Move More, Eat Less for Weight Loss? Not so fast!!

dsc08472You have probably heard that if you want to lose weight, you simply need to move more and eat less.  What if I told you that this concept is outdated and potentially dangerous?

While recovering from an eating disorder, I felt like I had lost the owner’s manual to my body.  I was determined to understand what had happened to me, scrutinizing all that I was taught as a personal trainer.  I suspected that many of the mainstream ideas about health & fitness actually contributed to my downfall.

In my exhaustive search for the truth about how our bodies work and what we can do to support our health, I confirmed my suspicions.  The widely taught principal of moving more and eating less (calories in/calories out) is a completely false notion when it comes to healthy weight loss.  Eating less than what our bodies need, while increasing energy demands, can have a detrimental effect on our metabolism.

You might be thinking, I’ve lost weight by exercising more and eating less in the past, so that has to work… right?  In the short term, it might work.  We can do almost anything for a limited time and get temporary results.  But in my opinion, most people have one chance in their lifetime to lose weight in this way.  ONE CHANCE…after that, Mother Nature is going to put up a fight.  Maintaining this weight loss will require drastic, unsustainable measures, and the weight will come back on with a vengeance.  Any future attempts at weight loss will be more difficult, since the metabolism becomes slower every single time we practice the “move more, eat less” strategy.

When we restrict calories, the body perceives a threat and works hard to compensate.  This occurs through complex interactions between our brain and hormones.  If energy coming in is low, then the body makes sure that it expends less energy.  This metabolism slowdown happens by:  reducing the number of calories needed for the body’s daily processes, adjusting hunger and fullness cues, and breaking down muscle while storing fat.  This can still happen when exercise is a part of the equation; I witnessed it first-hand.  Have you ever noticed that you are literally working your rear-end off (in terms of exercise and diet), but not really losing your rear-end like you’d hoped?  In reality, the body might be packing on fat while losing muscle!

One of my favorite studies that illustrates the effects of restricting calories is one conducted at Columbia University Medical Center.  People weighing around 335 pounds were put on a starvation diet of about 1400 calories/day, and their weight dropped to approximately 220 pounds.  Researchers then compared the energy needs for this 220-pound group with the needs of a group that had NOT restricted calories and weighed 138 pounds.  They found that the individuals who weighed 220 pounds required significantly fewer calories than the 138-pound, non-starved group.  These individuals needed 1480 fewer calories per day than the group that weighed 82 pounds less than them!  How is this possible?  Generally, the more a person weighs, the more energy (calories) their body requires on a daily basis.  However, this study demonstrates that the metabolism can be radically altered, practically injured, by restrictive dieting.  (See the full Columbia study here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6694559)

Numerous studies support this finding, yet the mainstream health and fitness industry continues to recommend moving more and eating less for weight loss.

Beyond the results of eating less, what about exercising more?  Exercise obviously has numerous benefits for the body.  But when examining its effectiveness for weight loss, the research is surprising.  Today, our population is intentionally exercising more than ever, yet obesity rates are at their highest.  What gives?

First, increasing exercise naturally causes an increase in appetite.  If you run 3 miles, you might burn 300 calories.  (This number varies based on individual metabolic rates.)  Many people then consume more replacement calories than they burned off while exercising, due to increased energy demands on the body.  But what if you are extra careful about your food intake, even cutting calories?  Based on what we know about the body’s response to eating less, your metabolism will slow down and you won’t burn as many calories while exercising.  Eating less makes exercise less efficient.

Second, exercising more doesn’t automatically increase weight loss.  In a study from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, three groups of women exercised various durations (72, 136, or 194 minutes) for 6 months.  The results were not what you might expect.  Women who exercised 72 and 136 minutes lost 1.4 and 2.1 pounds, respectively.  But the women who exercised 194 minutes only lost 1.5 pounds.  The research concluded that these lengthy exercise sessions created stress, which caused the body to compensate, and resulted in less weight loss.  (See the full PBRC study here:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19223984)

At this point, you might feel discouraged, but hang on—there is a way!  Weight loss is all about the hormones:  if you do something to throw them out of whack, you won’t lose weight; if you balance your hormones, weight loss becomes much easier.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this topic next week, where I’ll explain how to lose weight (and keep it off) in a healthy way!

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