There has been a lot of buzz lately about how diet is more important than exercise for reducing body fat. After all, people are repeatedly disappointed when they start hitting the gym in an effort to lose fat. But do these poor results come from exercise “not working” or is something else going on here?
A review from scientists at the University of New South Wales in Australia attempts to answer that question by reviewing the many factors that can impede the weight loss response to exercise. This article will give you a rundown of the factors with tips for overcoming these pitfalls.
Factor #1: Eating More As A Reward.
The primary reason that there’s a push to favor diet over exercise is a little known phenomenon called “compensation.” Research consistently shows that unless you have a conscious plan for preventing it, you will compensate for any calories burned during exercise by eating more.
It’s easy to rationalize a snack as a reward for a hard work out. Plus, most people way overestimate how many calories they’ve burned and underestimate those they eat, making fat gain during an exercise program very common.
Solution: Outwitting compensation takes a two-pronged approach:
First, be mindful of portions and how much you’re eating so that you don’t “accidentally” eat more than needed or intended. Second, do an honest food journal so that you can identify pitfalls to your eating. Are you having a second helping at dinner, an extra glass of wine, or an extra serving of nuts on training days?
Factor #2: Decreasing Non-Exercise Physical Activity.
Another aspect of the compensation effect mentioned in #1 is that people perform less spontaneous physical activity when they start to exercise. Once people reach a certain threshold of exercise, they reduce their non-exercise activity.
For example, when older women started a 6-day-a-week exercise program, they reduced non-exercise activity by 150 calories daily because they were more sedentary. The women reported that they found themselves driving places they used to walk, taking the elevator when they used to take the stairs, and just being lazier due to their large exercise load.
In contrast, a more manageable exercise dose of 4 days a week resulted in the women being more active. This group increased their non-exercise activity by burning an additional 200 calories a day.
Solution: Consciously focus on being as active as possible in daily life to boost the amount of leisure-time calories you burn. Avoid sitting for long periods and consider getting rid of your TV—studies show TV watching is a major killer of non-exercise energy expenditure.
Factor #3: Eating High-Carb Foods During & After Exercise.
A common belief is that we need to eat carbs to provide energy for workouts. There’s no end of misguided articles recommending you eat simple carbs like bagels, oatmeal, bread, or sports drinks to give you energy. But all of these high-carb snacks can easily pack 200 calories, which will quickly negate the energy deficit you achieve from the first 20 minutes of an intense workout.
If that’s not bad enough, one of the best things about exercise is that it increases your body’s ability to burn fat making you more metabolically flexible. But by eating high-carb foods, the body burns carbs and fat burning is suppressed. Your fat burning machinery never gets up and running.
Solution: Avoid refined and processed high-carb foods entirely. Save higher carb whole foods for days when you do intense workouts and have your carbs post-workout or at dinner.
Factor #4: Deadline Dieting & Weight Cycling.
A lot of people make the mistake of starting a low-calorie diet out of desperation. They literally starve themselves for a set period of time and lose a few pounds, but then they go back to their old way of eating and gain it all back.
The long-term effects of diet-only interventions are very poor. The majority of individuals who lose weight on a low calorie diet gain back the weight within 5 years—and most of them actually end up fatter. This is because severe dieting without exercise results in the loss of both fat and muscle. When subjects put the weight back on upon resumption of their normal diet, the lean muscle lost is replaced by fat. They have a worse body composition than when they started and a higher incidence of heart disease.
Solution: First, you have to figure out a way of eating that allows you to reduce overall calorie intake but avoid hunger. One way of doing this is to plan meals around whole protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. Second, combining exercise with diet will allow you to preserve muscle mass so that you sustain your metabolic rate.
Factor #5: Lack Of Sleep.
Correlational studies consistently identify a link between lack of sleep and greater body fat percentage. Scientists believe that sleep deprivation affects body composition by altering the balance of hormones that influence hunger.
For example, in one study, subjects who slept only 5 hours a night, possessed 15 percent more ghrelin (the hormone that triggers hunger) and 15 percent less leptin (the hormone that suppresses hunger) compared to those who slept 8 hours a night.
The result of this hormone dysregulation is that people literally eat more (as much as 300 calories a day) when they’re tired and they make poorer food choices.
Solution: Good sleep habits are your first line of defense: Have a set bedtime, turn off electronics in the hour before bed, and avoid stimulants later in the day. You also need a plan for days when you can’t get all the rest you need. Be mindful of food portions and monitor your eating habits, making sure to choose high-quality protein and other nutrient-rich foods.
Factor #6: Chronic Stress.
Chronic stress has a powerful effect on your ability to lose fat loss because it can completely alter your entire hormonal cascade. Anytime you experience stress, your body releases cortisol, which activates a fat-storing enzyme called lipoprotein lipase.
In addition, high cortisol levels trigger food intake of high-carb foods (carbs provide the raw materials to counteract stress and bring cortisol down). When high insulin levels accompany high cortisol, your body enters fat storing mode.
Stress also negatively affects the release of performance hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone—both of which are involved in fat burning and a higher metabolic rate. For instance, growth hormone counteracts the actions of cortisol by inhibiting activity of LPL—that enzyme mentioned in #5 that triggers fat storage.
Solution: There’s no end of advice out there for reducing stress, but a few underemphasized but highly effective strategies include psychological therapy, meditation, and exercise or sports participation (martial arts has been found to be particularly effective).
Factor #7: Hormone Imbalances Linked With Depression or Overtraining.
Both overtraining and depression have one thing in common—they lead the body to continuously pump out cortisol. When the body experiences this type of stress for too long, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that regulates hormones gets out of whack.
The feedback loop designed to control cortisol secretion becomes insensitive, resulting in the adrenal glands secreting more and more cortisol even though the body is already saturated with it. Fat loss becomes nearly impossible in such a negative hormonal environment because the body is constantly in fat-storing, muscle-degrading mode.
Solution: The goal is to reset the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. How you do this will be related to what caused it. For example, if depression or stress is causing HPA dysfunction, strength training has been shown to significantly improve hormone balance and HPA function. However, if overtraining is the cause, rest and high-quality nutrition is necessary to counteract inflammation and let cortisol levels return to normal.
Factor #8: Fasted Exercise.
A common practice is to perform cardio on an empty stomach because people believe it improves fat burning. Research doesn’t support this practice.
A recent study found that when trainees ate breakfast and then did a workout, fat burning and energy expenditure were higher in the 24-hour recovery period than when they exercised fasted.
Solution: Eat a low-carb, high-protein meal in the few hours before exercise.
Factor #9: Having An Inherited Condition—Thrifty Genotype.
There are a number of factors that we have no control over that influence our ability to lose body fat. For example, being a low birth weight baby has been found to be associated with a “thrifty” genotype. These unfortunate people possess genes that are biased to storing fat as opposed to burning it.
Poor fetal nutrition, being formula fed as a baby, or having a mother who is older when she gives birth have all been found to correlate with a genotype that is biased towards obesity. Also, research shows that children who become obese have a greater number of fat cells, which may predispose them towards fat gain compared to individuals who become obese as adults.
Solution: Combining the best form of exercise (strength training and sprints) with a nutrition plan that allows you to eat for your genes will significantly increase likelihood of success. For instance, some people will be very carb tolerant and able to lose fat on a higher carb diet, whereas others will have poor insulin sensitivity and benefit from higher protein, higher fat diets.
Factor #10: Not Training Correctly.
The average fat loss observed in exercise interventions lasting 15 weeks to 1 year is a measly 1.5 kg. Yet, the poor outcome is due to a wide variation in fat loss between what are known as “responders” and “non-responders.”
For example, in one trial, the top four male responders lost about 11 kg each, whereas the bottom four lost less than 2 kg. Although there could be numerous reasons for lack of response (including many of the factors listed above), it’s important not to ignore the obvious.
Some people don’t complete the exercise intervention correctly. Non-responders are expected to have exercised at too low an intensity or to have completed fewer exercise sessions. Simply, they skip exercises, cut out early, or choose weights that are too light to have much metabolic effect.
Solution: Consistency is a top priority when training for fat loss. Make it happen by getting a workout program that gets harder week-by-week and follow it to the letter, making sure you give full effort 99 percent of the time.