Lyle McDonald Interview

STEVE:  First, I’d like to extend a big thanks to Lyle for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with Body-Improvements. It’s an honor and a privilege to have this opportunity.

I’ve been reading your writings for years, Lyle, and can honestly say you’ve influenced my training and nutrition philosophies as a trainee and a trainer, as much as anyone. I think you’ll agree that the majority, who follow your information and purchase your products, is intermediate if not advanced in terms of their training/nutrition status. Body-Improvements caters to a demographic encompassing people who more than likely haven’t heard of you. Most of our readers and clientele are complete novices just starting on their quest for information and fitness. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself to our readers?

LYLE: Well, my name is Lyle McDonald and the short version of a longer story was that I was a fat kid growing up (thank you, Intellivision) who got into sports in high school (it was mandatory).  Between that, cycling and martial arts, I started to get into shape and that started what has been a 20-year obsession with the field.  I attended UCLA to get a degree in exercise physiology at which point I became interested in competitive sport, in-line skating.  This got me interested in all aspects of human performance training, nutrition, supplements, even drugs to some degree (the last one is not my area of interest nor forte).  Although my background was primarily in exercise, in the mid-90’s I got more interested in nutrition and had to basically teach myself nutritional biochemistry while writing my first book, The Ketogenic Diet.

That project nearly killed me but gave me the background I needed to do the later projects, all of which have been about diet or fat loss to one degree or another (I hope to do a training project at some point in the near future).  I’ve worked with bodybuilders, powerlifters and other athletes on their training and nutrition and some days, I even think I know what I’m talking about.  I believe in research and spend most of my time reading it.

STEVE: Intellivision!  I was an Atari guy myself.  It’s amazing how long technological entertainment has been corrupting our health and fitness.  And no, I’m not calling you old, Lyle!

So, to our readers, if you couldn’t gather from Lyle’s previous response, among other things, Lyle is a fantastic author.

We have always purchased every one of your books as soon as they’ve been released.  You have an awesome style of writing and a unique talent of presenting intense information in a mentally-digestible way.  For starters, keeping in mind our readership, what would you recommend the novice purchase from your store and why?  If the same question was posed to me, my first response would be “A Guide to Flexible Dieting” and my second response would be “The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook.”  Would you agree? Secondly, where can we buy your books?

LYLE: I’d definitely agree with Flexible Dieting.  Frankly it’s the book that I wish more people would read.  But since it doesn’t have a sexy title like the others, and doesn’t seem to appeal to the more/harder is better mentality, it’s gone relatively less noticed than my other products.  Which is a shame, the feedback I’ve gotten from people who have read and applied it has been overwhelmingly good.  People who used to get into trouble with very extreme (and ultimately destructive) approaches to how they ate were able to find a much happier balance by applying the information in that book.

As a second book, I’d say it depends on the person and their goals and what they’re looking for. Rapid Fat Loss is good, of course, but it’s not for everyone.  It’s an extreme diet for extreme circumstances and, as I specifically lay out in that book, I recommend that people pick more moderate approaches under most circumstances. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore the warnings I always insist on putting in my books and the idea of 4-7 lbs true fat loss in 2 weeks is pretty attractive (which is why I gave it that title).  My first book, The Ketogenic Diet, was a labor of love; it also nearly killed me.  Anybody interested in the science and application of very low- carbohydrate diets (it also has a pretty good review of both nutritional biochemistry and exercise physiology) would want that one. The Ultimate diet 2.0 is for lean dieters who want to get super lean but lose too much muscle and performance on more standard diets. The Protein Book was another monster project; it’s really a reference manual (although with a lot of application) for all topics related to protein and athletes.  Finally is the newest book, The Stubborn Fat Solution.  Like UD2, it’s for lean folks trying to get very lean who have trouble spots (abs/low back for men and hips/thighs for women).  Which would be the best second choice would, again, simply depend on the goals.

As far as where to get the books, they can be ordered directly from my store by going to and clicking on the products link.

STEVE:  Thanks for highlighting the gist of most of your books.  For any of our readers interested in learning more about these particular diets, a great resource is a second, new forum Lyle has opened that deals solely with his diets/products.  It can be found at

Lyle, you mention above that you are interested in writing a training book.  I know I’ve been anxiously waiting for you to produce something of the sort.  I’ve also heard mention of something in relation to women and fat loss.  Are you simply throwing around ideas right now or have you actually started working on your next project?  I know you released The Protein Book and The Stubborn Fat Solution close together so I’m sure you’re interested in some down time.  Out of my own curiosity though, I’m interested in hearing what the future holds.

LYLE: The way I work on projects can both be a little bit strange and vary quite a bit.  The protein book was an absolute grind for me, 2 years of reading research, a solid 6 months where I did nothing on it at all (I had huge writer’s block and a loss of motivation) and it nearly killed me to finish it.  In comparison, the information in Stubborn Fat is something I’ve been thinking about for nearly 10 years.  It was mainly waiting for a few more pieces of data to fall into place and then I wrote it fairly quickly and easily.  It was more an issue of putting my thoughts down on the computer at long last and it flowed very easily (it helped that I was able to use some stuff I’d already written, of course).

Beyond that, I basically just have a half dozen different sub-interests within the field including nutrition, fat loss, physiology, training, etc.  Like the crazed obsessive compulsive that I am, I try to keep on top of all of them although it’s becoming increasingly impossible to do so.  So I just keep plugging ideas into my brain/model of how this stuff works and when the desire grabs me, I sit down and put something down on the computer.

As far as new projects, while fat loss is always a perennial seller, I’m actually a bit bored writing about it. Eventually I’ll put together everything I’ve already written with a lot of other information and just release one final fat loss book and be done with it.  In the interim, doing something about training interests me a bit more.  Actually, doing an exercise technique DVD is something I’ve been planning for a while (I’ve done some pretty extended exercise technique features in the newsletter/blog).  It’s gotten to the sad point in commercial gyms that the people actually using good form stand out because 99% of people don’t have a clue what they’re doing.  And the trainers are no better, they don’t use proper form; nor can they teach it. Going ahead and throwing something down about training techniques in a book form to go with it just makes sense.  Hell, I can steal most of it from the extended posts on my forum about the topic.

The women and fat loss thing came out of some real strangeness that *some* women seem to experience while dieting whereby standard thermodynamics seems to be failing; that is, despite a pretty big deficit, nothing is happening.  Even more strangely, these same women often see results with either fairly small or fairly large deficits; stuff in the middle does nothing.  I want to figure out why and, more importantly, how to fix the problem.  As a teaser, frankly I think most of it is just screwy water balance issues but I intend to find out if something even stranger is going on.

Beyond that, who knows?  It’s getting to the point where there is scant new truly usable information on either fat loss or training.  Most of the research coming out is reductive level stuff that merely explains why the stuff we know works, works and if folks don’t have a pretty good idea of how to lose fat, they haven’t been paying enough attention.

STEVE:  I’m stoked about the training video and manual idea!  It would be a tremendous product and is surely needed this day and age.  We’re trying to do something similar with our community/website to better promote proper exercise instruction.  We’ve been filming and editing videos for a while now and placing them in our video library.  I’ve read your exercise descriptions you’ve explained in your blog and forums and they’re top-notch.

It’s a sad day when you can walk into most any commercial gym and see the vast majority of members (even those being trained by ‘professionals’) using nothing but machines, or even better, using circus acts involving single leg squats on bosu balls while juggling medicine balls.  It’s absurd.

If you did this product right, which I’m sure you would, it could even be a great tool for trainers to get their hands on.  It has my vote.

Hopefully our readers have a solid understanding of who you are and what you bring to the table after that intro. I’d like to shift gears and talk about resistance training now. What used to be something only the big guys in the local gyms would do has become something most every health-conscious person is interested in. What would your advice look like in relation to the overweight/obese novice, keeping in mind most people reading this probably have 50-100 lbs to lose? How would you progress the person as their conditioning improved and they traveled closer and closer to their ideal weight? It’s common to hear things like, “heavy strength training preserves muscle.” Is that something this population needs to worry about? Why should or shouldn’t they consider resistance training? Yeah, I can hear you now, “Steve, I thought you said we were going to do this interview one question at a time. You just asked me 5 questions at once!”

LYLE: Everybody knows that asking lots of questions burns mad fat. Anyhow, when I originally got into this stuff, most of what I was reading was coming from the bodybuilding/athletic subculture, which is positively obsessed with avoiding muscle loss while dieting. This is ultimately because, and this is especially true for natural athletes, muscle loss tends to become very problematic when people are trying to get very lean. This is an issue I’ve dealt with to some degree in almost all of my books and for lean people who aren’t using drugs, it’s a huge problem. Sufficient protein, the proper kind of weight training, and a lot of other strategies are necessary to stave off muscle loss in this population.

Now, originally I tended to feel that the same attitude (all muscle loss MUST be avoided) had to apply to the obese but this turns out to not be completely correct. When people get fat, some of the weight gained is lean body mass (which encompasses not only muscle mass but also connective tissue and some other stuff); on average 25% of weight gained is LBM. To reach an ideal ‘weight’ (whatever that means exactly) often means sacrificing some of the LBM that was gained during the period where the person originally became obese. Many obesity researchers feel that allowing up to 25% of the total weight lost in the obese to be LBM is not only acceptable but may be necessary to get their weight down. Some even get more detailed by dividing LBM into inessential LBM (the connective tissue, minerals, etc) and essential LBM (muscle mass). Basically, they don’t think it’s that big of an issue for the most part and I don’t either.

Now add to that the fact that, the more fat someone is carrying, the less LBM/muscle mass they tend to lose under any condition in the first place. Whether it’s fasting, dieting, etc. the more fat someone has, the less LBM they tend to use and vice versa (leaner people tend to lose more LBM and less fat under any given condition). For example, even with total fasting, someone who is carrying a lot of fat may only lose 10% lean body mass; a lean individual could lose up to 33% of the total weight as LBM. Basically, the fatter individual doesn’t have to worry about it quite as much. So a lot of the obsession about getting fatter individuals into heavy training (especially muscle maintaining heavy weight training) may be both unnecessary and irrelevant. There is also the fact that extremely overweight/sedentary individuals are unlikely to have a large tolerance for exercise in the first place. I’ve had clients who couldn’t walk more than 5-10 minutes on a treadmill initially and anything outside of the simplest weight training (and I always used machines to avoid the coordination aspects of free weights) would have been impossible.

Tangentially: I read a lot of diet and weight loss related stuff and a current trend in the industry is a focus on bodyweight, high intensity circuit type stuff. Reading these manuals, I find it interesting that the models demonstrating the movements are always light and in-shape. I wonder if any of these trainers have ever tried doing this with someone who’s 350 pounds and has never exercised in their life. My hunch is that they haven’t or they’d know better than to try to suggest something so inherently stupid.

Now, this isn’t to say that fitness won’t or can’t improve fairly rapidly in these folks. But the reality is that, initially, the likelihood of significantly impacting on energy balance with exercise in the obese is a losing proposition. This has always been one of those great ironies, about the only people who can burn a ton of calories with activity are trained athletes; and they don’t usually need to lose weight.

Frankly, I think most overweight people would probably do better doing lighter, higher rep types of weight training in the first place. There’s a lot of research showing that some of the issues associated with obesity are muscles that are packed full of both carbohydrate and fat. Depleting those tends to increase how well the body burns fat during the day as well as giving a bigger ’sink’ for incoming calories to go into. The heavy stuff just isn’t needed for muscle mass maintenance and lighter stuff may be better tolerated and have more beneficial metabolic effects in the short-term. As well, it provides a base of training for when heavier stuff is brought in later on.

Of course, and this goes to, I dunno, your third question or something… as folks get leaner, the role of exercise (either to maintain a sufficient deficit or spare LBM) can begin to play a larger role. And, of course, if it was included at some level (and building basic fitness doesn’t take much training each week) from the outset and increased gradually and progressively the individual will be capable of handling a lot more training as they do lose weight (and need the exercise more) than if someone waits until they have already lost a bunch of weight to start but this is a minor quibble.

STEVE:  It’s easy to hear something from an ‘expert’ and hold onto it without ever questioning it. That’s what I believe is happening right now, especially on the Internet forums, with regards to the need to lift heavy weights if you’re interested in keeping your muscle. I’ve seen a number of 300+ lb people with very high body fat percentages struggling to lose weight and worrying about squatting and deadlifting because the ‘true’ strength training is what preserves the muscles best.

Personally I’ve worked with an appreciable number of obese clients and I’ve always leaned toward the metabolic side of training opposed to heavy strength training. It’s nice to hear obesity experts and research support what I’ve found to be true empirically. It’s also reassuring to hear you’re on a similar page.

To summarize what you said here for our readers, think of weight lifting as a spectrum. On one end you have metabolic training (think high reps, relatively light weight, high volume, and low rest). On the opposite end you have neural training (think lower reps, relatively heavy weight, low volume, high rest).

Starting out, the obese individual, in most cases, would be better off starting on the metabolic side of the spectrum. As they progress in terms of body composition, work tolerance, coordination and body awareness, etc… they should also progress along the spectrum toward neural work.

The primary idea is to start out with the most energy (calorie) expensive (wasting) stuff since that’s the primary point of order in the initial stages. Lean body mass loss will occur and this is okay. Your goal should be to get yourself down to a more comfortable/healthy weight. As you progress though, learning and utilizing some true strength training methods will become integral for persuading where weight is lost from (fat vs. muscle.)

Is this a fair summary, Lyle?

LYLE: We might quibble over whether the average dieter or trainee should ever really bother with neural training. I’d be more inclined to say that they can move from more metabolic type weight training (goal: burning calories, depletion of glycogen/intramuscular triglyceride, etc) towards more typical ‘hypertrophy’ type training (for muscle mass maintenance and/or to shape specific areas of the body if desired). I wouldn’t take most average folks into very low rep ranges unless their goals started moving that way (powerlifting, etc.).

STEVE:  And I would agree with that wholeheartedly. I should have clarified a bit more. I think very few average folk catch the ‘bug’ of powerlifting when venturing through their weight loss. I simply meant that they should start moving toward heavier, muscle preserving weight training. Usually somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is about right for most, in my experience.

LYLE: Agreed.

STEVE: It’s about time we discuss some nutrition. We know that it’s easier for an obese individual to lose fat than a relatively lean individual. I’ve always operated under the ideal of starting with a balanced, calorically controlled diet containing foods that are enjoyed by the client when working with obese people. The rigidity of most plans is too great for the individual who has such a long road ahead to adhere to for any appreciable length of time. Once the balanced, calorically controlled diet is in place and habitual, then you can start manipulating the various macronutrients. In other words, build a meaningful foundation, if you will, before toying around with the smaller variables.

Assuming this foundation is in place, what suggestions would you have with regards to carbohydrates given the population in question? You’ve written more than I’m sure you desire about low carb vs. high carb diets and I’m waiting for you to e-slap the hell out of me for bringing up this topic. Do you have any general advice for the person looking to lose 100+ lbs beyond the typical: “Toy around with the different variables until you find something you can consistently adhere to that works”?

LYLE: In the same way that fat was demonized in the 80’s, I’d say that dietary carbohydrates are currently getting the ‘blame’ for obesity these days.  Of course, these things always go in cycles anyhow and in another 10 years, we’ll be back to dietary fat being the problem.  Now, there is some truth to this only that we live in a world where massive amounts of refined carbohydrates can be consumed cheaply and easily.  And of course carbs are tasty.  So, they can be quite easy to overeat.  I’d note that the impact of carbs has been blamed on various things over the years.  High-fructose corn syrup is a current whipping boy for obesity and books are always blaming insulin for ‘making people fat’.  In reality, I think it’s a simpler explanation: carbs are easy to overeat and certain types of carbs are even easier to overeat than others (consider that high-fructose corn syrup is found in a lot of non-diet sodas and it turns out that the body doesn’t sense liquid calories as well as solid calories; those people drinking 64 oz regular sodas from the mini-mart are adding thousands of calories to their daily diet that their bodies aren’t sensing, so they don’t adjust their other food intake down).

In any case, there’s no doubt that essentially any calorically restricted diet will ‘work’ in at least the short-term (long-term maintenance is a separate issue and, in my opinion, as, if not more important).  However, there is also the empirical fact that people clearly do respond relatively better or worse to different dietary patterns.  As well, recent research is starting to examine the impact of diet (especially in terms of the carbohydrate content) relative to insulin resistance/sensitivity.

Some quick definitions for readers might be in order here.  Insulin sensitivity refers, essentially, to how well or how poorly the body responds to the signal sent by the hormone insulin (a storage hormone released primarily in response to carbohydrate consumption).  Cells that are highly insulin sensitive respond well to small amounts of insulin; cells that are insulin resistant don’t.  Insulin resistance, ultimately, causes the body to tend to produce too much insulin when carbs are eaten and this can cause a number of different problems that are either health or weight related.  If nothing else, the body’s overproduction of insulin can often cause blood glucose to crash back down, which tends to stimulate hunger.  So insulin resistant people who are eating a lot of refined carbohydrates (especially without sufficient fiber, fat and protein) tend to get blood sugar swings that make them hungry throughout the day.  The end result is that they eat more calories.

Now, in general, when obesity develops, so does insulin resistance; I’d note that this isn’t a guarantee; you can find skinny people who are highly insulin resistant and overweight individuals with good insulin sensitivity.  In any case, recent work has started to examine different dietary approaches in terms of their carbohydrate content relative to the level of insulin resistance.  In one small pilot study, dieters were categorized as either insulin sensitive or insulin resistant and then either put on a high or low-carbohydrate diet.  So there were four groups.

1. Insulin sensitive: high carbs

2. Insulin sensitive: low carbs

3. Insulin resistant: high carbs

4. Insulin resistant: low carbs

And while all groups lost weight (calories were the same), the insulin sensitive group did better with high carbs and the insulin resistant group did better with low-carbs.  This is right in line with previous empirical observations.

Anyhow, back to the question: given that most people are overconsuming refined carbohydrates in the modern world, and given that insulin resistance often goes hand in hand with being overweight, reducing carbohydrate intake is usually a good thing from a health and weight perspective.

The next question might be how much carbs should be reduced.  While extremely low-carbohydrate diets are always in vogue to some degree or another, as you sort of allude to above, they may not be necessary or beneficial for everyone.  Frankly, for most people, if they’d start by simply finding a little bit of balance, I think that would make the most sense.  Getting adequate amounts of lean protein, adequate dietary fat and moderate amounts of less refined carbohydrates and doing so at every meal would do most of the work.  By reducing the total carbohydrate quantity (and changing the quality), along with increasing protein, fat and fiber blood sugar control is improved along with hunger and fullness.  As well, by keeping some carbohydrates in the diet, more variety is possible which tends to improve adherence.  Finally, various bits of research have found that moderate fat intakes improve both dietary adherence and are probably healthier overall than extremely low- or high-fat diets.

Now, in more extreme cases of insulin resistance, or in situations where people find themselves unable to eat moderate amounts of carbohydrates (for either psychological or physiological reasons), a complete restriction of carbohydrates (such as an Atkins, Protein Power or some such) diet may be required, at least initially.  Not only can this help with weight loss (assuming, of course, people don’t eat too much; calories always count) very low-carbohydrate diets can improve various aspects of insulin resistance and health.  As well, taste buds change over time; empirically I’ve seen folks who seemed almost ‘addicted’ to refined carbohydrates lose their taste for them after some period of time on a very low-carbohydrate diet.  This often allows them to add carbohydrates back into the diet after starting with the more extreme restriction of the very low-carb approach.

STEVE:  That’s good stuff, Lyle.  I have to laugh because when Lyle answered this question, he apologized for the rambling.  If most trainers or authors explained stuff half as well as Lyle “rambles”, we’d all be much better off!

Sticking with this topic, I’d also like to branch out to one side question.   I’m sure some of our readers are going to read your last paragraph about those who are really insulin resistant and think to themselves, “How do I know if I am of this group and need something like Atkins?”  Do you have any commentary with regards to this hypothetical question?

LYLE: Well, the only truly accurate way of determining if someone is insulin resistant is with blood work.  Fasting blood glucose or insulin can be tested or, if necessary, something called an oral glucose tolerance test can be run.  This requires drinking a certain amount of straight glucose and then measuring the blood glucose response over several hours.

However, there are a few somewhat indirect ways of knowing if someone is insulin resistant. They are far from perfect but they will give some indication.  Perhaps the biggest indicator is that, after a high carb meal (especially if it doesn’t contain sufficient amounts of protein, fiber and dietary fat), energy levels are extremely inconsistent.  Individuals who are insulin resistant overproduce insulin and when a lot of carbs are eaten; this can cause blood sugar to crash below normal.  This not only causes energy to wane but often causes rebound hunger (leading the individual to consume yet more refined carbohydrates).  In contrast, insulin sensitive individuals tend to show much more stable energy and blood sugar levels when they eat a bunch of carbohydrates, because their bodies handle it better.  Frankly, this is probably the single easiest thing to track: if eating a bunch of carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) makes you feel terrible a little while afterwards, odds are you’re a bit insulin resistant and will do better by reducing carbohydrates and increasing protein and (healthy) fats.

Many people who are insulin resistant also find that a lot of carbohydrates makes them feel bloated and puffy, this is especially true with leaner athletes.

STEVE:  Thanks for that follow-up.

Suffice it to say that much of the carb-phobia backing many of today’s pre-packaged diets exists solely to restrict caloric intake.  If you limit or completely eliminate one of the three macronutrients we consume, it isn’t hard to see that caloric intake is most likely going to drop.

Keeping in mind what Lyle talks about here, there is reason for consideration when determining how you should handle carbohydrates in your diet.  I think the take-home message is, “Don’t fear carbs just because there are a lot of quacks running around rooting them to the cause of obesity.”  We’re all locked to the confines of thermodynamics and unless you overeat carbs (too many calories), you aren’t going to get fat.  Concurrently, some of us might do much better in terms of adherence and progress if we limit the quantity and improve the quality of the carbohydrates we consume.

Sticking with diet and nutrition, why, in Lyle McDonald’s mind, do diets generally not work? People seem to do fine for a certain period of time but the weight loss doesn’t ‘stick’ for many. You often hear the blame being placed on set point theory, fad diets, voodoo curses, etc. Personally I like to think it has more to do with the psychology of it all more than anything. It’s most definitely a multifaceted matter, but I’m sure our readers would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

LYLE: I think there are a lot of reasons that diets fail and I generally group them into physiological factors (hunger, lethargy) and psychological.  I suspect (but have little but empirical data to support this) that individuals at different levels of the body fat spectrum are relatively more or less impacted by each.  So in lean athletes, usually food control isn’t much of a problem.  But the body is often fighting back very hard when people get very lean. So the physiological factors (leptin, ghrelin, etc) are contributing relatively more here in my mind.  Of course, that population doesn’t describe the majority of dieters in the first place so I won’t focus on it much here.

At the opposite extreme, when people are fatter, usually the impact of the physiological systems is less important but the psychological factors are far more important.  We live in a world where high calorie, tasty food is available cheaply and easily, people are bombarded absolutely constantly by advertisements and such for high calorie foods.  That alone can drive hunger and consumption even in the absence of true physiological hunger.  Of course, this is what food advertisers explicitly set out to do.

But moving beyond that, what you’re really asking about is why diets per se fail and I agree that a lot of what’s going on is psychological.

Of course, one of the simplest is the fact that behavior change of any type is always hard.  The simple fact is that most people, regardless of what habit you’re discussing, will tend to revert to older (and hence more, well-entrenched) habits because it’s usually easier and less stressful.  Smoking, drinking, exercise and eating habits are all difficult to change; this suggests to me that there is some aspect of human behavior that generally makes changing habits difficult.  Of course, the corollary of this is that the longer people stick with any new habit, the more entrenched it becomes and the more likely it is to become the new constant habit.  The problem, I think, comes in when folks are expecting years of one habit to magically disappear overnight, or in a few weeks.

Which brings me in sort of a roundabout way to one of the behaviors that I think can be the most destructive when it comes to dieting and that’s expecting 100% perfection.  There is an attitude among dieters that when they ‘go on a diet’, they are either on the diet or they aren’t. They take this extreme attitude that everything must be perfect and that any deviance from the diet means complete failure.  This almost invariably leads to a spiral of self-destructive behavior, usually involving food.  So you have someone who is moving along with their diet a few days in and the inevitable craving occurs.  So they eat that cookie (let’s say it has 50 calories).  The guilt sets in, the diet is clearly blown, therefore they might as well just blow their diet, eat the entire bag of cookies, maybe go get some more junk food, etc.  It’s exceedingly prevalent and, when you look at it objectively, pretty absurd.

Let’s say that someone is on a nice moderate deficit diet eating 500 calories per day less.  They have that 50 calorie cookie that isn’t ‘on their diet’.  They still have a 450 calorie deficit; they haven’t ruined their diet or destroyed the day or anything like that.  Well, not until they eat the remaining bag to the tune of 800 calories (or more).  What could have been dismissed as a pretty irrelevant slip up is invariably made into a much bigger deal by the psychological guilt.

Researchers have actually looked at this type of behavior, which is often referred to as ‘rigid dieting’; they are describing dietary approaches that are extremely rigid with absolutely no room for flexibility.  In contrast, there is also the concept of flexible dieting.   Whereas rigid dieters are either on their diet or off their diet, flexible dieters allow for more flexibility in their eating patterns.  Interestingly, flexible dieters often weigh less and are more likely to stick with their eating habits in the long-term.  I actually thought this concept was important enough that I wrote an entire book about it, looking not only at the rigid/flexible dieting mentality but other issues as well.

In that book, after a rather lengthy discussion of both the physiological and behavioral things that can derail diets, I discuss three concepts that I think are valuable to help avoid the above issues: free meals, refeeds and full diet breaks.  In the context of your original question, I’m only going to detail the first.

Free meals are exactly that, meals planned into a weight loss diet where the dieter can eat relatively freely. Now, this doesn’t mean going and trying to bankrupt the buffet but rather a meal that doesn’t conform to the restrictive nature of the diet.  I find that, psychologically, knowing that one or two normal meals can be eaten per week goes a long way towards helping people avoid not only the seeming deprivation nature of the diet but also helping to avoid the behavior I described above.  As well, it helps people realize that a single meal can’t destroy a diet, even a couple of meals per week that are not ‘on the diet’ doesn’t really do much damage (unless the person seriously loses control). I mean, look at it this way; say someone is eating a standard 4 meals per day on their diet.  That’s 28 meals per week.  If two meals don’t conform to the diet, then that’s less than 10% of the total meals. That doesn’t hurt anything.

Of course, the danger can be that one free meal becomes another free meal and the diet stops being a diet.  A balance has to be found which is why I give fairly specific recommendations of how often free meals can or should be eaten, along with some rules to try to keep them from becoming out of control gorge-fests.

And, frankly, a lot of this comes down to the issue of control.  I find that, when people feel that they have broken their diet ‘accidentally’ (e.g. they got that craving and had a little bit), that tends to lead to the kind of destructive spiral I described above.  In contrast, when the dieter feels that the break from their diet is in their control and, in fact, a planned part of their diet, the likelihood of this happening is much less.

An interesting study several years back really brought this home for me.  In that study, the researchers wanted to try to study what causes diets to fail in the long-run, based on the assumption that dieters fall off the wagon when they break their diet.  So they put a bunch of folks on the diet and then told them to take two weeks off to see what would happen.  In contrast to what they expected, the dieters didn’t all regain the weight and start eating like crazy.  They didn’t actually gain much weight at all and were able to return to their diet after the break.  As I recall, the researchers didn’t have a good idea of what caused this to occur but I really think it’s about control: the dieters didn’t see the two weeks ‘off’ the diet as out of their control.  They didn’t feel the psychological impact of having ‘broken their diet’.  Rather, they interpreted it as simply being a planned part of the program, they dieted, they took two weeks off, they went back to their diet.

I integrated that concept into the Guide to Flexible Dieting as something I called a full diet break; this is a period in-between phases of active dieting where the dieter should simply eat ‘normally’ and at maintenance.  Frankly, at least one reason that diets fail in my opinion is that people diet for too long and it just gets to be a psychological grind.  People who are extremely overweight may be looking at a year or more of dieting to get to a ‘normal’ weight (whatever that means exactly).  Expecting them to do it in one long stretch is unrealistic in my mind.  Rather, breaking the dieting up into more manageable phases makes more sense.  Diet 6-8 weeks (or however long), while incorporating free meals mind you, then take a break where weight is stabilized, the current eating habits are further entrenched (the diet break shouldn’t be a period where the person just eats uncontrollably) and then do another dieting period to bring weight down further.  Stabilize for a couple of weeks, etc.

Of course, the diet break can also be used for things like vacations or holidays, common trouble periods where people’s best dietary habits become derailed.  By planning the breaks (that are now under the person’s control) during those times, I think getting back on the diet afterwards is more likely. At least some of the habits developed during the actual diet can be kept up during the holiday but the person doesn’t have to be a social pariah. After the break, the diet can be resumed.

In any case, I could probably go on and on about this.  Frankly, I think that figuring out some of the psychological blocks behind long-term behavior change is a lot more important than looking at specific diets.  Nutritional research has been trying to find the optimum diet for weight loss for thirty years.  Not only doesn’t any single diet exist that is right for everyone but I frankly think that the research is a bit misguided.  Determining what diet is best isn’t usually the problem; figuring out how to get people to actually stick with the change in diet (or exercise) in the long-term is.  That’s where the physiologists, dietitians and psychologists need to get together to look at the behavioral aspects of all of this.

STEVE:  I couldn’t agree more with that last sentence… the entire response actually.  In my opinion people need to spend a lot more time thinking about what they’re thinking about. Sounds silly to some I’m sure, but the fact in the matter is most of us are on autopilot.  We are in reaction mode based on our neurological conditioning that has been established and ingrained over a lifetime.  Consciously we’re able to gain some control and generate progress acutely.  For most though, until we’re able to find ways to recondition or reprogram our habitual thought patterns, success is not going to be permanent.

The first step, again in my opinion, is simply spending time listening; listen to the things that internal voice says day in and out.  Spend time sifting through your mind and indentifying some of these mental constructs that set you up for failure.  We can’t fix what we haven’t identified.  The one you speak of here regarding the rigid dieter is rampant among today’s dieters.

It’s a complex topic, yet, I’ve seen drastic improvements with rather simple solutions.  So simple in fact that people overlook them.

I’ve read A Guide to Flexible Dieting a few times since much of what you discuss in that book correlates to the common client we come across and I can’t recommend the book highly enough to our readers.

Now for a theoretical question… where do you see obesity heading in the future?  Do you see drugs playing the primary role in the solution?  Do you think we are anywhere near close to fixing the problem?  Once there’s a solution, will it fix people already struggling with obesity or will it only prevent it from happening in pre-obese individuals?   Obviously you don’t have definitive answers so we’re simply looking for your thoughts on the topic.

LYLE: I don’t know if drugs will play the primary role but I think that they will have to play an accessory role.  It’s becoming abundantly clear that the human body has a number of complex, overlapping systems which regulate hunger, appetite and bodyweight.  This includes the old standbys of leptin, ghrelin, insulin, peptide YY and CCK along with newly found systems such as the endocannabanoid system (drugs to target this are currently under development).  It’s becoming increasingly clear that attacking any single system is probably destined to fail, the body is simply too good at recruiting other pathways that compensate.

Here’s an example: it’s well known that most weight loss drugs cause a reasonably small weight loss (around 10% weight or so) and then stop working.  It’s usually been assumed that the body stops responding to the drug or develops tolerance but some data (in animals so far) suggests otherwise.  What people forget is that as people lose weight, hormones such as leptin alter in such a way that the body starts compensating for the weight loss.  So while the initial drug was working just fine to begin with, by the time the body adapts (via a lowering of leptin for example), the drug appears to have ’stopped working’.  Of course that’s not true, it’s working just fine, the body has simply adapted.  In one interesting study (again, in rats), they compared sibutramine (a currently in use weight loss drug) to leptin by itself or sibutramine with leptin. While both the sibutramine and leptin only groups hit an early plateau, the sibutramine plus leptin group kept losing weight.  Why?  Because by replacing leptin, the rats bodies were kept from compensating to the weight loss caused by the sibutramine alone.

Related to this, a few human studies have found that replacing leptin to pre-diet levels (by injecting dieters after they had lost some weight) normalized metabolic rate, blunted hunger, and caused further fat loss.  Bascially, while leptin has been an utter failure at causing weight loss in obese individuals, it appears to have its major effect in keeping diets working by preventing the body from adapting.  I’d note that this is essentially what I try to accomplish in my books by including high-carb/high-calorie refeeds and diet breaks; I’m trying to raise leptin levels to limit the body’s adaptation to the diet.

In any case, some type of polypharmacological approach targeting a variety of pathways is far more likely to be effective than any singular treatment.  Additionally, I expect that as more research determines all of the potential places where eating behavior *might* become disordered (e.g. the reason why one person becomes obese may be different than the reasons another becomes obese), obesity treatment will become individualized either with respect to diet, exercise, drugs or the combination.  Research has already emerged (as I mentioned in a response to a previous question) showing that insulin resistant individuals respond differently to certain diets than insulin sensitive individuals.  Determining what specifically is going on in any one individual should allow for more tailored approaches to obesity treatment.

As far as prevention, I could see this being another fertile field as well (and some researchers think that preventing obesity is going to do more good than trying to correct it after the fact anyhow), identify individuals who have predisposing factors for the development of obesity, whether it’s a slightly low metabolic rate for their weight or what have you, and correct the defects before a problem presents itself.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of this being practically applied is still quite some time off.  Until that time, the stock standard approach of finding livable long-term changes to eating and activity patterns that can and will be maintained in the long-term is going to be the key.

STEVE:  Lyle, I’d like to talk about you and your business on a personal level.  I wasn’t certain how I wanted to phrase this question to be honest.  It seems you are misunderstood quite often in the fitness/nutrition industry.  It’s not your information that is misunderstood… rather it’s your intent.  Your persona, no doubt has a great deal to do with this fact.  From those who are familiar with you, it’s not hard to tell that you’re a class act.  Rough around the edges some might say, but your to-the-point mentality is what many find so helpful.  There’s no point in sugarcoating or coddling in this business.  To add you seem to have set yourself apart from the rest of the guru-pack out there on the Internet.  The label of guru has turned into quite the negative connotation so I mean no disrespect by it.  You obviously have a large following that reads and respects you.

I am assuming you’ll find this to be an accurate assessment and if so, I was hoping you could respond to a few related questions and add anything else you feel is important.

Namely, what is it that sets you apart from the rest?  Are you really okay with losing business for the sake of maintaining integrity?  I ask this because it seems that you never sell out in terms of the shady marketing tactics and intellectual dishonesty that many ‘professionals’ seem to use in the online marketing world today.  You don’t rehash the same basic material simply to ‘churn’ more revenue out of your customer base.   Do you think your business model (or lack thereof) limits: a) your readership and b) your revenue?

LYLE: Going primarily to the last question first, yes and yes.  I’m quite sure I’d make more sales if I used the same stock standard marketing copy and turned out more generic work or pandered to the mass market. But I won’t do it.  Not yet anyhow.  I tend to be more on the technical end of things when it comes to my writing although, I’m told at least, that I have a knack for taking fairly complicated concepts and being able to explain them in an easy to understand and straightforward way.  I certainly try to do that.

Tangentially, it’s easy for someone to just cut and paste out of Pubmed and throw around lots of big words, trying to impress their readers with jargon and technical details for the sake of technical details. It’s the person who really understands the topic that can make it clear to someone with absolutely no background in the field.  In this vein, Robert Sapolsky, author of the incredible book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” is perhaps one of, if not THE, best science writers in my opinion; he can take a complicated concept and make it clear as hell; I strive for that and sometimes I even succeed.

Beyond that, people still want to be told and believe that there are secrets and miracles.  Trust me, if I knew a way to lose weight and fat quickly AND easily, I’d have written about it.  You can lose it quickly, mind you, but it won’t be easy by any stretch.  The same goes for gaining muscle.  Everybody wants 20 lbs in 20 weeks or whatever the claims are and they get bitchy with me when I tell them that half a pound a week for a natural is doing well.  People want secrets, a magic pill, a magic diet, something that isn’t hard work but will give them all the results quickly.  I wish it existed too but it simply doesn’t.  A lot of people can’t handle that truth in my experience.

I guess simply put, what separates me from the rest (other than being a completely obsessive compulsive nerd who feels compelled to read everything about everything) is that I won’t simply tell people what I think they want to hear for the sake of making a sale.  People have actually asked me why I don’t just write some mass-market magic diet book and make a zillion dollars and retire.   Trust me that I think about it every day; I’ve certainly read enough of them to know how it’s done.  But I can’t bring myself to do it.  Not yet anyhow.  I strive to present the truth (as I know it), based on current scientific research, personal experience, folks I’ve trained, etc.  If I think something is bullshit, I’ll say so.  Sometimes I’m right.

Frankly, a lot of people simply don’t want to hear the truth, they aren’t looking for information about what to do, they are looking for affirmation that whatever stupid idea they have in their heads is ok.  I won’t give them that.  If I think what they’re doing is stupid or wrong, I’ll say so.  A lot of people don’t like it or can’t handle it so they leave and go find a nice hand-holding support forum.  Which is fine except that these are usually the same folks who are complaining that what they are doing isn’t working in the first place. But I’m getting off topic.

Another aspect that I think separates me from others (and probably costs me sales) is that I’m generally unwilling and unlikely to say that there is a single all-encompassing solution to anything. People often get distressed when my most common answer to a question is “It depends.” What’s the best diet, what’s the best way to train, what’s the best this, that or the other?  It almost always depends on the situation, the person, the specifics of what they’re dealing with.

Having read too many diet and training books (the ones that tend to get sort of a ‘cult’ following), it seems that most have to sell their approach as the be-all end-all solution to everything.  It’s the perfect diet for everyone, the perfect training program for everyone.  While this is rarely the case, my gut says that most people tend to respond to this sort of thing.  They don’t want to have to think about their specifics, they just want to be told what the one true answer (TM) is.  And I won’t give them that because, outside of some incredible generalities, I don’t feel that there is one.

STEVE:  Unfortunately, I don’t represent hundreds of thousands of paying customers.  However, I do hope that interviews like this, which will surely be read by people outside of your normal readership, help spread the ‘good word.’  Your values and knowledge are greatly respected and appreciated and deserve to be heard.

Continuing down this personal path, regardless of what corner of the Internet I travel to, there’s always someone ‘hating’ on you for being a “Great Big Meanie Head”.  Granted it’s usually coming from someone who is looking for coddling and only wants validation for preconceived notions opposed to actual advice.  You’re too intelligent to not have some rhyme to your reason with regards to how you handle yourself with your ‘clients,’ I suppose we could call them for lack of a better term.  I was hoping you could articulate it a bit here?  Is what we get from you on the Internet the real you or do you have an e-persona that you’ve established over the years?

LYLE: At this point in my life, it’s probably a little bit of both.  Trying to separate out how you act from who you are (they overlap) gets difficult and I am known (depending on my mood) for being fairly harsh to people. I’m also known (in other corners of the internet) for being immensely helpful and willing to go out of my way to try to help folks out.

It just depends on who you run into, their own personality type (you’ll note that the people who think I’m a dick are usually pretty thin skinned, can’t handle criticism of any sort without acting like a big baby, and, as you said, were mainly looking for coddling and hand-holding in the first place), etc.   At the end of the day it doesn’t honestly bother me.  If it did, I imagine I’d act differently.

STEVE:  And that’s the primary thing that sets you apart in my mind.  You act based on your values and not your wallet.  What’s left in terms of product is superior in relation to what else is out there.  This is starting to sound like a sales pitch for Lyle.  But if I didn’t respect you and your information, I wouldn’t be interviewing you.

Lastly on this front, you recently exposed shady tactics used by a well-known author/coach in one of your blog entries.  This particular incident involved the author/coach taking information directly from one of your books and inserting it into his own without crediting you for anything.  There were numerous people clamoring and hollering about how you should have kept it quiet and contacted a lawyer instead of making a spectacle of it all.  They viewed it as being unprofessional.  Personally from my standpoint, I’m glad you handled it in the fashion you did.  I think too often stuff like this can be swept under the rug, which inevitably hurts the consumer by maintaining the ignorance of the masses.  Would you mind discussing your intentions with this particular incident and maybe commenting on where you see the online marketing/authoring field heading in the next decade or so?

LYLE: For various reasons, I’m not going to comment on the specific incident further. Where do I think the online field is going?  Probably in the same direction it’s always been going.  There will always be a few gems of good information surrounded by dross that is made for quick marketing and easy sales, promising people the same magic that has never worked.  The simple fact that just about anything people want to do in life is going to be hard work and there are few if any secrets (unless you count working at something for months and years continuously to be a secret).  But people want them.  I want them, you want them, everybody wants them.  So there will never be a lack of people providing them.

STEVE:  That’s a fair assessment of the future as it pertains to online fitness marketing.  I suppose the best we can do is reach as many people as possible by way of forums, blogs, etc.  Those who want to help themselves will eventually come across the good stuff.

Time for the last question in this interview.  I can hear the sigh of relief all the way over here in Pennsylvania, Lyle.  I hope this wasn’t too agonizing!  Trainers are flocking to the Internet to do business more and more.  It’s no secret that online training is one of the services that Body-Improvements offers to our clients.  I like to maintain the integrity and honesty too; it’s what we’ve built our business upon.  This in mind, please don’t hold back in your response to this question.

What is your take on online training?  Like most things, there are certainly pros and cons.  I think I’ve heard them all.  Potentially the biggest con is the lack of in-person supervision.  This goes from the actual watchful eye of a trainer to ensure proper execution of exercise movements and extends all the way to the ‘feel’ a good trainer has in managing fatigue with his or her clients.   A good trainer knows when to back off or when to push the client.

This, for the most part, is lost when it comes to online training and many who oppose online training explain that it’s merely glorified program design… nothing more nothing less.

Another common opposition from fellow professionals is something like, “In most instances I can write a simple plan of attack for someone so he/she has what is needed to succeed in a simple email.  I can’t justify charging someone a fee… it feels unethical.”

My response to comments such as this are as follows…

What is the alternative?  I’ve trained at each of the five gyms in my area.  There isn’t a trainer at any of these gyms that I’d feel comfortable sending someone I cared about.  It isn’t so cut and dry when you factor this into the equation in my mind.  A good trainer on the Internet, who has good instructional videos and uses client video to assess, can certainly compete if not demolish the progress a client could experience with one of these schlup trainers you commonly find in gyms today.

And as for being able to help someone in one simple email, the problem I see here is simply the fact that people are lazy.  If it were simply a matter of dropping someone an email… they wouldn’t be fat in the first place.  They would have read one of the thousands of books available on the subject of weight loss and have been successful.  Online training in my world means much more than program design.  It entails keeping the client interested in succeeding.  It’s about breaking down mental barriers existing in the client’s mind. It entails educating the client so they can eventually be proficient on their own.  It means being a source of motivation and accountability, etc.  The list goes on…

Sure, just as there are some piss poor in-person trainers, I’m certain there are some piss poor online trainers.  I just don’t see it as a clear right/wrong proposition as some in the industry have made it out to be.  Certainly my perception is jaded, because it’s part of what I do, but I’ve been successful with it.  I’ve connected with my clients and they’ve realized their goals.  If done properly (by this I mean its weaknesses are kept in mind when deciding if a trainer should/could appropriately help a particular client) I can’t help to think it’s the better option in a majority of the cases.

Given this lengthy prelude, what are your thoughts on the subject at hand?  I’m not sure if this will be an open and shut question… it might entail/require some further discussion.  And again, if you think online training sucks, so be it.  It won’t hurt our business.

LYLE:  Honestly Steve, you pretty much answered your own question and I’m not sure if I have much to offer.  For me personally, the biggest problem I see with online coaching, and this mainly reflects how I train people, is the lack of hands on training there in the gym.  But this is me coming from the perspective of being very, very particular about proper technique and form. Coupled with the simple fact that, despite their claims to the contrary, most peoples’ form sucks.

For example, everybody claims that they squat full but this is mainly an internet myth. I’ve been in gyms for damn near 20 years now and I can count the number of truly full squats I’ve ever seen on maybe 2 hands.  And I trained about 7 of those people.  Everyone says they squat full and when you finally see their youtube videos, it’s a quarter squat at best.

Everyone claims they know how to do every exercise perfectly and, in my experience, this is almost never the case unless the person had a good coach/trainer when they started.  And if that’s the case, they probably don’t need an online trainer.  And it’s nearly impossible to teach proper technique from a distance (my one online client made regular visit to Salt Lake City for hands on training with me for this reason, along with constant video he’d send me so I could check things out).

So you end up in a situation where folks are writing training programs making (usually incorrect) assumptions about what the person is actually doing in the gym.

Related to this is the issue of intensity; similar to technique, everybody claims to train hard in the gym. Again, I’ve been in gyms for a couple of decades now and the number of folks I’ve seen training truly intensely just isn’t that many.  People simply think they are working hard (of course, at the opposite extreme are folks who aren’t happy if they aren’t walking out of the gym exhausted).  And this becomes a problem because, on any given day, the supposed ideal workout may have to be adjusted.  A common refrain among good coaches is that you never know who’s walking into the gym on a given day.  When I train people in person, I am making adjustments daily depending on what I’m seeing.

Yes, there’s always that general plan in the back of my mind as to what I want them to get done but the goal weights or the exact sets and reps on the card may simply not be doable for whatever reason (bad night’s sleep, spent all weekend working late, what have you).  I can’t make those adjustments from a distance although I might set up some generalized ‘rules’ for folks (e.g. I might suggest 2-4 sets of 6-8 reps telling them that if they feel blown after 2 sets to call it a day, rather than forcing the entire volume or what have you).

And, of course, the above assumes that folks are actually being honest with you in the first place about what they are actually doing.  If I’m not there to watch it, there’s always the question of if they are just telling me what I want or need to hear.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that like you said, for some people, getting online counseling may be the only way to get decent training.  Frankly, most trainers in most commercial facilities suck.  They wouldn’t know good technique if it bit them in the ass and they’re more interested in counting reps, keeping people entertained and reminding you to bring a check next week.

In that sense, online training may provide some real benefits: allowing folks to get decent training advice that would otherwise be unobtainable.

There is also the issue of accountability and, frankly, where I see a lot of the online trainers doing a good job is providing that accountability. This is crucial for diet.  When people have to report what they are eating, they tend to be stricter with their diet.  Having to email your coach what you actually ate keeps people on their diet for that reason alone: fat loss coaches are succeeding as much because of their magic diets as that they are making the client accountable to someone else.

So basically, like you said there are pros and cons and I go back and forth in my head about it.  Some of the technical issues can be gotten around by sending the trainee videos of proper form; this can never take the place of getting hands on training for most things (especially more technical lifts).  But it’s better than nothing. And clearly online training can be of a real benefit for many in terms of the accountability issue.

STEVE:  I can live with that response, it’s very well reasoned.  For me it’s simply a matter of people deserving sound information and instruction from their trainer.  If they can’t obtain that from a trainer in their area, the Internet often times is the only alternative.  It costs accordingly too.  In-person training is much more costly for good reason.  If you had the choice between a solid in-person trainer and a solid online trainer, it’s obvious the former is the better choice assuming it’s affordable.  It’s when that choice is not an option or the former is not affordable where online training can really be effective.  Thanks for your thoughts.  They’re very appreciated.

Well Lyle, it’s about time we wrap this interview up.  I’m very gracious that I was able to start this blog with an interview with someone of your caliber. I can’t thank you enough for spending the time. Your answers exceeded my expectations affirming your integrity as a coach/author who truly loves sharing information.  I hope our readers have enjoyed the interview as much as I have and I look forward to future products from you.  I wish you nothing but success and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from you.

LYLE: Sounds good, Steve.  I hope your new site does well as the world collapses around us.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tisha March 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Why is your book on the Rapid Weight Loss so expensive!


Steve Troutman March 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Tisha, this isn’t the appropriate place to ask that question. This is my website, so I doubt Lyle, the author of the book you’re questioning, is going to see your question. You can contact him via his website at

That said, Lyle’s books are what I’d refer to as specialty books. They’re not the equivalent of anything you’ll find on the shelves of your typical book store. Primary difference? They’re backed by a lot of research and intellectual capital. These things were built over loads of time invested by Lyle. His books are his mechanism of making a living.

I can tell you from experience that his books are worth the price tag. I agree, they’re expensive relative to other books… but, for the most part, you get what you pay for.


Kevin Lynch December 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Excellent article..bought the Fleixible diet book and joined Lyles forum. Thanks for sharing.


Steve Troutman March 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Just seeing this now, Kevin. Hopefully you enjoyed Flexible Dieting. It’s a great resource.


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