You’ve heard it a million times. To lose weight, you have to eat less and move more, and if it doesn’t work — well, that’s on you. Failure suggests a lack of willpower, and perhaps a spotty attendance record at the gym. The advice is so familiar that it hardly seems worth questioning, but in truth, it tacitly promotes two outdated, unhelpful ideas about weight loss, presuming that self-control and exercise are the most important factors. The research, however, suggests that it’s much more complicated than that.
Obesity and weight loss are extremely complex, and further muddled by an individual’s psychological, physiological, and environmental factors. “Generally speaking, obesity isn’t something a person strives for, and those with obesity, society ensures that they don’t ever lack for feelings of guilt or shame,” said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a Canada-based obesity doctor and assistant professor of family medicine at University of Ottawa. “So here we have a situation where people often have tremendous desire to lose [weight], coupled with huge social pressure, and yet they still struggle.”
It’s simply not accurate to assume that all of the 155 million Americans who are overweight, according to the American Heart Association, are not “trying” hard enough. “Trying to eat less” ignores the fact that we don’t eat purely out of logic, said Brian St. Pierre, a registered dietitian and director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition. “We aren’t robots,” he added. “We eat for nearly innumerable reasons.”
For some, one of those reasons is calories. It’s true that counting calories can be a helpful strategy to manage your weight, but eating purely based on how many calories are in your burrito (for instance) poses another issue: accuracy. Calorie information on food packages can deviate from their true value by plus or minus 25 percent. What’s more, all calories don’t interact in your body the same way: 200 calories of potato chips is clearly not the same as 200 calories of chicken breast, in terms of nutritional value and satiety.
But while overdoing it on calories is clearly a problem for many Americans, relying on willpower alone is a likely not an adequate way to fix the issue, said Traci Mann, a health psychologist at University of Minnesota and author of Secrets From the Eating Lab. In her book, she cites research that tested the common assumption that people with higher self-control are better able to resist eating junk food, and found that individual levels of self-control didn’t make much of a difference one way or another. “It is almost impossible to have enough [willpower] because there are so many foods we have to resist every day, and it takes many acts of willpower to resist something,” Mann explained in a recent interview with Science of Us. “It’s not like resisting the cookie on your kitchen counter is just one quick act of resistance. As long as it’s there, it will keep requiring new acts of resistance over and over again.” Besides, in the long term, no amount of willpower will help you continue to choke down kale smoothies and wake up for dreadfully early runs if you hate doing both.
And that brings us to exercise. We’ve been conditioned to believe that exercise plays a bigger role in weight loss than it really does. Writing recently for Vox, Julia Belluz and Christophe Haubursin note that “while your food intake accounts for 100 percent of the energy that goes into your body, exercise only burns off less than 10 to 30 percent of it.” In fact, findings from a 2013 review of studies suggest that people tend to overestimate how many calories they burn via exercise, and make up those calories and then some with yummy foods (read: doughnuts). Exercise does wonders for your mood and your brain and has a host of other health benefits, but it’s not (and shouldn’t be) the main driver of weight loss.
But even if the advice to “eat less, move more,” weren’t rooted in these misperceptions about weight loss, it would still be maddeningly vague. Eat how much less? Move how much more? These are huge, complicated questions that need to focus on the individual, but the experts interviewed for this post suggested some simple ways to get started:
• Write down everything you eat. The research suggests that people who keep food journals are more likely to lose weight than those who don’t.
• Emphasize more protein, like chicken, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, and tempeh, in your diet.
• Make restaurant meals special occasions rather than just because it’s a Thursday.
• Put more emphasis on getting adequate sleep (at least seven hours, for most people).
• Reframe exercise in terms of health, not weight.
• Make sure you enjoy the exercise you do.
More importantly, realize that you’re not perfect. Losing weight is not easy, and you’re going to mess up and fail. It’s better to recognize that you will encounter setbacks, and that weight loss is a lot slower than a simplistic piece of advice would have you believe.