Putting The (Calorie) Pieces Together

I have several posts on calories, how they work, how many one should consume, what kinds should we eat, how to figure out how many we’re burning. I realized they’re spread out all over my blog, so decided to cobble them together in one post to make it a little easier to get the whole picture. There are two main themes: how much should we eat (how many calories), and WHAT should we eat (what KIND of calories). I attempt to simplify it for the folks who don’t want to spend all their free time reading scientific studies. So without further ado…

How Much Should I Eat?

There’s a lot of confusion out there, so in the name of clarity, I’ll give you the basics on calorie intake, as simply as possible. A calorie is a unit of energy. Your body uses energy to fuel your daily activity. If you take in more energy than your body uses, it stores the excess, usually as fat, but if you’re lifting heavy and using your muscles it can and will use that excess energy to build muscle too. That’s what we want.

If you’re at a healthy weight and your goal is body recomposition, you need to eat AT LEAST as many calories as your body burns, preferably a little bit more. Your body needs raw materials to build muscle, and if it’s using all the calories you eat to fuel your activity there will not be any left to build muscle with. If you’re undereating at a healthy weight, your body will do whatever it can to burn fewer calories, so will slow down your metabolic processes and start burning muscle for fuel, because muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat. If you’re undereating, that muscle is taking up energy (calories) that your body would rather use to fuel your heartbeat and brain activity.

If you’re obese or overweight, you need to burn more calories than you consume to lose weight. Not too many more, I generally recommend keeping a 500 calorie deficit (or less) to keep your metabolism healthy. That deficit should get smaller as you get closer to your goal. Alternately, you can use a calorie calculator to figure out how many calories your body will need to maintain your goal weight (including your activity), and eat that many calories. Your body will take care of the rest (that’s how I did it). If you keep your deficit relatively small and lift weights and get regular exercise, your body will tag your muscles as ‘in use’ and preserve them, burning stored fat to make up the deficit in energy in vs energy out. If you’re sedentary, your body will burn lean mass as well as fat to make up for that deficit.

NONE of this means that diets that don’t require calorie counting don’t work. It just means that, for some people, those diets help them to naturally and instinctively consume the number of calories that will support their goals. Different people can experience this with different diets. Some people (like me) don’t ever experience it (or at least I haven’t yet, and I’ve tried all the diets) and need to be at least somewhat aware of our energy requirements. And we need to eat enough to fuel our activity and support our goals. Restricting calories below that level is counterproductive and will ultimately lead to failure. For most people, including women over about 100 pounds, that means eating at least 2000 calories a day, much more for most of us (I eat about 3000 most days). Even to lose weight, very few of us will need to drop below that, and if we do we are setting ourselves up for a damaged metabolism and fat storage.

Here’s a calorie calculator that I find realistic and helpful, it won’t give you an unsustainably low calorie target, in fact you will likely be surprised by just how much you need to eat to stay healthy and support your goals:

Calculator

What Should I Eat?

Invariably, every time I say that weight is a product of energy balance (ie, calories in vs. calories out) I get at least one person arguing ‘calories don’t matter! different kinds of calories affect the body differently!’.

I can’t really blame people for the confusion. There are a shit ton of diet gurus out there muddying up the waters with claims that combining foods ‘properly’ or cutting out certain foods or macronutrient groups is really the key to weight loss and that all you have to do is eat the ‘right’ foods and you’ll be able to eat all you want and still lose weight. Oh, and conveniently they just happen to be selling a list of those approved foods. Calories DON’T matter they claim, it’s the KIND of calories you eat that matters. “Those people who tell you to just eat less have got it all wrong” they say. “‘They’ have been misleading you, I’m telling you the TRUTH.”

All that black and white thinking has got people believing a false dilemma: It’s EITHER ‘calories in vs. calories out‘ OR ‘the kind of calories you eat‘ that matters! It’s a big ole’ moneymaker. They tell you they have the secret diet that will allow you to eat all you want and still lose weight, and you open up your wallet and buy it.

Here’s the truth, and I’m not going to charge you for it: weight is a product of energy balance, AND the kinds of calories you eat.

Lets start with the basic equation X +/- Y = Z, where X is calories in, Y is calories out and Z is total weight. The KINDS of calories you choose can affect the values of X and Y (Y moreso than X), but here’s where the diet gurus are misleading you: changing the values of X and Y doesn’t change the basic equation.

Some foods cause your body to burn more calories than others. Protein and fiber rich foods require your body to do more work to digest. It’s called the ‘Thermic Effect of Food‘. Eating foods with a high thermic effect makes your body burn more calories (Y), sometimes a LOT more calories. That’s why the list of approved foods your guru sells you will be comprised primarily of protein-rich foods and fiber-rich vegetables. Both are highly thermic. There’s also some evidence that whole, minimally processed foods are more highly thermic than equivalent processed foods (Y). Eating good quality nutritious foods can increase your energy level, which can lead to more spontaneous activity, which leads to a higher calorie expenditure (Y). Eating highly satiating foods can also cause a spontaneous reduction in total calorie intake (X). Protein and fiber, again, are highly satiating. As our understanding of the ways food affects our bodies grows, I suspect we will discover other ways that the kind of calories we choose can change the values of X and Y.

Eating a rich and varied diet full of whole, protein- and fiber-rich foods can absolutely change the way your body functions! In the end, however, it is still subject to the laws of thermodynamics. In an energy surplus it will store that surplus as mass (either muscle or fat depending on your activity level), and in an energy deficit it will burn stored energy reserves to fuel activity. Your task is to eat (and move) in a way that increases your energy expenditure to a level that exceeds your energy intake, if weight loss is your goal. Eating less isn’t the whole story, and sometimes eating MORE will produce a higher Y variable and weight loss will ensue, but optimizing your individual X and Y variables IS the way to get the Z you desire.

Creating your ideal diet: Macros and Micros

Protein and vegetables are GREAT and you should try to get lots, but eat fat and carbs too! Carbs are not the devil, eat lots of real whole foods like fruits and starchy vegetables, and grains if you tolerate them. If you have a medical reason to restrict carbohydrates, work with a registered dietician to make sure you’re meeting all yoru micronutrient needs.  Fat fills you up and makes food taste good, and your body needs it for proper nutrient absorption and hormonal function. Tracking your diet can be helpful for many reasons, my favorite diet tracking website is fatsecret.com because it gives a more realistic, sustainable calorie target than most other diet tracking websites, which ensures that you’re getting enough calories to support your activity. It’s not just about calories, regular tracking will help you learn to meet your energy requirements with foods that also provide the vitamins, minerals and adequate amounts of fat and protein to support good health and weight management. It can be a pain at first, but over time it helps you fine tune your diet to suport your individual needs, preferences and goals. Calories DO matter, but most of us can eat a lot more than we think we can. Tracking calories is NOT about restriction, and reaching/maintaining a healthy weight is NOT about being hungry and denying ourselves proper nutrition. Quite the contrary, it is about feeding ourselves adequate amounts of (mostly) nutritious foods that support health, energy and vitality. Here is a tool that will help you determine how many calories your body needs to function properly. Many of you will be surprised at how high the number is. Mine is as much as 3500 a particularly active day. Hardly restrictive. Aim for, at minimum, .5 – 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight a day. Fat should make up at roughly 20-35% of your calories (some people do well on lower or higher fat percentages, but 20-35% is a healthy range for most of us). The rest of your calories can come from whatever macronutrient you prefer (macronutrients = protein, fat and carbs). If you’re doing a lot of endurance exercise, go for more carb dense foods. It’s looking like the only ‘bad guys’ are refined seed oils and trans-fats (even refined sugar can be helpful under certain circumstances such as recovery from anorexia and digestive malabsorbtion issues), and by including more whole foods in your diet you will be reducing your intake of those in the form of processed foods. So after all this, I come back to: eat real food, but don’t obsess! Make mostly healthy choices, but it’s also ok to eat foods purely for pleasure. Your diet has got to be enjoyable to be sustainable.

**A note to the nutrition nerds: yes, I’ve simplified things. That’s what I do here on my blog. This post isn’t for you, it’s for non-nutrition-nerds who don’t want to spend all their free time reading diet blogs and scientific abstracts.**

52 thoughts on “Putting The (Calorie) Pieces Together

  1. Pingback: Determining Nutrient Profile of Home Made Meals | Go Kaleo

  2. Hi,

    great post – I really like the message you’re putting out there :)
    Here’s the thing. I have been on a mildly restrictive diet, trying to get from 55kg to about 52kg (I’m 150cm high), eating about 1300-1400kcal daily.
    I realise now that was too low, I got as far as 54.5kg and stalled. BUT as soon as I slowly upped my calories (now to about 1600kcal, the calculator recommends as much as 2300kcal), I started gaining.
    I do about 30 – 45min of exercise daily (light weights, planks, crunches, squats, etc.) and plan on starting running.
    I eat really healthy, and foods I enjoy. I am now realising also that I was trying to lose for all the wrong reasons and I’m actually quite comfortable at this weight – perhaps a few pounds less, but that’s probably just in my mind. I know I should work on my fitness and strength and everything else will naturally follow from there :)
    I have a bit of history in restrictive eating, getting as low as 47kg at one time (periods stopped, ammenorhea, etc.) but I got my act together and I’m now at a healthy weight with periods back.

    So basically, what I’m asking (sorry for rambling): How can I be gaining on as low as 1600 calories? Is it water gain? Should I really aim as high as 2300? Won’t I just “balloon”/start gaining uncontrollably?

    Thanks a zillion, it’s a great thing you’re doing here!

      • Well, I’m no expert but know for sure what you’re talking about! My only advice is, if possible, weight train! Lift heavy, study weight lifting (bodybuilding.com is a great site!) and go to a local gym.You will notice that you can eat a lot more and if you keep up with it, it will tighten up your body and eventually make your body so efficient at burning calories that even an occasional pig out session will not show on the scale. BUT you do need to lift heavy heavy heavy, so heavy that the last 2-3 reps are super difficult.

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  4. I just want to say thank you for this post. It’s eye opening.

    I have been plateaued since December and am really trying to figure out what I am doing wrong and where to go next. It looks like maybe I am eating to little but it’s seems hard to believe that is even true. Thank you for the info!

    • We’re so conditioned to be afraid and ashamed of eating, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of undereating! Sometimes I even find myself there!

  5. I need help. I’ve been overweight and out of shape for years. Two pregnancies, lots of physical abuse to my body. I’m miserable. I don’t care what I weigh, I just want to feel good and look good again.

    I went to the calculator and put in my current weight and info. Here are the numbers.2078 and 4289 How do I get started?

    I’m active, but I don’t work out. I know I need to change that but at my current weight, everything but walking is a challenge. I’ve been trying to eat better and cut out the crap. So far I’ve lost over 10 lbs just by changing the foods I eat.

    How does a person get started ETF and having the results some of you are? I’ve seen some awesome photos being posted on the FB page.

  6. Hi! I really loved your blog. But im stuck =[ its says that i need 2563 calories a day. first how the hell do i eat that much lol and 2nd. is that too much? im 5’11 and weigh 181 in trying to lose my last 12 pounds and i exercise daily. Please give me some advice =[

      • Yes, it means that to maintain your current weight you need 2563 calories a day. Subtract roughly 500 from that to lose weight. So around 2000 a day. If you exercise, eat more.

        • I just wanted you to know I have lost 10 pounds since I took your advice about adding more calories to my diet! I am seeing wayyy more results and i have broken my plateau! thank you so much!

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  12. The BMR is the *minimum* I need just to be alive? So I plug in my goal weight and I get 2163 calories, so that is how much I should be eating?? I did what you said and have been logging my intake for about a week. Most days I am a long way under this amount. I have been steadily gaining weight. I guess it is not due to overeating then :( I am in my 4th week of C25K. This is huge for me after years of chronic fatigue. Can’t wait to buy your book once the non-US payment thingy is sorted.

    • All calories aren’t created equal.

      Do you think 4000 calories in the form of butter will have the same effect as 4000 calories coming from bananas?

      One makes you fat, the other doesn’t. No speculation needed. There are people eating 40+bananas a day and they’re lean.

      No one is lean on a 4000 calories of butter everyday.

      There’s good calories and bad calories. Good fats/bad fats. Good carbs/bad carbs. Good protein/bad protein.

      You don’t need to deprive yourself, actually I recommend against it.

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  17. I so love your blog and I love how you’ve tracked your progress over the course of several years. This is what I envision for myself as well.

    Thank you for taking the time to explain the ‘calorie’ thing a little bit more clearly. I just recently wrote a blog post about it which stemmed from my confusion and frustration. I feel that I *do* have knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating, and yet I am still frustrated!

    http://smallgrl.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/why-i-cant-count-calories/

    • I can totally see how trying to restrict yourself to such a small amount of food would be exhausting and frustrating. I’m glad you’re on a healthier track now!

  18. I’ve moved away from calorie counting. It just doesn’t align with what I want for my life. I’ve decided to trust my own body’s inner wisdom. I’ve learn to reconnect with my signals of hunger and satisfaction, and it has made all the different.

    There is such freedom in eating mindfully and intuitively.

  19. If I want to reach a goal I have in mind and find it easier to track my intake until I get used to how much I should be eating do you suggest tracking vegetables as well, hun? Thanks!

    • I always count vegetables, even if the calories are negligible, it’s good to see your miscronutrient intake, which veggies can bump up considerably. That way you’ll know if you’re missing out on anything so you can eat more of the foods that contain the nutrients you’re low on.

  20. This is an amazing post! I wonder why those other calculators are so low and these are much higher? I feel much more comfortable following the ones you linked us up to since I know the others are much much MUCH too low.

    So, after finding out your caloric needs through these calculators, have you followed that? I know you mentioned that you need to kind of keep in mind how many calories you consumer to ensure you are getting enough because your body hasn’t learnt to do that on it’s own. I was really happy you said that because my body doesn’t know either! I know if I ate whenever I felt like it/my body told me too I would lose a lot of weight, so I really need to be mindful and make sure I am getting enough throughout the day!

  21. Thank you for this post! It was so informative! I have a hard time keeping track of calories and it makes me kind of obsessive over my intake when I do. I stick with a whole food vegan diet and hope for the best!!!

    • Yep, tracking isn’t for everyone and some people do fine without it (I tried to touch on that in my post). If what you’re doing is working, keep doing it!

  22. I have checked my daily calorie requirements (and basal metabolic rate) using the calculators you have linked to. Both estimated my basal metabolic rate at around 1500 kcal. Other calculators gave me a number of around 1300 kcal (I am 5’8″). Just out of curiosity: Why are the numbers quite a bit higher than what other calculators give? I do not want to gain or loose weight and can only roughly guess my intake but I am interested in the subject! Why do you think “your” calculators are more accurate? Thank you for answering!

    • These calculators factor activity more heavile than other calculators and I think that accounts for most of the difference.

  23. :-) Hi Amber. I have been following you on Facebook. I first started following you because I liked the Go Kaleo name. :-) My nickname is Kaleo. I enjoyed reading what you’ve written and this has sparked some interest for me, this entry. I see the calorie counting stuff online but for me I have a hard time wrapping my mind around trying to figure out the amounts of the food I’m eating. Like if I make chicken stir fry, for my family, of left over chicken with a whole onion, a whole bell pepper, half a cabbage and have it with quinoa, while I can measure the quinoa how am I supposed to know what the other stuff I ate was?

    I’m a recovering compulsive eater. I’ve been to a therapist who was amazing. I’ve learned to look at food differently but still have some triggers that I need to work through in my food journey. I was diagnosed with diabetes which was my kick to start a different life. I’ve changed what I eat and added in moving, added in a chiropractor and acupuncturist and I am doing vastly more then I have in probably 12 years, at least. I started at 350 about 5 months ago and am now down to 317. I do not weigh myself on a regular basis as it’s adds to my stress and doesn’t motivate me. Same is said for measuring, unless I’m measuring to buy new clothes, I don’t measure as it also make me stressed out. Old issues die hard.

    I think I wouldn’t have a problem with keeping track of what I eat, on paper, :-) with a pen instead of doing it at an online site. I just am not sure where I could go to get the calories and how to even figure that out. Ack. Sorry I’m not even sure what I’m asking. I just know I’m broken right now and in the process of trying to fix it without too much freaking out and emotional stress. At this point I’m just so loving being in my body and wanting it to work better and shed the pounds and be in less physical pain. I’ve constantly amazed at how resilient the body is when you feed it properly and move it. Anyways, I also wanted to say thank you. I’ve enjoyed reading what you write.

  24. Thank you for posting this information in one place. I recently liked your FB page and have been trying to figure out how what you were posting fit together. I’ve come to the conclusion that this HAS to be my issue.

    I eat whole foods, nothing processed, never meat and rarely dairy. I excercise an hour at least 6 days a week: Pilates – mat, reformer and SUP 3-4 times a week and road cycling 3-4. By all accounts I *should* be a size 10 at least but instead am a 22-24. I tend to drop weight when i am not excercising (injury, etc) and gain when I am, and although I do gain muscle, I definitely gain fat as well.

    My doc is generally baffled because my other numbers tell her I am being honest with her about my lifestyle and sent me to an endocrinologist who after testing for a few things sent me to a nutritionist since he assumed I HAD to be lying about what I ate (pretty sure he pictured me and a bag of oreos huddled in a corner daily). So I met with a nutritionist who reviewed weeks of meal tracking and told me 1200 calories a day was great and her only concern was my lack of meat (sigh). Obviously 1200 isn’t great which apparently is the problem. My biggest hurdle (other than getting over the initial gain) will be to actually EAT that much. I dont’ starve myself, I don’t get so hungry that I binge, I don’t skip meals. Eating so much over the course of the day is actually going to be a challenge but I’ve come to the conclusion that its the only possibility at this point. I’d love to see some sample meals in a give day that gets you to the higher calorie count.

    Again, thank you again for posting this and the other info you post as (hopefully) this will finally be the key to ending decades of frusteration.

    • J, I am RIGHT THERE WITH YOU! Same boat sister! It’s frustrating! Hang in there… I’m upping my calories today too and it’s been hard because I’m having to stop and make myself go eat something! I don’t eat meat either (since April of this year) and I truly feel better since, so I believe I’m heading in the right direction. I wish you all the best! You’re NOT alone!!

      • Kristie – Although I hate knowing others are going through the same frustration I am, its so nice to know I’m not alone! I think I am going to have to set alarms on my phone telling me to eat. :-) Good luck to you! Fingers crossed that this is the solution for us both.

  25. Hi! Hey – I have been overweight… I had friends killing themselves in the gym… hours spent exercising. I watched it and I just wasn’t willing to do that for the rest of my life… I tried.. put myself on the treadmill… tried some different diets… decided that basically I liked myself and shrug. This is just what middle age was gonna be. Heavier, saggier, tired-er.

    I was routinely waking up at 2 or 3AM unable to get back to sleep. I spent one summer really fighting depression… my summer was gone and I spent it on the couch just unable to cope with anything more than the bare minimum. I’d always sort of had it in mind but mostly could stave it off. Was told it ran in the family on the paternal side.

    I went to my Dr and had blood pulled for a hormone check. I was WAY low in B vitamins… series of shots, then some oral supplements….soon after I read The Primal Blueprint. I tried it out of pure spite to prove to some friends who were into paleo that it wouldn’t work for everyone. And we all come to fitness in different ways yes? That happened to click for me initially…

    Well, lo and behold… cutting out all the processed foods and eating good, natural, real food really worked. I started sleeping again … I started to feel clear in my mind for the first time in my life. And I was EATING. I ate more than I ever had before… and I felt great. I didn’t limit carbs or fruits… just ate real food. Ate a TON more vegetables than I ever had… tried all sorts of new veggies and ways of cooking them… they are DELICIOUS (and this comes from someone raised by a single dad in the 70s… flintsone vitamins, tang and chef boyardee my whole life – no fruits or veggies cuz they “went bad too fast”)

    After a month of that, when I felt like I had the eating basics down, I began moving more. Simple calesthenic movements… pushups, situps, sprints for 20 seconds at a time 8-10 times with our dog out on the dirt road when I got home from work…

    I couldn’t do 10 knee pushups in a row when I started… I began incorporating burpees… read some Dan John… read about high intensity training… got an old tractor tire to flip…my husband bought me a sledgehammer for Valentines day to hit the tire with… we made a slosh pipe… I kept my sessions short but man was I breathing hard after… only worked out 30 min … maybe 45 min…sometimes only 10 min…. tried to incorporate push/pull and squats every time I worked….

    Things began changing… I felt even BETTER. October 1 will be my year marker of starting this journey. I have never felt so clear headed, so amazing, so strong in all of my life. It’s incredible and sad that this way of life – eating clean, moving more and lifting heavy things isn’t more widespread… you just don’t have to kill yourself for hours on a treadmill and you can EAT, EAT and EAT!!! I too, eat 2500 to 3000 calories a day and I feel great.

    Everyone in my office wonders how I don’t gain because I eat so much… it’s just the quality of my calories trumps all the processed crap-ola everyone else eats. I went from a size 16, 193 at my heaviest to 155ish and a size 8. Tho I have to stress it is NOT about the weight loss – yes, it’s fun and it’s the icing on the cake and absolutely I love how I look right now – delight is the true word for me about my body right now… more importantly is how absolutely incredible, fantastic, amazing I feel on the inside. Absolutely. THAT is what kept me going… how good I began to feel. Not what I looked like… and I am so excited by what I can do now. Things I never thought I would ever do…and I know it will only continue to get better and I will do more. It is amazing and wonderful. You can do it!!! If I could…man… anyone can! Go you strong women – GO!

    • Thank you so much for your story – It is so good to hear of people’s success with this approach. Everybody thinks I’m nuts!

  26. I just loved reading this article. It was very enlightening and answered a lot of questions I had regarding calorie consumption and calorie deficit. I just got introduced to your Facebook page today and look forward to being educated on so many topics in the health and fitness world.

  27. I have a question about the basal metabolic rate number on the calculator. I feel like an idiot but I don’t understand quite what it means. Does it matter? Or should I just be concerned with the total energy expenditure number?

    Also, if I understand you correctly I can put in my target weight and follow the calculator from there – yes? Thank you!!

    • Your basal metabolic rate is the number of calories your body requires simply to maintain life processes. Basically, this is how much you would burn if you laid in bed motionless 24 hours a day. NEVER eat less than that.

      Yes to your second question. If you eat the TEE of your target weight, you will eventually normalize at that weight. It might be *slightly* slower than eating at a 500 calorie deficit from your current TEE, but it seems like an easier to digest concept for many people. Hope that helps!

      • hey Amber,
        would the same also apply if someone was attempting to gain weight? the reason I ask is that I was trying to get out of a yo yo dieting cycle and fix my metabolism by following the Youreatopia guidelines of 2500/cals a day minimum. The belief there is that you will eventually weight stablilize at your body’s ideal weight, despite that caloric amount… but after 6 months, I felt worse than ever and kept gaining weight. I ended up about 40lbs more than I have ever weighed, before any kind of dieting. I also felt horrible. I ended up in the hospital because I couldnt focus, major brain fog, was so swollen, sleeping 14+ hours a day, had bad anxiety, etc. I stopped eating gluten and felt better immediately, and lost 20lbs almost effortlessly (not restricting calories, but just eating to appetite not forcing myself to a minimum). I am now back to eating whole foods and feeling better and when i plug 2500 calories in that calculator it says 200lbs, so I am curious if I wouldnt not have stopped eating that minimum amount if I would ended up that high! Because I have basically gone through the whole refeeding process, I am trying to figure out how to proceed.

  28. Great information! As a public health researcher I find it interesting on facebook you’re always saying how you eat what you’re not supposed to or what is not conducive to weight loss and lose anyway….you seem to always be defending your diet against the low carb/paleo groups as if they are the mainstream; however, you eat pretty much exactly what we in the public health arena recommend to people as what you’re “supposed” to do! Do you find anecdotally that people are more willing to believe websites/gurus than scientific research? Fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, some protein and fat. That combined with activity is a great recipe for health and low risk for many adverse events. Keep up the great work!

    • Jen, YES, the people I deal with are more likely to believe a diet guru than scientific research. The mythology I run into is that all the public health entities are heavily influenced by big ag and big pharma, and therefore those entities’ recommendations are designed to keep us fat and sick.

      I also run into a lot of ‘doctors are only interested in giving you a pill’ mythology, when in fact every doctor I’ve ever dealt with recommends diet and exercise FIRST and only resorts to pills when the patient refuses to change their behavior.

      The gurus are heavily invested in creating this mythology that science and public health are colluding to keep us sick, because when we, their marks, believe that, we’ll buy the gurus’ books.

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