Exercise Does Not Make Up For a Poor Diet – Use Diet As Your Primary Fat Loss Weapon

A healthy diet is the most important aspect of the game when it comes to body composition change. If you retain only one piece of information from this site/blog, I hope that it is this: your nutritional habits will have a far greater impact on your body composition and physique goals than any other fitness component.

I’d go so far as to say this: Most people could reach a healthy/ideal body weight with a solid nutrition plan and maybe some daily walking alone, NO FORMAL EXERCISE SESSIONS NECESSARY. I know that’s going to piss a lot of personal trainers off — and by the way, I’m a personal trainer, and just writing that kind of makes me want to punch myself in the face. But it’s the TRUTH.

Now, if you have higher aspirations of physique development (ie six pack abs, big guns, etc.), that’s another story. Its gut busting weight training sessions for you my friends. But for those just trying to get healthier, feel better, and shed some excess poundage (quantitatively speaking going from 30% plus body fat to something more reasonable like 15% for men and 20% for women) all you really need to do is focus on cleaning up your diet. That’s the fastest, and most efficient path, to real world results.

I also think its the approach most likely to be sustained. If you’ve been sitting on the couch doing nothing for the last few years, its much more likely that you are going to change what you do in the kitchen then consistently haul your butt to the gym. Its easier to choose eating a chicken breast and vegetables for dinner as opposed to being miserable and getting your butt whipped in some crazy boot camp class. And to be quite honest, it is much more effective in the long run.

You don’t need to completely overhaul your life, set aside extra time that you don’t have to get to the gym, deal with crazy soreness or joint pain, wear spandex, deal with gym meatheads and divas, go gung-ho, injure yourself and/or burn-out 3 weeks later, only to give up the whole physique transformation process altogether. All you really need to do is change what you shop for at the grocery store, and make better choices when you are out at restaurants. That sounds reasonable right? Just walk some more and eat better dude/girl — simple.

Trust me, I’ve been in the fitness industry for over 10 years and have trained hundreds of people. The clients who used diet as their primary weapon in the war on fat loss were the ones who obtained the best results. The clients who tried to use exercise to offset a poor diet, or who thought they could eat whatever they want BECAUSE they were exercising or taking a pharmaceutical drug or miracle supplement, obtained mediocre results at best.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, researchers agree on this fat loss hierarchy:

How exercise affects body weight is one of the more intriguing and vexing issues in physiology. Exercise burns calories, no one doubts that, and so it should, in theory, produce weight loss, a fact that has prompted countless people to undertake exercise programs to shed pounds. Without significantly changing their diets, few succeed. “Anecdotally, all of us have been cornered by people claiming to have spent hours each week walking, running, stair-stepping, etc., and are displeased with the results on the scale or in the mirror,” wrote Barry Braun, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in the American College of Sports Medicine’s February newsletter.

But lets step back from the fitness industry, pop culture, or scientific debates and think about it logically for just a second. Let’s say you are extremely motivated and exercise every day of the week. That’s a total of 7 training sessions per week. That’s 7 chances to make a difference and change your body in a positive way.

Now, lets also say you eat 3 square meals a day. Better yet, as a fitness athlete you know about the advantages of meal spacing and eat 5 meals/snacks a day. That’s 21-35 opportunities a week to directly impact your muscle building and fat burning goals.

A common question in the fitness industry is, “what percentage of my physique enhancement goals will be a result of exercise, and what percentage will be a result of my diet?” Common answers are something like, “Well, they are both important. You can’t really assign percentages” or “training is 100%, diet is 100%”. But that doesn’t really give novice trainees an accurate depiction of the bigger picture. And in the big picture, diet will always have a bigger impact on physique enhancement than training.

I believe most people need a more quantitative way of looking at this relationship in order for it to sink in. We can all say we need to eat better to get results, but that really doesn’t stress just how important that step truly is. How many of us pound the weights or power through a cardio session, only to hit the all-you-can-eat buffet later that night? It really is no wonder that while health clubs are expanding, our waistlines are exploding nonetheless.

Its obvious most people need a new way of looking at the fat loss process to change their current dietary habits. Numbers can help. In our above example of 7 training sessions and 35 meals/snacks geared toward body composition improvement a week, that works out to about 20% accounted to physical activity and 80% accounted to diet. I’d say that’s a pretty accurate assessment of the physique enhancement process. If you want to look good, 80% of your results are determined by the food that you eat.

This principle is about real world fitness nutrition, not statistics, so lets leave the numbers behind and look at some real world examples. If you look around your gym, you’ve probably noticed some regulars that have been there day-in and day-out for months, or even years, but look exactly the same. All that time and effort with no results to show for it — what’s up with that? The answer is diet of course, or lack thereof.

Another good example is professional NFL offensive lineman. These guys are pro athletes that perform vigorous training protocols on a daily basis. They are big, strong, fast, and could certainly throw me a severe beating. But most of them have a little jiggle with their wiggle, a large percentage of them are obese. How can this be? Again, the answer is poor, or no nutritional strategy.

Conversely, when you hear tales of dramatic weight loss or great body transformations, diet/nutrition is always at the forefront of the discussion. “How did you lose the weight?” friends will ask. “Oh, I went on such and such diet” or “I read this or that nutrition book.” People can make drastic changes in their physique with diet alone.

Here’s a real-world scenario. Two people walk into the gym to meet me for the first time. One says they are willing to bust butt and train with me every single day of the week. They will do exactly what I tell them to do in the gym, but they won’t change their diet. They love sugar and that’s that.

The second says they are willing to be meticulous with their diet, but they know they will not be consistent with the gym. In fact, they can’t stand the site of me — oh you think you’re so cool with your abs “Mr. Fitness Guy” — and never want to see me again in their life. They will pay for a diet, follow it 100%, and that’s that.

Give me the second person every time. I’d make more money off the first one, but I’d get more results with the second one. And to me, that’s what matters most.

The moral of the story is you can’t change your body just by exercising. As a matter of fact, I’d say you are wasting your time in the gym until you clean up your diet and implement a sound fitness nutrition protocol. It would be nice if we could work off last night’s junk meal with some extra cardio. Despite what some trainers would have you believe, it just doesn’t work that way.

In the same article in the New York Times, this sentiment was reinforced:

None of which is a reason to abandon exercise as a weight-loss tool. You just have to understand what exercise can and cannot do.


“In general, exercise by itself is pretty useless for weight loss,” says Eric Ravussin, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and an expert on weight loss. It’s especially useless because people often end up consuming more calories when they exercise. The mathematics of weight loss is, in fact, quite simple, involving only subtraction.

So when you are about to cheat and eat that slice of pizza or bowl of ice cream, and try to justify it by saying you’ll do some extra cardio the next day, remember the Fitness Nutrition 80:20 rule. What goes into your mouth accounts for 80% of your physical appearance. I guess its true what mama says, “You are what you eat.”