I recently read a book by Adam Bornstein, a guy I first came across on Instagram (but who was previously well-known in the fitness writing community, e.g. as editor of major publications), who has a very science-first approach to nutrition and fitness.
The book is called “You Can’t Screw This Up”, and you can buy it on Amazon here.
(Note: I’ll get a tiny commission if you do, which either I get or Amazon keeps. But consider it a tip for this article, which took me ages.)
I’ve liked the kind of thing he says for a long time. He busts shibboleths and rejects fads, saying there’s no scientific proof for the effectiveness of things like intermittent fasting (notwithstanding the fact that he wrote a bestselling book on intermittent fasting… then changed his mind in the face of evidence), ice baths if you’re not a pro athlete (you can get the same endorphin rush from calling a friend), and crash diets.
For example, he talks about — and cites studies showing — that your metabolism doesn’t slow as you age, that intermittent fasting leads to more binge eating, less control, and more guilt, and that how well we can adhere to a diet — any diet — is more important than what the diet actually is.
In fact, Bornstein even debunks “autophagy” (often described as cellular “cleansing” that can promote natural anti-aging and other health effects), a popular suggested effect of intermittent fasting. He says that there’s no research that says that intermittent fasting is any better at promoting autophagy than exercise or just eating less.
What Bornstein proposes, rather than a fad diet or way of living, is a very methodical, no-nonsense approach to health and exercise that’s so boring that it would never grab any headlines. But it’s backed by a lot of science, experience, common sense, and evidence that it works.
Here’s everything I learned from the book. This isn’t quite a book review; it’s more a synopsis of notes important to me. I’ll write more about the book in the end, in case you’re interested.
Diets are All the Same, and All Wrong
Bornstein spends the first third of the book arguing against diets. This is loosely what I’ve come to understand as the “non-diet” approach.
Basically, Bornstein says that all diets roughly have the same effectiveness in helping you lose weight. They’re all just different angles of attack with the same fundamental strategy: reducing calorie intake.
But what differentiates how effectively someone might lose weight — regardless of what diet they use — is their ability to keep to the diet. It’s what he terms “adherence”. Basically, if they’re able to stick to a diet or plan, they’ll lose weight, no matter what it is.
Citing a study of four popular diets (Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and Weight Watchers), then replicated in other journals:
Regardless of assigned diet groups, 12-month weight change was greater in the most adherent compared to the least adherent tertiles. These results suggest that strategies to increase adherence may deserve more emphasis than the specific macronutrient composition of the weight loss diet itself in supporting successful weight loss.
People are attracted to fad diets for a number of reasons. Some are attracted to “life hacks”. It’s easier to sell a shocking big change, because there’s something emotionally engaging about that.
If I were to try and convince you to eat more fruit or protein as a means of losing weight, the likelihood of acceptance is low. But, if I were to tell you to try “intermittent fasting,” then the initial rate of adherence is high. The end goal is the same (eat less food), but the novelty and complication of fasting directly impacts your willingness to engage (even if it’s not desirable or sustainable).
The reason for this, he says, is that new ideas give us a dopamine shot. Our brains are wired to associate novelty with reward.
But “boring” ideas, paradoxically, are scientifically more effective to work.
Where most “new idea” diets fall over is one or more of the following:
- They’re short term. They’re all about getting to a goal or doing something in a certain amount of time. (e.g. Whole30)
- They’re easy to fail at. You can break a rule, and then you’re screwed. (E.g. Atkins — very easy to leave ketosis.)
- They’re inherently unsustainable. (E.g. any diet that limits things you love.)
- They’re negative, focusing on exclusions or difficult rules.
- They have effects on your metabolism that makes them counterproductive.
There’s a lot more detail in the book that’s worth reading. I particularly liked all the studies he cited that said that time-bound or intense diets would doom you to fail for a number of reasons:
- You can “fail” really easily, and then fall off the wagon. For example, in diets where you’re not allowed to eat anything of a class, if you eat a bit, there is a tendency to go “screw it” and eat a lot of it.
- The short-termism means you’re always looking forward to the end, a cheat day, or so on. If you’re told “you can eat a burger on Sunday”, then you spend the whole week thinking of Sunday, and suffering as a result — and likely to eat a burger earlier, anyway. This is a miserable way to live, and unsustainable.
- Crash diets mess with your metabolism and make it harder to both keep losing weight and to keep weight off than if you eased into diets slowly, over a long period of time.
Attacking the Psychology
A lot of “You Can’t Screw This Up” focuses on the broken psychology of health, dieting, and exercise.
Firstly, he points out all the negative aspects of dieting. Diets add stress. Whether you’re calorie counting, reducing intake of certain foods, or limiting the time you can eat, you’re thinking about your restrictions a lot, and thus being stressed. There are many links between stress and weight gain. So, people shoot themselves in the foot from the outset.
Diets are also negative. They reduce life quality. If you like ice cream but aren’t supposed to eat it, then your life is worse under a diet. You can reframe it to think it’s better in some other way (you’re healthier), but if there can be a way for you to enjoy ice cream healthily, in moderation, then he wants to create it.
“Restrictive plans bully you into a broken relationship with food, often insisting that certain foods are bad because eating them feels good. That’s messed up, and a big part of the problem.”
Finally, there’s just a lot of evidence that shows that diets don’t work for keeping weight off. Most people who go on any diet gain more weight. In fact, the likelihood of gaining more weight after a diet is so high, that you could argue that people would be better off never going on a diet and never worrying about food than trying to diet at all.
Most people have heard of the marshmallow test, where kids are offered either one marshmallow now, or two later. It’s an experiment to see if rewards could encourage seeking delayed gratification — and it showed that most kids (and thus people) couldn’t wait.
But an interesting part of the researchers’ conclusions that I didn’t know was the reason for which kids don’t opt to wait. It’s because when presented with the idea of two marshmallows later, they couldn’t stop thinking about marshmallows, even though previously they weren’t thinking about them at all.
Bornstein equates this with diets that have an end date, a cheat meal, or any other objective that you might obsess over. The more you obsess about that difficult-to-obtain objective, the more likely you are to fall short of it.
So Bornstein says we have to focus on positives. This includes
- Taking away the concept of failure. You don’t have to be 100% good, 100% of the time. Rather, he posits an attitude of trying to be 80% good, 80% of the time, something he learned from one of his clients, Cindy Crawford.
- A choice to eat something not optimally healthy is in itself healthy. It keeps you happy, and means you can be healthy the rest of the time, rather than exploding with stress, binge eating, and giving up on health.
- Focusing on positives rather than negatives. For some reason, we beat ourselves up over a big meal, but don’t celebrate a healthy one nearly as much.
- Disconnecting exercise and food — no guilt exercise after big meals.
He talks about creating a “positive internal narrative”. Don’t talk about yourself as “fat” or “out of shape”. Rather, say things like “I care about my health” or “I am careful with what I put into my body”. These are general truths that are easy to prove to yourself.
For this, he cites James Clear and the “Atomic habits” concept:
- Decide who you want to be
- Prove it to yourself with small wins
One interesting part of the book is how Bornstein shows that big packaged food companies are actively rooting against us by targeting a “bliss point” that makes us not want to stop eating them, never becoming full (think Pringles). He references Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat, and follow-up research by Dr. Kevin Hall, that shows that ultra-processed foods are designed in such a way that we tend to overeat.
Dr. Hall’s study is worth mentioning in detail: He presented two groups of people with food with the same macronutrient composition, but one group was presented with more processed foods (including cereals, frozen dinners, and packaged foods), and the other with minimally processed foods. Even though the foods had the same composition, the participants could eat as much as they wanted — until they were full.
Over the course of a month, the group that ate ultra-processed foods ate on average ~500 calories more per day, and gained an average of one pound (half a kilo) a week. And when the teams were swapped, the effects also swapped — and the group that gained the weight dropped it.
Comfort vs Complexity
At the outset, Bornstein talks about how not everything need be a struggle. We need a little discomfort in order to grow. But discomfort doesn’t need to be difficult; “discomfort and complexity are not the same thing.”
A lot of Bornstein’s approach is about discomfort in moderation. He recognises that you need a little discomfort in order to improve. But he disavows the notion that you need to abandon all comfort.
Instead, he proposes dosing discomfort in, little by little. Rather than go “cold turkey” on many food groups at once, you can dial things down slowly.
The reason for this is that diets that ask you to jump in the deep end fly in the face of behavioural change research, which show that gradual changes are much easier for you to accept. He uses a weightlifting analogy, saying you don’t jump under a heavily loaded bar on day one. But personally, this gels with every other thing I do — you don’t start learning another language immediately on day one exclusively in that language, nor do you start learning to ride a motorcycle on a superbike.
But Bornstein cites a lot of evidence that support that we should take risks with a comfort zone safety net.
Research suggests that even when a challenge requires a lot of effort, mixing in enjoyment and feeling accomplished is a big part of success. That’s because accomplishment leads to more confidence, and that confidence will create consistent behaviors.
A bit of stress is a good thing. But if you add too much, performance crashes. So it’s up to us to all find exactly where our “expanded” comfort zone is in which we can improve without cratering.
Bornstein’s “Easy” System: Five Pillars
Bornstein’s main drive is to create a system that’s so easy it’s hard to fail. Failure and the guilt cycle create a downward spiral for people trying to manage their diets. So he eliminates it.
He proposes a five-pillar approach that’s very simple. It’s composed of five “tools”, not hard-and-fast rules. These are:
- Create meal boundaries: Eat within a 12-hour window of your choosing. You can easily do this by eating your first meal 2 hours after you wake up, and your last food 2 hours before going to bed. E.g. 9 am to 9pm is reasonable and easy to achieve. (You have flexibility in how you set up the rule for yourself.)
- Prioritise protein and fiber (e.g. lean meat and whole-wheat bread), and minimise ultra-processed foods (e.g. chips and soda). This maximises fullness and restricts high energy-density foods. Plus, protein and fiber have other health benefits.
- Keep a plus-one (carbs or fats) in addition to protein and fiber. Meals should be 1-2 “palm-sized” servings of protein, 1-2 servings of fibrous carbs, and 1-2 servings of a “plus-one”. (Whether 1 or 2 depends on how often you eat, your energy expenditure, gym routine, etc.) But try not to make it both carbs and fats. E.g. if you’re having a burger, either get a juicy high-fat burger with bacon/cheese, or a lean burger plus fries. (There are plenty more examples in the book.)
- Take 20 minutes to eat a meal. This is really hard! Eat with focus, enjoying it, with no distractions (no TV. Even conversation is distracting). Eating slowly lets you appreciate the meal and consider your fullness. Consider putting down your cutlery between bites.
- Welcome processed food / takeout into your diet and enjoy it — but make it work for you. Recognising that ultra-processed foods are very calorie dense and trigger your “bliss point” and never satisfy you, try to limit them to once a week. You can (and should) enjoy them, but in moderation. This includes things like sugary drinks, sweet or savoury packaged snacks, candies and cake mix, butter substitutes, energy drinks, and pre-prepared pies, pasta, and pizzas. Minimise snacking.
(There’s also a large section on what to order when getting takeout. This is a bit more America-focused so I skimmed over it. The TL;DR is to order healthier options, ask for things to be cooked in less oil, and ask for sauces on the side.)
All of these suggestions are hard, in different degrees, for many people. He suggests dialling them in. For example, if you want to continue eating packaged chips / crisps, then do so — but start limiting it to fewer times a week. Eventually, you’ll start craving it less.
Each of those suggestions bas been backed by research showing that not only are they effective at promoting weight loss, but that they’re easy enough to adhere to that people keep the weight off long-term.
In implementation of all those rules, Bornstein often says you shouldn’t “major in the minor”. Don’t get obsessed with details, “failures”, and so on. If you eat once on a 13-hour window, it doesn’t matter. If your protein-first meal is a burger, fine. Just do your best.
And you need to personalise your own plan. You use the tools above (they’re not rules) to adjust your own lifestyle, in accordance with your constraints, gradually expanding your comfort zone.
Wrap up — Quick review of the book in general
One of my favourite things about “You Can’t Screw This Up” (and Adam Bornstein’s writing in general) is that it’s so inclusive. He often says things like “You can try this. But something else might work for you. It’s important to figure out what’s best for your own lifestyle.”
He’s very flexible around whether people might like carbs, fats, sugary treats, or whatever, or have different constraints around being able to cook or have time for anything. Basically, it’s very accepting, and so hard to argue with.
In the outset, Bornstein said he didn’t want to write a book that could be summarised in a short document. Well, given the copious examples and references to citations, and the effort to which he went to prove his case rather than just claim it, I think he achieved his goal.
I enjoyed re-reading sections of his book to write this article. I’d suggest you probably would to.