Myth, busted: 'Eat less, exercise more'

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

More exercise and less calories. This sums up the traditional idea of a health kick. It is the default approach for many personal trainers, it is promoted in health and fitness articles, and it is the mantra of junk food companies. The 'eat less, exercise more' concept is pretty convenient for all of the above because it is simple, easy to understand, and it puts all the responsibility on the individual person to simply make different choices.

As a broad idea, it has some truth to it. If you eat less and exercise more, you will put your body in a energy deficit, at least for a short amount of time. It logically follows that you will probably burn more calories than you take in, which will likely mean you lose some weight. Mission accomplished, right?

The simple logic of 'eat less, exercise more' is flawed. It is artificial, incomplete and unrealistic.

Maybe not. Yes, maybe you do lose weight. But you may not feel fantastic, or look any more toned. Maybe the diet and exercise is not enjoyable, or sustainable. The short term drop on the scale can be a distraction from all of these things.

The simple logic of 'eat less, exercise more' is flawed. It is artificial, incomplete and unrealistic.

It is artificial because it is not just a matter of 'exercise' on the one hand and 'diet' on the other. There are many different kinds of exercise, that suit different people and different aims. Some forms of exercise require you to do more and more to continue to see results, while others are best done in short and varied sessions. Plus, you will adapt to any form of exercise, if you continue it over a period of time.

In short, the benefit of exercise can't be tied to its duration.

The 'eat less, exercise more' approach is also incomplete because its focus is too narrow. First of all, if you want a toned and lean body and better health then you don't actually want to lose weight - what you really want is to lose body fat. Would you really be pleased to see the scales drop a couple of kilos if you found out this was partly body fat, but mostly muscle, tissue, water and bone mass? Probably not. If we simply eat less and exercise more, it can have this result. We need to be smart to avoid this. Even if we do just look at diet, calories aren't the end of the story. The kind of foods you eat absolutely matters - not just the macros, but also the quality and nutrient density of the foods, and any food intolerances you may have.

Don't just accept the 'eat less, exercise more' mantra. Your body deserves better.

But diet aside, there are many other aspects of your life that will have an impact on your ability to burn body fat beyond just calories in and calories out.

Last, the traditional idea of eat more, exercise less is just unrealistic. It's unrealistic because we don't have time to do hours of exercise week in, week out for the rest of our lives. We can't commit to a strict diet that has no room to move, because we will inevitably have to break it just to socialise and enjoy our life. On top of the practicalities, it is unrealistic to think that we should put our body under more stress, but at the same time give it less nutrients and rest.

We can do better.

There is so much more to health and fitness than just calories and exercise. If you learn how to manipulate the variables, then you can make it a lot easier and boost your results.

Here are just some examples of this that I've noticed in my own body Any sound familiar?

  • I've trained really hard, but felt fatter*.

  • I've cut back my exercise considerably, and looked better.

  • I've had a good night's sleep, and woken up noticeably leaner*.

  • I've been stressed and worried, and felt fatter.

  • I've put pressure on myself, and made no progress.

  • I've relaxed and eaten extra on holiday, and I was leaner when I came back.

  • I've looked better and felt more mentally alert when I've consumed more water (and vice versa).

  • I've accidentally skipped meals in a busy week at work, and I've felt fatter*.

* Note: I use the words fatter and leaner, rather than weight, because they are a lot more useful to describe how we assess our body composition in simple terms. Just a heads up - no connotations here, just neutral descriptors.

Take home message

Don't just accept the 'eat less, exercise more' mantra. Your body deserves better. And in the end, you will see better and more sustainable results if you step back and consider the bigger picture of your health and fitness.