It’s on like Donkey Kong. When it comes to losing weight, which is more important to your results – nutrition or exercise?
As a qualified personal trainer, I’d love to sell you on the promise that if you work out using my program 5 x a week, you’ll be able to inhale donuts all day long and still rock a six pack.
But I can’t do that, because it’s sadly not the truth.
You may have heard maxims like:
“Weight loss is 80% nutrition, 20% exercise”;
“You can’t outrun a bad diet”; and
“Abs are made in the kitchen.”
If you’ve ever justified an extra slice of pizza by saying, “I’ll burn it off later”, this one’s for you.
First, let’s take a look at how weight loss works
Even though I don’t count calories (and don’t recommend it), the science is crystal clear.
Your weight is determined by the number of calories (energy) you eat versus the number of calories you burn through daily activity.
Your energy input minus your energy output = whether your weight rises, falls, or stays the same.
If you burn the same amount of calories as you eat, your weight will stay the same.
If you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight.
If you eat less calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight.
Therefore, the goal when it comes to losing weight is to create a calorie deficit through nutrition and exercise i.e.: so that you can burn more calories than you eat on a daily basis.
How much of a caloric deficit, you ask?
To lose 1 lb (0.5 kg) of fat per week, you need to create a caloric deficit of between 500 to 1,000 calories per day, or 3,500 to 7,000 calories per week.
That means that you need to eat 500 to 1,000 calories less than you body burns in a day in order to lose 0.5 kg.
It’s kind of a lot, when you think about it.
So why won’t exercise alone put me in a caloric deficit?
Well – it might, provided you were a pro athlete who trained for six hours a day.
But the reality is that most of us only burn between 5%-15% of our daily calories through exercise.
In fact, it takes a LOT of exercise to burn rather a small amount of food. Like, smaller than you think.
Now, none of this to say you can't enjoy highly caloric dense foods as part of a balanced diet, or that working out doesn't have fat burning benefits - but just that exercise by itself is an inefficient way to create an energy deficit.
Eat the pizza because you want to eat the pizza, not just because you're going for a run later and you'll "burn it off" anyway.
Exercise will help you create a caloric deficit and live a healthier, fitter lifestyle in conjunction with a nutritionally balanced diet, it's just not going to do all the heavy lifting and erase an unbalanced diet.
Unless you’re willing to put in 3 x one hour workouts every day, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to maintain a caloric deficit through exercise alone.
Also, we have a tendency to underestimate what we eat, and a tendency to overestimate just how active we are – how hard we worked, and how many calories we would have consumed, even with the help of a FitBit.
(Another reason I don’t count calories ... we just really need to talk about this in more detail. Note to self.)
Now, this is not to say that exercise won’t help at all – far from it.
Exercise, especially moderate to high intensity exercise, definitely helps with fat burning.
When you build muscle through resistance training, that muscle starts to burn calories just sitting there doing nothing, increasing the amount of daily calories you need to stay where you are.
(This happens over a sustained period of time with regular strength training, not, like, overnight.)
Secondly, even though staying in a caloric deficit helps with weight loss, you don’t want to drop your calories too low or stop eating. You’ll fuck with your hormones, disrupt your metabolism, lower your immune system and cause a whole bunch of other health problems that are just as bad for you as chronic overeating.
Cardio helps with this, because it burns a relatively high number of calories, helping you to stay in a caloric deficit without undereating. It also has lots of other fat burning benefits.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) has even been shown to make your body burn calories at a higher rate for up to 48 hours after your training session.
And overarching all of these reasons, exercise is great and important for your body for reasons that are far more important than a number on the scale. For example, regular exercise:
Improves your heart health
Reduces your risk of chronic disease
Boosts your immune system
Makes you more likely to choose healthier food choices
Makes you happier
Makes you stronger
Improves self disciplined
Strengthens your bones and joints
Makes you more flexible
Gives you more energy
Improves the quality of your sleep
Slows the aging process
Increases your confidence
Similarly, nutrition is important for more than just weight loss. If you ate garbage all the time, even if your workouts created a caloric deficit, you would:
Feel tired, lethargic and drained
Have a lowered immune system
Have an increased risk of developing chronic preventable illness like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers
Have lots of digestive issues
Cause hormonal and nutritional imbalances in your body
Remember, maintaining a healthy weight range is just ONE piece of the puzzle when it comes to overall health. Nutrition doesn't just help us lose weight - it's vital for good health and a long life.
So, it needs to be a balance between nutrition and exercise?
We can’t just cut our calories to 1,000 calories a day forever, because that would stuff up our health, and we can’t just work out for 5 hours every day, so there needs to be a balance.
Since most of us only spend up to a 24th or less of our day in the gym, one of the most important factors in our results is what we’re doing for the other 23 hours. This is where nutrition comes in.
What goes into your mouth, ultimately, will play a bigger role not just in weight loss/gain, but also in your overall health, simply because most of us spend more time eating than we do exercising.
And remember – when it comes to nutrition, it’s not just about weight loss or calories.
1,500 calories’ worth of McDonalds operates very differently in our bodies than 1,500 calories that mostly come from nutritious, healthy foods.
If most of what we’re eating comes from nutritious food:
We reduce our risk of chronic preventable disease, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers
We give our bodies the fuel they need to get through our workouts properly, recover and build muscle
We nourish our bodies with nutrients that are important for the proper function of all the processes and systems our body uses to survive and thrive
We feel full and satisfied – nutrient dense foods, like vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and low fat dairy are often lower in calories than their less nutritious counterparts, so we can eat more of them and fill our bellies
We don’t feel bloated from the excess salt and other ingredients that can cause fluid retention or upset tummies
So how do I make sure I’m getting the right nutrition?
I’m not a nutritionist, but I can share some tips that have really worked for me.
Follow government nutritional guidelines, which have been prepared by experts in the field and are suitable for most people who don’t have specific/special nutritional needs. I follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines for adults.
Eat more fruit and veggies: Like, you need to eat more of them than you think. Veggies are super low in calories but provide a tonne of bulk, so you can eat until your tummy is super full and still not consume a lot of calories.
Make healthier swaps: Make low calorie substitutions for high calorie counterparts where you feel comfortable e.g. low fat dairy instead of full fat, multigrain bread instead of white bread, air popped popcorn instead of oil/butter popped popcorn etc.
Eat less packaged foods: We’re talking soda, muesli bars, candy, chips, biscuits, cookies etc. They add little to your diet nutritionally but they’re super calorie dense.
Focus on whole foods: Eat foods that are as close to their natural source as possible e.g. baked potatoes instead of French fries, grilled fish fillet instead of fish fingers.
Cook more meals at home: Restaurants and takeaway vendors don’t cook for health – they cook for flavour so your tastebuds will just explode and you’ll keep coming back for more. Often this means adding a tonne of fat, sugar, and salt. When you cook at home, you can watch the amount of oil that goes into the pan, add more veggies, go easy on the salt, and choose lean, high quality protein.
Don't cut out food groups or restrict food too heavily: Doing so just makes you hangry, can lead to nutritional imbalances and provokes overeating. Talk to a dietitian or your doctor if you're worried about allergies, food intolerances, or have special nutritional needs.
And finally, all this to say: don’t panic about calorie deficits and workouts and all that stuff. Your goals can still be important to you AND it’s not the end of the world if you eat way more than you planned to.
One or two indulgences over the course of your whole journey impacts your results as much as if you did just one or two workouts, or ate one or two healthy meals, over the course of your journey.
Speaking from experience, the WORST thing you can do is start freaking out about calories and clean eating and "good vs bad" foods. It messes with your head!
These days, as you'll likely see from my previous daily logs, I observe the 80/20 guidelines: 80% of the time I eat nutritiously, 20% of the time I just enjoy my life guilt free. We eat for all kinds of reasons, and health is just one of them.
Life is short and it’s here to be lived, I flatly refuse to feel guilty about a big stack of Canadian pancakes when there’s only a finite amount of times in my life I’ll ever get to enjoy them.
Now, onto the Captain's Log for yesterday! P.S. if you're just joining us, I'm on a 90 day journey to transform my health and fitness and I'm bringing you with me!
You can catch up on Days 1 through 26 by scrolling to the "Related Articles" section at the bottom of this post. And to stay up to date with how the journey's going (and get an amazing free bundle of resources to get you started on your fitness journey), click the banner below to get started. Let's do this together!
Breakfast was delicious today: two Weet Bix with a peach, 1/3 cup skim milk and just the TEENIEST drizzle of honey.
I was excited to add a peach to brekky this morning because ... is it just me, or is there just no stone fruit around in Australia at the moment?
It makes me sad because fruit is one of my favourite things about summer: fresh mangoes and stone fruit and dragonfruit. I’ve seen none of it around this year, so when I spotted a bag of peaches at Coles I pounced on it.
Sidenote: last night, Greg decided we should meal prep some healthy lunches for the next day and I’m so glad he did, because I got to try the Tik Tok wrap hack, and it was astonishingly as amazing as promised.
I added spinach, tomato, cucumber, onion, light cream cheese, fresh leg ham to a multigrain wrap and it was SOOOO good. I added just a bit of leftover salad from last night on the side and it capped the meal off nicely.
In other news, my fellow Aussies, we must discuss: Have you tried the Broccoslaw at Coles? (That’s what this is.)
Is it not divine? Could you not just eat truckloads of it?
It’s become a fast favourite in our household, I must say.
Dinner tonight was courtesy of Marley Spoon. I’ve used Marley Spoon, which is a meal delivery kit, in the past.
I actually had booked it quite some time ago and completely forgot what was in the order, so the unboxing was a bit like Christmas morning.
This night we had a “low carb lemon chicken bowl”, which I assume is a less-scary way of saying it was a salad, as it goes.
It was very salad-y.
And goodness me! Usually these recipes are quick and easy to prepare, but the instructions basically said “Get out every cooking utensil, pot and pan in your kitchen, because you’ll need all of it.”
So yeah, not fun if you’re like me and you don’t have a dishwasher and doing dishes is like the worst torture in the world. Seriously, if anyone has plans to torture me (I hope you don’t), just lock me in a kitchen with a huge pile of dishes and I’ll soon crack under the pressure.
All said and done, it was delicious, the husband was fed and very well satisfied, and I ended up with a leftover portion for lunch the next day.
P.S. Just because the recipe says it’s for two people, you don’t have to eat the whole portion. They can be giant!
Dessert tonight was a delicious Chobani Fit passionfruit yoghurt, which tasted exquisitely sinful.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t win the activewear. Pooh. Ah, well. There’s always tomorrow night!
Did you know that Cosmopolitan magazine used to do workout videos?
Because it did, and they were kind of amazing.
This one dates back to 1980, about 4 years before I was born, and it was short but fun and it sure got the job done.
Energy level: Moderate
Intensity: Low to medium
Impact: Says it’s low, but I’d say the upper end of low to medium
Duration: 30 minutes
Okay, my glam babies, that wraps us up for today’s log. Let’s huddle in for the motivation message..
“And when I ask you to name all the things you love, how long would it take for you to name yourself?”
You are the most important person in your life. Make yourself a priority, instead of an afterthought.
Do things for YOU. Your needs and desires MATTER. The things that call to you matter. The things your soul needs matter.
When you love you, the world lights up. And the best part is?
You don’t need anyone, or anything else. Just yourself, an open mind, and an open heart.
Until tomorrow, keep shining bright.
- Xo, Rhi