Why You Can’t Out-Exercise a Bad Diet

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Maybe you’ve heard the saying that losing weight is 80 percent diet and 20 percent working out. That’s a pretty fair ratio, but why does it work that way? Simply put, calories in/calories out is a very remedial way of looking at how fitness works. You can’t eat whatever you want, whether in terms of calories or quality of the food, and expect to undo everything at the gym. Your body is a holistic machine, and it works together. You might be able to out-exercise a bad diet in the short term, such as severely restricting calories and only consuming “junk food” to make up your low-calorie diet, but that’s simply not sustainable. Eventually, your body will become too weak and tired to maintain any kind of fitness regimen. You won’t be able to put on muscle mass, and your body will begin to break down whether it’s from lack of bone mineral density caused by poor nutrition or a series of injuries in which your body is telling you to stop.

The most common idea people have is to eat what they’d like, then work out harder to “make up for it.” This is an early warning sign of bulimia. Most people think of bulimia as purging what’s perceived as excess calories, but that’s just one form. Bulimia is actually any extreme means of getting rid of what the person thinks of as “extra calories.” Spending three hours on the treadmill after a person binges is a relatively common type of bulimia.

Sugar Shack

Sugar is arguably the most highly addictive drug that we have. Everybody needs their fix. However, diets high in sugar wreak havoc on your body because it makes your blood sugar levels go haywire. Refined sugars, whether candy or white bread, instantly spikes your blood sugar levels and makes your brain want more. There is zero nutritional value to sugar. The only time sugar for energy is even close to a good idea is during a truly strenuous, extended athletic performance such as running a marathon. You often see gummy bears and other “quick fixes” at the aid stations. Most people aren’t running marathons on a regular basis, and are instead indulging in refined sugars on a daily basis.

A better approach is helping your body work as a single unit for your fitness goals. If your goal is to reduce fat, you likely need to reduce your calories. The calories you are consuming should be high-quality and filling. Think proteins such as peas or fish as well as complex carbohydrates like oats. These will make you feel satiated and ensure that your blood sugars remain steady. They also fuel you for your athletic endeavors.

If you’re focusing on an hour of cardio, you need energy in order to give it your best. If you’re focusing on building muscle mass, protein is even more important. Your muscles can’t repair themselves if you don’t “feed” them, and all they eat is protein. Bodybuilders often recommend consuming a minimum of 20 grams of protein immediately after a lifting session. Right away, your torn muscles want to start repairing themselves and getting stronger. If you don’t have a diet high in protein, your lifting sessions are virtually moot.

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Most People aren’t That Great at Math

We have a tendency to underestimate the amount of calorie we consume and overestimate how many calories we burn. This is partly because it’s human nature, but also because outside influences are often misleading. For instance, many packaged snacks break down the “serving size” into tiny units. If we have a plate put before us, it’s hard to gauge what a proper serving size is (especially in America). Most people don’t track their daily caloric intake, and that can be a healthy approach. Doing so can lead to unhealthy eating habits and even orthorexia, an obsession with “healthy eating.”

The machines that track calories burned are notoriously over-emphasized. They are close to useless, even if you plug in all of your correct data. If you really want to track calories burned, you’ll need to wear a heart rate monitor and make sure all of your statistics are spot-on. Many people get discouraged when they try this because the calories they’re burning are so much lower than the machines tell them. However, that’s the reality. You’re probably not really burning 500 calories in 30 minutes on that elliptical while watching the television bolted to the front of it.

Our ability to deceive ourselves gets in the way of our fitness goals. It’s one of the reasons we “plateau,” although another very real reason is that our body has natural stopping points. However, when it comes down to it, many people seem to “forget” about that beer they had the other night or that they got the large-sized full-fat latte instead of the skinny version.

If you really want to manipulate your fat and muscle, it starts with diet. With a healthy diet, you can achieve a healthy weight without exercise—though that’s not encouraged. You need cardio for heart health and strength training to counteract sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) and bone-density loss. The trick is finding a solid fitness regimen that’s always changing, challenging, and enjoyable. Complement it with a diet that gives you the energy you need to stick to the program of your choice. Most importantly, bear in mind that there will be slips along the way. You won’t always eat “perfectly healthy” or make it to the gym every day that you planned to go, and that’s okay. Part of the secret to a healthy life is flexibility. Still, you can get creative. Challenge yourself to check out the local farmer’s market when you’re on vacation instead of heading straight to that calorie-bomb dinner you saw posted by a restaurant on Instagram. Every meal and every workout is an opportunity to make better choices. How can you make a better choice with your next meal?