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Why Out-Exercising Your Diet Isn’t the Answer

As I was sitting in a coffee shop last week working on some client plans, I overheard two women talking. One was telling the other all about her new detox diet and the juice cleanse she was doing.

The woman who was listening asked “So do you feel better? Aren’t you exercising a ton now, too?”

The woman who was talking about the juice cleanse said she was exercising more than ever to get rid of the “toxins” in her body and to lose weight from the past few months of “not sticking to her diet.”

She was proud to say she’s avoiding carbs. 

Meanwhile, I’m over here munching on my satisfying, drool-worthy oatmeal breakfast with banana.

Helllllo – we need carbs to survive.

carb breakfast

We can’t live without carbohydrates. They are our main source of energy and while avoiding carbs may result in rapid weight loss, you’re not doing your body any favors.

As dietitians, we overhear things like this all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to stories of people jumping on the fad diet bandwagons, trying things because they worked for their friends or because they were endorsed by a celebrity, yet have no scientific evidence behind them.

While it sometimes takes every ounce of me not to share why their idea of losing weight is bonkers and will kill their metabolism, I’ve found other outlets to express my feelings (i.e. this blog).

So, today we’re going to talk a little bit about exercise vs. diet for managing weight.

To lose weight and maintain that weight loss, you certainly want exercise to be involved. I 150% believe in a combined approach.

Plus, weight loss aside, exercise has a plethora of other health benefits. Exercise can help us maintain bone density, build muscle, improve our cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, set and achieve goals, manage stress, depression and anxiety, and socialize with others, among many other things.

I’m the biggest advocate in the world for exercise. Those long runs are also my me time.


However, if you’re going to compare eating a nutrient-poor diet with insane amounts of exercise vs. eating a nutrient-rich diet with far less exercise, the latter choice is the winner for well-being and maintenance on all levels.

The real winner, though, is probably somewhere in the middle.

Are you surprised?

summer salad_seasonal

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You can’t outrun a bad diet.”

It’s true – nearly 80% of weight loss results from what we put in our mouths, versus how much we exercise.

Yet despite that truth, people make time to drive to/from the gym, yet complain that they don’t have time to eat healthy.

If there was a shift in mindset that diet and nutrients (rather than exercise) are paramount, and exercise was a necessary complement, maybe our diet world wouldn’t be so jaded. 


We’re doing it all wrong

We live in a culture where we want things now, except that we forget that weight loss is WAY more than calories in and out. People think that if we exercise more and eat less, we are creating the ultimate environment for weight loss.

We may lose weight quickly, but it’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable. On the contrary, what we’re doing is creating a recipe for disaster.

Scientifically speaking, when we cut calories below the resting metabolic rate level we naturally need to survive (like to breathe, pump our heart, supply glucose to our brains), our body goes into starvation mode.

Starvation is a huge stressor on the body, right? We think we won’t get more food so we have to conserve what we have (body fat), and decrease functions that require more energy.

That’s why many women who are deficient in calories lose their period – the body can’t justify spending energy on that process when it doesn’t have enough calories coming in.

We’re going to decrease our metabolic rate, or in other words, burn fewer calories during the day by doing the same things we used to do.

We therefore can’t eat as much as we used to without gaining weight.  That’s no fun, right?


All diets eating plans has room for desserts and sweets, I’ll never argue against that or bat an eye. 

Rather than feeling the need to burn off all of these calories, put the emphasis on the front part of the equation.


If you have a craving, satisfy it – but that’s a story for a whole other post. Let’s keep it simple:

  • Exercise because you enjoy it, not to burn off the calories you ate
  • Focus on fiber-heavy foods, healthy fats, and lean proteins that will stabilize your appetite/cravings, provide you nutrients and keep you full.
  • Make your portion sizes smaller
  • Eat dessert when you want to eat dessert

And, please don’t do a juice “cleanse.” You’ll be missing out on so many key nutrients, PROTEIN, plus you’ve got your kidneys, colon and liver to do that work. 

Also, please note that in no way am I saying that exercise is futile for weight loss and maintenance. Far from it.  

However, eating far less than we need to survive and out-exercising that is not the answer. 

Have you ever overheard people talking about fad diets? What were your thoughts?

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  1. With your professional background, I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to witness all of that! Thank you so much for sharing, this “calories in, calories out” mentality is so pervasive- especially at the college where I’m at. Even though I know it’s kind of ridiculous, I still subscribe to it because quantifying everything is much simpler than just understanding my body cues at this point. It’s such a vicious cycle; especially as I train for a marathon, I appreciate the reminder!

    1. It can take some time to learn to listen to our body cues and trust them, but ultimately, that’s the way we can get out of the diet mentality and really learn to appreciate the nutrients we’re putting into our bodies.

  2. Woop Woop! So much love for this post. I’ve heard people say so many ridiculous things when it comes to diet and fitness, that I’m pretty sure nothing even phases me anymore. What bugs me though is that people are looking for quick fixes that might work in the short term, but will wreak havoc on your body in the long term and make it so much harder to lose weight and maintain an enjoyable lifestyle in the long run. Slow and steady wins the race 🙂

  3. Well said!!! I admit that when i started running YEARS ago as a college kid it was all about out running the food and of course sometimes i do tack on a mile post holiday eats, but luckily I’ve learned that if I don’t nourish my body it won’t agree to put in the miles!

  4. Love! I always laugh at my dad when he starts telling me XYZ is bad and that something else is good and he needs to work out more or whatever. I always ask him why and it ends with “I heard it on so and so and then I read it online an blah balh.” there’s so much misinformation, so thank for trying to combat that!

  5. Thank you so much for this Sarah. I’m really thankful that there are so many RD’s in the healthy living community that look at nutrition in such a balanced way. For so long, I struggled with the imbalance of trying to ‘outexercise’ my calories, and it was so miserable. I still struggle with it sometimes, and it takes the total joy out of exercising and eating. I really want to be more balanced and less obsessive, and posts like this are like another step towards that.

    1. You are so welcome, Emily! I’m glad you found it helpful. Many of us have had those ill-fated thoughts, you are not alone. But you’re so right when you say it takes the joy out of both eating and exercising. We need to let our bodies do their thang.

  6. I think everyone is on their own journey. My coworker is avoiding too many carbs right now and even if it’s not something I would ever do, it’s been helping her lose some weight and feel better. I doubt it is just due to avoiding carbs, but rather than think it’s stupid or tell her the real reasons, I’m just happy for her and glad she’s seeing results.

  7. I love this and couldn’t agree more. I often know people who cut out their food intake over exercising. You need fuel to drive a car and we need food to get us through the day. Eating the right foods are the most important. I hear fad diets and take them with a grain of salt because healthy living isn’t about a fad or a diet, it’s about a lifestyle. Thank you for sharing!!

  8. Ughhh, juice cleanses and avoiding carbs. NOOOO. haha. Carbs are so wonderful!

    I’m all for the combined approach as well. I love and adore food, so if I had it my way, it would indeed be possible to out-exercise my fooding habits, but…since life does not in fact work that way, I just eat in moderation. Great post!

  9. I hear things like this all the time. I’ve also had people tell this directly to my face knowing that I’m on the path to getting my RD. Its hard though, people don’t want to hear that what they are doing is wrong. They want to do their fad diet for a week and be fit as can be. I try to tell people that you do have to put in the work when losing weight healthily, but its more of a lifestyle change than anything else. Great article!

  10. AMEN to this post!! This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Well, one of them 😉 As someone who personally has tried to use exercise to overcome a bad diet, I can 100% agree with everything. Not to mention, a crappy diet really hampers any improvement in the gym! I feel like a beast in the gym when I am nutritionally satisfied – not depleted of carbs!

  11. I’m not in any way a qualified health professional, but I swear, the conversations I overhear in the gym locker room make my simultaneously LOL & want to cry. How these women can know all sorts of things about lifting weights & running, but have no idea that they need to eat vegetables & carbs is beyond me.

  12. Okay, we cannot just overlook that amazing looking dessert! Holy moly yes!
    Everything you say here runs true. I cringe when I hear convos like the one you overheard. It makes me really sad to know how much people miss out on because they think they have to deprive themselves!

  13. Fad diets and hearing people talking about juice cleanses really does just scare me. It surprises me each time to think that people really do believe in them still. When really they can be the opposite of healthy. So… I hope every one reads this for that reminder.
    We have such a stigma on exercise and I think give it far too much “credit.” I’ve learned from experience that diet really is far more powerful – even in the opposite side of things. When trying to gain weight its easy to think that as soon as you stop exercise you will gain weight so fast, but that isn’t even the case. Which proves that exercise is a bit less powerful than maybe we think it is.

    1. That’s a great point and I’m so glad you brought it up, Cora. It definitely applies to the weight gain side as well. I think we all just assume exercise is this miraculous quick fix, but we have to consider the other factors too.

  14. I totally agree!! I think part of the problem is its easier to convince yourself to go work out for an hour a day that to stick to eating well all the time. Also, people tend to take things to extremes and when they try to eat a perfect diet it gets exhausting and they give up! When I started trying to lose a few pounds after college I focused mostly on exercise, but once I started cleaning up my diet a bit too then I really felt better and lost the last bit of extra weight.

    1. I completely agree. People think working out can be the quick fix and that changing the diet is so overwhelming and unpleasurable – we just have to reframe that! 🙂

  15. This is such an awesome post that I want everyone to read! I’m studying nutrition at University at the moment and I swear the more I learn, the more I overhear people’s ridiculous diet conversations! It is very tempting to lean over and set them straight 😉