose weight. This makes perfect adaptive sense in an environment where food was hard to come by and you had to burn a lot of calories gathering or hunting food. Now we can walk down to the local gasmart and buy thousands of calories for a few bucks with very little calorie expenditure. So the very metabolic adaptations that once made it easier for us to survive are now making us fatter, month by month, year by year. The freshman 15 is actually just the starting point for the Western tendency to get a little bit fatter every year. Because of this very real metabolic adaptation it’s critical to take intermittent “diet breaks” or “refeeds” to reset our metabolism. There’s a whole art and science to this.

However, the nature of this adaptation makes it almost inevitable that people will yo-yo diet in and out of Step 2. They will be in a calorie deficit for a week or two, lose a few pounds (mostly water weight anyway). Then they get stressed or go out to eat with their friends, get tipsy, and stop at Taco Bell on the way home to devour a 1000 calorie meal along with 3 large sodas. The drunchies are real. Temptations are real. Not all of us have the drive or motivation necessary to be restrictive in our diets 24/7 for weeks and months. We have snacks in house, start a movie, and feel like it’d be freaking awesome to munch our way through the entire movie. Then we have a huge dinner and later icecream at 11pm because “we had a long day and we deserve it”. The realities of our modern food environment make it such that we have to avoid temptation all day long. You’ve been doing awesome with your calories that day but then Carol from work brings in donuts from your favorite local gourmet donut shop. What do you do? You eat one. Then another. Then 3 hours later you sneak back in to see if there’s more left.

Not to mention how hard to is to even determine accurately whether you are in a calorie deficit since tracking calories is notoriously difficult. Nutrition labels are inaccurate, digestion absorption rates are variable, individual differences abound, and weighing out food precisely is a pain in the ass. Not to mention it’s difficult to sustain the habit of calorie counting for the months and years necessary to get shredded.

So the odds are stacked against you getting absolutely shredded, let alone in 12 weeks like so many personal trainers promise. If it was easy to get shredded abs everyone would have them. But it’s hard. Really fucking hard. You have to want it. Really bad. So bad that you are willing to sacrifice your social life and earn the scorn of your family, friends, and co-workers. You have to become that “crazy fitness person” who cares more about their sixpack than having a good time.

But the good news is that the principles behind getting shredded are absolutely basic and easy to follow: get in a calorie deficit and stay there. But the devil is in the details. I haven’t even begun to talk about the importance of developing and retaining muscle mass through strength training, which is super important. If you just starve yourself and do cardio all day you’re going to lose a lot of muscle along with fat which will slowly make it harder and harder to maintain the calorie deficit because your metabolism will be shit. So we not only have to be on point with our nutrition we have to find the time in our busy days to consistently hit the gym or workout for months or years. Like I said: it’s hard work. Real hard.


There’s a reason fitness models get paid to be fitness models: they have to basically spend their whole existence focusing on nutrition and fitness and even they don’t stay super shredded year round. It’s not even that healthy to have super low body fat percentages anyway (especially for women). So why are we so obsessed with abs? Why this cultural fixation on being absolutely shredded? My hypothesis is that it’s the rarity or novelty factor that largely drives it. Getting ripped abs is so difficult to achieve that those who do get them instantly stand out for it and are thus seen as desirable. But of course we all know that ideas about who or what counts as “hot” vary from time period to time period, culture to culture.

I hope this post illustrates both the simplicity of getting shredded and the complexity of taking that simplicity and making it sustainable for months and years. Good luck!

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Debunking Dr. Jason Fung’s criticism of CICO

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After hearing the hype, I just finished reading Dr. Jason Fung’s book The Complete Guide to Fasting. The book is great as a resource on the science behind fasting and its many benefits. But a fundamental motif of the book is Fung’s rejection of CICO – the “calories in, calories out” model of weight loss.

What is CICO? At its most basic level CICO says that to lose weight you must either eat less food or burn more energy. For CICO, obesity is fundamentally an energy balance disorder. Everyone has a “maintenance level” of calories. Let’s say it’s 2000 calories. If you eat more than 2000 calories a day you will gain weight. If you eat less than 2000 calories you will lose weight. If you eat exactly 2000 calories you will maintain your weight, hence the term “maintenance level”. Furthermore, as our bodies gain or lose mass the exact maintenance level will change itself, which makes sense: bigger bodies need more energy to “stay big” – smaller bodies need less energy to “stay small”. Seems intuitive right?

Fung thinks this model is wrong. He claims that obesity is not an energy balance issue, i.e. consuming too many calories while not burning them off, but rather, a hormonal issue i.e. elevated insulin levels and insulin resistance cause body fat to be gained.

Fung starts his criticism of CICO with “two incontrovertible facts”:

(1) Over the past 20 years, conventional weight loss advice has relied on CICO
(2) Over the past 20 years, obesity rates have exploded.

Fung’s conclusion? He draws a dilemma: either CICO is good advice but people don’t follow it, or people actually do follow CICO but it doesn’t work. I personally think the first horn is true: CICO is good advice but people don’t follow it properly. But Fung argues that people are in fact capable of implementing CICO but that CICO just doesn’t work. Which is weird, given the book is about how fasting can help with obesity. I’ll come back to that.

Fung’s main criticism of CICO is that when people try to follow it they inevitably fail and gain back all the weight. This is undeniable. But that doesn’t mean CICO is false or that CICO is not the best way to think about obesity.

Fung discusses the “Biggest Loser” diet where 400lbs people are put on 1500 calorie diets, exercise a ton, drop a bunch of weight, and then gain it all back. Fung uses this as evidence for something called “starvation mode” whereby if you eat less in CICO-fashion you will inevitably “damage your metabolism” and once you stop eating below maintenance you will gain it all back even faster because your metabolism is “damaged” from being in “starvation mode”. This post isn’t going to delve into the scientific details of why the Biggest Loser model doesn’t support the “starvation mode” hypothesis (see this reddit post for details if you’re interested). Instead I’m going to posit a much simpler explanation for why the Biggest Loser diet failed.

If you’re a contestant on Biggest Loser you obviously got there because you had poor life management skills – you couldn’t manage the basics of diet and exercise and so you allowed your weight to balloon up to 400-500 lbs or whatever. So you have no idea how to take care of yourself. Then you get on the Biggest Loser and you have pro trainers and dietitians doing all the hard work for you. They are motivating you. They are creating your meal plans. They are calculating the calories for you. They are creating your workout plan. They are pushing you in the gym. Not to mention the pressure of the TV cameras and the nature of social competition. So there are all these incentives lined up to get people to stick to a healthy-ish lifestyle for the duration of the show. And it works. They all lose a ton of weight.

But it’s extreme. It’s pushed to the max. Once the show is over they just go back to their lives and are expected to now do everything themselves. If you don’t know how to count calories properly, or you don’t have a healthy relationship with junk food, don’t have a good fitness plan in place,  it’s going to be really difficult to maintain the healthy life style. It has absolutely nothing to do with “damaged metabolism” and everything with how they managed to gain all the weight in the first place: it’s really fucking hard to turn down a handful of french fries when you’re out at the bar. It’s hard to be healthy in the modern toxic food environment, where we are literally surrounded all day long with super-delicious, super-calorie-dense, sugary, fatty, and salty foods. Like really hard. Like our brains are not designed by evolution to be able to cope with that temptation in a way that makes it easy for us. Food scientists at major food processing companies have literally spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars researching how to tinker with sugar, salt, and fat ratios in order to make food highly tasty and addictive. Modern food is engineered precisely to trick our brains into wanting more and more and more. That’s why the Biggest Loser candidates gained all the weight back: the same reason they and everyone else in the Western world gains it in the first place: they overate because it’s really easy to overeat in our modern food environment.

Okay, back to Fung. I want to now talk about the deep irony of Fung’s criticism of CICO. CICO is bad because it “restricts calories”. But what is fasting if not an even more extreme method of restricting calories? If you eat 500 calories less than your maintenance level you will lose 1 pound a week. But if you don’t eat anything for a few days you will obviously lose even more weight according to the exact same principles of thermodynamics. Mass can’t just be created out of no where. On a three day fast it is impossible to gain weight because there is no energy coming in from outside the system.

So fasting works as a method of weight loss because it is fundamentally a version of CICO. Where fasting differs from your typical “eat 500 calories less a day” version of CICO is that the process is different. For some, eating 500 calories less a day is difficult. First of all, most people absolutely suck at accurately tracking their calories. Like really suck. Most people who try CICO don’t even get a food scale and if you aren’t weighing your food precisely it’s really really hard to do CICO properly. So that right there makes CICO difficult to implement unless you’re a very conscientious person. Fasting is easier for some people because they don’t have to count calories on fasting days. They just eat nothing. And then because fasting itself helps develop a better attitude towards intuitive eating, hunger signals, and our relationship towards the modern food environment, fasting adherents have an easier time not overeating on nonfasting days. So joined together, the total energy balance for fasting and nonfasting days brings about a weekly net calorie deficit and thus you lose weight!

There are some more details here. Hormones, insulin, etc., do play a role in making it easier to stick with weekly calorie deficits. But they are not operating on a fundamentally different principle. CICO is still king. You can never escape CICO. You can only make it easier to stick with CICO. For some, eating a low-carb high fat diet and fasting makes it easier to stick with CICO. But that’s all well and good. But many body builders eat a ton of carbs while following CICO and still get shredded abs. Carbs don’t make you fat. You can absolutely shred your body fat while still eating carbs. Bodybuilders are proof of this. But bodybuilders intuitively understand CICO – hence why they go through “cutting” phases (calorie deficit) and “bulking” phases (calorie surplus). Bodybuilders use CICO to their advantage and make it work for them. But bodybuilders also have a better relationship with the toxic food environment than your average person – they are able to resist the temptation to eat a bunch of super palatable, super calorie dense foods all the same.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Fung’s book as an introduction to the benefits of fasting for fat loss and general health. But Fung, like many, creates a strawman of the CICO model and ultimately misunderstands how it works, thus creating the false impression that calories are irrelevant when thinking about fat loss. I’m sorry, but no: calories are still important and people ignore them at their peril. And if they do ignore them but have success anyway, that doesn’t prove CICO false, it just shows that CICO will work regardless of whether you are conscious of implementing it.

p.s. Just wanted to throw a link in here for women who are thinking about trying fasting but have read that fasting isn’t good for women. This article nicely addresses some of the worries women have about fasting especially intermittent fasting.