Understanding Weight Loss

Find Balance with Diet and Exercise.

Photos by L.G. Patterson

Have you ever heard the saying, “You can’t outrun a bad diet?” What about the idea that if you want to lose a pound of fat each week you simply need to eat 500 fewer calories each day? Here’s one of my favorites: if you want to lose weight, don’t do any resistance training. Lifting weights will make you gain weight and bulk up, right?

The problem with so much of the weight loss advice that we hear is that it is full of misinformation and half-truths. It can be overwhelming to sift through pages and pages of Google results. Two different fitness magazines might give completely different opinions on the newest weight loss trend.

Thankfully, there are a number of researchers and health/fitness professionals who are trying to find the answers to the most confusing weight loss questions. One of the biggest questions being asked is how much diet and exercise each contribute to weight loss. We’ve all heard the ads for the “miracle workout” that will melt fat without you ever having to diet again. And what about that friend who took up running to lose weight but never saw the scale move?

The truth is, neither dieting nor exercise are as effective on their own. Research has shown that exercise alone isn’t very good at helping us lose weight. Dieting alone, while initially great for losing weight, can result in a plateau in the first few months.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the best approach for losing weight, and keeping it off, is one that combines diet and exercise. A common suggestion is that about 75-80% of weight loss comes from the changes we make to our diet. So clearly, there must be one diet that’s better than the rest, right?

WRONG! One of the most pervasive diet myths is that there is one way to eat for weight loss. The key is to find a way of eating that helps to decrease your portion sizes, eat fewer calories and ultimately works in the long term.

While decreasing calories is important, it is recommended that you also try to maintain variety in your diet. Eating a variety of foods will help to ensure that you’re not creating a harmful nutrient deficiency. With summer upon us, it’s a great time to be eating seasonal fruits and vegetables. These are rich in nutrients, but low in calories. Fresh produce also can be more satisfying because it’s more flavorful and the high fiber is filling.

At the end of the day, however, the right diet for you is the one that helps you to consistently consume fewer calories than what your body needs.

For a long time, conventional wisdom was that you could lose a pound of fat each week by consuming 3,500 fewer calories each week. That would be the equivalent of eating 500 fewer calories each day. Recent research has demonstrated that this equation is an oversimplification of energy balance. It is likely that this approach will create an initial weight loss, but over time that weight loss will slow and eventually stall. Part of the slowdown is due to metabolism slowing as weight comes off. While it is true that exercise isn’t a great weight loss tool by itself, it can be a big help in maintaining or even raising your metabolism while dieting.

Interestingly, the type of exercise that is best for supporting your metabolism is the exact thing that so many worry will cause weight gain. Strength training has received an unfair reputation for causing people to bulk up. The reality is the average exerciser will never look like a body builder. It takes far more time in the gym than many of us are willing, or able, to spend. So while it may be tempting to spend hours on
the treadmill, you’re actually better off strengthening muscles, bones and metabolism through resistance training.

Cardio is helpful too, but more for health and stamina than as a weight loss tool. Think of it this way: that doughnut that’s been tempting you will take about 2 miles to run off. Instead of using exercise as punishment for how you’ve eaten, get outside and enjoy the sunshine. Take a bike ride because you enjoy it, not because you’re feeling guilty.

And remember, weight loss is all about moderation and balance. Be kind to yourself and know that the most successful weight loss journeys take time and consistent effort.

Mason Stevens is owner and exercise physiologist at MET-Fitness in Columbia. He has his bachelor’s in nutrition and fitness, and has more than 10 years of experience in sports conditioning, coaching and fitness.

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