I Became Fitter When I Dropped the “Eat Less, Move More” Mentality
The word “diet” is not part of my vocabulary. Dieting is about applying temporary rules to the way you eat. Therefore, the weight comes back as soon as you go back to your old habits. To me, this is exactly the definition of “useless” in addition to creating frustration and an unhealthy relationship with food — our fuel.
Yet, it’s understandable to want to become more fit. It’s not about visible abs or perfect bodies, it’s about feeling good about your body and keeping it at peak performance. That’s what being fit means to me.
The eternal question is: how do you get there? And more specifically: is it more effective to eat less or move more? I’ve studied the question. And I’ve discovered that a third, much more powerful option is actually at play.
Here’s what happens in your body when you eat less:
Food is your body’s fuel, just like gasoline is your car’s fuel. Your body needs these calories to function properly throughout the day. That’s why regular under-eating can lead to a number of mental, physical, and emotional health problems, in addition to a disordered relationship with food.
I’ve tried it.
A few years ago, I started to dislike my hips. I thought they were fat. Knowing nothing about nutrition, I Googled all sorts of random keywords such as “lose weight,” “lose fat,” “hips,” and “diet.” Here’s what I found:
If I eat less, my body will use that localized fat to keep functioning.
That’s what I did. I tried to reduce my portions, stopped eating sweets, and went without snacks even though I was starving. For over four years, I lived by the uncompromising rule of not eating between breakfast and lunch, even as those around me turned to me at the sounds of my stomach.
The result I got was this: I didn’t lose fat, but I did gain an eating disorder. I started counting calories. I started to feel guilty. I lost track of my hunger and satiety cues. I’m just getting over it now, years later. The only good thing is that I gained a genuine interest in nutrition and that tons of reading has given me a better understanding of food and my body, turning me into my healthiest self ever.
What science says…
Feeling abnormally tired is one of the first consequences of not eating enough. The average person has a resting metabolic rate of over 1,000 calories. This is the minimum amount your body will consume in a day if you stand still.
“Restricting intake to fewer than 1,000 calories daily can slow down your metabolic rate and lead to fatigue since you’re not taking in enough calories to support even the basic functions that keep you alive.” — Healthline
You will also be constantly hungry, in addition to having food on your mind all the time:
“Studies confirm that appetite and food cravings increase in response to drastic calorie restriction due to changes in levels of hormones that control hunger and fullness.” — Healthline
Low-calorie intake has also been shown to increase the production of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to hunger and increased belly fat.
Irritability, feeling cold all the time, and anxiety are some of the other consequences of eating too little.
What if we skip a meal? While this isn’t too big of a problem every now and then, it still takes a toll on your body. Your blood sugar and energy levels may drop since you now have an empty stomach.
“The main fuel for your brain is glucose, which you get from eating foods — predominantly carb-rich ones,” Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., tells SELF.
Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., tells SELF that it can also lead to brain fog, shakiness, sweating, and irritability, all symptoms of what’s known as “hangriness.”
When you finally sit down to eat, being hungry brings its own set of consequences:
“When people are super hungry, they tend to go for the carbs and sweets because those will raise their blood sugar,” says Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., to SELF.
But the problem is that without fat, protein, or fiber to temper the rise in glucose, your blood sugar will spike, making you feel better quickly. Except that it will all come crashing down just as quickly, making you hungry and craving sweets again. Waiting too long to eat will also make you want to eat anything and everything, and you may go past your satiety point, meaning you eat too much when you actually wanted to eat less.
Does that sound attractive to you? Not to me. Eating less doesn’t seem to be the way to go. It wasn’t for me, and it isn’t for everyone I know who has tried it. Science backs it up.
The only reason you should eat less is if you feel like you’re overeating, or eating when you’re not hungry. If you are eating huge amounts and not feeling satiety signs, you should seek information from nutrition professionals, which I am not.
Otherwise, you should respect your hunger and satiety signals, which are signs that your body needs food.
Here’s what happens in your body when you move more:
Moving includes everything from a leisurely walk, a run, a swim in the ocean, or a game of bowling with your friends. I don’t know about you, but moving is crucial to my mental health and well-being. I even experience symptoms if I don’t move enough, as I’ve gotten my body used to moving daily.
I’ve tried it.
I start each day with a swim, a walk, or a run on the beach, and often start moving again in the afternoon, whether it’s walking, biking or surfing. And I love it.
A year and a half ago, I started working out every day. This has resulted in drastic changes in my physical and mental well-being. I got a more muscular, toned, stronger body and felt better about my physical self. I also got into the habit of moving for a few minutes on an empty stomach every morning. I wrote about it here.
Therefore, my personal conclusion is that moving more had more impact than eating less, plus it was much more enjoyable. But it wasn’t the answer to everything either.
What science says…
Moving more improves blood circulation, which helps nourish skin cells and flush out waste.
“You can think of it as cleansing your skin from the inside.” — Province Apothecary
The same website explains that physical activity also makes you feel more energetic because it brings oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and helps your cardiovascular system work more efficiently. The more energy you have, the more you want to move: it’s a virtuous circle.
Even light, low-intensity activity helps you build muscle. This is strongly linked to fat loss because muscle uses more calories than fat, which leads to an increase in your metabolism, which is the number of calories you use to maintain your body at rest.
“Dr. Cedric X. Bryant, the American Council on Exercise’s chief science officer, says that research suggests that a pound of muscle only burns about six to seven calories a day. It’s three times more calories than are burned by a pound of fat.” — VeryWellFit
Even a leisurely walk will burn more calories than sitting on the couch. It gets you out of your head and into your body, which also does your mind a world of good. Finally, light exercise has been shown to have many benefits for the whole body, including bones, joints, brain, heart, and lungs (Source).
Moving more has only benefits, which makes it far preferable to the first “solution”, which was to eat less. Even if it doesn’t burn all the fat you’d like, or if you’re not the most active person on earth, simply taking a daily walk or doing a little more yourself, like gardening or painting your front door, will have beneficial effects on your body.
This is all great, but there is actually a third parameter, which is what has brought me the most results.
Intuitiveness, Knowledge, Awareness
I’ve come to the point where I realize that counting calories is pointless: I never know how much my body will burn in a day because it depends on so many different factors.
I also don’t want to impose rules or restrictions on my diet, because that leads to eating disorders, and life is too short — and too good — to regret a pizza. I don’t want to obsess about food all day anymore.
Moving is part of my daily routine, but I’m still not the type to go to the gym every day or find pleasure in doing strenuous exercise for hours on end. I currently have many other things to do that I find more satiating to my soul.
So what’s the solution?
Intuitiveness, knowledge, awareness.
Intuitiveness, because your body naturally knows what is good for you. Listen to its signals, reconnect with it, and you will feel it directing you to what it needs.
Knowledge, because when you understand the effect of sugar, fat, overeating, and simple carbohydrates, to name a few, on your body, your choices change effortlessly. This is when you usually start to eat “healthy” and enjoy it.
Awareness, because it’s about listening to your body’s signals. Hunger. Satiety. Weakness. But also energy levels and well-being. Again, your body knows better than you.
These are the three things that now guide me on a daily basis. I was inspired by Stephanie Buttermore's “all-in” process, which freed me from all the rules and pressures I was putting on myself. She used to maintain a body that many would consider the ultimate goal but was tired of feeling hungry and weak all the time. She decided to change drastically and eat everything she wanted and needed. Here is her YouTube channel, where she explains it better than I can.
I now have a much more harmonious relationship with food, I feel better mentally because it was exhausting, I eat healthy on a regular basis, I move for pleasure, and I’m finally starting to get in even better shape.
This post is about what worked for me. I am not a doctor, nor am I a nutrition specialist. If you have issues with your weight, health, or diet, you need to consult a specialist, which I am not. I am simply sharing my journey with you.
The key is to find what works for you. Every person is different, and every body is different. So there is no universal solution.
However, eating whole carbs, getting rid of sugar, and making sure you have the right amount of healthy fats and protein while moving enough and getting enough sleep, is a formula that is sure to work for everyone.
Let’s stop trying to control everything, and start listening to our bodies ' signals. That’s the solution. Not starving yourself or spending your day lifting weights.