Why Weight Loss Is Not 80% Diet and 20% Fitness

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Ask 100 people for their number one weight-loss rule and you'll likely hear 100 different answers, but there's one answer that seems to pop up time and time again: Weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent fitness. The reasons behind this widely accepted truth include the idea that we burn fewer calories than expected during a workout and that it's easy to eat the equivalent amount of calories we burn during a workout directly after said workout. On the other hand, with food choices, it is easier to directly cut your calories and have a higher degree of certainty that those cut calories will lead to weight loss.
Don't get me wrong, this calorie equation makes sense—your calories from food are incredibly important in losing weight. Switching to healthier food choices in your appropriate calorie range, especially, will lead you to making a sustainable healthy lifestyle change that eventually doesn't even feel like a diet. Those changes include learning that healthy foods really can taste better than bad-for-you foods when you find proteins, fruits, vegetables, spices and recipes you genuinely love.
But guess what? You aren’t a calorie equation. 
You have a life that gets messy and challenging with setbacks due to stresses and demands on your time. By "you," I of course mean "all of us," myself included." We're all in the same boat trying to reach our various goals.
I often see SparkPeople members talking about this topic in our community as a reason to put most of their focus on food, which is why I want to counter this "80/20" way of thinking.
The underlying program I used to reach my goals and eventually build SparkPeople integrates the best of health and fitness with the best of goal setting, motivation, leadership and behavioral psychology. This is called the SparkPeople Fuel for Improvement System. Thanks to the support of SparkPeople members, my book, "The Spark," which discusses this program, even became a New York Times Bestseller!
As I work to build a Small Goals Commitment Challenge based upon the fundamentals laid out in my book, one of the top concepts I'm focusing on is called Crisscross Effects. Put simply, all areas of life have an impact on other areas of life and once you come to this realization, you are more likely to use many different ways to reach your weight-loss goals or any other life goals you may set for yourself.  
The journey to weight loss is a road filled with pot holes, hills and ditches, making the ability to adapt and embrace a flexible mindset crucial if you want to find success. To further demonstrate the point that the 80-percent-diet-20-percent-fitness concept is not without its flaws, consider a few real-life situations that shed light on goals in the big picture of life as they relate to Crisscross Effects.

Life—and Weight Loss—Is More Complex Than 80/20

Drinking Water and Eating Vegetables
People who consistently exercise often report that they find it easier for them to drink water and eat vegetables, which makes sense since the body needs rehydration after losing water to sweat. When you drink more water, it becomes easier to give up consuming sugared drinks like soda. As you can see from this simple example, exercise can result in consuming more water and vegetables, and less soda, important nutrition results that would not have been as likely without your sweat session.

Emotional Eating
In our early days at SparkPeople, we learned that emotional eating was the top issue facing our members. The topic is mentioned nearly every day in the SparkPeople Community Feed when someone mentions working to recover from a round of emotional eating. In other words, what is going on in your head can be just as, if not more important as what goes in your mouth.
Here again, exercise comes into play, as it is physiologically proven to lower stress levels. Positive support and relationships, as well as other stress management and mindfulness techniques, can also help to lower stress. Because much of our emotional eating results from a tension and anxiety due to overbooked schedules, pressure at work, emotional situations with family or friends, or any number of stressful situations, the ability to lower stress levels through exercise or other means can reduce the odds of emotional eating getting in the way of your goals. I love boxer Mike Tyson’s quote that says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” When some type of stressor punches you in the face, you need ways to handle it in a way that doesn't lead you back to food.

How do you feel when you are really tired? Are you more likely to eat the closest items available? Are you more likely to eat sugary foods to get a quick energy fix? Are you more likely to drink extra caffeine beyond the moderate amount that is generally okay to consume? Are you less likely to take the time to prepare or choose healthy foods? All of this shows the importance of quality sleep on your nutrition choices.

Goals and Core Values
In my Small Goals Commitment Challenge, the very first activity I ask participants to think about is why they want to be healthy and fit. When you connect what goes into your mouth to what is most important to you in life—and realize that good health and fitness will help you reach your most important goals in life—then you are more likely to make better food choices. Here again, you can see how your goals can positively influence your daily nutrition choices.

In a quote posted on my Small Goals Commitment Challenge, SparkPeople member MORAVIANSTAR perfectly illustrates my argument against the hard-and-fast "80/20" philosophy:

“It struck me this morning when thinking about all your posts related to this 'challenge' that, overall, the focus is going away from diet and becoming much broader. When I have tried to lose weight in the past, my entire focus has been on food, which leads me to obsess about food, which leads me to think about eating all the time, which leads to eating too much (even if it's healthy stuff), which leads to very little weight loss! This new focus has me thinking about coming up with a mantra I can use—maybe something like, 'Is this decision (about whatever) going to further my good health plan.' This new 'challenge' has me starting to think in different ways about this entire issue."
Do you see how the 80 percent diet and 20 percent fitness way of thinking can actually be dangerous? Each of these other areas of life—fitness, sleep, stress management—have their own amazing benefits, but they also have Crisscross Effects that directly help people make better food choices. So even if food is the primary way to lose weight, this is a vastly better way to increase your odds of making better food choices. This is the real world of what happens to people every day, not simply a scientific measurement of calories.
If you are interested in learning more about this, visit my challenge. As of this writing, I have published eight activities and lessons for the challenge with many more to come.

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thanks Report
Thanks u inspire me Report
I do have to admit I just made this statement about the 80/20 last week. Although when I am eating better and conscientious about what I am putting in my mouth I lose more weight. I will say it's really such an individual journey how each person loses their weight. Report
I have always been told you "Can't out-train a bad diet". That has been ingrained in my mind for years but I am finally realizing exercise is what counts. It energizes me and lifts my mood which in turn encourages healthy eating. Great article! Report
Very motivational thank you Report
This is a good lesson. I am saving it to reread over and over. Report
And what about the many many ppl. who cannot exercise AT ALL due to physical limitations or health restraints doctor's orders? Report
Always learning on SP Report
great article Report
Thank you for sharing. Report
Love this...thank you! Report
Thanks....this gives some great new perspectives Report
The one big thing that really jumps out is the emotional eating. It is so easy to have a single bad day, and completely destroy all the work put in up until that point. It is even possible to go months without a problem, and start to think you have it completely under control. All it takes, however, is one very stressful day to put you right back where you were. Having a support network is very important in prevent back sliding. Report
Thank you Report
Great article Chris! I have stated the 80/20 formula myself, but I do agree it is so much more than just a simple formula. If your only goal is losing weight, the 80/20 may be accurate. I think it probably is. But your members are right- that is just dieting, and we all know it doesn't work in the long run! I love your term: the Crisscross Effect. It says it all: everything works together! You have broadened my perspective with this article. Report
I really like Chris' emphasis on the criss cross effect. When I focus on making changes that benefit all aspects of my life, boom...the magic happens. Again, I applaud those that realize this is NOT about weight loss...this is about our health. Dropping fifty pounds and still becoming winded walking up a flight of stairs?! Nope, our bodies need heart thumping cardio and basic strength work. For the criss cross effect to trickle down, fitness and nutrition need to be besties...they work together. Loved this article, thank you, Chris. Report
I completely agree. 80 Food / 20 Exercise might be the rule for the physical game, but for the MENTAL side Exercise is 80% of the rewards, 80% of the motivation, 80% of the energy and is the 80% that lets me turn down that cookie!

Without exercise, I'm simply 'dieting'. And we all know that doesn't work! Report
Continuing with a great blog! I am one of your followers and readers and I find you walking the talk. That's what we are all looking for. Thanks for sharing and leading us to another method of ideas. Report
This couldn't be more true. Thinking about my goals holistically helps me to make better choices all day. Reaching the small goals gives you the little wins to continue working toward the bigger goal. Report
I am disabled and have a limited income. Sometimes I am forced to make poor food choices. I think that exercise is a bigger equation for me. BOTH are extremely important, and Nutrition tracker has been essential in my weight loss journey--which is successful! but I do think exercise is VERY important and people focus TOO MUCH on dieting. SLEEP is also ESSENTIAL! Right on, Chris! Report
80/20, Whenever I have heard this mentioned on the various threads it has always pertained to "Following my plan being 80% on plan and 20% not on plan as far as nutrition was concerned. So this is a totally new concept to me. It is hard for me to even think that my physical fitness would only be 20% of the journey. For me it is everything I have learned on sparkpeople. All the articles I have read have woven together my healthy lifestyle journey! When I have not gotten proper sleep it affects my attitude and that can lead to "my" 20% off nutrition Plan. When I read the Community Feed I often wonder how deep people actually get into Sparkpeople or is it just another social media to them. Anyway, Chris thanks for bringing this up! Report
I love your "crisscross effect". In all the years I have been 'trying' to loose weight, it only started happening once I found SparkPeople and understood that I needed to think about more than just eating less or exercising more. I truly have made a lifestyle change; it's not complete yet but I'm on my way! Report
Very interesting!!! Report
Crisscross effects really work, and create a nice positive upward spiral.
Love this! Report
As I understand it, the 80/20 rule pertains to food alone. It teaches you how to prioritize your indulgences (20%) so you can give yourself the food grace you need while still being disciplined about what you eat (80%).

I think it's genius. Time to get creative about what you really want to enjoy while still getting in shape. Anyone can benefit. Report
When I "restarted" my weight loss journey almost a year and a half ago my focus was on becoming an consistent exerciser more than eating. My eating habits weren't terrible (already drank quite a bit of water exclusively e.g.) - they just needed some tweaking like being more conscious of portions and subbing healthier foods on occasion. I'm now less than 7 pounds from my goal and exercising 6 days a week (with occasional exceptions) has become a regular part of my life. I know that I wouldn't have achieved my success (62 pounds lost) without committing to regular workouts. Report
So much more than a simple math problem Report
Great article and all true. My best success is focusing on the positive things I can do, rather than what I can't, and each positive builds on another.

Thanks (again) for all you do! Report
So very true!!! Thanks!!! Report
Last week, I had more success in weight loss than I have had in a long time. While I did put a little time into planning healthy meals, the bulk of my focus was on decluttering, cleaning, and organizing my shed and garage, and yard work. I did not do any traditional fitness activities. All of that necessary work wore me out, burned lots of calories, made me feel accomplished, lowered my stress, tired me out enough to sleep well on most nights, had me drinking lots of water, and made me successful overall. Report
Yes!! While my nutrition and fitness plan is important to get results, it's my MIND that really is the determining factor. It's in my mind where commitment to my goals, overcoming sabotaging thoughts, being resolute, resilient, and disciplined happens. If my mind isn't in it and right, the rest just isn't going to happen. I'd say it's 75 MENTAL, 20 nutrition , and 5 percent fitness. Report
Very valuable article to clear up all what's being said on the topic. Much needed! Report
I have a good friend who argues that exercise is of little value towards weight loss, I think I will show her this article. Good information. Report
I absolutely agree. My weight loss success has been due to altering all those aspects not just balancing food and exercise. Report
good info here a must reread several times Report
Love this article; it is so wise and I can't agree more with the points raised! Report
It does feel as though I spend 80% of my time and effort on meal planning and preparation and only 20% on exercise Report
I am an 80/20 person. The last time I was on here, I hardly did any exercise and I lost the weight due to the eating program. Report
Have never heard of the 80/20 rule you refer to, i.e. 80% diet, 20% fitness. The 80/20 rule I'm familiar with is more an approach to healthy eating than a diet. Put plainly, the rule goes that you choose to eat healthy foods 80 per cent of the time, which then allows you to indulge in your favourite treats 20 per cent of the time. Report
Great article, Chris... thank you! Report
This comprehensive approach makes so much sense as it fits into healthy living changes on so many levels. Thank You so much for all you do to help us succeed. Report
Good info. Much to think about. Report
thank you Report
I don't know about 80/20 but making sure I use portion control is really important, whatever food I am eating. I don't believe in restricting what I eat. There are no 'bad' foods. Moderation is the key to my weight loss journey. Along with water ( a definite must), good sleep, and exercise. I also limit sugar and salt. I am building a lifestyle I CAN do for life, not just to lose. Report
awesome article Report
Very informative and inspirational, love these articles. Report
Wonderful article!!!! Report
I liked this article Report
helpful Report