As a dietitian, there are a few questions that I get asked a lot. One of them is the age-old question, “diet or exercise?”. If you’ve been around for awhile, you know that my answers are rarely quick and easy. Just like when people ask me if a food is healthy, the answer is more complicated than people think.
While I understand where their question is coming from, I can’t help but think this is the wrong question. In fact, my response to their question is often a question or two in return – why do you want to lose weight? And how important is your health in the desire to lose weight?
These questions might seem a little snarky or unfair. But they get to the heart of what’s going on when people ask about diet vs exercise. Over the years, I have heard people tell me they want to “be healthier” and “lose weight”. But the longer we work together, the more it becomes clear that they really want “a smaller pants size” more than they want to be healthy.
I get it. I’m not here to judge. After all, that’s the vision of beauty and health our culture has set. I have also been there. This is a “join me on the journey to something better” kind of thing. My friend Melissa wrote a little about diet culture on LinkedIn in response to Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop. So when you get stuck thinking about the size of your pants instead of the health of your body, I want to push you to dig deeper and understand what’s behind those desires.
I won’t encourage you to focus on the scale. In fact, I usually encourage my clients to have a variety of goals that have nothing to do with weight. My friend, you are so much more than what you weigh. Your value cannot be defined by a number. The scale doesn’t deserve the power we give it.
It’s also a lot harder to control or manage your weight than you might think. Sure, you probably have struggled with weight loss in the past, so you are aware that it’s not easy. But you might think it’s due to a failure on your part to do the right thing, since weight loss should be simple. You’ve heard your whole life that it’s calories in and calories out. But it’s actually NOT that simple. Our bodies are complicated. Genetics are a strong predictor of your weight. There are so many things that impact this equation.
Now here’s another piece of the puzzle: your weight may not be a good indicator of your health. The research shows us that our HABITS are much more important than our BMI when looking at health risks. Just like there are people in small bodies who have high cholesterol or poor health indicators, there are people in larger bodies who don’t have health risks. Forming healthy habits is more important to your health than tracking calories in and calories out.
So quit dieting. Stop trying to lose weight. I mean it. Focus on healthy habits. On consistently treating your body kindly. The “diet or exercise” question will actually fall away.
Take a minute or two to think back on your experience with trying to lose weight in the past. I’m going to guess that there are foods you truly enjoy that you considered off-limits because the diet labeled them as such, or you were afraid they would trigger you to overeat or fall off the diet. From everything I’ve seen in research and in my time counseling clients, It was the restriction itself that set you up to overeat.
When you’re dieting or telling yourself you’re not allowed to eat certain foods, you restrict foods that you enjoy, making them all that more appealing to eat. There is something alluring about the taboo. Eventually the level of deprivation rises to a point where you cannot bear it any more. This results in a binge, where you eat whatever you want, however much you want, often without even thinking about how you will feel afterward. This usually leads to intense negative emotions - guilt and shame, embarrassment, self-loathing or disappointment, to name a few. The only way to alleviate the feelings is to jump back on a diet and pursue weight loss. Enter a lifetime of dieting and binging that harms your body and usually results in weight gain.
Do you know people who talk about losing the same 15 pounds over and over again? Or maybe that’s you. While there are a long list of reasons I don’t want that for you – and that it is harmful for you body, here is just one way to think about it.
When the number on the scale is going down, what is really going on? Every time you lose weight, you lose some percentage of fat and lean body weight (i.e., muscle). The goal always being to push the ratio in favor of fat loss, since most people are looking to lose fat cells, not just mass. And when you lose muscle during weight loss, you also lose some of your metabolism. You might have heard the term “metabolically active” to talk about muscle, because muscle burns calories even at rest. Fat doesn’t do you the same favor.
This is why many people who get caught in the cycle of yo-yo dieting usually gain weight. In the process of losing weight (muscle and fat) and then regaining weight (just fat), they continue to change their body composition to be more and more fat, and less and less muscle. Making it harder to lose weight next time. Chronic dieting and weight loss attempts are a predictor of weight gain over the long haul.
Now let’s talk exercise. The premise of the original question in this post (diet or exercise?) means that you’re probably used to hearing exercise framed as the way to lose weight, maintain your weight or prevent weight gain.
Too often, we see exercise as a means to justify eating in the future, or as penance for what we already ate. But what if that ISN’T what exercise is all about? What if it is primarily about wellness, not for fitting into your jeans from high school? The role of exercise in life is not to control your weight.
The best part? You don’t have to put in a certain amount of work before it counts. Whether you are a size 2 or 22, aged 5 or 95, are a natural athlete or a regular klutz, love the gym or hate it, everyone can enjoy the health benefits that come from physical activity.
Exercise has a variety of health benefits that go beyond just burning calories. Improved heart health, muscle tone, energy, sleep and emotional health are just a few.
When we only see exercise as a means to justify or atone for our eating behaviors, we are actually likely to eat more than we would otherwise. The reality is that exercise doesn’t usually burn as many calories as you think it does, and so when you are doing the mental gymnastics of calculating how much you’re allowed to eat after a spin class, you usually give yourself too much credit. And when you think of specific foods in terms of how many minutes on the treadmill, you are forgetting the food is fuel, and you’re stealing the joy from what you ate.
Exercise as only a means to maintain weight puts exercise in the same category as diets - you’re either on or off the plan, instead of being a non-negotiable part of life that provides benefits all the time.
So yes, food and movement are two sides of the same coin. They are inextricably linked together. Just not for the purpose of controlling your weight, but as components of a healthy and joyful life. What would it look like for you to stop pursuing weight loss as your goal? What would you lose? What would you gain?