I’ve been reading a lot of criticism of the theory that eating less and moving more can bring about weight loss. The argument is that it simply doesn’t work for a lot of people. People swear they are following the principles: trimming calories, exercising their hearts out – but nothing changes. In my opinion, calories in/calories out does work…but there are reasons why, in practice, it doesn’t.

1)     You do not keep a food diary. You think you are eating less, but in reality you aren’t. Did you forget about the crusts of your kids’ pb & j or the sample at Starbucks? Not to mention the white chocolate yum yum drink you had, or the glass of wine and the “cup” of fro yo?

2)     You eat “healthy.” Healthy food has calories, sometimes lots of them. Your lunchtime salad with lettuce, romaine, beans, chicken breast, avocado, low-fat cheese and olive oil can top out over 700 calories – or more. You snack on nuts, a heart-healthy option, for up to 200 calories for a 1/4 cup. When was the last time you actually pulled out a measuring cup and made sure it was just a 1/4 cup? I don’t know about you, but ¼ cup (about 22 almonds or 16 cashews) isn’t very satisfying…I bet you snuck a few more.

3)     Restaurants. If you eat out, even once a week, these wreak havoc on your diet. Sure, you can try to eat healthy but the fact is – fat and calories make food taste better, and restaurants do not care about your weight. Restaurants want you to come back. I’ve worked in restaurants…butter, oil and cream makes things taste good. In fact, I was downgraded on my “final” in culinary school because I did not oil my chicken breast before grilling it. No matter how hard you try, it is challenging…maybe even impossible…to eat at a restaurant regularly and lose weight. I very rarely eat out. When I do eat out regularly, like when I am out of town, I always gain weight – no matter how hard I try to order the “right” things.

4)     You believe food labels. The FDA says food labels must be accurate within a 5-calorie window, but they haven’t conducted regular sampling and testing to verify accuracy since the 1990’s according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Then, I hate to harp on them BUT, restaurant labeling – how likely is it that every person in the kitchen measures and adds the EXACT same amount of any particular ingredient EVERY time? Not very, which means – your calorie counting and weight loss goes awry.

5)     Are you perfect when it comes to counting calories? Yes, you say. Absolutely! Have you ever believed a food label? Do you weigh every morsel that goes in your mouth? Do you pay attention that it was a rounded or concaved tablespoon? If so, well, no offense…but I’m not sure I want to hang out with you – it doesn’t sound very fun. The average person underestimates what they eat by about 25 percent, maybe more.

Okay, I know by now you do not want to read any further because this is extremely depressing, but I have more.

6)     Do you believe the calorie estimators on your treadmill or elliptical, or even on official “charts”? They can be off by as much as 25 to 30 percent Dr. Chris Cooper, director of the UCLA exercise physiology research laboratory, told the L.A. Times in 2010. This means if you think you burn 300 calories in 30 minutes, you actually only burned 210 to 225 calories. Just recently, I changed heart rate monitors and one had me burning 100 to 200 calories more per workout than the other – which one do I believe? Which one do I want to believe? Calorie-burning charts are even worse. Although I advocate Livestrong’s The Daily Plate as a food diary, take their “fitness” section with a little discretion – even my generous heart-rate monitor did not meet their over-estimated numbers.

7)     You work out hard, so you reward yourself with eating, well, a lot. Workout support foods contain significant calories. Have a 20 oz. Gatorade, an energy bar, an energy gel and a post workout smoothie and, oops, there goes about 800 calories. You ran 10 miles, so you eat the nachos, the margarita and the enchiladas…you just outate your run by another 15 miles.

8)     You do the same thing all the time. You’ve heard it a million times, your body gets accustomed to regular movement. If you do not challenge it in different ways, you burn even fewer calories per workout.

My point is this: before we throw out the very logical eat less, move more theory, we should examine its nuances. Most studies that show it doesn’t work rely on participant-reported information but when someone does something crazy (and stupid) like eat only 1,800 calories of twinkies daily – they lose weight (see, Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds – CNN.com.) I think there is a lot to be said for the quality and types of calories you consume…but more on that later.

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2 Responses


  1. Kelly on 06 Dec 2011

    Thank you for this! I have lost about 20lbs with just monitoring calories in/out along with exercise. I wasn’t always perfect on this system, but I still was able to drop the weight. When friends ask me how I did it and I try to tell them this, they immediately state that it just doesn’t work for them but they’re going to try the new lemon-hot sauce-whatever “cleansing diet” next week which promises amazing results. I will definitely bring up these points the next time I hear “it doesn’t work for me” and hopefully I can win them over!

    • admin on 06 Dec 2011

      I’m glad it worked, Kelly. It is so true — people think they are doing everything they can…but they aren’t. Diet is 80 percent of the battle, and not quick fix lemon-hotsauce diets (that’s a new one, but I bet it exists!)
      ~Andrea


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