Skip to main content

Food Over Exercise: Achieving Sustainable Weight Loss

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Kaitlyn has a background in psychology and writes articles that teach you how to lean on your body, mind, heart, and on those around you.

By Snapwire. CC0 Creative Commons.

By Snapwire. CC0 Creative Commons.

In recent years we’ve encountered many dietary health claims.

“A calorie is a calorie is a calorie.”
“As long as you exercise, you can eat whatever you want.”
“You will lose weight as long as you burn off more than you eat.”

All these statements have some truth to them, but if the average consumer, like us, were to take those statements at face value, our long-term weight loss efforts will ultimately be in vain. That’s because our bodies are much more complicated than people would have us believe.

Exercise is not the be-all and end-all of weight loss. Here’s why.

Poll: Dieting

3 Main Reasons Exercise is Not Always the Best Way to Lose Weight

By Victor Freitas. CC0 Creative Commons.

By Victor Freitas. CC0 Creative Commons.

1. Focusing too much on exercise can be detrimental to your weight loss goals.
Your body wants to stay the same; it’s very good at adapting to changing situations and keeping an equilibrium in your body. The problem, when it comes to weight loss, is that your body will do whatever it can to maintain your current weight. Studies have found that people tended to eat more after exercise because either they thought (wrongly) that they could afford to eat more or because they felt hungrier.

Aside from wanting to eat more, our bodies may make us move less throughout the day after a workout session as its way to compensate for the amount of energy you used in the gym. You may fidget less, want to take a nap, or stay seated for longer periods of time - all of which could cancel out the hour (or hours) of suffering you went through earlier in the day.

2. Exercise doesn’t burn that many calories.
No matter how much you exercise, the extra calories you manage to burn is only a small fraction of your total energy expenditure in a day. What most of us don’t realize is that our basal metabolic rate (BMR, or the energy your body burns at rest) and the energy we use to digest the food we eat make up more than 80% of our daily calorie burn. So that means that whatever calories we burn through moving around and exercising can only make up 20% of total calories burned at most.

These numbers mean that while the food you eat will account for 100% of the energy you provide your body, exercise can only burn off around 20% of that. In even simpler terms: it will be very very hard for you to work off that “accidental” donut you had during your post-lunch slump.

Because it’s so hard for you to burn extra calories off through exercise alone, it’s incredibly tough to create a calorie deficit just through working out more.

3. It’s very hard to exercise enough to create a deficit.
On the same point, because it’s so hard for you to burn extra calories off through exercise alone, it’s incredibly tough to create a calorie deficit just by working out more. According to the Body Weight Planner/Calculator by the National Institute of Health, if a 90kg (200 pounds) male were to work out for four hours a week without changing his diet, he would lose only five pounds after one month.

This is not very encouraging news for those of us who struggle to exercise just thirty minutes a day. It’s even worse news for those of us who are obese and have to lose a lot of weight.

How to Eat for Sustainable, Healthy Weight Loss and Overall Wellness

By Trang Doan. CC0 Creative Commons.

By Trang Doan. CC0 Creative Commons.

1. Make a plan and stick to it.
We’re surrounded by so much food these days that it can be hard for us to stick to a specific diet if we don’t yet know what we’re going to eat for every meal. But when you make a weekly meal plan, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to eat and what groceries you need to buy. When you already have a visual of what you’re going to put into your body every day, you’ll be less likely to deviate from your diet in favor of that delicious-smelling, but highly calorific, take-out meal.

2. Add more whole foods instead of decreasing what you eat.
While portion control is important to kick-start weight loss if you know your portions are too big, what you eat is even more important for long-term sustainable weight loss. Add more whole foods and fresh produce to your diet. Instead of just eating half a piece of lasagna that would barely fill you up, add a large side portion of salad for extra fiber and nutrients. As you fill up on a larger variety of healthy, fresh foods, you’ll have much less room for empty carbs, and the weight will drop off with minimal effort. Your body will enjoy a boost of vitamins and antioxidants as well.

3. Stop before you feel too full.
Most of us have been taught to finish everything on our plate even though we feel stuffed because we don’t want to appear wasteful. But there’s nothing wrong with putting less on your plate or keeping leftovers for later! Our ancestors only eat when they were hungry and almost never have the luxury of feeling full, so we should do the same. Eat only when we feel hungry and stop when we no longer feel hungry. Never stuff yourself. The best time to stop eating is when you feel like you could eat a little more but don’t need to. Not only will you obviously eat less every meal, but you can be more active throughout the day without having to deal with food comas after stuffing yourself.

People who succeed in losing weight and maintaining their weight loss write down everything they eat.

4. Do eat carbs.
Studies on low-carb diets have shown very little evidence for long-term weight loss. Low-carb diets are all the rage and have been for years, but our bodies need carbohydrates to function. While low-carb diets will help you lose weight in the short-term, most of that weight loss is water weight, not actual fat, and can cause side-effects that include lethargy, which can undermine your fat loss goals.

Scroll to Continue

As long as you stick to complex carbs like whole wheat bread, pasta, and brown rice, you can fuel your body without spiking blood sugar levels, which is key to maintaining a healthy weight.

5. Write down what you eat.
People who succeed in losing weight and maintaining their weight loss tend to write down everything they eat. Studies have found that people who kept a food log lost two times more weight than those who didn’t keep a food journal. Another study also found that most people who kept food logs also write down weight loss goals and are more likely to achieve them.

Poll: Exercise

A More Holistic Approach to Weight Loss

By CC0 Creative Commons.

By CC0 Creative Commons.

I’m not saying that we can forget about working up a sweat on a regular basis, but sustainable weight loss requires a more holistic approach. What you eat is often more important than time spent on the treadmill - something to keep in mind when we're setting our New Year's resolutions.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 KV Lo


Andrea Stephenson on October 28, 2018:

What a great article. It is more about what you put in your mouth than exercise.

The Perfectly Imperfect Mummy on August 10, 2018:

Thank you for writing this. I found it very interesting especially as I suffer from PCOS & have always struggled with weight.

Ingrid on April 30, 2018:

That's my problem we are surrounded by so much food that we eat even though we are not hungry. I need to devise an eating plan and stick to it. some are recommending intermittent fasting too

Melissa on April 30, 2018:

I just recently started paying attention to what I eat, (counting calories) and although I don't think people should live their life always thinking about how many calories their eating it was a great way for me to see how much more I was taking in than burning in a day. I couldn't believe it! Now I'm much more aware of the QUALITY of what I eat so that my body is fueled and not fat.

PJ on March 17, 2018:

It's so good to see this kind of advice. I had to go on a diet for health reasons and found replacing the high-calorie foods with dense portions of veggies and fruit was so much better than just cutting those high-calorie foods out. I went from feeling like I was starving myself to a sense of, "What is this strange new feeling? I have energy and I'm not hungry? Amazing!"

White Coat Trainer on February 15, 2018:

Great post. You are absolutely right. You can’t always out exercise a bad diet

Gabriella on February 08, 2018:

I think this is a really good post. Some people just are not able to exercise. Because of age, injury, or health. But everyone can eat healthier. Once that part is one eventually they will better be able to exercise too!

Sheila on February 07, 2018:

I'm so glad you wrote about this! It is such a misconception that you just need to exercise to work off the calories. It's about what you eat (and how much you eat) so much more!

KV Lo (author) on February 01, 2018:

@Beth Exactly! It has always been the same for me as well. That's why it's so important for more people to know that they can make significant progress towards their weight loss goals with just a few basic dietary changes. :) Don't need to spend hours in the gym every day! Thanks for reading.

Beth on February 01, 2018:

Interesting take on this! People always say you have to exercise to lose but, at least in my case it's always been dietary practices which make or break the goal.

Related Articles