I was a fat kid. I was. I didn’t understand why the people around me weren’t as fat as I was. I played netball like the girls at school. I ate the same food that my sister did. But for some reason, I was fat and they weren’t.
In my 20’s, I thought I was doing the right things to lose weight: I joined gyms and sports teams and, yes, actually attended.
I did what I’d always been told by friends and family: “exercise is the best way to lose weight”.
But apparently, that’s actually just not true. Exercise isn’t the best way to lose weight. It’s actually the hardest.
In school, I’d been told that “diet and exercise” was how to manage a healthy weight. But I found that was a little but impractical day-to-day. I didn’t really know how to translate that into my real life.
Yep, you actually can lose weight through exercise. It’s just that the latest research shows that it’s not very much. And we’re only capable of burning up to 30% of the calories we eat through exercise.
In the end, it’s way easier to lose weight by changing what you eat.
Let’s break it down: the human body is a machine. We need energy – provided by calories in food – for our bodies and brains to function.
But the problem with modern Western culture – is that most of the time we’re eating too much. We’re eating more calories than we need, so it turns to fat. We’re not just eating foods that are loaded with sugar, but the portions we’re eating are massive.
Now, exercise can totally burn off the excess calories that we eat.
But the thing is: the amount of exercise needed to burn off what we eat is huge.
For example, if you have sneaky muffin and a mocha as an afternoon snack, you would need to run for almost an hour to burn it off.
Now, that might not seem like a big deal, but I want you to think about your plans for tonight. Do you have an hour free to run on the treadmill to burn off that naughty snack? … I didn’t think so.
Now, I’m am not hating on exercise at all. Exercise is stellar for doing amazing things: combatting depression and anxiety, making you more creative and better and problem-solving and building muscle and much, much more. And, let’s not forget – it actually can help with weight loss. (It’s just not the number one thing!)
If your goal, however, is to eradicate those muffin tops – what you really should be doing is looking at what you eat.
To summarise: exercise can help you burn calories: it’s just the hardest way to do it.
It’s much easier to not eat in excess in the first place.
We’re basically Marie Kondo-ing what you nom on right here.
Read the science:
It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet
Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with 60+ studies
What I tried
I’m still learning about how to eat more healthfully. I’m not an expert, but I am making progress. I’m a healthy weight now, and I’m stoked with that. Here’s what helped me.
1. I started tracking what I ate
The first thing I did was find out where I was at. If I could see my real-world habits under the cold, harsh light of day, I could actually address the issue, not what I “thought” was my issue.
If you asked me a few years ago if I ate well, I would have said that I did. Would I have forgotten about the muffin I ate at 3pm and the ice cream for dessert? You betcha.
I used the app myfitnesspal to keep a food diary so I knew what I was really, truly eating, not what I told myself I was eating.
Facing the real facts, I could then come up with a plan to switch out unhealthy foods for healthy ones.
2. Learn what’s healthy
I didn’t realise how unhealthy a lot of the food I was eating was. Confession: I thought ‘banana bread’ was a healthier option because it had the word ‘banana’. Nope, it’s basically cake for breakfast.
Now, the myfitnesspal app helped here, too, because every time I logged something I ate, whether it was a coffee, sandwich or muffin, it told me how many calories there were.
It was a major wake up call for me. I was eating way more calories than I needed to each day and a lot of it was because the foods I was eating were so unhealthy and I didn’t realise.
3. What’s healthy and delicious
The next challenge for me was to start swapping out my unhealthy foods for healthy ones. This required me learning more about food.
I’m still learning. My policy for now is that if start with the simplest, raw ingredients, then I know that there is no hidden sugar (…you can tell that mistake with the banana bread is still haunting me!).
Some switches that helped me were:
- making plain oats with a nut mix for breakfast
- carrying around trail mix in a jar in my bag, for when hangry sets in
- keeping sliced capsicum and carrot in the fridge to snack on
- slowly shifting from a latte with two sugars, to a latte with no sugar… to a long black
- low-fat yoghurt mixed with a spoon of cocoa for dessert
Now, these alternatives might not sound glamorous to you – but they work for me. Find the simple, healthy alternatives that taste delicious that you love.
4. Not emotionally eating
Have you ever eaten because you’re bored? Or you’re angry? Yeah. Me too. I ate a lot of food I didn’t need to because of all of those emotions.
Becoming aware when you’re emotionally eating, and finding a new outlet for these emotions is a critical first step.
(Here are a few things that worked for me on this front!)
5. Eating smaller portions
I mentioned earlier that we eat too much food. It’s not just that we’re eating food that is high in calories (banana bread, looking at you!) – but that the servings of food we eat are too big. Even if we have a healthy bowl of veggies – if the serving size is too big, then we’re literally eating more than we need.
I got used to what I thought a ‘normal’ size of veggies looked like. But I was full halfway through my dinner, but I just kept right on eating. It meant that I was eating twice as much as I needed, rather than stopping, all because I’d served it to my plate and felt I needed to finish it.
I tried a few things:
- served a smaller portion after cooking, and packed the rest in the fridge immediately for leftovers
- used smaller plates and bowls (it works!)
- learn to listen to my body: am I feeling full? Learning mindfulness helped to listen to my body.
So, how much food should we even be eating then? Using the size of your fist is a simple measuring tool to prevent ‘portion distortion’. And here’s an infographic to make it even easier.
So…why did I think I needed to exercise more?
I kind of thought that I was an idiot for thinking I needed to exercise to lose weight when the change I should have been making all this time was in what I ate.
If I knew what to work on, I would have started years ago, instead of going to the gym and constantly feeling like a failure when it came to actually losing weight.
The thing is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. A lot of companies make a lot of money by selling you exercise programs, along with the caveat “this works with a balanced diet!”. What these companies neglect to mention is that their exercise programs are only a small portion of the weight loss you’d experience – because the way you eat would contribute the majority of the change you’d see.
And it’s not just exercise companies sending out misinformation. It’s also the companies that are keeping you fat.
Coca Cola, who spent $3.3 billion on advertising in 2013, pushes a message that ‘all calories count’; they associate their products with sport, suggesting it is ok to consume their drinks as long as you exercise.
If we’re flooded with advertising every day that implies that ‘exercise is how we manage our weight’, of course, that’s what we’ll think.
I’m not an idiot for thinking I needed to exercise. I’ve just lived in the modern world, where I’ve been bombarded with advertising for my entire life.
But advertising is just that: advertising. It’s just a story to sell you something.
But, I am learning. And growing. And trying new things. Tomorrow is a new day to make change. And the change I will be making is backed by science.
If you’re looking to change the way you eat, here are some things to think about:
- Study up! Use an independent source of information to learn about what weight loss is and how it actually works. I found Reddit’s r/loseit community to be full of support and wisdom, and their FAQ section was really informative as a first step.
- Learn about you: start a food diary, to pay attention to what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat per day. What are your habits? When do you get hangry? Study your behaviour, like you’d study a new pet puppy.
- Reflect on the sizes of meals you’re serving. Do you consider the volume of food you eat?
- Learn to love the veggies. If your food comes in a plastic packet, it’s probably not great for you (or the environment!). Join a Pinterest board for delicious, healthy snacks and get inspired!
Pick one action item from this post, and spend this month focusing just on that. Start with small changes, build a routine, and then extend it to other things over time.
For those who want a challenge: why not try quitting sugar? I did – and here’s what worked for me.