Why Eating Less and Exercising More Is Not the Answer for Weight Loss

Jan 17, 2023 | Health and Wellness, Weight Loss

By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP

Happy new year! If you’re excited to get 2023 off to a good start by getting into better physical shape, you may not be alone. One study found that 48% of people who make new year’s resolutions named “weight loss” as a goal. However, the unfortunate truth is that many of them won’t succeed. Researchers have found that at least 80% of dieters regain those lost pounds within 12 months, or give up on healthy lifestyle habits soon after the new year.

But, we are here to remind you that sustainable, healthy weight loss is possible – you’ve got this!

The key is to take a step back and create a plan that works with your body. You want a weight-loss plan that you can sustain over the long run without creating the hormonal imbalances and stress that ultimately work against you. Here are some realistic, healthy strategies to help you reach your goals for the new year.

Why Exercising More Is Not The Answer

Exercise has many health benefits, and it’s the best step you can take to improve your overall health – but exercise alone won’t lead to weight loss for most people. The old phrase “you can’t outrun a bad diet” is certainly supported by math: Consider the calories burned in a half-hour-walk (about 150 for a 150-pound woman at an average pace) and how easy it is to consume 150 calories!

Even exercising for hours isn’t a licence to eat whatever you want, unfortunately. In fact, over exercising can harm your weight loss efforts by increasing your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol tries to help your body deal with a potential threat by raising blood sugar levels and stimulating your carbohydrate metabolism. Some people experience this spike in cortisol with high intensity interval training (HIIT), even though the duration of exercise is short due to the high intensity. 

Overexercising also raises the risk of injury. You want to remain active in the long run, so it’s important to create an exercise plan that will last instead of risking sustainability in pursuit of fast results.

Why Eating Less is Not the Answer

Your body’s wish to preserve energy is also the reason extreme calorie restriction doesn’t lead to sustainable weight loss. When you drastically reduce the number of calories you consume, your body wants to preserve as much energy as possible. The result can be a decline in your basal metabolic rate. Studies have found resting metabolism can drop dramatically while dieting, and this is a big reason why it’s difficult to sustain dramatic weight loss – just think of the long-term outcomes of the Biggest Loser TV show, where the vast majority of contestants regained their lost weight. 

Another factor is that without paying attention to proper nutrition, dieting leads to muscle loss, which in turn lowers your metabolism. Extreme calorie reduction and many fad diets can also lead to nutritional deficiencies that can disrupt hormonal balance.

3 Steps for Sustainable Weight Loss.

1 – Eat a balanced, unprocessed diet.

We all see so-called magic solutions that promise big results by focusing on one food or following a highly regimented plan. Although these may be effective in the short term, you’ll have better luck with a balanced diet that ensures you’re getting all nutrients.

Focus on quality protein, healthy fats and plenty of fiber in every meal. Avoid processed foods, foods high in sugar and alcohol as much as possible to achieve your weight loss goals.

One study that sought to determine if the adage “a calorie is a calorie” was correct discovered that the quality of calories consumed does make a difference. The researchers found that foods like potato chips and processed meats were more associated with weight gain than whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. They concluded that the more natural foods had a better effect on insulin and feelings of satiety.

Researchers have also found a mindset shift helps with weight loss more than an overly restrictive plan. Eating mindfully – paying attention to each bite, savoring the flavors, and chewing slowly – naturally leads to consuming fewer calories by eliminating bad habits like mindless snacking. Learning to better interpret your hunger and fullness signals also helps get you in tune with your body and how it is really feeling around mealtime.

2 – Create a realistic exercise plan

This will vary a lot by person, so there’s no single answer for the best fitness regime. You want something you can sustain in the long run, with a balance of strength, cardio, and flexibility, but you also want to focus on activities you enjoy.

Exercise should add joy to your life, not stress out your mind and body. Working with a healthcare professional can help you determine the best plan for you.

In addition to creating a formal exercise plan, it’s also important to consider the role of non-exercise thermogenesis (NEAT). That’s a fancy way of summarizing the activity you get other than when you’re exercising, through things like fidgeting or walking around. NEAT is often not considered in weight loss plans, but it can burn as much as 2000 calories a day. Our modern lifestyles have reduced the amount of NEAT most people get, so look for opportunities to do things like take the stairs, walk some extra steps by parking further away, or just stand instead of sitting when you can.

3 – Be aware of sleep and stress patterns.

A growing body of research confirms that more elements contribute to weight loss than diet and exercise. The amount of sleep we get each night and how we deal with stress also affect our metabolism.

In fact, regularly sleeping less than seven hours a night is associated with a higher risk of obesity. Several factors come into play here. When you’re not sleeping enough, your body produces more of the hunger hormone ghrelin and less of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. You’re also more likely to feel stressed or make poor decisions when you’re tired, and less likely to keep up with your workout routine.

Stress is another often-overlooked influence on our weight. As we’ve seen in the results of overexercising, the stress hormone cortisol encourages your body to hang on to calories in case you need more energy to deal with a threat. Although this was beneficial centuries ago in case we had to flee from a predator, it works against us in today’s chronically stressful but sedentary environment. Weight gain from excess cortisol tends to collect around the belly, which is a bad sign for heart health.

Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga help cope with stress and reduce cortisol levels. They can also help your mindful eating practice by teaching you to avoid distraction and focus on the moment, and help your sleep!

Last, but certainly not least, female hormone imbalances can lead to weight gain or weight loss resistance. We can help you test your sex hormone levels and create a plan for you to achieve optimal hormone balance to support your health and weight loss efforts.

The journey to weight loss and better physical health can feel daunting, but it’s possible to do it in a way that lasts and boosts your vitality and overall well-being for years to come. Call us and let’s work together on creating a plan that will help make 2023 your healthiest year yet!


Ballard, J. (2018). Exercising more and eating healthier are this year’s most popular New Year’s resolutions. YouGov. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/32PhDHo

gScientific America, Unexpected Clues Emerge as to Why Diets Fail. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/unexpected-clues-emerge-about-why-diets-fail/

Cadegiani FA, Kater CE. Novel insights of overtraining syndrome discovered from the EROS study. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2019 Jun 20;5(1):e000542. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2019-000542. PMID: 31297238; PMCID: PMC6590962.

Rosenbaum M, Leibel RL. Adaptive thermogenesis in humans. Int J Obes (Lond). 2010 Oct;34 Suppl 1(0 1):S47-55. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2010.184. PMID: 20935667; PMCID: PMC3673773.

Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med. 2011 Jun 23;364(25):2392-404. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1014296. PMID: 21696306; PMCID: PMC315173

Petra Hanson, Emma Shuttlewood, Louise Halder, Neha Shah, F T Lam, Vinod Menon, Thomas M Barber, Application of Mindfulness in a Tier 3 Obesity Service Improves Eating Behavior and Facilitates Successful Weight Loss, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 104, Issue 3, March 2019, Pages 793–800, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2018-00578

Villablanca PA, Alegria JR, Mookadam F, Holmes DR Jr, Wright RS, Levine JA. Nonexercise activity thermogenesis in obesity management. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015 Apr;90(4):509-19. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.02.001. PMID: 25841254.

Bacaro V, Ballesio A, Cerolini S, Vacca M, Poggiogalle E, Donini LM, Lucidi F, Lombardo C. Sleep duration and obesity in adulthood: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Obes Res Clin Pract. 2020 Jul-Aug;14(4):301-309. doi: 10.1016/j.orcp.2020.03.004. Epub 2020 Jun 8. PMID: 32527625.

Steptoe A, Kunz-Ebrecht SR, Brydon L, Wardle J. Central adiposity and cortisol responses to waking in middle-aged men and women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Sep;28(9):1168-73. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0802715. PMID: 15211363.

Brand S, Holsboer-Trachsler E, Naranjo JR, Schmidt S. Influence of mindfulness practice on cortisol and sleep in long-term and short-term meditators. Neuropsychobiology. 2012;65(3):109-18. doi: 10.1159/000330362. Epub 2012 Feb 24. PMID: 22377965.