Why Diet Alone Wont Do It


April 25, 2012 by Darlene McC

Some fun facts to start your Wednesday:

According to the American Council on Exercise, of individuals who have lost more than 20 lbs and kept it off for more than 1 year:

  • 89% use diet and exercise
  • 1% use exercise alone
  • 10% use diet alone
  • Of those three groups, those using only diet are the least likely to keep the weight off

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the faster you lose that weight the more likely you are to put it back on.

The question that may immediately came to my mind is: “why”?  Why, with diet alone, are you more likely to put the weight back on?  Another, possibly more important, question: is it healthy?

Lets start with the first question: why do people who only use diet to lose weight drop pounds faster and then put it back on?

The answer seems to start with America’s obsession with the scale.

We want to see a low number because we think that means we’re healthy.  The desire to see that number drop is so strong that people go on fad diets.  They cut out or add in specific food items or entire food groups under the belief that they will have the magic bullet to losing fat, but in the process mess with their metabolisms and don’t learn healthy and sustainable eating habits.

Know anyone who did Atkins?  Sure, some people were successful in shedding pound, but did they keep it off?  The majority of people who saw some marginal success slammed the pounds back on as soon as they started eating carbs again.  The idea that you can live without carbs is a myth!  Your body literally needs carbohydrates to survive.  You can get them from healthy natural sources like dark greens, nuts, and whole grains.

But we’re talking about losing pounds.  On a fad diet your body is kind of freaking out.  In the shortage of what it needs it starts to break down different kinds of stores: fat for fuel (awesome), muscle for protein (oh no!), and sometimes even bone for minerals (OH SHIT!).  So now you’re losing weight, but you’re losing it from some majorly wrong places AND you’re not learning good eating habits for when you go off the “diet”.


People who being to lose weight with diet and exercise tend to lose that weight more gradually, partly because their body composition is changing.  They’re losing fat, but they’re also creating a pound or two of lean muscle tissue and increasing the density of their bones (WOO HOO, no osteoporosis!).

Is “Diet Only” for Weight Loss Healthy?

Okay, so we know fad dieting sucks.  It’s stupid and doing it is the exact opposite of loving yourself…. but you do it anyway.  You drop 30, 40, maybe even 50 lbs!  Then late summer and fall and winter hit and you blow it.  The holidays kick your ass and you’re back up to your start weight or even (heaven forbid) a bit heavier.  Given your scale obsession you freak out.

But you can do it again… “you did it before, right?”

Well.  Lets talk about that.   When you were carrying around that extra 40 pounds you had extra muscle to deal with trucking it around.  You changed your diet on the short term and messed with your metabolism, ripping up some muscle and bone on the way; but did nothing for your sedentary lifestyle.  As you lost the weight your body had less to carry, only encouraging it to shed more lean tissue…. and then as the pounds came back on you had less metabolically active lean tissue and more fat.

If you’re a little confused, let me break it down for you:

In January 2010 Eric, who is 27, was 220 lbs.  Lets say 160 lbs of that was lean tissue (muscle, bone, organs… the good stuff).  Healthy body fat percentage for men is around 5% (in the high teens to 20’s for women depending on age); we’ll round up and say a good weight for Eric in Jan. 2010 would’ve been around 170 for the amount of lean tissue he had.  Eric is carrying 50 lbs of extra fat.

Eric goes on a fad diet, cutting out carbs including natural ones like fruit.  He doesn’t work out at all.  He gets down to 160; but some of what he loses is muscle mass and bone.  He’s probably in the teens for body fat percentage, meaning he’s really not all that “healthy”.  Sure, he’s thin, but he skin looks like crap, his breath smells bad, and he’s got no energy (but he’s so SKINNY!  And he can eat all the bacon he wants!).

Eric starts eating carbs again; but now he’s only got 140 lbs of lean tissue.  He puts the weight back on so he’s 220 again in August of 2011; except now instead of 50 lbs of fat he’s got 70 lbs of fat!!  His metabolism is slower and he probably has more joint issues because his muscles aren’t as strong.

For our new friend Eric, losing weight a second time around is going to be harder because he’s lost the powerhouse of fat burning: lean muscle.  In most cases Eric isn’t going to return to his original weight; he’s going to go even higher.

But What if You Work Out?

Here’s the big difference between those who lose with diet and those who lose with diet AND exercise: more lean muscle.  I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase before that muscle is more dense than fat.  For our friend Eric, exercising as well probably would’ve meant not dropping all the way to 160 – he may have been in the 170’s – but instead of losing lean muscle he would’ve been building up more!

I hear all the time from women: but I don’t want to get big and build lots of muscles.  I just want to lose fat.  Ladies! The difference between a man’s potential to build muscle and a woman’s is HUGE!   You will not look like Arnold!  You will burn more calories at rest, which means being able to go harder, longer and having a more metabolically active body for the rest of your life.

Phew… sorry about the yelling there… just often seems like no one is listening when you say that.

Conclusion? Sure… a “diet” will bring the scale number down.  But that shouldn’t be the only number you care about.  Proper nutrition (and learning what that means) and resistance training will help you refine your body, improve the percentage of fat to muscle, and give you a whole host of other benefits.

As they say in the book Skinny Bitch:

Give up the notion that you can be sedentary and still lose weight.  You need to exercise, you lazy shit.  Eating properly will dramatically improve your health, body, and all aspects of your lift.  But you’ve got to move your ass.  Anyone with a brain can do the math: When done in conjunction with a good diet, exercise will make you lose weight faster than healthy eating alone…. You want to be a Skinny Bitch, not a scrawny bitch.

Well put, ladies.


One thought on “Why Diet Alone Wont Do It

  1. […] is not a high enough priority and you aren't committed.  That's all there is to it.  You may lose weight because of dietary changes, but you're not committed to being legitimately healthy at only once a […]

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