Do we really need to exercise more and eat less?


Originally written for, published 30 September 2015

Eat less, exercise more. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, this is likely the formula you followed. It’s the approach most commonly advocated and we’ve heard it so much it intuitively makes sense – weight loss is all about calories in and calories out, right?

While the calories in/calories out formula works in the short term, many people (especially women) are living by this rule for months and years. And they’re are left disappointed, tired, grumpy and hungry, with ‘stubborn fat’ that refuses to budge no matter how little they eat and how much they work out.

We’ve been led to believe that our weight is something to be controlled, managed carefully or something we need to fight. If every half a kilo of fat on our bodies is 3500 calories, maths says eat 250 calories less and move 250 calories more and in 7 days, bam, we’ll be half a kilo less.

So how is it that we seem to be exercising more and more and eating less and less but as a general population we’re getting heavier?

Calorie counting doesn’t recognise that weight regulation is more than simply the quantity of calories we eat or exercise off. We need to take into account calorie quality and our biology.

Our bodies are finely tuned to maintain a state of balance, or a set point. Our hormones, brain and gut work together to keep our set point at healthy levels and we adjust quickly to changes in energy in and out to preserve this.

Eat less and you’ll quickly become more efficient at using energy – metabolism slows down and you’ll burn less for the same amount of activity. Yes, you’ll lose some weight at the start, but after a while, you’ll just have increased hunger and decreased energy output as your body fights to sustain balance.

Increased exercise has same effect as your body figures out how it can do more with less (or the same amount of) energy.

When our bodies get out of balance through lifestyle choices, like poor food quality, stress and inflammation, communication between the gut, brain and hormones breaks down. Our set point is elevated and we start laying down fat to maintain the new set point.

The long term answer is not to eat less and exercise more, but to focus on eating more high quality, natural unprocessed foods, feeding our bodies the nutrition we need, exercising smarter and perhaps more intensely.

This allows your brain, gut and hormones to re-evaluate fat storage. As we switch focus to becoming healthy to lose weight instead of losing weight to become healthy we start paying attention to what our bodies need, and working with it rather than fighting against it. Our bodies don’t want to carry around more fat than it needs to, but communication within our body systems needs to be optimum to encourage this.

If you’re one of those people who has been exercising more and eating less for ages, and if you’re not seeing the results you think you should given the time, effort and sacrifice you’ve put in, consider changing your focus. You may be surprised by how it works.