Eat Less, Exercise More Doesn't Work. Wait, What?

Imagine you're invited to a celebratory dinner. The chef's talent is legendary, and the invitation says that this particular dinner is going to be a feast of monumental proportions. Bring your appetite, you're told--come hungry. How would you do it?

You might try to eat less over the course of the day--maybe even skip lunch, or breakfast and lunch. You might go to the gym for a particularly vigorous workout, or go for a longer run or swim than usual, to work up an appetite. You might even decide to walk to the dinner, rather than drive, for the same reason.

Now let's think about this for a moment. The instructions that we're constantly being given to lose weight--eat less (decrease the calories we take in) and exercise more (increase the calories we expend)--are the very same things we'll do if our purpose is to make ourselves hungry, to build up an appetite, to eat more.

--From Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes

Wrap your mind around these three paragraphs--especially the third one. It's enough to bake your noodle, isn't it? Essentially, this passage explains the foundational logic behind the view that eating less and exercising more doesn't work--a view that's increasingly catching on across the entire dieting and obesity establishment.

Look, the passage above is logical, no doubt about it: the things you do to eat more are exactly the same things your doctor will tell you to do to lose weight. Which... blows, basically.

But them I'm left with a different kind of question for readers: Is it counterproductive to make a blanket statement like "eat less/exercise more doesn't work"--even if it makes sense in this specific instance? Should we worry about the impact such a statement might have on the dialog on obesity? Most importantly, will it give people tacit permission to sit around, stay sedentary, and claim that everything is out of their hands?

Here's one more thought: once you finish your exercise and build up that appetite, what you eat matters. A lot. If you run for an hour (or worse, skip breakfast and lunch), but then gorge yourself on chips, beer, soda and ice cream.... well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude you won't lose weight with that "strategy." Eat foods like this to excess and your bloodstream will be literally swimming in insulin--which means you will quickly convert all of those delicious carbs directly into body fat.

I'll share one more nuance from my personal experience: When I'm running my typical 3-4 mile runs 3 or 4 times a week, I can pretty much eat and drink whatever I want without gaining weight at all. But my body doesn't crave junk food and sugary drinks when I do this. My body just doesn't want that crap food when I'm exercising regularly.

Hmmmm. So does exercise work or not?

Readers, what's your take on the idea that "eat less/exercise more doesn't work"?

I owe a grateful thank you to Gary Taubes and his book Why We Get Fat for prompting the ideas in this post.

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I'm Offended!

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Anonymous said...

Eat BETTER/exercise more!
I've dropped 8 dress sizes since the spring.
I work out with a trainer 3 hours a week & take 2 spin classes for cardio 2 days a week. After working out I eat a lot of protein - In general I am eating: Greek yogurt, cheese, nuts, tuna, eggs, chicken, fish, fresh & dried fruits & vegetables & I drink 1 gal. of water a day. I don't have time for nor do I crave junk food.

looloolooweez said...

The "eat less, exercise more" idea does work... but only in terms of weight loss, and only if it includes a significant calorie deficit, and only up to a point.

(Eat less...) What you consume matters if you care about your health. "Real" foods are good for your body, and many of them just happen to be lower-calorie than the super processed junk foods. But it *is* possible to lose weight by only eating 1200 calories of McDonalds everyday... so long as you don't mind be permanently hungry and feeling like crap all the time.

(... Exercise more) Diet is more important than exercise when losing weight. You can lose weight by restricting calorie intake without exercising, but just exercising without watching what you eat doesn't usually result in the same kind of weight loss. BUT people who exercise *while* dieting are more successful than people who don't. And again, regular physical activity is important for health. So if you're only walking a mile, you're not burning very many calories. But if you do that every day you *are* helping your health levels, even if you can't see the difference in your waistline.

Liz T. said...

These blanket statements drive me insane. It's like saying you can become rich by making more money. These words mean different things to each of us yet we all assume everyone thinks exactly the same thing when we hear them. WRONG. You have to DEFINE your effing TERMS!

What are you eating now? How much of it? How much are you currently exercising? What kind? What's your current net calorie gain/loss over time? What do you mean by "less" and "more"? What's your general health situation?

Some people will need to eat less crap. Some people need to eat more vegetables and lay off the beans and rice a little. Some people need to put down the remote and walk 30 mins a day. Some people need to be more consistent and not expect the "weekeknd warrior" exercise plan to make them strong and fit.

Also, "less" is not automatically equivalent to "better" unless you define what you mean by those terms. And eating better is what most people probably need to worry about. Exercising will make you stronger and fitter, which may or may not make you "lose weight" depending on where you start. But being strong and fit is important in its own right.

And of course the way you eat less (and hopefully better) over time to reduce your overall calorie intake is going to be different than the way you eat less to prepare for a feast that night. They are NOT the same thing, and to trump up a sense of false indignation by pretending they are is manipulative and disingenuous.

So there.

chacha1 said...

I agree with looloo. Also:

Personally, changing WHAT I eat has an immediate and obvious effect, whereas changing HOW MUCH I eat generally only makes me cranky.

I can eat a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, at roughly 400 calories with my add-ins, and be completely satisfied till lunchtime.

A 400-calorie muffin, on the other hand, is "gone" in an hour.

Food volume, I've come to believe, is for most people not really negotiable. You have to have a certain volume of food (and total calories) in order to maintain good health, good energy levels, good mood, and incidentally mental function.

But while the volume of food that most people seem to be eating may not be excessive, the content of that volume is off-the-charts unbalanced. People are eating the wrong stuff.

A giant salad, packed down, is roughly the same volume as a plate of pasta. It may actually have more calories, but more of the calories are nutritive, vs the pasta, of which most of the calories are pure starch and going straight to your belly roll.

That is to say, calories that are nutritive are USED by the body. Calories that are not are STORED.

Finally, Liz T, using a provocative rhetorical question to stimulate conversation is not inherently disingenuous or manipulative. Examine the context. Dan isn't a guy who says aggravating things just to get a rise out of people.

Joanne said...

It's interesting. Generally I've found that it's much easier for me to lose weight when I'm NOT exercising (or marathon training) because I'm less hungry and am more ok with saying no to dessert/guilty pleasure food...but I think that's more of a ME thing because I'm so used to exercising so much that I feel guilty indulging when I'm not.

This past round of marathon training (over the summer) was the first time I actually lost weight while training. How did I do it? I stopped counting calories. I think by allowing myself to eat portions of foods and the kinds of food that I was craving (which was largely not dessert) I didn't have that empty/unsatisfied feeling in my belly/mind and didn't overeat foods I didn't really need. I guess the moral really is to eat general I cook absurdly healthy foods and have made a lifestyle out of eating healthy. You can't just "eat less" forever, so I think really everyone needs to find something that they can stick with. Feeling hungry indefinitely is just not going to do it.

Lauren said...

I agree that eating less crap and moving more than 5 minutes a day will generally cause weightloss in those who live on Dingdongs and Nintendo. BUT a consistent calorie deficit will cause thyroid downregulation and infertility in women pretty quickly. Hypothyroid states cause lack of energy and weight gain.
I liked that section of WWGF too, but IMO it needs to be quoted with the part about Lance Armstrong riding because he's thin (ie has a raging metabolism that produces extra energy to burn in movement) rather than thin because he rides.
I know in my case it's true that I want to move more when I'm feeding my body well, and have no motivation whatsoever when I don't. This is part of why the Hartwigs called their book It Starts With Food, despite being personal trainers by profession. They say: “The food you eat either makes you more healthy or less healthy. Those are your options.” Quantity only comes into play at extreme amounts or after everything else is in order.