You have probably heard the saying “eat less and move more” as a suggested starting point for weight loss. But even after cutting back on portions and starting a new exercise program you struggled.
Why is weight loss so hard? Is there anything you can do to lose weight and actually keep it off?
In this article I am going to help you understand why the eat less and move more concept does not work.
We will start by reviewing how eat less and move more affect energy balance. Then we will explore how our bodies actually use the calories we eat every day. This will include an example to show why moving more is usually not enough to drive lasting weight loss on its own.
Finally we will discuss how changing what you eat, not how much you eat is the key to reaching your goals.
When you have finished reading you will know what it takes to achieve lasting and sustained weight loss and improve your health.
Let’s start at the beginning with the definition of a calorie.
Defining a Calorie
A calorie is a measure of stored value. In other words, a calorie is a lot like a dollar bill.
You can exchange dollars for items that are meaningful and of value to you. Your body “exchanges” calories stored in food for essential daily functions that are meaningful and of value to your health.
Both the calorie and the dollar have an implicit value. Without money we cannot get even the basic necessities of life. Without calories, our bodies cannot perform the basic functions of life.
Using this model you can see that no food is inherently bad. Foods vary in the amount of stored energy they contain and how much value (measured in calories) they can provide.
Calories do not exist to cause obesity.
How calories get used and whether they lead to weight gain depends on your daily energy balance. Let’s take a look at what that means.
Energy Balance Equation
Body weight is a representation of energy balance over the past several months.
Energy intake – energy burned = body weight
If you are more or less in balance you burn the same number of calories as you take in. Over time your weight remains stable.
When energy taken in from food is higher than what your body needs, you gain weight. From a purely physiological prospective, fat storage makes sense. Your body views extra weight as a savings account.
Under normal conditions your body does not want to be in a negative balance where it needs more calories than you can provide it. Saving calories in body fat is like having an emergency savings fund.
Eat less and move more is about changing energy balance. Losing weight means you have to spend money from your savings account.
Most savers naturally resist drawing down their emergency savings unless they absolutely have to. Our bodies fight back when we try and draw down our body fat savings account to drive weight loss.
THIS is why weight loss is so hard.
Sometimes it does become necessary to spend your savings and start losing weight. How do you do that? To begin, we have to understand both sides of the energy balance equation.
Let’s start by looking at energy burned and how our bodies use the calories we eat each day.
How is Energy Burned
Move more is about increasing the amount of energy burned. There are three ways in which our bodies use the calories we consume each day. Let’s go through each of the three areas in detail.
Resting Energy Expenditure (REE)
REE is often referred to as metabolic rate. Your brain, muscles, and organs need a lot of energy to maintain daily operations. REE makes up about 70% of total daily energy usage.
You may have heard that muscle burns more energy than fat. And this is true. Exercising will increase your REE as you start to gain muscle mass.
After you turn 40 you naturally start to lose about 1% of your muscle mass each year. As muscle mass declines so too does our REE. Fat needs less energy to maintain itself than muscle.
While you cannot stop age related muscle mass decline you can slow it down with weight bearing exercise. An exercise routine done two to three times per week will keep your REE higher and help you hold on to that muscle. This is the best way to help combat weight gain as you age.
It’s important to note that these changes are subtle. Your body will not start burning extra calories after one gym workout. For our purposes, REE is a fixed number that stays at a pretty constant 70% of total energy usage.
Let’s look at how the rest of our energy is used.
Your body needs to use energy to break down that delicious steak you ate. It has to break everything down into usable parts like protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. This accounts for about 10% of total daily energy usage.
Carbs, fats, and proteins have slightly different digestive needs but overall, like REE, digestion is pretty fixed and uses about 10% of your energy each day.
This is where the “move more” part of eat less and move more really comes into play.
Physical activity is a combination of daily activities like walking up and down the stairs, mowing the lawn and washing the dishes. This is also where the calories burned from exercise factor in. This makes up about 20% of total daily energy usage.
You have the most ability to change this area of the equation.
Even this area is hard to change in a meaningful way. Let’s walk through an example to see why.
Why Move More Does Not Work
For our example let’s use some who eats and burns 2,000 calories per day. Over the past few months their weight was stable.
One day they decide they want to lose weight so they start an exercise program. They use an elliptical for 30 minutes and burn 200 calories more than they would on a normal day (sorry, those estimates on machines at the gym are wrong).
Then they have a 150 calorie fruit smoothie as a treat that they would not normally have because they were hungry after their workout.
And their legs hurt. So they sit a little more and avoid the stairs for the rest of the day. Instead of their usual 400 calories from daily activities (20%) they only burn 350 today.
2,000 plus 200 extra from exercise minus 50 from sitting more. They burned 2,150 calories today. But they also ATE 2,150 calories because they always eat about what they need plus the extra smoothie.
Now extend this out for a month. This person’s weight stays the same and they complain about how this new exercise plan is not helping with weight loss.
This is why moving more does not work, especially if you do not also eat less.
It’s hard to change how much energy we burn by moving more because we tend to compensate by sitting less and eating more.
Since we control 100% of what we eat, if we want to make lasting changes we have to focus on what we eat. Let’s go there next.
The foods you consume and any calorie containing beverages you drink each day make up your total daily energy intake.
Left alone to our own devices and simply responding to hunger and fullness ques our body weight should remain stable over time.
Our bodies try and tell us when to eat (hunger) and when to stop (fullness). Were we to follow these cues (welcome to intuitive eating) our body weight would remain stable.
The feeling of fullness should be like when you fill your car with gas. The pump clicks once the tank is full. Similarly, once you stop feeling hungry your brain is trying to tell you that the tank in your stomach is full.
That’s the “click.”
Unfortunately we can and often do ignore these signals (like at the gas pump, you know you have done it too). It happens every time you suddenly find more room for dessert.
And remember what we learned earlier. Our bodies WANT to save extra calories in case of an emergency. Knowing this, we have to start paying more attention to what we eat. How do we go about doing that?
Tracking Energy Intake
Most of us have no idea how many calories we truly eat each day. Studies support the fact that we are way off when we guess. But it never really matters until we are trying to lose weight.
If you want to make lasting changes you have to start by understanding where your calories are coming from and how many you eat every day. No guessing, you have to measure and track for a short amount of time and get an accurate number.
The 500 Calorie Rule
The traditional advice once you know your average daily calorie intake is to reduce it by 500 calories per day. Do this and you will lose one pound per week. Have you heard this before?
This advice dates back to the 1960’s. A scientist calculated that there are 3,500 calories of energy stored in one pound of body fat. Remember, body fat is the savings account for extra energy.
You take 3,500 calories, divide by 7 days per week and magically arrive at 500 calories per day. If you can “spend” 500 calories per day from body fat you should lose one pound of fat per week.
This is the essence of eat less and move more. Eat fewer calories and burn more through exercise.
Why doesn’t it work?
Why Eat Less Does Not Work
Let’s say you join a weight loss program and decide to eat less and move more. The first thing you do is track your calorie intake. As a result you learn that you eat about 2,000 calories per day.
You make some changes, adjust portions at dinner, skip breakfast and cut out night time snacking. With some effort you reduce your intake down to 1,500 calories per day.
Next you decide you need to move more. You follow the exercise plan we discussed above using the elliptical for 30 minutes three days per week.
At first things go great. You lose 10 pounds in the first three weeks. This happens because your body is burning 2,000 calories per day plus a little more on the days you exercise.
As a result, your body pulled from savings and you lost weight.
Then your body adjusts. It takes less energy to move around a lower body weight. And, when we lose weight we lose muscle mass as well as body fat. With these changes your REE starts to decrease.
Not only that, but since you are eating less you need less calories to digest the food that you eat.
As you lose weight your energy needs decrease until they match up with your new intake.
Then it happens. The dreaded weight loss plateau.
Many people get frustrated when they hit a plateau. Eat less and move more has failed them. They go back to their old habits and all the lost weight comes right back.
How Do You Really Lose Weight?
Eat less and move more does not work. It is a catchy, over-simplified phrase that offers promise of a simple solution but no actual results.
Eat less does not encourage dietary change, just reduction of portion sizes.
Move more encourages exercise but as we just saw, we often compensate when we move more. While exercise is beneficial, it’s not helping create an energy deficit.
Here is what to do instead.
Instead of Eat Less, Eat Better
Instead of eating less of the same foods you have always consumed, you have to improve the quality of your diet. Try changing one food item or one meal at a time.
Eat more real food. Real food is not produced in a factory, it is grown or raised. It should not come in a box or have a label.
This is not to say it cannot be processed, cooked chicken is a processed food.
Ask questions and learn about the story of your food. Where does it come from and how did it get to your plate?
You may have heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” Vitamin C does not only fight colds, it is part of the matrix of your skin. The same is true for every other component of food.
Every vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient plays a role in our body and serves a purpose.
Fast Food Is Not Real Food
Fast food and processed foods are manufactured to trick your brain into wanting more. Food companies extract the parts of food that your brain craves (fat, sugar, salt) and remove much of the nutritional value.
What’s left tastes amazing but is devoid of nutrients so your brain keeps asking for more. Your gut and your brain are always looking for nutrients. When they don’t find any, your brain turns up the hunger signals.
Your body wants to be properly nourished.
The reason I love cronometer so much is that it gives you an exact picture of the quality of your diet. You can see if you are meeting your nutrient needs or not.
A nourished body is less hungry and has fewer cravings.
I cannot emphasize that point enough. When you eat a real food, plant based, healthy diet, call it what you want, your body simply asks for less calories.
Eat less and move more is no longer necessary.
Instead of Move More, Move With Purpose
Move more is often interpreted as joining a gym and doing exercise that involves some degree of vigorous sweating. That might be fine for some but undesirable or simply unrealistic for others.
Instead, move with purpose. Do more of the things you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like another chore.
Take a yoga class through your local park district. Golf more. Go for walks in the woods. The key is to like what you are doing.
What did you like doing when you were younger?
Maybe you have equipment at home and hate using it. Try something called temptation bundling. This is where you do something you love like watching a favorite show or listen to some good music as an incentive to do something you know should do but find it hard to get motivated for.
Muscle Building Exercise Serves a Purpose
There is one type of exercise you should try and do more of. Remember earlier when I said that REE naturally declines as we age? The best way to combat that is with muscle building exercises.
To the degree you are able, try and work up to a place where you do weight bearing exercises two to three times per week. These can be seated exercises or more structured exercise at the gym.
The location does not matter, the exercises does. Temptation bundle if you have to by listening to a favorite book, podcast or music while you exercise.
Muscle building exercises help stop your body from losing muscle mass as you lose weight. This prolongs your weight loss, helps with balance, improves energy levels and gives you so many other benefits associated with regular activity.
Adjust Your Expectations
The last thing I want to share with you today is that you probably have to adjust your expectations. Sorry but it’s true. Without invasive surgery, large amounts of weight loss are unlikely to be maintained.
Even people who go on the show the Biggest Loser struggle after the show ends.
Instead, be ok with the fact that you are probably not getting back to the weight you were in high school. There are so many other more important metrics to focus on.
Have your blood sugars improved or has your blood pressure gone down? Do you feel less pain when you walk? Do you need less medications?
While these are subjective measures, they get at the real reason most of us want to lose weight in the first place.
We simply want to feel better.
Eating real food does not mean there is no room for treats, it means that they are actually treats. Here is an idea to put this into practice.
Work toward a place where 90% of your meals are real food. If you eat three meals per day, seven days per week, then about 24 of 27 meals should be high quality.
Move with purpose. Find enjoyment in what you do so it does not feel like a chore. Work in your yard, start a new hobby, or go for walks in the forest preserve. Work your muscles at least a couple times per week.
The Bottom Line
Make changes in your life slowly over time. You can get to a place where you live a comfortable, healthy and happy life and still not give up the core of who you are and what you enjoy.
Work with an awesome dietitian to develop your plan.
Better yet, you never have to hear the phrase eat less and move more again.