You’ve probably heard it said that “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet”. If you’ve ever tried, you’ll know how true that statement is. Making changes to your diet and eating the right foods will always yield better results than simply changing your exercise. That’s not to say that exercise is not important, but it’s worth considering that training accounts for about 20% of your progress, and what you put in your mouth is the other 80%. Why thrash your body mercilessly, and then make these four common mistakes that may well be impeding your weight loss efforts, in the gym.
1. Are you eating too many calories?
For those of us who do not suffer from conditions that affect our metabolism (such as insulin resistance or thyroid disease), weight loss is essentially about balancing your calorie intake and calorie output. Yes, of course it matters where your calories come from (e.g. good carbs versus bad carbs), but for the majority of people, taking in too many calories (eating or drinking) versus calories out (exercise, physical activity, basal metabolism), will likely cause weight gain. You will see more success on a good diet paired with 3 hours of exercise a week, compared to a bad diet with 7 hours of exercise a week. Ditch the “train hard, eat hard” or “lift big, eat big” attitude, and be smart with your calorie intake.
2. Are you drinking your calories?
Research suggests that Australians now derive one-fifth of their daily calories from beverages, and most do not compensate for the energy they consume from beverages by reducing their intake from other foods. There are no magical evaporating liquid calories. Diet soft drinks, coconut water, fruit nectars, vegetable juices, smoothies, energy drinks, flavoured water— the list of beverages now available on the market is rising exponentially, and so are the number of calories we derive from them daily. Calories in drinks are not hidden (just have a look at the nutrition information panel), yet many people are oblivious to the “hidden” calories we drink.
Top tips for cutting back liquid calories
• Order a smaller size
• Skip the extra flavourings and trimmings on your coffee e.g. sugar-sweetened syrups, cocoa powder, cream
• Choose the smoothie with the fewest calories (look at the nutrition information)
• Carry a water bottle with you throughout the day
• Alternate alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic beverages
3. Are you eating too few calories?
We all have something called our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which represents the minimum amount of energy required to keep you ticking over, while your body is at rest. A minimum amount of fuel is required for basic bodily functions such as breathing, pumping blood around your body, and running your nervous system. Science has shown that how much energy you burn at rest (your basal metabolic rate) lines up with how much lean mass you have (that is, how much muscle & soft tissue you have in your body). How much fat you have, on the other hand, doesn’t create much extra demand, at rest. A DEXA body scan is a great way to estimate BMR, as the DEXA scan reading of your lean mass is able to be used to generate the number.
Many people, while attempting to lose weight, cut back their calories so drastically (1200 calories ring a bell?) that it falls well below their BMR. If you do this, it means that you’re not even consuming enough calories to fuel your basic bodily functions, let alone any of the exercise or physical activity you’re trying to achieve. You may lose weight, rapidly, but you will be predominantly gobbling up your lean mass (the stuff you want to hold on to that keeps your metabolism and fat burning engine firing)! When you come off that drastic diet (because you feel like a run-down road kill with killer-cravings), you quickly regain any weight lost, and then some, because your metabolism (BMR) has slowed down.
Severely restricting calories over a period of time also increases your stress hormones (cortisol) which then promotes fat deposition and also lowers your metabolism! Hopefully I’ve convinced you that drastic calorie restriction is not in your best interests, for sustainable weight loss. An Accredited Practicing Dietitian, using your BMR, exercise levels and current dietary intake, will be able to give you a more realistic calorie target, that won’t leave you starving, won’t canibalise your lean mass, and won’t cause your BMR to move into so-called “starvation mode”.
4. Are you consuming the wrong types of macronutrients and calories?
In people who are metabolically stable, and have no underlying health conditions, weight loss essentially comes down to how many calories come in (eating) as opposed to how many calories go out (BMR + exercise + daily activities). However, not all calories were created equal. For example, a fresh apple and glass of coke have similar calories and quantities of sugar, but you don’t need to be Einstein to hypothesise that natural sugar and added sugars probably have very different nutritional value.
1 x medium red apple = 78 calories, 17g of carbohydrates and 16g of natural sugar (fructose).
1 glass of coke (250mL) = 93 calories, 23g carbohydrates and 23g added sugar
A healthy diet has a balance of the three main nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), with plenty of plant-based foods such as vegetables & salad.
High protein diets have been shown to be effective for weight loss. This is because protein quickly makes you feel like you’re satisfied. An added bonus is that protein also plays a big role in the growth and repair of muscles. But let’s not get carried away with a 100% protein diet! Protein intakes around 20-30% are generally advisable, and good sources of protein include:
• Skinless chicken breast
• Lean beef, lamb, pork
• Heart smart/premium/organic/grass fed meat
• Fish & seafood
• Greek yoghurt
Fats are also an important part of the diet, as they also promote satiety and fullness. Not only that, they also help us absorb our fat soluble vitamins, and have many other important functions! Fat has been demonised as the causer of all weight problems, but this is an unfair charge— you might be surprised to find out that fat intakes of around 20-35% are generally advisable. But, like sugars, not all fats are created equal. Good sources of fat include:
• Nuts & seeds
• Nut butters
• Oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna)
• Nut & seed oils e.g. peanut, sesame, macadamia
• Coconut oil (in sensible amounts)
• Grass fed butter
Carbohydrates are an important part of the diet. More recently carbohydrates have also been (mostly unfairly) demonised. Yet carbs help keep our blood sugar levels stable, promote healthy brain function, and fuel & replenish muscle energy stores. For most people, it’s hard work exercising if you don’t have any fuel! Carbohydrate intakes around 50% or less are generally advisable (but try not to go below 30%), although the exact percentage is dependent on the individual, and their health and training goals. Good sources of carbohydrates include:
• Fresh fruit
• Greek yoghurt
• Legumes (e.g. chickpeas, beans, legumes)
• Basmati/brown rice
• Wholemeal pasta
• Pearl cous-cous
• Sweet potato
• Carisma potato
• Sourdough, soy & linseed, grain bread
• Rice noodles
The bottom line:
Try and focus on eating whole-foods that have been minimally processed, 80% of the time! The biggest proportion of your main meal should be veggies/salad, followed by protein and then a smaller amount of carbohydrates, with an optional serve of fat! Make sure you consider the impact of liquid calories, as well as solid, and don’t starve yourself!